Keeping Turtles As Pets: The Complete Guide For Beginners (2023)

OnReptiles Staff
Keeping Turtles As Pets (NEW)

If you’d told me a few years ago that I’d be the proud parent of three turtles, I might’ve looked at you with disbelief and curiosity. Yet, here I am today, sharing a home with three amazing shelled companions and having navigated the intriguing world of reptiles.

Turtles, with their calm demeanor and unique personalities, have a charm that’s hard to resist. They’re not just ornamental creatures lazily swimming or trudging around; they can be fascinating pets that teach us patience, responsibility, and the wonders of the natural world.

Through my journey, I’ve uncovered essential aspects of turtle care—from setting up the perfect habitat to understanding their dietary needs. I aim to make your entry into the turtle world smoother, guiding you through the essentials easily and understandably.

So, whether you’re considering adding a turtle (or three!) to your family or just looking to gather some knowledge, you’re in the right place. Let’s dive in!

Understanding Turtles: Basics and Biology

Let’s start by getting our terminologies right. When you think of a turtle, a certain image might come to your mind—a shelled creature, possibly in water. But did you know there are subtle differences among turtles, tortoises, and terrapins? Let’s clear up that confusion.

Terrapene carolina (Florida Box Turtle)

1. Differentiating Between Turtles, Tortoises, and Terrapins


Generally, the term “turtle” is broad, encompassing all species with a shell. However, in a more specific sense, turtles tend to be aquatic or semi-aquatic. They have flatter shells and webbed feet, ideal for swimming. Think of the sea turtles gracefully gliding through ocean waters.


Tortoises are strictly land-dwellers. They boast rounder, dome-shaped shells and have stubby, elephant-like feet, not designed for swimming but for wandering around on land. If you’ve seen a creature slowly pacing the desert or forest floor with a heavy shell on its back, that’s a tortoise.


A blend of both worlds, terrapins predominantly live in freshwater habitats like swamps and ponds. Their name originates from an Algonquian word meaning “a little turtle.” They usually have a shell that’s somewhat in between—a bit flatter than tortoises but not as streamlined as turtles—and feet that are slightly webbed.

Turtle vs tortoise

2. Lifespan and Growth Rate

Turtles and their kin are often long-lived creatures. Turtles can live anywhere from 20 to over 100 years depending on the species! For example, many common pet turtles, like the red-eared slider, have a lifespan ranging from 20-40 years with proper care.

Tortoises, particularly the larger species, can live for over a century. It’s a commitment when you decide to care for one of these ancient beings. Their growth rate can vary based on diet, habitat, and species, but many turtles will reach full size within 5 to 20 years.

3. Basic Anatomy and Unique Features

Turtles, tortoises, and terrapins share a fascinating anatomy that’s adapted perfectly to their lifestyles:


The shell is a turtle’s signature feature, Comprising the carapace (top) and plastron (bottom). It’s not just an external covering; it’s fused to their spine, making it a vital part of their body.


These are the large, scale-like structures on the shell. As the turtle grows, these scutes can shed and be replaced by new ones underneath.


While turtles have webbed feet or flippers suited for swimming, tortoises have columnar, sturdy legs for walking on land. Terrapins, as mentioned, fall somewhere in between.


Turtles don’t have teeth. Instead, they have a sharp beak that can cut and chew food. The shape and sharpness of the beak often correlate with their diet.

Getting familiar with these basics ensures we approach their care with a piece of foundational knowledge. It’s always fascinating to understand the creature before diving into its care.

Tips for Encouraging Your Turtle to Bask

Choosing The Right Turtle For You

Diving into the world of turtles, you’ll quickly realize that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

Various species come with their unique needs and quirks. Picking the right one for you hinges not just on what you find appealing, but also on how much time, space, and resources you can dedicate to their care. Let’s explore some of the popular choices.

1. Different Species of Pet Turtles: Aquatic vs. Semi-Aquatic vs. Terrestrial

Aquatic Turtles

As the name suggests, these guys spend most of their time in the water. They’ll need an aquarium with substantial water, a basking spot, and specialized equipment to mimic their natural habitat.

Semi-Aquatic Turtles

These turtles enjoy the best of both worlds. While they love splashing in the water, they also appreciate a good stretch on dry land. Their enclosure should provide ample opportunities for both swimming and basking.

Terrestrial Turtles (Tortoises)

Ground dwellers by nature, prefer wandering on land, munching on leafy greens. They’ll need a terrarium or a secure outdoor space.

Red-Eared Sliders

Red-Eared Slider Turtle
Red-Eared Slider Turtle

A favorite among many due to their distinctive red stripe near the ears and lively personalities. Native to the southern US, they’re semi-aquatic and can grow up to 12 inches, requiring a spacious tank and a dedicated basking area. Their diet is omnivorous, shifting more towards vegetation as they age.

Box Turtles

These are tortoises and spend most of their time on land. Their name comes from their unique hinged shell, allowing them to close up almost entirely. They come in various subspecies, each with slightly different care needs. Generally, they thrive in outdoor enclosures with plenty of hiding spots and a varied diet.

Painted Turtles

Recognizable by their vibrant, painted-like shell markings, these are aquatic turtles often found in North American freshwaters. They’re smaller than the red-eared sliders but have similar care requirements, including a spacious tank, clean water, and a mix of protein and plant-based food.


The world of turtles is vast, with options like the Russian tortoise, snapping turtles, and spotted turtles, among others. Each has its unique needs, temperaments, and characteristics.

Choosing a turtle shouldn’t be an impulse decision. Reflect on what you can provide, the turtle’s needs, and your long-term commitment. Remember, these ancient beings can be with you for decades, making it vital to select a species that aligns well with your lifestyle.

Creating the Ideal Turtle Habitat

Bringing a turtle home is just the beginning. Setting up a cozy, comfortable, and safe habitat is where the fun (and challenge) begins. A proper environment ensures your turtle’s health and well-being and allows them to showcase their natural behaviors. Let’s explore the essentials of creating that ideal space.

A reptile tank

1. Aquariums and Tanks: Size Recommendations and Setting Up

Size Matters

A common rule of thumb is 10 gallons of water for every inch of a turtle’s shell length. However, bigger is always better. Turtles are active creatures, and providing them with ample space allows them to swim, explore, and be healthy.

Setting Up

Ensure your tank has both water and dry areas. Semi-aquatic turtles need a spot to bask and dry off. This can be achieved using floating platforms or large stones.

2. Water Quality and Filtration

Clean Water

Turtles can be messy. They eat, defecate, and shed skin in the water, which can get dirty quickly. Clean water is crucial to prevent diseases and infections.


Invest in a good quality filter, preferably one designed for turtles as they generate more waste than fish. Mechanical, biological, and chemical filtration will clear the water and reduce harmful toxins.

3. Lighting and Heating Essentials

Turtle tank

UV Lighting

Turtles need UVB light to process calcium and to stay healthy. Special UVB bulbs can provide this. Ensure your turtle gets about 10-12 hours of UVB light daily.

Basking Light

Apart from UVB, turtles also enjoy basking under warm light. This helps in regulating their body temperature and aids in digestion.

Water Heater

Depending on the species and the room temperature, you might need a water heater to maintain a consistent water temperature suitable for your turtle.

4. Decoration: Creating a Natural Environment


Sand, fine gravel, or river rocks can mimic the natural bottom of water bodies. But ensure the size is either too big to swallow or fine enough to pass through if ingested.

Plants and Hides

Real or artificial plants can provide hiding spots and make the tank look natural. Driftwood or caves can also offer additional hiding and climbing areas.

5. Terrariums for Land-Based Species

Size and Setup

keeping frogs as pets

Similar to their aquatic counterparts, terrestrial turtles (or tortoises) need space. Ensure the terrarium is large enough for them to roam around.


Coir, peat moss, or a mixture can replicate the forest floor. It should be deep enough for digging or burrowing.

Hides and Landscape

Tortoises love to explore, climb, and hide. Incorporate rocks, logs, and plants to recreate a natural landscape. Ensure there’s a shaded area for them to retreat.

Remember, whether it’s an aquarium or a terrarium, regularly cleaning and maintaining the habitat is key. It’s not just about aesthetics; it directly impacts your turtle’s health and happiness.

Feeding Your Turtle: Nutrition and Diet

Feeding your turtle might seem straightforward, but ensuring a balanced and appropriate diet is the cornerstone of its health. Just like us, turtles have specific dietary needs that, when met, lead to vibrant colors, strong shells, and active behaviors. Here’s a comprehensive guide to keep your shelled friend munching happily.

1. Understanding a Turtle’s Natural Diet

Natural Foragers

In the wild, turtles aren’t picky. They’re opportunistic feeders, munching on what’s available in their environment. This could range from aquatic plants to small fish and insects.

Variety is Key

Their natural diet consists of a mix of proteins, greens, and occasionally, fruits. The balance depends on the species and age. For instance, younger turtles might consume more protein, whereas adults lean towards a more herbivorous diet.

close up view of turtle on brown grass
Photo by Iwona Kisiel on


These are a popular choice among turtle owners. High-quality turtle pellets are formulated to provide essential nutrients. They can be the base of your turtle’s diet but should be complemented with fresh foods for variety.

Stick to Reputed Brands

Brands like ReptoMin, Mazuri, and Zoo Med are often recommended for their nutritional balance.

3. Safe and Healthy Treats


Occasional treats include live foods like mealworms, earthworms, crickets, and feeder fish. This not only provides nutrition but also stimulates their hunting instincts.


Vegetables like kale, dandelion greens, and collard greens are excellent. Ensure they’re washed and free of pesticides.


While they love them, fruits should be an occasional treat. Offer bite-sized pieces of melon, apple, or berries.

Foods to Avoid for turtles

4. Foods to Avoid

  1. Raw Meat: This isn’t natural to their diet and can introduce harmful bacteria.
  2. Dairy: Turtles are lactose intolerant. No cheese or milk, please!
  3. Processed Foods: Anything meant for human consumption, like bread or cookies, doesn’t belong in a turtle’s diet.
  4. Toxic Plants: Some plants can be harmful or even fatal. Avoid feeding them rhubarb, avocado, or poisonous houseplants.

Nutrition plays a pivotal role in the longevity and well-being of your turtle. It’s tempting to give in to those pleading eyes and overfeed or offer unhealthy treats, but remember that a proper diet today means a healthy, happy turtle for years to come.

Turtle Health and Wellbeing

Your turtle’s health goes beyond just feeding them right. Turtles, like all pets, have their unique health indicators, and as a responsible pet owner, understanding these signs is crucial. Knowing what signifies a healthy turtle versus when to sound the alarm bells can make all the difference. Let’s dive into ensuring your turtle lives a full, healthy life.

1. Signs of a Healthy Turtle

Active Behavior

A healthy turtle is often active, curious, and responsive. Whether it’s swimming, basking, or exploring, their energy levels should remain consistent.

Clear Eyes

The eyes should be bright, clear, and free from discharge.

Healthy Shell

A robust shell is a significant health indicator. It should be free from cracks, discolorations, or soft spots. The shell’s growth should be even, without abnormal bumps or curves.

Good Appetite

A healthy turtle will show consistent interest in food. Occasional fasting is normal, but prolonged disinterest can be a red flag.

Normal Feces

While this might not be the most pleasant of indicators, the consistency and color of their droppings can tell you a lot about their health.

a person holding a turtle

2. Common Illnesses and Prevention

Respiratory Infections

Symptoms include wheezing, nasal discharge, and lethargy. Ensuring a clean habitat and proper temperature can prevent this.

Shell Rot

This fungal or bacterial infection affects the shell. Keeping the water clean and ensuring proper basking opportunities can keep this at bay.

Metabolic Bone Disease

Caused by an improper diet or lack of UVB exposure. It leads to a soft shell and bone deformities. Providing a balanced diet and adequate UVB lighting is essential.


Internal or external parasites can plague turtles. Regularly check for signs, like tiny moving dots on their body or unusual feces.

3. Importance of Regular Vet Visits

Routine Checkups

Annual vet visits can help detect and prevent potential problems even if your turtle seems perfectly healthy.

Expert Advice

A veterinarian specializing in reptiles can offer valuable insights into your turtle’s specific needs and changes as they age.

Emergency Situations

Knowing a trusted vet becomes vital during emergencies. Quick professional intervention can be lifesaving, whether it’s an injury or sudden illness.

In the grand scheme of things, while turtles might seem low-maintenance compared to other pets, their health and well-being are equally paramount. Being proactive, vigilant, and informed ensures your shelled companion thrives under your care.

Daily and Weekly Care Routine

Establishing a care routine becomes pivotal once you’ve set up the ideal habitat and are well-informed about your turtle’s health. Consistency is key to ensuring your pet leads a comfortable, enriching life. From cleaning schedules to interactive sessions, let’s delve into creating a holistic care routine for your shelled buddy.

1. Cleaning and Maintenance

Daily Checks

  1. Monitor the water quality daily. Uneaten food or waste can quickly turn water foul.
  2. Check equipment such as heaters, filters, and lights to ensure they’re working properly.
  3. Observe your turtle for any unusual behavior or signs of stress.

Weekly Tasks

  1. Partial water changes: Replace about 25% of the tank’s water with fresh, dechlorinated water. This helps in maintaining a balanced and clean environment.
  2. Clean the basking area and any prominent waste spots.
  3. Check and clean the filter as necessary. Depending on your turtle’s size and eating habits, you may need to do this more or less frequently.

2. Handling Your Turtle: Dos and Don’ts

Minimize Handling

While turtles can become accustomed to human interaction, they aren’t typically cuddly creatures. Limit handling to necessary moments like tank cleaning or health checks.

Gentle Grip

When you must handle them, use a gentle yet firm grip, supporting their entire body. Always handle them close to the ground to prevent injuries from accidental drops.


Turtles can carry salmonella. After every interaction, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.

Stress Signs

If your turtle retracts into its shell or tries to flee, it might be feeling stressed. Give it some time and space.

3. Interaction and Enrichment


While turtles aren’t playful in the same way dogs or cats might be, they do enjoy exploring their environment. Consider adding safe, turtle-approved toys that they can push or investigate.


Occasionally rearranging their habitat or introducing new safe plants can pique their interest and provide mental stimulation.

Feeding Time

Use this as an interactive moment. Offering food with feeding tongs can create a bond and also offer them a challenge.

Outside Time

If possible and safe, allow your turtle some time outside in a controlled environment. The natural sunlight and change of surroundings can be highly beneficial.

Incorporating these daily and weekly routines ensures a healthy life for your turtle and fosters a bond between you two. With consistent care, you’ll have a contented turtle that recognizes and trusts you, making the pet-keeping experience truly rewarding.

Social Aspect: Turtles With Other Pets and Their Social Needs

Turtles are often seen as solitary creatures, floating gracefully or basking in the sun. However, understanding the social dynamics is essential if you have other pets or are considering adding more turtles. Here’s a look at turtles’ social needs and how they interact with other species.

Can Turtles Cohabitate with Other Species?

Turtles with Turtles

While some turtles can coexist peacefully with their kind, size, and gender dynamics play a significant role. Two males might be aggressive, whereas a male and a female might mate frequently, stressing the female.

Turtles with Fish

In many cases, smaller fish can become a tasty snack for turtles. However, larger, faster fish like goldfish or certain cichlids might cohabitate without becoming a meal. Always observe and ensure no aggressive behavior is taking place.

Turtles and Amphibians

Combining turtles with frogs or newts isn’t advisable. Turtles might try to eat them, and amphibians often have different habitat needs.

Bottom Line: Always research and observe before introducing different species together. And ensure the habitat is spacious enough for all inhabitants.

turtle on rock
Photo by Reike Podt on

Introducing Turtles to Other Pets

Turtles and Birds

Birds, especially parrots or larger species, can be curious. They might not harm the turtle, but their beaks can cause injury if they get too curious. Supervise any interaction and keep them separated.

Turtles and Mammals

Cats and dogs might be fascinated by a turtle, watching it swim or move. However, they can also see them as toys or prey. Always supervise their interaction, and keeping them apart is usually best. Smaller mammals like hamsters or guinea pigs should not interact with turtles.

Initial Introduction

For the first meeting, keep it short and controlled. Hold your turtle or keep it in a safe enclosure while introducing it to the other pet. Note their reactions. If there’s aggression or too much excitement, it’s best to keep them separated.

Safety First

Remember, the turtle’s shell might be hard, but it’s not impervious to bites or scratches. Similarly, turtles have powerful jaws that can injure smaller pets.

Turtles, while resilient and solitary, do have their social intricacies. Recognizing these and ensuring all pets have their space and comfort is essential. With patience and observation, a harmonious household with multiple pets is achievable.

Conservation and Ethical Considerations

In today’s world, where biodiversity is threatened, pet ownership takes on an added dimension of responsibility. Turtles, with their ancient lineage and unique life cycles, are no exception. As pet owners or prospective turtle enthusiasts, understanding and committing to conservation can make a world of difference. Here’s how:

Wild vs. Captive-bred: The Importance of Responsible Sourcing

Wild-caught Turtles: Removing turtles from the wild has multiple implications. It disrupts local ecosystems and can lead to the depletion of native populations, and often, the conditions during capture and transport are far from ideal, leading to stress or mortality.

Captive-bred Advantage

Captive-bred turtles are usually healthier, free from the parasites commonly found in wild turtles, and accustomed to human interaction. They also don’t contribute to the depletion of natural populations.

Research Your Source

Before purchasing a turtle, inquire about its origins. Reputable breeders or pet stores should be transparent about where their turtles come from. Always opt for captive-bred individuals.

Local Laws

Some species are protected under international or local laws, making owning or trading them illegal. Familiarize yourself with these laws to ensure you’re not inadvertently participating in illegal wildlife trade.

Why Is My Turtle Not Basking

The Role of Pet Owners in Turtle Conservation


One of the most potent tools for conservation is knowledge. Educating yourself and others about turtles and their ecological importance can foster appreciation and the urge to protect them.

Support Conservation Initiatives

Many organizations work tirelessly to protect turtle habitats, rescue injured individuals, or breed endangered species. Contributing, whether financially, through volunteer work, or simply by spreading the word, can have a lasting impact.

Responsible Release

If there ever comes a time when you cannot care for your turtle, never release it into the wild. It can introduce diseases, compete with native species, or even become invasive. Instead, contact local reptile rescue groups or veterinarians for guidance.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

While this might sound generic, pollution, especially plastic waste, poses a significant threat to wild turtles. By adopting eco-friendly practices, you indirectly contribute to the well-being of turtle populations worldwide.

Pet ownership is a privilege and offers a unique lens to appreciate the wonders of the natural world. Coupling this with ethical and conservation-focused practices ensures your pet’s well-being and contributes to a broader, global cause.


Turtle ownership is truly a unique experience, offering a glimpse into the world of these ancient, graceful creatures. From their gentle, deliberate movements to their intricate shell patterns, turtles captivate our hearts and minds. Yet, with the joy they bring comes a plethora of responsibilities.

In embarking on this journey, you’ve not only taken on the task of providing a comfortable habitat, appropriate diet, and regular care but also of being an advocate for their species. The choices we make as pet owners – from sourcing our pets responsibly to educating others about conservation – have wider implications, beyond our homes and into the wild habitats of these creatures.

Owning a turtle, or any pet for that matter, is not just about companionship. It’s a commitment to their well-being and the well-being of their species as a whole. It’s about understanding that we can make a difference in our small ways and our daily choices.

In nurturing a turtle, you build a relationship based on trust, care, and understanding. It’s a bond that enriches our lives, teaches us patience, and fosters respect for the natural world. As you’ve journeyed through this guide, it’s evident that this relationship can be one of the most fulfilling experiences with the right knowledge, commitment, and heart.

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