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

Jun 17, 2022

western painted turtle care guide

Image credit: Gordon (CC License)

Like their eastern and midland cousins, western painted turtles first made an appearance in this big blue marble during the last ice age. Well, that was many – in fact, million – moons ago. 

And do you know western painted turtles are the biggest in the painted turtle family? They also pack some big personalities. 

In our series of care guides on different painted turtle subspecies, today, we will discuss none other than western painted turtles!

This handy guide will encapsulate pretty much everything you need to know to raise western painted turtles.

This article stems from my own experience of raising painted turtles and numerous pieces of literature I meticulously studied to provide you with well-rounded and accurate information. 

So, let’s get on to it without further ado! 

Western Painted Turtle At A Glance 

  • Name: Western painted turtle
  • Scientific Name: Chrysemys picta
  • Family: Emydidae
  • Conservation Status: Least concern
  • Lifespan: 25-40
  • Average Size: 6-10 inches
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Clutch Size: 4-15
  • Egg Incubation Period: 72 days

Western Painted Turtle Lifespan | How Long Do They Live?

Western painted turtles enjoy a pretty decent lifespan – they can live for over 50 years if they get through infancy. However, their average lifespan in captivity is somewhere between 25-40 years. 

In the wild, with no shortage of predators and not an ounce of care from the parents, only a handful of western painted turtles survive to become adults. 

Regardless, in captivity, under the right care, they can be your lifelong companion.

How Much Do Western Painted Turtles Cost?

On average, a western painted turtle hatchling costs between $30-$60. On the other hand, juveniles and yearlings fetch around $99-$149.

I’ve found that western painted turtles are a tad more expensive than eastern and midland turtles. 

Western Painted Turtle For Sale | Availability 

Western painted turtles are easily available for sale through various online and offline channels. Since these turtles have a wide distribution map and breed without any qualms, you won’t have a hard time getting your hands on one of them. 

Western painted turtles primarily breed in summer and spring – thus, they’re most abundantly found from May through September. 

Western Painted Turtle Conservation Status 

Western painted turtles are not listed as endangered species by the International Union For Conservation Of Nature (IUCN). The subspecies was last assessed in 2012. 

A decade has passed since, and let’s admit, their number is dwindling with each passing year, although the rate may not be alarming enough to put them on the “endangered” list yet. 

Unfortunately, western painted turtles are susceptible to the same maladies as other turtles. 

Besides getting killed in road accidents and eaten by a large predator, the loss, fragmentation, and degradation of the habitat are among the top reasons behind their untimely deaths. 

Western Painted Turtle Predators 

Western painted turtles are vulnerable to one too many predators like raptors, snakes, raccoons, rodents, foxes, and coyotes. 

Frogs, predatory fish, snakes, and wading birds are also known to feast on western painted turtle eggs and hatchlings. 

Due to the slew of predators found near their habitats, these turtles have a very weak survival rate. Only a few of them make it to adulthood every year. 

Western Painted Turtle Natural Distribution And Habitat 

Western painted turtles are among the most widespread North American turtles, with their native range extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific region. 

These turtles are native to 8 out of 10 Canadian provinces, 45 out of 50 US states, and 1 of Mexico’s 31 states. They’re even found in elevations as high as 1,800 m (5,900 ft).

Like the rest of the subspecies from the painted turtle family, these turtles thrive in fresh waters with soft bottoms, basking sites, and plenty of aquatic vegetation. 

They inhabit lakes, marshes, ponds, creeks, and slow-moving rivers, where they perch on partially submerged logs/rocks to bask and frequently dive in the water to catch a meal.

Western Painted Turtle Appearance

A western painted turtle’s carapace color can range from dark green to black and brown. The top shell has mesh-like patterns of light lines. Also, the top stripe present in the rest of the subspecies like eastern and midland painted turtles is missing in this one.

The top shell is somewhat flattened and keelless, and its posterior rim has a smooth, non-serrated border. 

The plastron is reddish with a prominent colored butterfly splotch that spreads to the edges.

Credit: Matt Young (CC License)

The head and limbs are tinted black to olive in color and marked with yellow lines. Also, yellow stripes extend rearward from beneath the eyes and often from below the jaw.

The upper jaw has a notched appearance. 

Juvenile western painted turtles look exactly like mini replicas of their parents in terms of coloration and patterns. But the carapace is relatively more keeled, and the head, legs, and tail look proportionately large compared to the body. 

The tail is pretty long, too, when they’re young. They outgrow the tail as they mature. 

Western Painted Turtle Size 

Western painted turtles are the biggest subspecies in the painted turtle family. Male turtles grow around 6 inches (15 cm) long, whereas females grow up to 10 inches (25 cm) long in carapace length. 

A male western painted turtle weighs around 11 ounces (300 grams), while females weigh about 18 ounces (500 grams).

In turtles, females are almost always bigger than males – and that’s probably to support egg production. 

Western Painted Turtle Male VS Female 

As discussed above, males are a couple of inches shorter than their female counterparts. Besides that, males have long foreclaws, which is lacking in females. 

Also, a female turtle’s shell is slightly domed, and a male’s shell is flatter. Likewise, a female’s tail is thin and short, but a male’s tail is broad and long. 

Another important factor of distinction is the position of the cloacal opening. In females, it is positioned near the body, whereas in males, it is found away from the body and further down the tail. 

Species Similar To Western Painted Turtle

Novice turtle keepers often confuse painted turtles for red-eared sliders. At first glance, they do look identical, too. Red-eared sliders and western painted turtles are similarly sized and colored. However, the former don an iconic red stripe behind each eye, after which they’re named. 

Midland painted turtles also look identical to western painted turtles, but they’re relatively smaller in size and sport smaller markings.

Lastly, northern map turtles also resemble western painted turtles, but they have a ridge down the middle of the carapace and serration along the back edge of the shell. 

Western Painted Turtle Temperament 

Besides occasional shoving matches for the best basking spot, western painted turtles are a docile and subdued bunch. They certainly don’t get jittery and nervous like map turtles, but they do prefer solitude.

You can see them basking in groups on logs and rocks in the wild. Besides that, they hunt for a midday meal and retire early. 

In captivity, these reptiles can tolerate the presence of other turtles and may even get along with them as long as their needs are met. Your first priority should be to provide as much space as possible. 

If the environment is unfavorable, both male and female western painted turtles will show their mean sides. They will become aggressive and irritable. And although the fights seldom lead to grave injuries, you should foster a spacious and peaceful environment from the beginning. 

Even in captivity, western painted turtles prefer spending the majority of their time swimming and basking. Hobbyists shared that these turtles are most active during feeding time. 

Painted turtles aren’t mean right off the bat. But if you test them to their limits time and again, they might snap. Cutting to the chase, they don’t like being handled. 

They find it uncomfortable, intrusive and threatening. So the only time it’s acceptable to handle them is when you’re inspecting them, relocating them, or cleaning their habitat. 

And I don’t want to sound like Captain Obvious but wash your hands every time before and after you handle the turtle. Like most reptiles, they carry the dreaded salmonella virus that’s harmful to humans. 

The sound perception in western painted turtles is not very sharp. However, they have a good sense of smell and sight. They mostly communicate with touch. 

As you already know, these diurnal creatures remain active throughout the day and rest at night. 

In many regions, western painted turtles hibernate during the winter, but this behavior may not be channeled in captivity, where all of their needs are met irrespective of the weather. 

We’ll discuss more about the dos and don’ts of helping your painted turtle hibernate in detail later. 

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

Western Painted Turtle Diet 

Western painted turtles are not finicky about what they put in their mouth. They thoroughly enjoy feeding on a variety of food. In the wild, more than 60% of their diet in summer and spring comes from insects like crickets. 

Towards the end of the summer, these turtles incline towards a herbivore diet. 

Variation in the diet is the key to a healthy turtle. The diet should contain a moderate amount of pellets and greens, fortified with occasional treats. 

Do not skimp when getting pellets for your turtles. It’s something they’re going to have every day. So, you want to ensure it’s made of high-quality ingredients and doesn’t include cheap fillers. 

Ideally, the pellets should have high protein and vitamin D concentration, the right calcium to phosphorus ratio, and low fat content. 

Here’s a quick link to a pellets brand that meets all the requirements. This is what I give my turtles. 

In addition to pellets, you can give your turtle occasional frozen and live treats, but they shouldn’t make up more than 10% of their diet. 

Here’s a list of treats to choose from:

  • Bloodworms 
  • Crickets 
  • Black soldier fly larvae 
  • Earthworms 
  • Feeder fish
  • Mealworms 
  • Chopped beef heart
  • Cooked chicken pieces 

And here’s a list of greens to give your turtle:

  • Duckweed 
  • Dandelion greens 
  • Parsley 
  • Hyacinth
  • Water lettuce 
  • Romaine lettuce 
  • Collard greens 
  • Mustard greens 
  • Romaine lettuce 
  • Red leaf lettuce 
  • Kale

Besides plants and protein, your painted turtle also needs periodic supplementation of vitamins and calcium. Calcium needs can be fortified by adding calcium blocks, and vitamin supplements can be added to the food. 

I’ll leave quick links for both below:

How Often And How Much To Feed Western Painted Turtles?

Adult western painted turtles can be given 1 cup worth of varied diet every day or alternate day. To ensure a balanced diet, provide the reptile an assortment of pellets, veggies, and frozen/live treats. 

Undernourishment can cause shell defects and deformed growth. Therefore, you must maintain variation in the pet’s diet. 

There’s no rule etched in stone, but the general practice is to feed juveniles daily and adult turtles once every two days. 

A perfectly healthy western painted turtle can go without food for 2-3 weeks – even longer when they’re hibernating. 

Can Western Painted Turtles Eat Fruits?

Fruits don’t occur naturally in a painted turtle’s diet. Therefore, fruits should be given sparingly in moderate amounts if you want to. 

Most fruits have high sugar and citric acid content and may have the wrong calcium:phosphorus ratio. This could lead to digestion issues. 

Therefore, channel moderation when offering fruits. 

Recommended Readings!

Can Turtles Eat Avocado? Poisonous Fruit Ever?

Can Turtles Eat Watermelon? What About Rinds And Seeds?

Can Turtles Eat Grapes? Are They Healthy?

Feed Your Western Painted Separately 

This is a tip I swear by – feeding the turtles in a separate container. Placing your turtle in a separate container for feeding time will save you so much energy and time in the long run that I can’t even begin to tell! 

And only relocate your turtle back to the main tank once it has pooped as well. 

This way, you don’t have to clean the tank after every single feeding session. 

Ideal Habitat For Western Painted Turtle

In the wild, western painted turtles primarily inhabit shallow waters of ponds, marshes, lakes, creeks, and slow-moving rivers. Therefore, they’d be the happiest if you created an outdoor setup for them. 

That being said, they happily adapt to living indoors, too, as long as they have enough space to move around. 

Western painted turtles are water babies. They even need to be inside the water to swallow food. Therefore, they need a deep and spacious tank. 

For example, the tank’s depth should not be any less than two times the width of the turtle’s carapace. 

Western painted turtles originally come from lush and densely vegetated areas. Thus, they have an affinity for plants. You can add several plants that will serve as a refuge and food source for your pet turtle. 

However, when placing the plants, make sure they’re not put in any way that traps and drowns the turtle. 

For the bottom, the best way forward is to leave it bare. I know it will compromise the aesthetics, but it’ll be much less challenging to conduct cleaning sessions. 

But if you are keen on adding substrate, you need to add something big enough to be not swallowed by the turtle or small enough to pass through its digestive system. The chosen substrate should also not float or dilute in the water. 

Here’s a quick link to river rocks that I have added to my turtle tanks. These rocks come from actual rivers and are just big enough to not be swallowed – win win!

Recommended Tank Size For Western Painted Turtle 

Whenever feasible, go for the biggest possible tank. That being said, the minimum recommended tank size for western painted turtles is 50 gallons. Remember, these turtles can grow up to 10 inches long. 

If you’re not much into aesthetics, you can place the turtle in a kiddie pool, a pond liner, or a big plastic container. Your turtle would be happier. 

However, irrespective of whatever vessel you use, you must ensure that it is 2 times as long as the length of the turtle’s shell. Similarly, the water’s depth should be twice as deep as the length of the turtle’s carapace.

A reasonably sized painted turtle tank would be 36-48 inches wide and 12 inches deep. This ensures enough swimming room while minimizing the chances of accidental drowning.

If you plan to keep your painted turtle outside, you can consider creating a real miniature pond inside the turtle’s enclosure. You can easily buy pond liners online and offline and decorate the pond with real and fake plants as you wish. 

Turtles carry their home on their backs. However, it’s still important that you create appropriate shelter and basking spots for your turtles. 

First, you can create an underwater hiding spot using fake or real plants. Make sure the plants will not trap and drown your turtle. And it goes without saying, the plants should be replaced periodically. 

Water Parameters For Western Painted Turtle 

Here’s what water parameters should look like for western painted turtle:

  • Water temperature: 75-80 degrees F (23-26 degrees C)
  • pH: 6.0-6.9
  • Ammonia: Below 2 PPM
  • Nitrite: Below 2 PPM 
  • General Hardness: 180-200 PPM
  • Carbonate Hardness: 80 PPM

Western painted turtles are big-time swimmers. They love to swim all day, every day – thus, they require perpetual access to clean water for drinking and swimming in. 

Turtles are messy. So, you must always stay on top of water parameters. After all, your turtles are only as healthy as their enclosures are. Exposure to poor living conditions daily will lead to bacterial, fungal, and parasitic infections. 

As I explained above, feeding your turtle in a separate container goes a long way in ensuring the water remains clean for longer.

It’s obvious that smelly and cloudy water spells trouble, but sometimes water that looks pristine and clean can also harbor harmful organisms. 

That’s why it’s imperative to test the water parameters every once in a while. Here’s a link to API’s freshwater master kit that tests five essential water parameters on the go: pH, high pH range, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate. 

And here’s a link to a canister filter by Penn-Plax that I use for my turtle tanks. You need a canister filter like this one to deal with mess turtles create on a daily basis! 

If you have created an outdoor pond for your turtle, you must ensure it is located in a shaded spot, so the water doesn’t get too hot. Also, you need to clean the water daily with a filter pump or vacuum. 

Related: Cloudy Turtle Tank Water? Don’t Make These 4 Mistakes!

Should You Dechlorinate Water For Western Painted Turtles?

Although turtles aren’t as sensitive to chlorine as fish, inverts, and amphibians are, it is still wise to dechlorinate the water beforehand. It may irritate their eyes, to say the least. 

Moreover, chlorine annihilates the good bacteria colony and messes up the tank’s nitrogen cycle – one more reason to dechlorinate the water. 

In some areas, tap water is treated with chloramine in addition to chlorine. In that case, you need to use a conditioner that is specifically labeled to nullify chlorine, chloramine, and ammonia. 

Lighting For Western Painted Turtle 

Lighting is consequential in a western painted turtle’s life. In an outdoor setting, the turtle takes in UVB rays through sunlight, which causes the body to synthesize cholesterol and create vitamin D3. 

So, turtles raised outdoors don’t require additional artificial light or heat. 

However, if your painted turtle happens to live indoors, you’ll need to arrange both incandescent and fluorescent lights for your pet. 

Incandescent light is beneficial to light and heat certain parts of the tank and has to be installed above the basking area. Make sure to keep a thermometer to regulate the temperature. 

On the other hand, fluorescent light offers an overall light level.

Your turtle needs UVB light at least 12 hours a day. In the absence of this light, the turtle fails to synthesize vitamin D3, which could lead to issues like metabolic bone disease and shell deformity down the road. 

The bulb should be replaced once every 6 months because UVB rays expire much faster than visible white light. Also, bear in mind that UVB light cannot pass through plastic, glass, or pexi-glass. Therefore, you need to arrange the light accordingly.

While exposure to sunlight is quite important for these ectothermic beings, you should not place the tank in the direct path of the sun. This will lead to overheating. 

Lastly, here’s a link to the 10.0 UVB compact fluorescent light I use in my turtle enclosures. The best thing about this bulb is that it fits into any given standard clamp-lamp. So, you don’t have to spend on buying a separate ballast. 

Right Temperature For Western Painted Turtle 

Temperatures comfortable for you and me are way too cold for painted turtles. As ectothermic beings, these reptiles rely on their environment to warm their bodies. Therefore, it’s crucial to maintain the right temperature gradient for your turtle’s multiple habitats. 

The water’s temperature should typically 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 between 85-95 degrees Fahrenheit (29-35 degrees Celsius). 

A worthy purchase to make would be an electronic thermometer with alarms that go off if the temperature goes high or drops too low. 

Common Health Problems In Western Painted Turtles 

Like the rest of the turtles from the painted turtle family, western painted turtles are hardy and healthy for the most part. However, they’re only as healthy as their enclosures are. The most common illnesses they experience can be traced back to dirty habitats and malnourishment. 

The most common signs of illness in turtles are sudden loss of eight, swollen eyes, open wounds, and lesions, panting, inability to swim, and bubbles forming from the nose. 

Before we wrap this section, let’s briefly discuss some of the most common turtle diseases in brief below. 

Metabolic Bone Disease 

The metabolic bone disease occurs when there is a calcium/phosphorus imbalance in the reptile’s body, resulting in weakened skeletal structure, plastron, and carapace. UVB light deficiency is the number one cause of this grim condition. 

Turtles experiencing metabolic bone disease have a very poor growth rate and deformed body. Even worse, in advanced stages of metabolic bone disease, your western painted turtle will endure extreme fatigue, tremors, and even bone fractures. 

As unfortunate as MBD is, it is reversible if treated on time. Fractured bones are treated by casting or splinting. Your pet will also need calcium supplements administered by injection or orally. 

Hypervitaminosis A 

Hypervitaminosis is the result of malnourishment. For example, if your pet turtle’s diet mainly consists of meat, iceberg lettuce, or poor-quality commercial pellets, it will contract hypervitaminosis sooner or later. 

Some obvious signs of hypervitaminosis A in reptiles are swollen eyes, dry and scaly skin, weight loss, sloughing, and irritated nasal drainage. 

If your pet has contracted this illness, you should seek professional help and also include plenty of vitamin A in the diet. The vet may also prescribe additional oral vitamin supplements. 

Parasites 

Parasites are most commonly found in wild-caught specimens, but it doesn’t mean your captive-bred specimen is 100% immune. One of the most commonly found parasites is gastrointestinal parasite, which causes diarrhea and weight loss. 

You need to seek professional help for your turtle. 

Also, it’s super important to have your pet turtle’s feces assessed by a professional as soon as you bring it home. And it should be followed up with yearly checkups. 

Infections 

If consistently exposed to poor living conditions, your turtle will develop infections in the eyes, ears, nose, and skin. The primary reason behind infection in any of these body parts is an unsanitary environment. 

It could be a parasitic, bacterial, or fungal infection. 

Once again, you’ll need to seek medical help for your turtle to treat the infection. The vet will perform blood tests and take x-rays to determine the reason behind the infection and treat it accordingly. 

Western Painted Turtle Hibernation 

Western painted turtles hibernate through the cold months in the wild. They have the potential to live submerged in a pond covered with an icy lid for more than 100 days. 

However, your captive pet might not go into hibernation since all its needs are being met despite the harsh weather.

I dug through some forums to read up on people’s experience with painted turtle hibernation, but most accounts shared that the turtle didn’t go into hibernation. Even if it did, it was for a very brief period. 

Either way, as a responsible turtle keeper, there are a couple of things you should do to ensure safe hibernation for your turtle. 

First, you need to have your pet assessed by a vet. Yes, you read that right! Only healthy turtles should go into hibernation. Otherwise, chances are they won’t wake up later on. 

Besides that, some other important things to do are weighing the turtle routinely, feeding it a fibrous diet, fasting it on days leading to hibernation, gradually lowering the temperature, and so on. 

If you want to read up on how painted turtles hibernate and how to prepare an environment for hibernation, you will find this article really helpful. 

Do Painted Turtles Hibernate In Captivity? 9-Step Guide To Help Your Turtle Hibernate

Breeding Western Painted Turtle 

Breeding western painted turtles isn’t too challenging. These reptiles reproduce readily when the time comes. Incubating the eggs and helping them survive to adulthood are the difficult parts. 

I’ll briefly explain everything you need to know on breeding western painted turtles below.

They Take Years To Get Ready 

Yes, as animals with a lifespan as long as ours, western painted turtles take their sweet time to get ready for reproduction. Tentatively, males take around 3 years, and females take about 3-5 years. 

Differentiating Male And Female Turtles 

Female turtles are bigger than males. Their cloacal opening is positioned towards the body. On the other hand, a male’s cloacal opening is positioned away from the body. Also, the foreclaws are missing in females. 

And one more tip: males have a flat or concave plastron, whereas females have a convex plastron that allows some space for eggs. 

The Tentative Timeline 

In nature, courtship usually lasts from mid-April to June. Likewise, the nests are built, and eggs are laid from May to July. So, it’s most likely that your captive turtle will follow a similar timeline.

When the time comes, your female will lay 4-15 eggs, which will take around 72 days to hatch. So it means the eggs will hatch around late September to late October.

Building The Nest 

If your turtle lives outdoors, it will probably build a nest by itself. The reptile will build flask-shaped cavities covered with mud. 

If the pet lives indoors, you’ll need to make a suitable nest for her using soft soil, logs, and rocks. Bear in mind that the nesting area should receive plenty of sunlight. 

Temperature Decides Sex 

Turtles have one of the most interesting sex determination phenomena of all species. If the temperature is on the cooler side, most hatchlings will turn out to be males. And if the temperature is warmer, most hatchlings will turn out to be females. 

And here’s some bonus info: the eggs can survive temperatures as low as 15 degrees F (-9 degrees C) as they contain a biological “antifreeze” matter that stops tissue from freezing. 

Independent From Day One 

Both mother and father turtles do not provide any postnatal care to the hatchlings. Once the eggs are laid and deposited, their job is done. The eggs are on their own from day one. 

Parting Words: Western Painted Turtle Care Guide 

Western painted turtles are the biggest in the painted turtle family. And they’re the most beautiful too in my opinion. If you’re equipped with the right experience and knowledge, raising these reptiles will be a treat. 

I hope this care guide offers the information you were looking for and wish you all the best for your unique turtle-raising journey. 

If you loved this article, you’d also love our care guides on other subspecies! 

Southern Painted Turtle Care Guide 

Cumberland Slider Turtle Care Guide

Midland Painted Turtle Care Guide

Eastern 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.