Foolproof Guide To Softshell Turtle Tank Setup

softshell turtle basking in sun

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

Before buying or adopting a softshell turtle, you have to think about its enclosure or habitat. Most beginners do not get any proper guide to build a tank for the softshell turtles. As a result, the turtle gets sick or can not survive for a long time. But you do not have to worry anymore, as I am going to give you a foolproof guide to softshell turtle tank setup.

Here are the supplements you will need to build a tank for your softshell turtle:

  • A large tank
  • Basking dock
  • UV lighting
  • Water filtration system
  • Tank heater
  • Substrate

Read this article to the end and you will get to know each necessary tips and details on building a tank for the softshell turtles.

Softshell Turtle Tank Set Up: What You’ll Need

A tank set up means an indoor habitat for the softshell turtles. The experienced turtle owners and the experts always suggest replicating the wild environment in captivity as much as we can. To build the indoor habitat for your softshell turtle, here are the equipment or supplies you will need:

  1. A glass tank
  2. A basking station
  3. Light sources
  4. Water heater
  5. Water filters
  6. Substrate
  7. Decorations

1. A Glass Tank: Softshell Turtle Tank Size

The glass tank is the most important part of a softshell turtle’s indoor enclosure. So, you have to choose the tank very wisely. As the softshell turtles are bulky in size, you need to provide these turtles with a large glass tank.

According to stats, an adult male softshell turtle can grow between 5 to 12 inches, while the adult female ones get 7 to 25 inches big. Check this article to get the individual size chart of different softshell turtle species.

The bigger the size of the turtle, the more it will weigh. Usually, an adult softshell turtle weighs around 40 pounds. You can get the weight of different softshell turtles from this article.

So, you can see that the softshell turtles are large in size and weigh more than some usual turtles. That is why you have to choose a strong and large tank for the softshell turtle. Remember, space should be the number 1 priority for the softshell turtles.

The experts suggest providing the softshell turtles with a minimum of 75 gallon tank. If your softshell turtle is bigger, then you may have to buy a 100 or 125 gallon for the pet turtles. Usually, the female softshell turtles require a larger tank than the male ones.

Size Requirement For Additional Tank Mate

Softshell turtles are not very friendly as a tank mate. That is why you have to raise each softshell turtle in a single enclosure. But if you want to house another turtle, or fish with the softshell turtle, then you have to increase the tank size. Otherwise, there will be a lot of fighting and messes in the enclosure.

Learn what are the ideal tank mates for a softshell turtle by clicking here.

2/3 Softshell Turtle Hatchlings In One Tank

The softshell turtle hatchlings are smaller in size. So, you can house multiple baby softshell turtles in a single enclosure.

Generally, for the baby softshell turtles, you will need a minimum of a 40 gallon tank.

But remember, do not house more than 2 or 3 hatchlings in the same enclosure. And when they will grow bigger, move them to another spacious tank.

Many turtle owners think space is not that important for the softshell turtles, which is indeed not true. The softshell turtles can not lead a healthy life in a congested place. They require abundant space for swimming and moving due to the bulky size.

So, what will happen if you start raising your softshell turtles in a congested space? Well, this will stress the pet turtles. As a result, the softshell turtles will stop eating, which will make them sick.

You will find different types of tanks or glass tanks in the market. Do not buy the cheap ones as they will leak or won’t last for a long time. Go for the ones that are robust and can take the large load.

Softshell turtles belong to the family Trionychidae, which includes about 30 species.

2. A Basking Station

Do softshell turtles need a basking dock? This is a question I often get. See, the softshell turtles are aquatic species. They spend most of their time swimming or moving underwater. You will barely find your pet softshell turtle on the land or basking area.

So, is it really important to provide them with a basking station? Or they will do great without one? Experts claim that even though the softshell turtles barely bask, they do need a basking dock.

Here is why a softshell turtle needs a basking station:

  1. After swimming for a long period, the turtles need a dry place to warm their bodies. Staying wet for too long can lead the softshell turtles to an eye, shell, or skin infection. Moreover, turtles can suffer from cold or other respiratory diseases.
  2. The shell of a softshell turtle is not hard like most other turtle species. Without proper basking algae, bacteria, and fungus can easily spread and live on the shell surface of these turtles. This will lead to shell or skin rot.
  3. Basking under the UV lamp helps the softshell turtle to absorb vitamin D and calcium. As a result, softshell turtles live a happy life.
  4. Finally, basking can boost up the immunity or digestive power of the softshell turtles. You can learn more about the importance of a basking dock by clicking here.

You can either buy or build a basking dock for the softshell turtle. If you are planning to buy a basking station for a softshell turtle, then here are the things you should remember:

  • The station should be able to hold the weight of the softshell turtle.
  • The size of the basking dock should cover only a small portion of the tank.
  • Add a rampage so that the turtles can easily get on the dock.
  • The dock should be at such a height that water can not wet the surface.

Check this article to see the best basking docks for the softshell turtles. However, you have to maintain a temperature of around 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the basking area.

You can also build a basking dock all by yourself by using the following materials:

  • Driftwood
  • Plastic
  • Ceramic tiles
  • Large smooth stones
  • Foams
  • Flat floating surface
  • Metal sheets

Softshell turtles have a unique feature of a three-clawed foot.

3. Lighting Sources: UVB & Heating Lamp

Heating lamps and UV bulbs are the two most important requirements of a softshell turtle’s tank. I have discussed the basking dock and basking temperature in the previous section. But have you wondered how you will maintain the perfect temperature in the basking area?

The answer is by providing a heating lamp. The heating lamps provide heat and keep the basking station warm and comfortable for the softshell turtles. This light is a must item for you if you live in a region where the winter season is severe.

Some people use normal bulbs instead of using the proper heating lamps in the tank. It might seem that the bulbs are working well, but eventually, this will make your pet softshell turtle sick.

So, you must buy a proper heating light for the basking dock.

You also have to install a UV lamp in the basking area. Why? You must know that the softshell turtles can not absorb vitamin D and calcium from food without the help of an external UV source. In the wild, the sun provides the turtles with an abundant amount of UVA and UVB exposures.

To replicate the environment, install a UV lamp just above the basking dock. Without UVB exposure, the bones of the softshell turtle will not develop properly. Again, the UVA rays help the turtles to stay mentally stable.

Moreover, UV exposures can affect your softshell turtle’s appetite. Without proper lighting, the turtle may stop eating at all.

This can lead to sickness or other medical conditions. That is why you must set up a UV light inside the softshell turtle’s tank.

Now, installing two types of lights can make your softshell turtle’s tank look messy. So, you can go for the bulbs that work as both heating and UV light. Here is an article that will describe which ones are the best basking light for your softshell turtle.

The lifespan of softshell turtles can range from 20 to 50 years, depending on the species and their environment.

4. Water Heater

You already know that softshell turtles can not generate heat inside their bodies and depend on the environment. As the softshell turtles spend most of their time swimming underwater, you must maintain a suitable temperature there.

The perfect water temperature for the softshell turtle’s tank is around 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

This temperature has to be a little bit colder than the air or the basking station. Now the question is how you will control the water temperature.

The answer is simple. You can easily maintain a suitable temperature inside the softshell turtle’s tank by setting up a tank heater. The heaters are quite popular in those areas where the winter is severe.

The turtle owners install the water heater inside the tank to keep the pets warm. What will happen if you keep the softshell turtles in the cold water? Yes, the turtles will prepare to hibernate.

I have already mentioned that the softshell turtles can not maintain their own body temperature. So, if it is cold, the turtles will start saving their energy and enter into the hibernation process. During the hibernation period, the softshell turtles stop eating, drinking, and refuse to do any activity.

You will probably find your softshell turtle at the bottom of the tank sleeping throughout the winter. You may think hibernation is an easy process, but it is not. You have to prepare your softshell turtles before putting them into hibernation. Otherwise, the softshell turtle can die or get sick.

So, if you do not have any proper idea about hibernation, I suggest you install a water heater inside the tank. You will find many kinds of heaters in the market. The old models are not reliable. Those heaters can increase or decrease the temperature without any notice which can make your pet uncomfortable.

The digital ones are really good. You can set the temperature and the device will do the rest. If the water becomes too hot, the heater will immediately trace it and cool it down. No matter which type of heater you are using, always set a thermometer inside the tank. This will help you track all over the temperature of the tank.

Choosing the right power heater can be tough. The power of the device will depend on the size of the tank. For example, for a 40 gallon tank go for a 150 watt heater, for a 75 gallon tank a 300 watt heater will be better.

You can install one heater in the tank or in the case of a big tank, you can set up multiple water heaters. Setting up multiple tank heaters can work as a backup. But make sure the total power of the tank heaters meets the preferable requirements.

Moreover, if you are in a warm region, a less powerful heater may work. If you are confused about tank heaters, then this article is for you. Here you will get the complete guide on water heaters for the softshell turtles.

The Indian softshell turtle is considered a delicacy in some parts of Asia and is threatened due to overhunting and habitat loss.

5. Powerful Water Filters (Recommendation: Canister Filter)

The softshell turtles are fully aquatic species. They prefer staying underwater. So, you can understand how important water quality is for them. Experts claim that the softshell turtles do not like to swim in dirty and unhygienic water.

The filthy water can cause allergy and other skin diseases to the turtles.

Also, dirty water provides the perfect environment for bacteria and fungus to grow. As a result, the softshell turtles may suffer from skin, shell, eye infections. However, the vets suggest that the softshell turtle can lose its appetite or stop eating if the water quality is not good.

So, what can you do?

The best way to deal with the filthy tank water is to install a powerful canister filter.

The filtration system cleans the water by removing all the wastages.

This article contains the 7 best water filters for softshell turtles. You can check the features and choose the best one that suits your softshell turtle’s tank.

Here is a thing you have to remember. Installing a water filter does not mean you do not have to change the water. You need to replace the used water with fresh water thrice or more than that in a week.

Recommended Water Parameters For Softshell Turtles:

  • pH: Typically, a neutral pH (around 7.0) is suitable.
  • Hardness: Soft to moderately hard water is often recommended.
  • Ammonia, Nitrite, and Nitrate: Levels should be closely monitored, with ammonia and nitrite ideally at zero and nitrate levels kept low.
turtle tank substrate

6. Substrate

Some turtle owners may think it is not important to put substrate at the bottom of the tank. But trust me, this is a must when you are setting up a tank, especially for the softshell turtle. These turtles sometimes burrow into the substrate.

The best kind of substrate for softshell turtles is sand or gravel.

You can use aquarium sand for this purpose. You will find it in the nearest pet store. Put a thick layer so that the turtle can cover itself with the sand.

Suitable Substrates for Softshell Turtles:

Softshell turtles prefer soft substrates in which they can bury themselves, mimicking their natural behavior in the wild. Sand is often a popular choice as it is soft and allows the turtle to dig.

Pros and Cons of Different Types:

  • Sand: Pros include natural appearance and burrowing ability. Cons might be that it can be harder to clean and might get ingested during feeding.
  • Bare Bottom: Easier to clean and reduces the risk of ingestion. However, it doesn’t provide a natural feel or burrowing opportunity.

Softshell turtles are carnivorous and feed on a variety of prey, including fish, insects, crustaceans, and mollusks.

7. Decorations (Hiding Places)

Decorating the tank gives pleasure to every turtle owner. You can plant some aquatic plants inside the tank. Make sure those plants are non-toxic and the softshell turtles can eat the leaves.

Besides the plants, place some hiding spaces inside the tank. The visual barriers are important if you have housed the softshell turtle with another turtle or fishes. You can also put smooth rocks of different sizes in the tank.

Additional Supplements You Might Need

If you live in a cold region, you have to maintain a suitable air temperature too. A moderate room heater will do this work.

The air temperature should be around 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

However, sometimes the water contains chlorine. This can cause skin and eye irritation to the softshell turtle. In that case, dechlorination is important. You can do this by adding a few drops of chemicals (Ask your vet).

The water pH level must be neutral (around 7.0).

Softshell Turtle Tank Positioning

Importance of Location:

The location of the tank in your home or space can significantly impact the well-being of your softshell turtle. A well-placed tank ensures the turtle is comfortable, stress-free, and in a stable environment.

Avoiding Direct Sunlight:

While natural sunlight can be beneficial for many reptiles, placing a turtle tank in direct sunlight can lead to overheating and can cause significant fluctuations in water temperature. This can be stressful and harmful to the turtle. Additionally, direct sunlight can promote the growth of unwanted algae in the tank.

High-Traffic Areas:

Softshell turtles can be sensitive to disturbances. Placing the tank in a high-traffic area where people are constantly moving around can stress the turtle. It’s best to choose a quieter location where the turtle can feel secure.

Cleaning and Maintenance of Softshell Turtle Tanks

Cleaning and maintaining a softshell turtle tank is crucial for the health and well-being of the turtle. Softshell turtles are particularly sensitive to water quality, so regular maintenance is essential to prevent potential health issues.

Here’s a comprehensive guide on the cleaning and maintenance of softshell turtle tanks:

1. Routine Monitoring

  • Daily: Check the turtle for any signs of distress or illness. Remove uneaten food and visible waste.
  • Weekly: Test water parameters (pH, ammonia, nitrite, nitrate) to ensure they’re within the recommended range.

2. Partial Water Changes

  • Frequency: Conduct partial water changes (around 25-30%) weekly.
  • Procedure: Use a siphon or gravel vacuum to remove debris from the substrate while extracting water. Refill with dechlorinated water, ensuring it’s of a similar temperature to the tank’s water.

3. Substrate Cleaning

  • Sand: If you’re using sand, a gentle siphon can help remove waste without removing too much sand.
  • Bare Bottom: Wipe down the bottom of the tank to remove any waste or algae.

4. Filter Maintenance

  • Cleaning: Depending on the type of filter, clean or replace the media at least once a month. Rinse filter media in tank water, not tap water, to preserve beneficial bacteria.
  • Inspection: Ensure the filter is running efficiently and isn’t clogged.

5. Tank Decor and Accessories

  • Cleaning: Remove and clean decorations, hides, and any artificial plants with a brush and warm water. Avoid using soap or detergents.
  • Rearrangement: Occasionally rearranging the tank decor can provide a new environment for the turtle to explore.

6. Tank Walls

  • Algae Removal: Use an algae scraper or pad to remove algae buildup from the tank walls. For stubborn spots, a razor blade can be effective (but use with caution).
  • Waterline Cleaning: The waterline can accumulate grime and calcium deposits. Wipe it down with a clean cloth.

7. Equipment Check

  • Regularly inspect heaters, lights, and other equipment for any signs of wear or damage. Ensure they’re functioning correctly.

8. Diet and Feeding

  • Avoid Overfeeding: Overfeeding can lead to excess waste, deteriorating water quality. Feed the turtle an appropriate amount and remove uneaten food after feeding sessions.

9. Water Conditioners

  • Use water conditioners when adding tap water to neutralize harmful chlorine and chloramines. Some conditioners also bind heavy metals, making the water safer for turtles.

10. Regular Deep Cleaning

  • Frequency: Every few months, consider a more thorough cleaning where a larger portion of the water is changed, and the tank and its components are cleaned in detail.
  • Procedure: Temporarily relocate the turtle to a safe container. Drain the tank, clean the substrate, scrub the tank walls, and rinse decorations. Refill with dechlorinated water and reintroduce the turtle.

11. Health Monitoring

  • While cleaning, it’s a good opportunity to check your turtle for signs of health issues like shell rot, skin infections, or eye problems. Early detection can lead to more effective treatments.

12. Maintain a Schedule

  • Keeping a consistent maintenance schedule ensures that tasks aren’t overlooked. Consider keeping a log or calendar to track water changes, filter cleanings, and other maintenance tasks.

By adhering to a regular cleaning and maintenance routine, you’ll ensure that your softshell turtle has a clean, healthy, and stimulating environment in which to thrive.

Unlike most turtles, softshell turtles lack the hard carapace or shell. Instead, their shell is more like leather than hard and bony.

How big of a tank does a softshell turtle need?

The appropriate tank size for a softshell turtle largely depends on the species and the size of the turtle. Softshell turtles can range in size from relatively small species to those that can grow quite large. Here’s a general guideline for tank sizes based on the turtle’s size:

Small Softshell Turtles (up to 6 inches in shell length):

  • A minimum of a 40-gallon tank.

Medium Softshell Turtles (6 to 12 inches in shell length):

  • A minimum of a 75 to 125-gallon tank.

Large Softshell Turtles (over 12 inches in shell length):

  • A minimum of a 150-gallon tank or larger.

Do softshell turtles need a filter?

Yes, softshell turtles absolutely need a filter in their tank. Here’s why and what to consider:

Water Quality: Softshell turtles produce a significant amount of waste. A filter helps remove this waste, keeping the water clean and reducing harmful toxins like ammonia and nitrites.

Health: Clean water is essential for the health of softshell turtles. Poor water quality can lead to various health issues, including skin infections, shell rot, and respiratory problems.

Reduction of Odor: A good filtration system will help in reducing the unpleasant odor that can arise from turtle tanks due to waste buildup.

What do you put in a softshell turtle tank?

Here’s a concise checklist of items for a setting up a softshell turtle tank:

  1. Tank (appropriately sized)
  2. Fine aquarium sand (or preferred substrate)
  3. Canister filter (or another powerful filter)
  4. Submersible water heater (with guard)
  5. Basking heater (heat lamp)
  6. UVB lighting
  7. Basking platform/dock
  8. Hiding spots (like caves or PVC pipes)
  9. Thermometer (to monitor water temperature)
  10. Water conditioner (to treat tap water)
  11. Water test kit (to check water parameters)


For a softshell turtle, an outdoor tank will work better than the indoor one. But most owners can not afford a big stock pool. So, a large indoor tank with proper dedication will be the perfect choice for your softshell turtle. In this article, I have tried to highlight each & every detail possible on how to set up a tank for softshell turtles. I hope you have found this helpful.

About Author

Muntaseer Rahman started keeping pet turtles back in 2013. He also owns the largest Turtle & Tortoise Facebook community in Bangladesh. These days he is mostly active on Facebook.


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