Snapping turtles are massive turtles, with the alligator snapping turtle being the largest freshwater turtle in the United States. This is followed by the common snapping turtle and with all that mass, they’re going to need an enclosure that is up to the task.
With a snapping turtle enclosure setup, it’s ideal for adults and subadults to be situated outside. The enclosure might be an outdoor man-made pond, a large plastic tub, or even an above-ground pool.
Hatchlings and young snapping turtles may be housed in an aquarium, of course, as they are still tiny at this point and much more manageable, but you do want to plan with enclosure with their cycle of growth in mind.
With that said, let’s talk about Snapping Turtle Enclosure setup and what you need to know to make the ideal tank for your turtles!
Table of Contents
Choosing The Tank
Snappers are highly aquatic, more so than other freshwater turtles. Males, for instance, may spend almost their entire lives in the water, while females may only come out to make their nests. They even bask in the water — Rather than climbing a rock, they simply float up to the surface to soak in some rays!
This is something that you’ll need to keep in mind when you’re building a proper snapper tank.
First things first – the tank/enclosure has to be the right size. These turtles are best housed outside because of their massive size. The good news there is that because snapping turtles live across most of North America, they can be housed quite comfortably outside in many locations.
If you have several snappers, you can build an outdoor pond for them, although one of the easiest solutions is housing them in large stock tanks.
These are inexpensive and easy to obtain and when selecting one, you should go with plastic stock tanks as they are better at regulating the water temperature and a lot less noisy.
Metallic containers heat up quickly on hot days and you’ve also got to consider the swimming turtles inside, who will bang on the sides of the tank from time to time as they move.
For a hatchling with a carapace (upper shell) length of 4 inches or less, a 40-gallon glass aquarium is a good starting option. If you already have a glass aquarium, then you can use this to house the turtle for the first two or years of its life.
Just remember that you will need to move the hatchling to a larger container eventually. We recommend housing the hatchling in a plastic tub such as a Rubbermaid container. A 50-gallon stock tank such as the 50-gallon Rubbermaid tank should be large enough to accommodate a youngling.
Want to learn more about keeping your hatchling tank clean? Check out our guide before you go today!
For Subadults & Adults
For larger adults, stock tanks are also a great choice. The size of the tank that you’ll need depends on the size of the turtle. As a rule of thumb, provide 10 gallons of water for every inch of carapace length.
For instance, you should house a 10-inch snapper in a 100-gallon tank and if you have more than one, it’s best to keep them separated. Snappers are solitary hunters and large snappers are known to eat smaller ones from time to time!
Some common stock tank sizes include:
- 50-gallon tank (which has a dimension of 52 inches by 31 inches by 24 inches) such as the 50-gallon Rubbermaid tank (a single tank) & 50-gallon Rubbermaid tank (two tanks).
- 150-gallon tank (which has a dimension of 58 inches by 39 inches by 24 inches) such as the 150-gallon Rubbermaid tank,
- 300-gallon tank (which has a dimension of 63 inches by 69 inches by 25 inches) such as the 300-gallon Rubbermaid tank.
These tanks are generally oval in shape, although the 50-gallon tank recommended here is rectangular.
Stock tanks generally have drain plugs that allow for easy draining when you need to change the water in the tank or clean it. All the Rubbermaid tanks recommended here have these drain plugs, but if you’re picking a different one, just be sure to make sure it’s got easy drainage.
It’s also a good idea to consider building a wire mesh lid for the container. This should keep the snapper from escaping and protect them from wild and domestic animals including dogs, cats, raccoons, and the like. It will also help to keep curious children from disturbing a turtle literally named after its snaps!
The wire mesh lid should have a strong wooden frame to ensure that it will stay well and firmly in place.
A Backyard Pond
Another way to house your turtle is in a backyard pond, which you will need to fence. Like the wire mesh frame, this will help to keep other animals and children out of the pond and keep your snapping turtle inside.
If you decide to build a fence, using grip-free material is your best bet. Snapping turtles are GREAT climbers and quite capable of climbing wire-mesh fences. An example of a grip-free material to use is aluminum roofing flashing — this works very well.
You can also get it in green, tan, or brown if you like so that it will blend easily with the backyard pond and its environs.
Since the aluminum roofing flashing by itself isn’t sturdy enough to make a fence, you’ll next to support it with garden fencing — such as a strong hog-wire. This should help to ensure that the snapper cannot push the fencing over.
The fence/aluminum roofing flashing should be at least 3 feet tall (36 inches), as this should be a sufficient height to prevent the snapper from escaping.
You can also build a wooden fence that will work quite well, with wood panel walls being great at keeping the turtle inside. As long as the inside of the fence has a grip-free surface, the fencing should be okay.
Finally, ensure that the walls are opaque, to ensure that your turtle won’t be able to see through the wall, and your fence should be just about perfect.
Installing A Backyard Pond
While we do not recommend this for first-timers, if you have the time you can install a pond in your backyard using a preformed hard plastic pond or a rubber pond liner and a pond underlayment fabric. This involves digging a hole large enough to fit a preformed pond or the rubber pond liner.
Before you lay the rubber pond liner into the hole, you also need to lay down the pond underlayment fabric.
Once the pond is in place, you can fill it with water and install the pond filter/pump and pond heater if needed. You can also decorate the pond area with stones and other natural objects such as logs.
This is a nice project to undertake once your snapping turtle has settled in with you.
The next thing to consider is a filter pump. This ensures that the water in the snapping turtle tank is clean. Since snapping turtles are massive animals, they require powerful filter pumps. The filter needs to be marked for a water capacity twice the capacity of the water on the tank.
This is essential as turtles are messier than fish and these pumps are designed with fish in mind (you can also find info about quarantining your turtles if needed and more in this article from Chicago Exotics Animal Hospital – the link will open in a new window).
The tank sizes for snapping turtles are massive, so you’ll need very powerful pumps and there are two main kinds –submersible pumps and external canister filter pumps.
With submersible filter pumps, the pump/canister is placed inside the tank and with external canister filter pumps, the canister is placed outside of it. The submersible filter pump takes space away from the turtle and is best suited for smaller tanks.
For massive stock tanks, the external canister filter pump is going to be the best option. The hang-on-back filter pump is a type of external canister filter pump where the canister can be hung onto the side of the tank and these are also best for smaller tanks.
For massive, 150-gallon and 300-gallon tanks, we’d recommend a powerful filter canister.
For hatchlings, however, several different filter pumps can work, just keep in mind that these are meant for smaller tanks and won’t be effective for a large stock tank.
Other pumps to consider include the Marineland Magnum Polishing Internal Canister Filter which is a submersible filter pump and the Marineland Penguin Power Filter which is a hang-on-back filter pump.
For adult snappers here are some filter pumps to consider.
- Pennington Aquagarden, Pond Filter & Pump,
- VIVOHOME Pressurized Biological Pond Filter
- Bio Pressure Pond Filter
The filter pumps mentioned above also work well for outdoor ponds.
Installing a filter isn’t enough, as you will need to change the water within the enclosure regularly or it will still become filthy with time.
The water-changing frequency is something that you’ll need to decide, but we recommend changing about a third of the water within the tank weekly. If you don’t have a filter installed, the you’re going to need to change the water in the tank daily – You don’t want the snapper sleeping in its own filth!
The location of the tank will determine whether or not you need to install artificial lighting. All turtles –including both the common and alligator snapping turtle — require ample UV radiation.
The sun is the best provider of UV light, as it provides both UVA and UVB light. UVA helps the turtle to remain active and UVB ensures that the turtle can synthesize vitamin D3 — essential for it’s good health. Lack of UV light can lead to health complications and can even be fatal.
Exposure to sunlight should ensure that the turtle gets all the UV radiation it needs. If the turtle is housed outdoors in the open, then you don’t need to install UV lights.
Since the turtle is housed outdoors, remember that the container cannot be metallic. Metal heats up quickly when exposed to sunlight so plastic containers are always going to be best.
If the tank is kept in the shade or inside, then you need to install a UVA/UVB light.
Also, make sure to turn that light off during the night. The lights need to follow the daily cycle. When the sun is out, the lights are on, when the sun is down, the lights should be off.
As far as UV lights to install, we’d recommend the Reptisun brand. You can acquire a Reptisun lamp in most pet stores that deal in amphibians and reptiles or simply purchase one online. The ReptiSun 10.0 UVB T5HO Lamp and Reptisun 10.0 Mini Compact are both great choices.
You will need to install the hood/fixture as well. For T5HO tubes, you can acquire the hood/fixture from any hardware store close to you. “T5” is the designation and describes the size, while that “HO” code informs us about the output of the bulb.
HO stands for high output and as such, it means the bulb has an output of 24 to 80 watts.
Another option is the mercury vapor bulbs. These produce both heat and UV light. The advantage of these bulbs is that they produce heat so you won’t need to buy a separate heat lamp if needed.
You’ll need to keep in mind, however, If the temperature is already high then it can cause overheating. Additionally, the light needs to be on to produce that heat, so you can’t use it as a heater at night. If that’s not a problem for your setup, then an excellent vapor bulb is the REPTI ZOO Reptile Heat Lamp (100W).
Turtles require adequate heating. When housed outdoors, you may not need to provide any additional heating, as the sun will take care of things. When housed indoors or in a shaded area, however, then you’re going to need to provide some artificial heating.
Providing the needed heating is a simple task. You may need to install a heat lamp for basking and an aquarium heater for the tank. This is down to the temperature of the water.
The common snapping turtle should be kept in temperatures of 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature of the water should be kept at 75 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit for adults and 78 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit for hatchlings.
Having a thermometer should allow you to ascertain the temperature of the enclosure and that willhelp you to determine if the turtle needs extra heating.
Generally, installing a 50-watt full-spectrum bulb over the enclosure should be good enough to meet the heat requirement of the snapper.
An aquarium heater or pond heater such as the Fluval E300 Advanced Electronic Heater should be up to the task. As long as the water temperature is above 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the turtle should be okay although 75 to 85 degrees is really the ideal range.
An excellent heat lamp to consider is the LUCKY HERP Basking Spot Lamp (50W). Another excellent choice is the LUCKY HERP Infrared Basking Lamp (50W)– this bulb produces infrared light and can be kept on during the night.
Snapping turtle tanks do not require substrates – they are simply decorative. They work best in transparent aquarium tanks kept indoors. For stock tans, there is no need to have a substrate. In addition, they make the tank difficult to clean.
If you decide to have substrate in the aquarium of young snappers, such as hatchlings, then large pebbles such as Royal Imports decorative ornamental river pebbles are your best choice. Small pebbles are easy to swallow and can harm the turtle, so you’ll want to avoid these.
You can also use sand such as Caribsea Super Naturals Aquarium Sand as a decorative option.
Another issue with substrates is that they trap debris, such as food particles. You can help to alleviate this by stirring up the stones/substrate every week so that the filter pump can do its job and filter out the debris.
You also need to clean the substrate whenever you clean the tank. You need to wash the stones with a bleach mixture and rinse them thoroughly before returning them back to the tank. With sand, however, you’ll need to change it out completely.
All in all, it is best to leave the tank bare. You’ll save yourself a lot of work and there’s less that can go wrong, so keep that in mind when you’re creating your setup.
Similar to substrates, the snapping turtle does not require decorations or plants within the enclosure. You can decorate the aquarium of hatchlings and juveniles with rocks, and plants if you like – just remember the extra work and added risk that needs to be considered!
Frequently Asked Questions
How big of a tank do snapping turtles need?
These turtles are massive and as such require massive tanks. Adult alligator snappers can be kept in a 300-gallon stock tank such as the 300-gallon Rubbermaid tank.
An adult common snapper can be kept in a 150-gallon stock tank such as the 150-gallon Rubbermaid tank. Smaller individuals such as hatchlings and juveniles can be housed in a 50-gallon tank such as the 50-gallon Rubbermaid tank.
They can also be kept in an outdoor pond. A pond that is 4 feet long and 2 feet deep is big enough for the snapper.
What do snapping turtles need in their tank?
Snapping turtles do not need much in their tank. Keep temperatures within the tank at 75 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit for adults and 78 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit for hatchlings.
You may need a pond/aquarium heater to do this. You also need to install a filter pump within the enclosure, but there is no need for substrates, decorations, and other other accessories.
How long do snapping turtles live in a tank?
Snappers are almost entirely aquatic, and they will live in their tank for their entire life — which can be over 50 years! As such, it is important to learn the basics of their care and be prepared for such a long commitment.
The enclosure setup of a snapping turtle is actually not very complicated when you break it down – the most important thing to start with is ensuring that you have a large enough tank and after that it’s similar to scaling up an aquarium setup.
Both common and alligator snapping turtles are massive. The common snapper can reach a weight and carapace length of 35.2 lb (16 kg) and 18.5 inches (47 cm). The alligator snapper can reach a weight and a carapace length of 176 lb (80 kg) and 40 inches (101 cm).
So, start with a big enough stock tank or an outdoor pond first and take advantage of the heating and lighting tips that we’ve shared today.
While the large size of these turtles means that an outdoor pond or a large stock tank will be best, you should have everything you need now to make the setup that you’ve got in mind!