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Whether you are a new or an experienced Red Eared Slider keeper, what kind of substrate to use in your tank is always a hot topic and everyone has got an opinion. Including yours truly.
There are 4 types of substrates that hobbyists use in their Red Eared Slider tanks and I am going to talk about all of them.
The main points I am going to go over will include aesthetics, sanitation, enrichment, and any impaction risks.
Ready? Let’s go!
“Bare Bottom” is the simple way of saying having no substrate at all. It is by far the safest and cleanest option out of all four. Not using any substrate is a great option for Red Eared Sliders because they are messsssyyyyy. It means you can easily and quickly scoop out any waste which can negatively affect the water parameters. The downside is that it is not very appealing visually and in my opinion, lacks the opportunity for enrichment.
- Easy to clean
- No impaction risk
- Not visually appealing
- Lacks enrichment
I could list the pros and cons of using gravel or pebbles in your tank but I really do not want to promote the use of these options in any capacity.
Turtles are opportunistic eaters and will try to eat pretty much everything. Because of this, gravel and pebbles have caused NUMEROUS documented deaths and are not worth the risk considering there are much better and easier alternatives.
So please, don’t use gravel or pebbles in your turtle tank. I don’t recommend them at all. Some people will say it’s perfectly fine and they have never had any problems, but to everyone else; please don’t use gravel or pebbles or anything similiar in size where the turtle can accidentally swallow and get choked or impacted.
Pool Filter Sand
I specifically stated “Pool Filter Sand” and not just “Sand,” because I along with many other Red Eared Slider keepers will only recommend Pool Filter Sand if you choose this type of substrate. If you go with this option, make sure you get non-aragonite (aragonite is used in saltwater tanks and can really mess up your water levels if used in a freshwater tank) pool filter sand and make sure it is a good quality around 20-grade silica. Want to know where you can find some? Keep reading!
- Visually appealing
- Easy to clean
- Low impaction risk
- Offers enrichment
I like pool filter sand because it is very natural looking and not too hard to clean. It obviously requires more work to clean than a bare bottom tank but definitely not as hard as river rock or creek rock.
It also has a very low impaction risk which is very important when dealing with Red Eared Sliders.
Plus it also offers enrichment. Red Eared Turtles are what we call “soft-shelled” and these types of turtles love to bury themselves underneath the sand. Which is another reason why I don’t like using gravel or pebbles as this can really damage their shell if they try to bury themselves.
- Can be hard on filters
- Has a slight impaction risk
- A breeding ground for certain anaerobic bacteria
One of the biggest complaints with using any type of sand is that it can be hard on your filter and can clog the impeller. If this is the case, you should move your filter intake up a couple of inches away from the sand bed.
Secondly, I still put that pool filter sand has a slight impaction risk because I wanted to make this point: this should go without saying but if you find that your RES or any reptile for that matter is just continuously eating their substrate, there is something wrong! It could be a calcium deficiency or something very serious and you should remove the substrate and take them to an exotic vet.
Lastly, what are anaerobic bacteria? It is bacteria that live and grow without oxygen and can be found at the bottom of deep sand or gravel beds (over 2 inches). There is a mixed debate with hobbyists about whether stirring or vacuuming your sand can help prevent the growth of anaerobic bacteria. My recommendation? Don’t use more than two inches of sand, have an appropriate size filter for your tank and turtle, and keep your tank cleaned regularly.
Arnon loves river rock. It looks awesome and she likes to use her claws and turn them over to look for ghost shrimp. The downside is that if you use only river rock, it can trap debris and waste underneath of them making it harder to keep the tank clean and the water parameters where they are supposed to be.
- Visually appealing
- Offers enrichment (turtles like to dig and turn over stones)
- Hard to clean
New Red Eared Slider Keepers:
First and foremost, if you are new to the Red Eared Slider world, you should definitely stick to a bare bottom tank for a while until you become more familiar with your turtle. I say this because every turtle is different and it is up to you as their keeper to monitor their behavior and ensure that all of their needs are being met. This is so much more important than what type of substrate looks best in your tank. So bottom line, if you are still new to keeping a Red Eared Slider, wait a while before adding any substrate and use this time to concentrate on their care and behavior.
Experienced Red Eared Slider Keepers:
Now, what I use and recommend for the more experienced keeper is pool filter sand with different size river rocks. As you all know, I am usually an advocate for not using any substrate that has an impaction risk. The reason I chose to use this type of setup is because I have monitored our Red Eared Slider for almost a year on both a bare bottom tank and river rocks and I have witnessed Arnon try to eat non-food items and then spit them right back out. I have also spent countless hours doing my own research about Red Eared Slider care; tank size, lighting and heating requirements, food schedules and water parameters just to name a few. Therefore, I am confident that it won’t be a problem for her.
Where can I find the right Pool Filter Sand?
The best pool filter sand that I recommend is FairmountSantrol AquaQuartz-50 Pool Filter 20-Grade Silica Sand* and can be found on Amazon. It comes in a 50-pound bag in white so it looks really natural and it’s extremely affordable for such a large bag. Bonus: It’s extremely easy to clean compared to other aquarium sands. I only had to wash it once before putting it in Arnon’s tank!
Also, it hasn’t seemed to affect our filter much. We use the Fluval FX6* and I made sure to raise the filter input so the bottom of the input was 3-4 inches away from the sand. Another added bonus is that this sand* doesn’t kick up easy so when Arnon is speeding around her tank, it stays on the bottom.
But if you are still unsure, you should always go with the safest option, which in this case would be a bare bottom tank.
What if I want a planted tank?
You can still have a planted tank even if you don’t use gravel or pebbles!
First, you should make sure the plants that you are planning on using are safe for your Red Eared Slider.
The top two plants that are the most recommended for Red Eared Slider tanks are hornwort and java fern because they are hardy plants and do not need to be rooted in a substrate in order to grow.
Other safe plants you can use are water lilies, elodia, duckweed, java moss, anacharis, and arrowhead just to name a few.
What kind of substrate do you all use in your Red Eared Sliders tank? Let me know in the comments below!
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Arnon loves to dig in her sand 😊 We just got done doing a #weeklywaterchange and moved some of her sand and rocks around and now she’s redecorating 😂🐢 • • • • • #turtletuesday #redearedslider #redearedsliders #redearedsliderturtle #redearedslidersofinstagram #redearedsliderturtles #turtle #turtles #turtlesofinstagram #aquaticturtle #aquaticturtles #aquaticturtlesofinstagram #aquarium #reptile #reptilelove #reptilefanatic #reptilecommunity #reptileoftheday #reptileroom #reptilesofinsta #herp #herps #exoticpet #petsofinstagram #animalloversunite #animalscience #whereiwork #newhopeherp
*This site contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links at no additional cost to you. We do not recommend any products that we have not or would not use personally.