The softshell turtle tank setup is one of the first things you need to think about before getting a softshell turtle. As with other freshwater turtles, the softshell will need an aquatic setup which might consist of a large aquarium, a large tank, or an artificial pond/pool.
The most popular softshell turtles are quite large compared to other freshwater turtles commonly kept as pets. The Florida softshell, for instance, can reach a weight of 96 pounds (43.6 kilograms). This is a massive turtle and as such, it needs a massive tank with aquatic plants, uvb lighting, a basking lamp, a water heater, hiding places, and a calcium supplement to be comfortable and healthy.
Don’t worry — we can help — and by the time we’re done here today, you’ll have a good idea of exactly what you’re going to need for your softshell turtle’s tank!
Table of Contents
Soft shell turtles including species like the smooth softshell turtle, spiny softshell turtles and the eastern spiny softshell are more aquatic than most turtles kept as pets. Unlike cooters, red-eared sliders, and map turtles, the softshell turtle hardly comes out to bask. Even when a basking platform is provided, they barely use it, preferring to bask by floating near the surface of the water.
Regardless of this, you should provide a basking platform anyway so that your turtle has the option to use it if they like.
Similar to snapping turtles, wild softshells spend most of their days in the water, although gravid females will leave their aquatic habitats to nest every year.
Both males and females may also come out of their aquatic habitat when humidity is high (such as during periods with high precipitation) or in search of new habitats.
Softshell turtles can be housed outdoors and this is actually the most convenient way to house them, outdoors as their enclosures can take up a lot of space. Before housing them outdoors, ensure that the temperature ranges are conducive.
If the species can be found in climates similar to that of your locale, then it is okay to house them outdoors. If not, then you may have to relocate them indoors when temperatures are too low.
Similarly, you may want to avoid keeping your softshell turtle outdoors during winter when temperatures fall below 50 degrees. Low temperatures will force the turtle into brumation (a reptilian form of hibernation).
Brumation is generally stressful and sometimes risky for the animal, although it is often encouraged by breeders to increase the fertility of females before breeding — outside of this, it’s something best avoided unless it’s cold outside.
Enclosure choices available to you include stock tanks, aquarium tanks, and ponds. If you want to keep your turtle outside, you’ll want avoid transparent aquarium tanks as these can heat up pretty quickly in the sun. Go for opaque plastic containers such as Rubbermaid.
The size of adult softshells varies widely and this will be an important consideration when you are building an enclosure. For instance, adult Florida soft-shelled turtles can be as small as 5 inches in straight carapace length and as large as 29 inches in straight carapace length.
Aquarium tanks are best for small softshell turtles with carapace lengths below 10 inches. If the carapace length is above 10 inches, it is best to get a large plastic container. As a rule of thumb, for every inch of the carapace, add about 10 gallons of water to the enclosure.
So for a 10-inch softshell turtle, you would need a tank that can hold 100 gallons of water.
If you’re raising a Spiny softshell, we’ve actually got a guide for that! Be sure to check it out before you go!
Choosing The Right Tank For Hatchlings
Hatchlings are tiny. A newly a hatched FL softshell turtle has a carapace length of 1.14 to 1.73 inches (2.9 to 4.4 cm) and an average weight of 9.7 grams. Smooth softshell hatchlings have an average carapace length of 1.57 inches (4 cm) and an average weight of 5.4 grams.
With a hatchling that is about 1 to 2 inches in size, the turtle is best housed in a small tank so you can easily keep track of it. A 20-gallon to 50-gallon tank a good fit for your softshell at this age.
A 50-gallon Rubbermaid tank is an excellent option but you can also get an aquarium. While the Rubbermaid isn’t the most decorative structure, they more than make up for it by being cost-effective and easier to clean and maintain.
If you go with an aquarium, we recommend a 55-gallon Tetra Glass Aquarium for baby softshells.
Choosing The Right Tank For Subadults & Adults
Adults and subadults are much larger than hatchlings so you may need to upgrade your tank. This, of course, is down to the size of your turtle.
A 50-gallon tank should be good enough for several years and for some turtles, perhaps their entire life, but in many cases your turtle can easily outgrow their tank and an upgrade will be needed to ensure their comfort.
Florida softshells can be very large and will need to be moved to a larger tank by the time they reach maturity. They may even need a 300-gallon tank, depending on the aquatic species you’ve chosen.
Adult smooth softshells and adult spiny softshells can generally do well in 55 to 100-gallon tanks but if you are raising a different species of softshell then you’ll need to plan according to their projected growth.
Stock tanks are the absolute BEST option for this. They may be less aesthetically pleasing, but they get the job done and you can make sure that your turtle has plenty of space to swim around in and to be happy.
We recommend Rubbermaid tanks, as they have drainage plugs for easy cleaning and they are quite durable. These come in different sizes, so here are some recommendations that you might consider when making your turtle’s enclosure:
- The 50-gallon Rubbermaid tank for adults that reach carapace lengths of about 5 to 8 inches,
- The 150-gallon Rubbermaid tank for adults of about 9 to 20 inches in size.
- The 300-gallon Rubbermaid tank for adults with carapace lengths of over 20 inches.
If you are planning to keep the turtle outdoors, then you’ll need to protect them from the local wildlife and from domestic animals that can access the tank. We recommend having a wire mesh cover over the tank itself. You can build one from scratch if needed and this will provide an extra layer of security.
Using A Backyard Pond As An Enclosure
A backyard pond is a great way to house a softshell turtle and apart from building the pond, you’ll also need to fence it. This is to protect it from wild and domestic animals, as well as curious children.
Installing A Backyard Pond
Installing a pond for your pet turtle is very doable and it also a great idea if you plan on housing the turtle with other aquatic animals. Just so you know, softshells are predominantly carnivorous and will hunt other aquatic animals within the pond, such as fish, small amphibians, and other reptiles.
The process of installing the pond involves digging the hole for the pond, and then laying down the underlayment fabric and the pond liner. Hard plastic ponds are relatively popular and quite easy to install.
An outdoor pond still requires a filter pump to provide clean water as well as a pond heater, to ensure that the temperature within the pond is always optimal and that the water within the pond is clean enough. Backyard/garden ponds will also require space and landscaping, so keep that in mind if you wish to make one.
Fencing the Pond
We recommend fencing the pond. This ensures that the turtle doesn’t escape and helps to keep undesirable animals away from the enclosure. We recommend using grip-free fencing material.
This will help to keep the turtles within the enclosure, as they are surprisingly good climbers and can easily negotiate any fence they can get a good grip on. A good example of a grip-free material that you can use is aluminum roofing flashing.
In addition to the aluminum roofing flashing you can also support the fence with hog-wire. If aluminum flashing does not appeal to you, then you could go with wood panels. These are also grip-free and look very nice.
Whatever you choose, it’s best to avoid wire mesh fences. The turtle will be able to see through them and so will any animals nearby. Go with an opaque option and we recommend that you set it at a height of at least 3 feet so that it is tall enough that the softshell cannot escape.
Installing The Tank Filter
Poor water quality is not something that is acceptable for proper care which is why your enclosure needs filtering. It’s earier than you think it is and can be done with an electric filter pump designed specifically for aquariums. This ensures that the dirty water is circulated at the right rate.
The aquarium filters out there are built with fish in mind, but Turtles are a lot messier than fish. To compensate for this and ensure that the water is cleaned properly, install a filter marked for TWICE the tank’s capacity.
There are different types of filters out there but we recommend external canister filters. With external canister filter pumps, most of the filter is out of the water in the form of a large canister where the water goes for filtration.
The canister will be placed outside of the water, usually on the floor next to the tank when you’ll have easy access to it when you need to maintain it.
Other types of filter pumps are the hang-on-back filter pumps and the submersible filter pump. With the hang-on-back filter pumps, you hang the canister onto the back of the tank. These are designed for rectangular glass tanks and work best on those.
With submersible filters, the entire unit is submerged under water within the tank. One disadvantage of submersible filters is that the filter reduces the volume of water within the tank. This can sometimes be an issue if the tank is barely big enough for the turtle.
While we recommend external canister filters, you can go with any filter of choice as long as it’s rated for twice the volume of the water that it will be cleaning.
For smaller tanks, less expensive filters will work fine. For a 50-gallon tank, this Penn Plax Cascade CCF3UL Canister Filter will do the trick nicely. This filter is marked for tanks with capacities of up to 100 gallons. Since turtles are messier, this is a perfect fit for a 50-gallon turtle tank.
For a long tank that contains 100 gallons of water, this Penn-Plax Cascade 1500 Canister Filter will be an excellent fit. This filter is rated for tanks with capacities of up to 200 gallons, so it will be up to the task of keeping a 100 gallon softshell turtle tank clean and habitable.
A submersible filter to consider is the Marineland Magnum Polishing Internal Canister Filter. This is a stylish submersible filter that doesn’t take up too much space within the tank and it is rated for up to 97 gallons. This means it will work just fine for 50-gallon softshell turtle tanks.
If you are looking for a hang-on-back filter, then the Marineland Penguin Power Filter is highly recommended. This works for any setup with a water capacity of 50 gallons or less.
Even with the filter installed, you will still need to change the water regularly, as the filter alone is not enough.
We recommend changing about a third of the water every week and all of the water every month or two when you have the time to clean. If the tank contains about 50 gallons of water, then you’ll need to clean it more often — about once a month. Larger tanks will require less frequent cleaning.
Dechlorinating The Water
Before placing the turtle into the water in the tank, you should dechlorinate the water if you are using tap water. We recommend using a water conditioner such as Tetra Aquasafe Plus (Fish Tank Water Conditioner and Dechlorinator), or the API TAP Aquarium Water Conditioner.
Setting Up Lighting
Softshell turtles require UV (ultraviolet) light — specifically both UVA and UVB. The softshell can get these from direct sunlight, so if the turtles are housed outdoors and have access to it, then you needn’t install any UV lamps. If not, then you need to install UV lamps over the enclosure.
You can acquire UV lamps/bulbs from most physical pet stores or online and typically they will also offer hoods/fixtures that hold the bulbs.
We recommend the ReptiSun brand, as these are manufactured with reptiles specifically in mind. The ReptiSun 10.0 UVB T5HO Lamp works well for large tanks and the Reptisun 10.0 Mini Compact is an excellent option for smaller tanks.
These two ReptiSun lamps provided do not produce heat, so you won’t have to worry about the lamps affecting the temperature within the enclosure.
On the downside, you may need to spend extra on heat lamps, but by going with UV lamps that do not produce heat you’ll have more granular control over the turtle’s environment.
Alternatively, Mercury vapor lamps such as the REPTI ZOO Reptile Heat Lamp produce UV light and a substantial amount of heat. As such, they can heat up the enclosure as well and then you do not need to install an additional heat lamp.
What is the importance of UV radiation? Well, UVA is important to keeping the turtle active and UVB ensures that the softshell can synthesize vitamin D3. This vitamin is important for bone formation and the overall health of the turtle, so this is a vital part of your setup.
The lack of UV light can lead to several complications and even death, so be sure to include this in your enclosure – it absolutely CANNOT be skipped. This applies to turtles housed inside and those that have their enclosure underneath shade and don’t receive direct sunlight.
Need more lighting options? Find out more about the 9 best UVB bulbs to pick the perfect one for your turtle’s enclosure!
Setting Up Heating
Softshell turtles require adequate heating. If your locale is warm enough, you can house the turtle outside and artificial heating won’t be required, just make sure that the species can be found in climates similar to your location and you should be okay.
The air temperature range where the turtle is kept should be about 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. During the night, temperatures can be allowed to drop, but the temperature shouldn’t be lower than 60 degrees Celsius — Low temperatures can trigger brumation.
If the turtle is kept indoors, you can regulate the temperature much more easily.
The water temperature should be slightly lower than the air temperature. It shouldn’t be higher than 80 degrees Fahrenheit or lower than 70 degrees.
You will probably need to install an aquarium heater to maintain the right water temperature. An excellent option is the Fluval E300 Advanced Electronic Heater. You should also have a thermometer close by so you can measure the temperature of the water.
Another option is to install automatic thermostats. These turn off the heat when the water temperature is too high and turn it off when the temperature is too low. While they cost a little more, the tank will always be the right temperature and you’ll save a lot of time not having to micromanage the temperature.
Apart from the submersible heater, you may also need to install a heat lamp. If you use a mercury vapor lamp, then this will double as a heat lamp. Heat lamps are for turtle tanks kept indoors and those without direct access to sunlight.
Putting it all together, here is an example of a good heating setup:
- An aquarium heater such as the Fluval E300 Advanced Electronic Heater
- A thermometer such as the PAIZOO Digital Thermometer or the ZACRO Digital Aquarium Thermometer
- A heat lamp such as Aiicioo Reptile Basking Light Bulb or the WUHOSTAM Ceramic Heat Lamp
- A thermostat (optional)
Installing Basking Platform
Softshell turtles do not bask much, often going for long stretches without it. Regardless of this, you should install a basking platform — just in case the turtle needs or wants to come out of the water.
The basking platform can be a large log that the turtle can climb onto. For outdoor ponds, you can have a platform in the middle of the pond that the turtle can use when it needs to bask.
For large aquariums and tanks, you can install a large commercial basking platform. The Zoo Med X-Large Turtle Dock is big enough for most softshell turtles and works well for both tanks and ponds.
Substrate refers to the bedding found in aquariums, such as sand or rocks. The main advantage of substrate in an aquarium is its aesthetic value. It gives the aquarium a natural feel.
Substrates work quite well for glass aquariums, but not for large stock containers or ponds. Substrates also have the caveat of making the tank more difficult to clean.
With sand, you have to replace the substrate regularly. With rocks or pebbles, you need to disinfect the substrate regularly. This is because substrates trap organic debris and small food particles, and they also attract undesirable microbes as well as other small invertebrates.
Apart from cleaning the substrate, it is a great idea to stir up the substrate every now and then so the filter can remove the debris trapped inside.
We don’t recommend using sand and rocks from your backyard without first disinfecting them. You can acquire clean sand and rocks online and there is quite a beautiful selection of river pebbles and aquarium sand.
Aquarium sand comes in different colors. A few examples include:
- Sugar-white sand such as the AquaNatural Sugar White Sand.
- Black sand such as the CaribSea Eco-Complete Black Aquarium Sand.
- Natural desaturated yellow sand such as the Caribsea Super Naturals Aquarium Sand.
The aquarium rocks we would recommend are the Royal Imports decorative ornamental river pebbles.
If you wish to use your own sand from your backyard, you can disinfect it by first sifting the sand to remove debris, and then heating it in an oven.
With rocks, first, clean them with water to remove soil and debris stuck to them. After that, boil them, bringing the water to a boil and then allowing it to boil for 10 to 20 minutes. This should kill any harmful microbes.
You should also disinfect store-bought sand and rocks, just to be on the safe side.
After boiling, you should allow the sand or rocks to cool before adding them to the aquarium. You don’t want to cook the turtle and even if the pond is empty, the sudden change in temperature might damage some substrates.
Just keep in mind that the tank doesn’t require substrate — you can leave it bare – it’s more of an aesthetic choice and the turtle won’t mind either way.
Decorations aren’t necessary but can add a nice touch to the tank — just remember that they are for you and not the softshell.
You can decorate the enclosure with rocks, driftwood, fake plants, crystals, and just about anything that you can disinfect that isn’t so small as to pose a choking hazard if the turtle gobbles it up. When choosing decorations, ensure that they aren’t objects that can hurt the softshell.
Aside from ingestion concerns, softshell turtles have leathery, supple backs and this makes them more prone to scratches and abrasions. None of the decorations should have sharp edges or points that can hurt the turtle.
Frequently Asked Questions
What size tank does a soft-shell turtle need?
As a rule of thumb, for every inch of the carapace (shell), add about 10 gallons of water to the enclosure.
For instance, a 10-inch softshell requires a tank that can carry 100 gallons of water. For hatchlings, get 20-gallon to 50-gallon tank. For subadults and adults, the tank needs to be 50 gallons to 300 gallons.
Do soft-shell turtles need sand?
No, the tank doesn’t need sand or any substrate for that matter. While substrates do beautify the enclosure, the turtle won’t miss them and their inclusion means that you will have more work to do to maintain the integrity of the enclosure.
If you decide to add substrate to the enclosure, ensure that it is clean to avoid introducing pathogens to the tank. Disinfect sand before putting it in your tank by sifting it to remove organic debris and then heating it in an oven to kill all pathogens. This should be done even with store-bought sand.
Afterward, allow the sand to cool before adding it to the aquarium to avoid harming your turtle.
What is the best habitat for a softshell turtle?
Subshell turtles can be found in a wide range of aquatic habitats such as lakes, ponds, streams, and rivers. They prefer habitats with little vegetation, but with muddy or sandy bottoms where they may hide.
In captivity, they can be kept in aquariums, tanks, and ponds designed to simulate their natural environment.
The softshell turtle tank setup is pretty straightforward. The size of the tank will depend on the size of the turtle. As a rule of thumb, for every inch of the carapace, add about 10 gallons of water to the enclosure. As such a 10-inch softshell requires a tank that can carry 100 gallons of water.
In addition, you need to install a filter, an aquarium/pond heater, a heat lamp, and UV lighting, and you’ll also need to dechlorinate the water in the tank. When you get right down to it, we’re just scaling up the same enclosure that you’d make for a smaller turtle.
Now that you know your options you should be ready to create an enclosure for your own softshell and if you choose a size that your turtle an grow into, you won’t even need to upgrade anytime soon. Until next time, we wish you and your new softshell turtle the very best!