Your first question is likely to be, do I have a boy, or a girl? Gender is pretty easy to tell. Compare the front claws to the back claws. If the claws on the front feet are the same length as those on the back feet, you have a girl. If the claws on the front feet are a lot longer than those on the back feet, you have a boy! Congratulations! Now you can select a gender-appropriate name!
Gender will be more important than just picking a name.
Male RES turtles grow to about 9-inches long (shell length). They are territorial and should never be housed with other males unless you have a large pond outside. For the indoor turtle-keeper, an adult male RES will need no less than a 90-gallon aquarium, though bigger is definitely better.
Female RES turtles can get up to 12-inches long, sometimes even bigger. They can be housed with other similarly-sized females, but should never be housed with a male unless you've done extensive research on breeding and have the additional cage space to allow for an egg laying set-up. Female RES turtles, due to their size, will need a tank no less than 125 gallons when full grown. Again, the bigger the better, and for each additional turtle, you need significantly more space (10 gallons of water per inch of shell length).
Tank set-up is important!
Of course when you start out, you won't need such monstrous tanks. A proper set-up for a juvenile RES turtle (regardless of age) will need to be mostly aquatic. There should always be enough water for your turtle to swim without touching the bottom, sides, or breaking the surface of the water. Your turtle should be able to turn around (while swimming under water) without bumping into the sides of the cage. If your turtle is bumping into the sides when turning, or has to put his head up to turn around, your cage is too small. A RES needs a basking spot where he can get completely out of the water. Your basking spot needs to be easily accessible to your turtle, it must be solid (don't want your turtle to snag claw and get hurt), and must be dry. PetNorth uses and recommends Turtle Docks.
RES turtles MUST HAVE both UVA and UVB lighting! This is critical for their survival in captivity. These UV bulbs need to be changed every 6-months, regardless of if they appear to still be working. The basking area should be 90-95 degrees, with the UVB bulb 10-12 inches away from the basking area. Keep the lighting on a steady schedule. A timer can provide your turtle with "12 hours on and 12 hours off" lighting. Changing lighting, or offering too little or too much time with the lights on can cause your turtle to get sick or stressed.
Water quality is also a main concern for RES owners. Turtles are dirty. They live in and drink the same water that they pee and poop in, so it is essential to keep their enclosures as clean as possible. You should have triple filtration for your tank size. For example, if you have 50-gallons of water, you should have 150-gallons worth of filtration. This means no less than 270-gallons worth of filtration for an adult male (kept in a single enclosure), and no less than 260-gallons of filtration for a single adult female turtle. Frequent water changes are a part of life for responsible RES ownership. Always wash your hands after cleaning your turtle's tank, or handling anything that touched your turtle or the turtle water (filters, basking spot, decor, etc.) as they do have the potential to carry salmonella. Water temperature should be kept at 75-78 degrees (warmer for hatchlings). Investing in a heater and a thermometer are a requirement, not an option.
RES enjoy a variety of foods. Most turtle owners feed ReptoMin pellet food. While this food is nutritionally complete, some turtle owners find the idea of feeding the same thing every day to be boring. There are many aquatic turtle diets available. RES also enjoy live fish, though this should not be a main portion of their diet as it leads to shell pyramiding (which can lead to death). In the wild, RES turtles eat a combination of fish, aquatic plants, and invertebrates (snails and water-dwelling bugs).
The 4-inch Law and Wild-Caught Turtles
Many people looking to buy their first turtle want a baby. Many people find turtles in the spring and summer and want to keep them as pets (usually without doing any research into proper care). United States law prohibits the sale of turtles under 4-inches (the original law introduced in 1975 has been amended, but is still in effect). Originally it was thought that smaller turtles carried higher risk of salmonella. In truth, all turtles can potentially carry salmonella. Be sure to wash your hands after handling any turtle, or anything that may have come in contact with a turtle or its enclosure. As for those who find a turtle in the wild, you will need to check with your local DNR (Department of Natural Resources). You may be required to have a special license to take turtles out of the wild, and it's illegal in many places. It's never healthy for a turtle to be removed from its native habitat. Always purchase pet turtles from a reputable dealer or breeder, never from the wild!
The average lifespan of a well cared for RES is roughly 40 years, though many have been reported to live far longer with optimal care (think closer to 90). While these turtles do not require annual vaccinations, it is wise to have a reptile-knowledgeable veterinarian available should your turtle become sick or injured.
Many people who get a red earred slider will eventually decide that they no longer want the responsibility of keeping such a high maintenance (not to mention long-lived) pet. If this is the case, DO NOT release a turtle that has been in captivity into the wild! Not only is it illegal, but your turtle doesn't stand a chance in the wild. A turtle in captivity does not have to hunt or scavenge for their food, and they do not have to worry about predators. Turtles kept in captivity have different immunities than wild populations, and could get sick, or make the native/wild turtles sick. Turtles in captivity are used to climate controlled life, and are not equipped to survive the harsh climate changes outside. Captive turtles that are turned loose usually starve to death, are killed by predators (or cars), or die from exposure when the weather gets too cold and they don't know to hibernate. Those that do survive end up competing with native wild turtles for food and shelter, sometimes taking over ecosystems and causing serious problems.
If you can no longer keep your pet turtle, please call your local pet stores, animal shelters, pet rescues, and herpetological societies to see if any of them have space to take it in.
This red earred slider guide was written by Amanda