Eastern Painted Turtle Care Guide | Diet, Habitat, Breeding, Diseases

Jun 13, 2022

Eastern Painted Turtle Care Guide

Image Credit: Anita Gould (CC License)

Eastern painted turtles evolved during the last ice age. They have inhabited shallow ponds, weed-choked coves, and slow-moving rivers for eons. And today, they’re found in homes across America, thanks to their stunning appearance and amiable personalities. 

If you’ve recently brought home an eastern painted turtle or are planning to do so, congratulations! I’d say you have a fine taste. My parents had an eastern painted turtle many moons ago, and she was an absolute joy to raise.

So, stemming from my first-hand experience of raising an eastern painted turtle and reading numerous pieces of literature on these shelled reptiles, I have consolidated a care guide for you. 

This eastern painted turtle care guide has been meticulously prepared to include everything you need to know about raising them correctly – no more, no less. 

Let’s begin! 

Eastern Painted Turtle At A Glance 

  • Name: Eastern Painted Turtle 
  • Scientific Name: Chrysemys picta picta
  • Family: Emydidae 
  • Conservation Status: Not listed 
  • Lifespan: 30-40 years 
  • Average Size: 4.5-8 inches
  • Diet: Omnivore 
  • Clutch Size: 10 eggs 
  • Egg Incubation Period: 72-80 days

How Much Do Eastern Painted Turtles Cost? 

A baby eastern painted turtle will cost anywhere between $20-40 dollars. 

Eastern Painted Turtle Availability 

Since painted turtles breed readily in captivity, they’re available for purchase through hobbyists and turtle farms throughout the year. However, as they’re a temperate species, they mostly breed in summer and spring, so they are most commonly available from May through September. 

Eastern Painted Turtle Conservation Status

Eastern painted turtles are not listed on the IUCN’s endangered species list, but their number is dwindling swiftly in some regions as of now due to road mortality, increased abundance of predators like raccoons, and habitat loss and degradation. 

Eastern Painted Turtle Predators 

There’s no shortage of predators who’ll readily chomp down a painted turtle if the opportunity strikes – it can be a raccoon, otter, mink, fox, or any medium-sized animal that will prey on a turtle and its eggs. 

That’s to evolution, painted turtles are quite vigilant, to begin with, and will seek refuge in water at the slightest sign of danger and retract their head and legs into the shell for protection. 

But if you house a turtle outside, you need to secure the area, so your pet doesn’t die an untimely death. 

Eastern Painted Turtle Natural Distribution And Habitat 

Eastern painted turtles have the widest range of any freshwater turtle in North America. In the United States, they are found across the Atlantic coastal states south to Georgia and west to eastern Alabama.  

In the wild, these turtles inhabit shallow aquatic habitats with slow-moving water, aquatic vegetation, soft bottoms, and abundant basking sites. They occur in swamps, marshes, creeks, ponds, rivers, and lakes. They are often sighted basking peacefully on partially submerged rocks and logs in big groups. 

During breeding, females prefer nesting in sandy or gravelly soils in open-canopy sites with high sun exposure, like meadows, forest clearings, fields, and shorelines. 

The nests are often built within 200m of a water body. 

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Eastern Painted Turtle Appearance 

Do you know eastern painted turtles are the only known turtle species with scutes arranged in a straight line across the back?

The margins between the laterals and the centrals are bordered yellow or tan and follow the straight alignment of scutes across the back. The plastron is tinted light yellow and is unmarked except for occasional dark spots. 

The carapace’s color can range from shades of olive green to black with a pale reddish stripe down the middle.

The neck and head are striped with yellow and red stripes, and there are two tiny yellow spots behind each eye. 

The legs, small and thin, are colored black with a pattern of narrow yellow and/or stripes. 

From the side, the carapace looks keel-less and low. And from the top view, it looks elongated with flaring, unserrated posterior marginals. 

The head is small, and the tail and neck are short. The hind feet are broad and completely webbed. 

Juveniles are patterned and colored exactly like adults. However, the carapace remains rounded for the first few years of their lives. Then, as they age, the carapace begins to elongate. Also, the scute margins are not set off by a thin olive line when they’re young. 

Eastern Painted Turtle Size 

Eastern painted turtles are fun-sized. They don’t grow too big – reaching only around 4.5 to 8 inches (10-18 cm) in length. Their manageable size is one of the top reasons they are so popular. 

Male eastern painted turtles are a tad bit smaller than females, but the difference isn’t very noticeable right off the bat. 

Eastern Painted Turtle Male VS Female 

Adult males have elongated foreclaws that females lack. In addition, a male’s shell is relatively flatter compared to a female’s slightly domed shell. Another important factor of distinction is the size of the tail. 

In males, the tails are long and wide at the base, whereas in females, they’re thin and short. 

Also, the cloacal opening on male eastern painted turtles is away from the body and further down the tail. On the other hand, the cloacal opening in females is close to the body. 

Eastern Painted Turtle VS Midland Painted Turtle 

Eastern painted turtles are often confused for midland painted turtles at first glance, but these are two very distinct subspecies with notable differences. 

For instance, the vertebral and pleural carapacial seem to align in eastern painted turtles, whereas they appear in an alternate form in midland painted turtles. 

Likewise, the formal has a light border along the carapacial seams and spotless yellow plastron, while the latter comes with a dark edge along the carapacial seams and an irregular dark blotch on the plastron.

Despite these subtle differences, eastern and midland painted turtles are closely related. As a matter of fact, they can even interbreed and produce little offspring known as “intergrades”. 

Eastern Painted Turtle Temperament 

Eastern painted turtles prefer leading solitary lives. And while they aren’t truly social animals, they are perfectly capable of cohabitating with turtles of their own or other species as long as the housing needs are met. 

Both sexes are equally capable of exerting dominance and displaying aggression if the environment is not favorable. But as long as ample space and hiding spots are provided, their hostility will not culminate into serious fights. 

As painted turtles make good swimmers, they’d benefit from a spacious tank to swim in. 

It’s important to know that eastern painted turtles, or any other turtle for that matter, do not thrive on human affection and contact as dogs do. Thus, don’t handle them if you don’t really need to. 

Occasional handling to relocate the turtle, inspect it, and clean the habitat is acceptable. But turtles find handling super stressful and can therefore resort to biting or scratching the handler.

I’m stating the obvious here but always wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling the turtle or anything related to it to avoid disease transmission.

Sound perception is poor in eastern painted turtles. However, they have good vision and a sense of smell. In addition, they use touch to communicate with each other, especially during mating. 

Related: What Happens If A Turtle Bites You? Can They Chop Off Your Fingers?

Ideal Habitat For Eastern Painted Turtle 

Housing for eastern painted turtles can be as elaborate or as minimal as you choose to make it. That being said, you need to follow a couple of rules. For instance, eastern painted turtles are avid swimmers – so the water’s depth shouldn’t be any less than twice the width of the turtle’s shell.

You can add numerous plants that will serve both as a food source and a sanctuary for your eastern painted turtle. 

You can simply add a large piece of flagstone as a basking surface for the basking spot. Also, add at least one ramp to make it easier for the turtle to exit the water. 

You can also add sand in the basking area, but it’d make the environment a bit messy. Keeping it bare with just flat rocks is the way forward. 

You should also provide an underwater hiding place. But don’t add anything complex that can trap and drown your turtle. Instead, add plenty of plants where they can hide and forage among. 

For the tank’s substrate, you either leave it bare or add sand or gravel that lends a natural look. The substrate material should either be large enough to be not swallowed or small enough to pass through the reptile’s digestive tract easily. 

Recommended Tank Size For Eastern Painted Turtle 

The recommended tank size for an adult eastern painted turtle is 50 gallons. You can get away with housing young ones in smaller tanks for a while, but you’ll eventually need to upgrade. 

A 50-gallon tank is going to be costly. Therefore, you can also use a pond liner, kiddie pool, or a large plastic container. 

As you already know, these are aquatic turtles. So, they will spend most of their time inside the water and only come out occasionally to eat and bask on dry, heated land. 

Eastern Painted Turtle Diet 

Eastern painted turtles are omnivores. They’ll enjoy all kinds of meat and plant-based food readily. In the wild, these reptiles feed mostly on injured or dead fish, as well as crustaceans and aquatic insects.

Since painted turtles eat their food in the water, food items that float or can be clipped to the side of the tank work the best. I like using a suction cup clip to attach the food to the tank. It’s handy and readily available at any pet store. 

Remember, eastern painted turtles should eat in the water since their tongues don’t move freely, and they cannot manipulate the food on land. 

For staple meals, zero in on high-quality turtle pellets that don’t use filler ingredients. And don’t skimp on feeding fresh leafy veggies like dandelion greens, romaine lettuce, and fresh parsley. 

The diet should ideally have high protein and vitamin D content, the right calcium to phosphorus ratio, and low-fat content. And this product here ticks all the right boxes. 

I give my painted turtle chopped apple pieces and freeze-dried shrimp as treats a few times a week. You can also give super worms, mealworms, crickets, trout chow, and fish from time to time. 

But remember, treats shouldn’t make up more than 10% of your turtle’s diet. Also, avoid giving fatty fish like goldfish. 

You can give your pet hyacinth, water lettuce, romaine lettuce, duckweed, parsley, and dandelion green for greens. 

Lastly, we recommend fortifying your pet’s diet with vitamin and calcium supplements every once in a while. 

How Often And How Much To Feed Eastern Painted Turtles? 

Eastern painted turtles should be given 1 cup of food every day or on alternate days. We recommend feeding a combination of pellets, veggies, and frozen/live treats. 

It’s crucial that you feed a well-rounded and healthy diet since painted turtles are prone to developing nutritional problems and shell defects due to improper feeding. 

The rule of thumb in the hobby is to feed juveniles once a day and those older than 5 years every other day. 

Can Eastern Painted Turtles Eat Fruits? 

Fruits seldom make a part of a painted turtle’s diet in the wild. Therefore, I’d recommend giving fruits only occasionally and in moderate amounts if you’re really keen. 

Most fruits contain a generous amount of sugar and citric acid, which can lead to digestive issues if you’re not careful. 

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Water Parameter For Eastern Painted Turtle 

  • Water Temperature: 75-80 degrees Fahrenheit (23-36 degrees Celsius)
  • pH: 6.0-6.9
  • Nitrite: Below 2 PPM
  • Ammonia: Below 2 PPM
  • General Hardness: 180-200 PPM
  • Carbonate Hardness: 80 PPM

This is what the basic water parameters for eastern painted turtles look like. Of course, goes without saying – it’s super important to keep the water quality pristine at all times. And it can be quite difficult because turtles are innately messy creatures. 

I’d recommend feeding the turtles in a different container altogether and not relocating them to the main tank unless they’ve pooped as well. I know this sounds tedious, but the amount of time and effort it’ll save you on water changes is quite impressive. 

You should try to emulate the turtle’s natural habitat as much as possible. And tweaking the water parameters is one of the most important ways to do so. 

Since painted turtles spend most of their time inside water, keeping the water quality in check is essential. Cloudy and smelly water spell trouble, but even water that looks pristine can brew toxic contaminants like ammonia and nitrite. 

Here’s a quick link to API’s Freshwater Masterkit that measures 5 important water parameters: pH, high range pH, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate. 

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Should You Dechlorinate Water For Eastern Painted Turtles? 

There are two schools of thought when it comes to whether you should dechlorinate water for eastern painted turtles or not. While these reptiles are nowhere as sensitive to chlorine as fish and inverts, chlorine can still irritate them – especially the eyes. 

Plus, chlorinated water annihilates the good bacteria colony and messes up the tank’s nitrogen cycle. Therefore, we always recommend dechlorinating the water using a suitable water conditioner. 

Some states use chloramine as well to treat tap water. If that’s the case in your region, you need to buy a conditioner specifically labeled to remove chlorine, chloramine, and ammonia. 

Lighting For Eastern Painted Turtle 

As it is the case with any captive pet turtle, your little reptile friend needs UVB lighting and supplemental heat lights to synthesize vitamin D3. If they’re unable to synthesize vitamin D3, it can lead to grave health conditions like metabolic bone disease and shell deformity. 

While routine exposure to indirect sunlight can be beneficial, placing the tank in the path of sunlight is not recommended. It will lead to overheating. 

Although painted turtles don’t require extremely warm temperatures like some species do, they will remain active and eat better when their home is heated the right way and to the right extent. 

The temperature should not drop below 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius). If it does, your pet turtle will start acting up. It will lose its appetite, become lethargic, and even hibernate. 

If you house your turtle outdoors, you must bring it inside when the mercury drops. 

Note that UVB lighting should be provided at least 12 hours a day – irrespective of the season. No ifs and no buts. Also, the bulb should be replaced once every 6 months since the UVB rays expire much sooner than visible white light. 

As for heat, you can use heat lights or ceramic heat emitters. You need to emulate a temperature gradient between 70 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit (21-35 degrees Celsius) for your turtle to choose from. 

Naturally, the warmest corner of the tank should be the basking region or the dry dock area. 

Here’s a link to the 10.0 UVB compact fluorescent light I use for my turtles. What I love about this product is that it fits into any standard clamp-lamp. So you don’t need to purchase separate ballast. 

Right Temperature For Eastern Painted Turtle 

It’s quite important that you provide a temperature gradient for the water, ambient air, and basking area. 

The water’s temperature should be maintained between 75-80 degrees Fahrenheit (23-36 degrees Celsius), the ambient air’s temperature should clock in between 80-85 degrees Fahrenheit (26-29 degrees Celsius), and the basking area’s temperature should be kept between 85-95 degrees Fahrenheit (29-35 degrees Celsius). 

Keep in mind that the tank’s temperature will vary from the room’s temperature – even more so if there’s a hood or cover installed. Therefore, you should routinely check the tank’s temperature instead of relying on the general outdoor temperature. 

Place the thermometer in the respective habitats to err on the side of caution. 

Common Health Problems In Eastern Painted Turtles 

While eastern painted turtles are relatively easy to raise and look after, they’re not invincible. Lack of proper habitat and diet can lead to grievances like infections, metabolic bone disease, and vitamin deficiency. 

I have touched on some of these issues briefly below. 

Hypervitaminosis A

Hypervitaminosis A occurs when a turtle is malnourished. Lack of a well-rounded diet and heavy reliance on an all-meat diet, iceberg lettuce, or low-grade commercial food are some reasons behind hypovitaminosis A. this condition is characterized by swollen eyes, raw skin, nasal drainage, abscesses, and stomatitis. 

Metabolic Bone Disease 

Lack of proper UVB lighting is the numero uno cause of metabolic bone disease. Lack of or insufficient UVB light leads to calcium/phosphorus imbalance, weakening the turtle’s skeletal structure, carapace, and plastron. 

Turtles with the metabolic bone disease have a very slow growth rate and will have deformations of the body proportions. In the advanced stages of the disease, the reptile will experience tremors, severe fatigue, and bone fractures.

Parasites 

Parasites are usually found in wild painted turtles, but it doesn’t mean your captive-bred turtle is immune. Turtles kept in unsanitary conditions are often plagued with parasites. It can be a real problem if the parasites overpopulate your pet’s intestinal tract. 

Therefore, it is quite important to have your pet’s feces examined by a vet as soon as you bring the turtle home and follow it up with annual checkups.

Infections 

The leading cause of infections is an unsanitary environment. For instance, if the water quality is poor, your eastern painted turtle can contract skin, shell, ear, and eye infections.

Ear infections manifest as large bumps behind the eyes and must be treated by a vet. Likewise, if there’s too much algae growing on your turtle’s skin or shell, use a soft toothbrush to brush it off. 

Eastern Painted Turtle Hibernation 

Captive eastern painted turtles can go into hibernation, but if there’s enough light and warmth, they may choose not to. So, naturally, the duration and the nature of hibernation will differ among wild and captive painted turtles. 

However, the reason is the same. 

Since eastern painted turtles are ectotherms, they depend on an external source for heat. 

As a responsible turtle owner, there are a couple of things you need to do to ensure the reptile can hibernate safely and wake up conveniently when required. Some points to consider are hydrating and fasting the turtle, gradually lowering the temperature, and preparing the fridge. 

Here’s an in-depth article that chronicles all the dos and don’ts of helping your painted turtle hibernate in captivity. 

Breeding Eastern Painted Turtle 

Eastern painted turtles breed readily in captivity without any qualms. Courtship usually occurs from mid-April to June. The nests are built, and the eggs are laid from May to July. 

In the wild, eastern painted turtles build nests a few hundred yards from water in flask-shaped cavities covered with mud. In captivity, they will make do with whatever little resource is available. 

You should preferably create a nest for the female using soft soil, rocks, and logs in a sunny place.

The number of eggs the female lays depends on her age and maturity. A clutch can have anywhere between 4-15 eggs. The egg’s temperature during the incubation period determines the hatchling’s sex. 

If the environment’s temperature is on a lower spectrum, the hatching will be predominantly males, and if it’s on a higher spectrum, the hatchlings will be females. 

Incubation takes place for approximately 72 days. Hatchlings usually emerge in late September to the end of October. Bear in mind that some may overwinter in the nest and emerge only in late spring. 

The hatchlings are independent the day they’re born. They’re not attended to or looked after by their parents. Males take 3-5 years to mature, while females mature at 6-10 years of age. 

Parting Words: Eastern Painted Turtle Care Guide 

A popular subspecies of the most ubiquitous turtle species in North America, eastern painted turtles, are easy to look after as long as you get a few things right. They aren’t too difficult or demanding. 

And since they lead long lives, be prepared for a long-haul commitment. 

We hope this guide was helpful. Please write to us if there’s any question. 

Check out our detailed care guides on other cool subspecies! 

Southern Painted Turtle Care Guide

Western Painted Turtle Care Guide

Cumberland Slider Turtle Care Guide

Midland Painted Turtle Care Guide

rohit gurung author at urbanfishkeeping

About Rohit Gurung

My never-ending love and fascination with Aquascaping started when I received a red-eared turtle for my 10th birthday.

Apart from researching and writing, I spend hours gazing at my 3 turtles. And yeah, I bask alongside them too.