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Filtering Turtle Tanks – The Zoo Med Canister Filter and Submersible Models

Spotted TurtlesMaintaining clean water is one of the biggest challenges facing aquatic turtle keepers.  Here at ThatPetPlace we stock a number of filters designed especially for use with turtles.  Most are submersible and will function even in very low water…one, the Turtle Cliff Filter, also doubles as a basking site and waterfall base.  Today I’d like to highlight the unit I’ve found most effective in situations where very strong, effective filtration is required – the Zoo Med Turtle Clean Filter.

An Adaptable, Effective Filter

The Turtle Clean Filter is designed along the lines of aquarium fish canister filters, with separate chambers for activated carbon, filter pads and aerobic bacteria colonies, and is backed by a powerful motor (aquariums up top 60 gallons in size, and possibly larger, can be handled by Model No. 511).  Unlike other canisters, it is set up next to, and not below, the aquarium.

Turtle canister filterThe Turtle Clean has the largest areas for filter media of any turtle filter, and its absorbant pads are very thick and quite effective.   It is very simple to clean, requires no priming, operates in as little as 1-2 inches of water and is equipped with a perforated return bar so that outflow can be adjusted.  Waterfalls and turtles requiring low water levels or moderate currents are thus easy to accommodate.

I’ve used the Turtle Clean Filter on heavily stocked turtle aquariums for some time now, and am very pleased with the results.  Feedback from colleagues indicates that it definitely simplifies the keeping of Red-Eared Sliders, Painted Turtles, Cooters, Snake-Necks, Mata Matas, Sidenecks and other messy feeders.

Easing the Filter’s Job

Turtle TankFrequent partial water changes and, if possible, feeding your turtles outside of the aquarium, will render any turtle filter more effective by lessening the volume of uneaten food and feces that must be removed.

A bare-bottomed aquarium, which enables the filter to more easily pick up solid waste, is preferable for most turtles (Soft-shelled Turtles, however, are best kept with a fine sand substrate under which they can hide).

Further Reading

For more tips on keeping your turtle tank water in top shape, please see Feeding Aquatic Turtles: Water Clarity.



  1. avatar

    Dear Reptilian Enthusiasts:

    Recently I took on the challenge of raising a hatch-ling Common Snapping Turtle as a research project. For anyone that knows Snapping Turtles, whether 1 pound or 50…they can be quite a handful and are just about the sloppiest eaters on the face of the planet. As I began my fatherhood into the care of young Stuart it was not long before I realized that he was the “smelly kid”. Of course I already knew this was coming, having a pretty extensive background in these turtles, however, I was not sure what product was going to be the best for cleaning up after my little slob.

    After researching and emailing a friend and fellow herpetologist I was turned onto the Zoo Med 501 Turtle Canister Filter. For the price…it was definitely worth the shot. Stuart, while only a year a half old at this point, and measuring about 6 inches from tip of snout to tip of tail, is living in a 25 gallon terrarium, which is filled with about 10 gallons of water, rocks, logs and pond plants. Cleaning up this amount of water by hand every couple of days was becoming a real hassle! First you take out the turtle, then take out the plants, and the logs and the rocks and finally the water. I was facing an hours worth of work every 3 days.

    The Zoo Med 501 was quickly installed, plugged in and has done a fantastic job of keeping the water crystal clear and all odors completely void from the tank. Stuart is a happy boy…and he loves the water fall water return, sits under it like a sultan of the swamp!

    I do feed Stuart in a separate tank and give him about an hour afterward to do his “turtle” business…I highly recommend trying this, as it will keep your living tank much cleaner…and make the Zoo Med’s job a bit easier. If you know anything about Snapping Turtles…or have one…you will understand how hard the Zoo Med is working…so give it a little help if you can. Feed your beast and poop him elsewhere:)

    There really isn’t a downside to this filter, other then that you have to take it apart and clean out really good about once a month. It will eventually become clogged and need a good scrub…but it is really simple to take a part and clean. I suggest using pipe cleaners to clean out the tubing…this is the toughest area to get squeaky clean and the whole process from start to finish should only last you about 10 – 15 minutes…a far cry from hand emptying 10 gallons of water every couple of days!

    The 501 is probably the PERFECT FILTER for any turtle. Common Snapping Turtles, again, are about as sloppy as it gets…so if the 501 can take on this prehistoric looking beast…your Red Eared Slider, Painted Turtle, or other aquatic species of choice should be a cake walk!

    Enjoy and good luck with your turtle!

    • avatar

      Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your interest in our blog and for the most useful feedback.., I’m very happy to hear that your experience echoes my own, and appreciate your taking the time to let fellow turtle owners know your thoughts.

      Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  2. avatar

    What is the minimum depth of water this filter will work with? I have a Chinese Water Dragon lizard and they prefer a large water source. They use the water for drinking, and swimming, but also for all their waste. Emptying and cleaning a large plastic bin in the tank is a heavy chore, and just netting the solid waste out does not remove the liquid contaminates at all. I was thinking of getting a filter like this to use in the plastic bin that holds approx. 1 gallon of water. Do you feel that would work okay for this purpose?

    • avatar

      Hi Rhonda,

      The canister will operate in 2 inches or so of water, but I do not think it would handle the waste…turtles produce a more watery stool that water dragons. Other than pool=type filters in large zoo exhibits, I’ve not seen any that do a decent job filtering water dragon pools, unfortunately. An aquarium siphon might be useful, but the waste bucket would need to be lower than the enclosure. Sorry i could not be of more help, Frank

  3. avatar

    Hello Frank- just found your site so I thought I’d send a question;
    I have a 7 in Painted Turtle in a 40 gall breeder tank; plan to get a 90-100 eventually. I have a tank hygiene challenges; I have the Zoo-Med canister for the smaller 40 gall or so size tank. I also have a submersible flulaval that may not be doing much;
    The canister is getting plugged too frequently requiring piping out the tubing and the filter media. I don’t see a way to open up the motor to clean out the impeller. I’ve taken out about 1/2 of the gravel and am trying to not overfeed. I’ve had two episodes of foul smelling water requiring a mid-week water change.

    Besides removing all the gravel, which I don’t really want to do and feeding the turtle out of the tank, is there any suggestions you may have? I am contemplating a second canister to increase the efficiency and lessen to day to day work/smell issues, etc., I think with the larger tank I may get that two canisters would be a good idea anyway.
    I apologize for the rambling.

    • avatar

      Hi Rob,

      Ramble away…it’s a common and important concern! Unfortunately it’s just about impossible to keep a tank clean if there is gravel; even if you remove turtle for feeding, and add filters..it’s even hard in large zoo exhibits; too much organic material gets into the gravel bed. Some turtles swallow and wind up with blockages as well, although not as commonly as happens with some other herps. I wouldn’t bother with another filter; best advice I can give is to remove gravel and feed turtle in another container. Mopani Wood, which sinks and does not discolor wood, makes a good turtle tank decoration.

      There should be a way to get at the impeller for cleaning; perhaps check product info on company site…I can try to reach someone at the company if you have trouble, Best, frank

  4. avatar

    Your answer is what I thought. Ok. Can you point me to a resource for pictures or displays of turtle tanks? Why reinvent the wheel? As I have heard and read, gravel or other substrates are not needed for the turtles but only visual for us. I think scattered mopani wood, potted underwater plants and a river rock ” stream” for the water inlet of the canister filter may be attractive. The turtle will be coming home from my office ( turtle was rescued ) and the tank needs to be acceptable for my wife, etc.
    thanks again-Rob

  5. avatar

    Last one for the night – I haven’t had someone to bounce these things off of… What about an under gravel filter with a hook up to the canister setup? Someone on Utube noted that kept the gravel and water clean.

    • avatar

      Hi Rob,

      Undergravel filters can be effective is some situations, but I would not recommend here. Water and debris is pulled down into the gravel. If properly cycled, bacteria detoxify ammonia, but most of the actual fecal material remains in the gravel bed until siphoned out. I’ll check for photos, none spring to mind right now,

      Painted turtles eat most plants, so that might be difficult. Peace lillies live with roots submerged, they might work. Don’t use anything needing soil, turtle will likely spread it about in time. They really are difficult to keep in complex tanks….rocks (shale) and wood are te way to go…be sure not to crowd out swimming space, they need plenty of room, best, Frank

  6. avatar

    Found your site tonite so thought I would pick your mind from previous experience. We have a musk turtle who is getting bigger and bigger. Now five inches tall and more than a palm full in width. We had to get a new tank and am realizing that our filter which is internal may not be the right one to have gotten. Plus we have a large piece of wood we were hoping our turtle would climb up and sit under the lamp. Apparently, we have more to do to make this new tank a livable and enjoyable place for him. What would you suggest regarding the filter and should we use other things other the log for him to wander around in and out of. We have four small fish which he seems to just ignore. They at least keep him company. Any info would be appreciated. I am willing to spend the money to get our lovable turtle tank up to par. Thank you.


    • avatar


      The Supreme Ovation is very powerful, simple to clean and the outflow can be directed so as to avoid strong currents. I use it in most of my tanks, including with a Common Musk that just turned 44 yrs old. The Zoo Med Canister is also very dependable; more media and larger filtering surface than the ovation, but takes a bit longer to service, and must be located next to, not below, the aquarium.

      Common Musk Turtles (Sternotherus odoratus) rarely bask, although there are exceptions. Wood or another structure that reaches to just below the surface will be used for resting, and if a light is placed there the turtle may bask while in the water. But if a water heater is employed they can do w/o the light, but should have a resting area. They do not need UVB if provided a balanced diet. The Penn Plax Turtle Pier is a useful option, as the turtle can rest on the ramp but remain largely in the water. The cross beams are also used as sub-surface resting sites. Some other options can be seen here, please let me know if you need more info.

      One item they appreciate, and which is often over-looked, is a sunken cave; half of an old crockery flower pot, or a halved section of a wide PVC pipe will work well.

      More on Musk care: Common Musk Turtle Care and Natural History

      Feeding outside the tank, and avoiding the use of gravel, will be a great help in maintaining water quality. Please see this article for further information and let me know if you have any questions.

      Enjoy, best, Frank

  7. avatar

    Hi, Frank. I am interested in how to keep my RES turtle tank clean. The canister filter we have doesn’t seem to be working correctly. I have a 7 in. RES – female and 4 large (3 in) gold fish. THe fish were supposed to be dinner 2 years ago.. But the RES decided to have them be tank buddies! I moved them to a 120 gallon 2X4X2 ft. tank about a month ago. THe basking area is above the tank. I had the fish in first hoping to get the aquarium going so the good bacteria could get started. I get the water just about clear and then for no reason it clouds up again. I have a Filstar XP XL – it is supposed to move over 450 gmh. I’m at a loss for what is happening.

    • avatar

      Hi Penny,

      The most useful technique is to feed the turtle outside of the tank (and remove gravel if present); partial water changes help as well….please see this article. hard for any filter to keep up otherwise. Goldfish are very hard on water quality…4 in that size tank will add greatly to the problem, especially in terms of ammonia. Eventually they will slow down due to ammonia poising, and the turtle will catch them, further fouling the water. Best to separate; sliders are not great at catching fish, but whole fish are critical to good health, proper calcium intake. best to use pre-killed, and stay with minnows and shiners; long term use of goldfish has been linked to fatalities (liver, kidney disease) in other species; fine on occasion. Please let me know if you need more info.

  8. avatar

    Hi Frank,

    I have been having trouble keeping my turtle tank clean. I currently have two adult RES in a 55 gallon aquarium. The aquarium is filled almost to the top with water and I have an external basking area that rests above the aquarium so that they can climb completely out of the water. The are no decorations/gravel in tethe aquarium. I have always had a Cascade 600 filter that has worked great at keeping the water clean. About two years ago, I purchased a second Cascade 600 to add to the tank. It worked for a while but I think the turtles have gotten too big for the filter to keep up. The water is constantly a cloudy yellow. I have even completely emptied the tank and generally clean the filters once a week. I am considering the Zoo Med Canister Filter you reviewed but am not sure if it will work with my aquarium size/two turtles.

    Any help would be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you!

    • avatar

      Hello Dan,

      Two cascade filters should be enough filtration – each turns 175 gallons water per hour when clean; a ZM cannister might be easier to manage and change, but you’d be filtering less water per hour than with the 2 you have now. Two adults in a 55 is pushing the limits…a 75-100 gallon, or a kiddie pool type set-up, would be better if space is available. Are you feeding in the tank? Removing the turtles for feeding is one of the most useful steps in managing water quality. I use water from the tank to fill the feeding container, thereby doing a partial water change every other day or so..please see this article, and let me know how all goes, best, frank

  9. avatar

    Hi Frank. Thanks for the fast response! We do feed the turtles in the aquarium but can start feeding them outside easily. Should I try to feed them outside of the tank to see if that clears up the water quality or do you recommend immediately getting the larger aquarium, as well? If we do get a larger aquarium, should the two cascade filters still be sufficient (assuming that we feed outside of the aquarium)?

    • avatar

      Hi Dan,

      My pleasure. Feeding outside is a major plus…try that first; Leave them in the feeding bin for 20 min or so if possible, as they may defecate quickly; in any event, best to change 1 factor at a time, so that you can access effect for future, please keep me posted, best, Frank

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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