Do Turtles Make Good Pets?

Turtles and tortoises are commonly gifted as low-maintenance pets for young children. After all, they’re just turtles – how hard can caring for them be? It actually takes a lot of work and investment to keep a turtle healthy, and don’t even get me started on their lifespans. So let’s talk — do turtles make good pets?

First, what’s the difference between a turtle and a tortoise?

Turtles, tortoises, and terrapins are three classifications of reptile under the order Testudines. Collectively referred to as “turtles,” these reptiles are characterized by their distinctive shells and lack of teeth.


Turtles evolved for living almost entirely in water. They have streamlined, flattened shells and webbed feet. Their diets are omnivorous, although most turtle species are primarily carnivorous. They live between 20-40 years on average, except for sea turtles, which live 50-100 years.

Examples of common turtle species in captivity are the red-eared slider, painted turtle, African sideneck turtle, and Mississippi map turtle.

In some parts of the world, saltwater turtles are called “turtles,” while freshwater turtles are called “terrapins,” creating a lot of confusion. By definition, terrapins are turtles adapted for living in brackish and acidic water, and spend more time living on land. Terrapins do not form a distinct taxonomic unit, and so can be collectively (and correctly) referred to as turtles.

do turtles make good pets - red eared slider turtle basking

Red-eared slider turtle. Note the streamlined shell and paddle-like webbed feet.


Tortoises are land-dwellers, and very poor swimmers. They have large, domed shells and stubby feet with short claws. Their diets are also omnivorous, although most species are primarily vegetarian. On average tortoises have longer lifespans than turtles: about 80-150 years, depending on species.

Examples of common tortoise species in captivity are the red-footed tortoise, Russian tortoise, Greek tortoise, and sulcata tortoise.

do turtles make good pets - sulcata tortoise

Sulcata tortoise. Note the stumpy legs and heavy, domed shell.

Box Turtles

Box turtles are often mistaken for tortoises because of their large domed shells and land-dwelling habits. However, they are actually members of the American pond turtle family (Emydidae).

They are technically semi-aquatic, happiest in habitats with high humidity and swamp-like or marshy conditions. Upon close examination, it can also be seen that their toes are more slightly paddle-like than stumpy.

do turtles make good pets - box turtle

Eastern box turtle. Note its tortoise-like appearance.

Do turtles make good pets?

In my opinion? No. I think they should be banned from pet stores. It is difficult to generalize across so many species, but for the purposes of the question, I will base my statements on common species found in the American pet trade.

Turtles require the equivalent of a small indoor pond as adults. Red-eared sliders, the most popular species in pet stores, can grow as large as 12” (30.5 cm) in diameter — and no, a smaller aquarium will NOT restrict their growth.

They’re also horrifically messy, requiring ultra-powerful water filters to deal with poo, food remnants, algae, etc. Many a filter has met its match in a turtle. This results in turtle tanks being notoriously smelly, despite even the best efforts on the part of their owners.

Turtles eat a lot. Pelleted diets offered by your local pet store do not offer the right nutrition, and so must be supplemented with a wide variety of foods on a daily basis, from live fish and bugs to pieces of fruit and vegetable.

They also require special care to stay healthy. They need special UVB light bulbs to keep their bones hard, occasional vet checkups, and regular beak and claw trimming — an endeavor not to be attempted by the faint of heart.

For all this work, there is very little reward. Turtles are an ornamental pet, which means that handling is not recommended. It stresses out the turtle, and humans often get bitten in the process. Handling is also a bad idea because turtles pose the greatest salmonella risk of any pet reptile. What do you expect from an animal that spends all day swimming in a soup of its own poo, algae, and fish guts?

do turtles make good pets - turtle tank

Expect to build a gigantic turtle tank in the future if you have a red-eared slider. Source: Unknown.

Do tortoises make good pets?

With proper care and depending on the species, yes.

Although tortoises are slow movers, they need a lot of space for exercise. Tortoises have an odd obsession with boundaries, so traditional aquariums and terrariums with invisible glass walls drive them crazy. Most tortoise keepers report success with keeping their pets in a “tortoise table” as an indoor enclosure, but they truly thrive when kept outdoors (correctly).

Some people like letting their tortoises free-roam as something of a house pet. With the right conditions, this can be ideal (albeit a little messy when they poo). However, they are not compatible with other house pets like dogs and cats, and some of the most common tortoise injuries are from dog bites. Interactions between tortoises and other pets should be strictly supervised.

Tortoises can get even bigger than turtles. While some species like the Greek tortoise don’t get bigger than 8 inches in diameter, others like the sulcata tortoise can get as large as 30 inches in diameter and weigh over 200 lbs.

Because tortoises are primarily herbivorous, their diet of fruit, vegetables, and grasses is much cheaper to provide than turtles’. It’s also substantially less messy.

Like turtles, tortoises require special care: UVB lighting, occasional vet checkups, and regular beak and claw trimming, which is necessary and difficult.

Tortoises can be handled but many seem to enjoy gentle petting/stroking on their shell best. They’re not bitey, either — unless your freshly painted finger or toenails happen to look like yummy fresh fruit. Keep in mind that they have extremely long lifespans, so buying a tortoise means investing in a pet not just for yourself, but also your children, and most likely their children as well.

do tortoises make good pets - tortoise table

A simple but cute tortoise table. Source: Unknown.

Do box turtles make good pets?

Box turtles are an exception to my anti-turtle argument, with care and conditions similar to that of a tortoise. The only difference worth noting here is that they need a higher protein diet, which is more expensive and also more messy. They also stay a manageable size, which is nice for a first-time turtle.

You don’t scare me. Where can I buy a turtle?

The pet store? No. Just no.

A breeder? Sure, as long as they know what they’re doing.

Local classifieds? Better. This is a great way to find a turtle that needs a home.

What about a turtle or tortoise rescue? BEST!!!

Because turtles and tortoises are high-maintenance pets with long lifespans, many eventually get dumped. Rescues like the Land Turtle & Tortoise Rescue in Idaho are filled to the brim with rejected turtles and tortoises that they nursed back to health from people who bought a pet without thinking it through.

But they can only operate if interested turtle and tortoise owners choose to adopt. If everyone chose to adopt their turtles from a rescue instead of getting them from pet stores, demand would be eliminated, and the excess of unwanted turtles would virtually come to an end.

Other excellent rescues in the United States include the California Turtle & Tortoise Club, Eden Animal Sanctuary, and the American Tortoise Rescue. There are few established rescues in Canada, but it’s not impossible to adopt from an American rescue. All it takes is the right paperwork from the rescue’s state and veterinarian approval. The whole process takes about 3 months.

If you’re still determined to get a pet turtle or tortoise, spend at least 2 months researching the species and setting up an enclosure before adopting. Not only will this improve your chances of getting approved to adopt, but it will also make sure you’re not spending money on a pet you don’t want.

do turtles make good pets - land turtle and tortoise rescue

Some rescued turtles and tortoises look a little bit worse for wear, but they’re lovable all the same. Source: Land Turtle & Tortoise Rescue.


Do turtles make good pets? I rarely recommend pet turtles or even tortoises to beginners – but not because they’re bad pets. Actually, they can be great pets, if that’s your thing. After all, they’re high maintenance and live a looong time. But if you’re just looking for just one pet to adore for the long-term, a turtle or tortoise might actually be the perfect pet for you.

Do you have a pet turtle/tortoise?

Tell us about your experience in the comments!

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  1. I agree! There are several species of chelonians I can name off the top of my head that are too difficult to keep to be so readily available to the general public, and often end up the victims of neglect as a result. I can think of several snakes and lizards that would easily make that list as well. Thank you for opening your home to unwanted turtles. Shoot me an email if you still need help finding information on that particular species.

  2. I agree that turtles are challenging to keep. My oldest will be 34 this year and I’ve had her for 34 years. I wish turtles were not sold at most stores, but I’m not in favor of a ban of all sales either. I don’t think you can fix ignorance, laziness and irresponsibility with regulations. Parents often buy their kids turtles as if they were toys with NO research on their care, as in NONE. It’s not that they get bad info – most have not done any research. I can base that on the last 6 turtles I adopted from KSL. So sad. There are a number of problems with the turtle pet trade. There are still lots of wild caught turtles in the trade. The FDA 4 inch law is both a blessing and a curse because it makes suppling the pet trade with captive bred animals problematic. The rest of the reptile community should stop supporting stores that sell wild caught turtles but that would be a big inconvenience- where would they get their feeder insects and mice?! Oh my! If RES sales were to be that would just push the trade to another cheap turtle so it would be a temporary fix And sulcata sales… don’t even get me started. Not many people are prepared to care for a 100 lb. tortoise for decades. But the backyard breeders can make $3-4k a year selling off a clutch. I wound up on you page looking for information on a turtle species that I don’t keep because you may have already guessed…it was abandoned after the kids lost interest.

  3. It really depends on what you’re looking for in a pet! If you’re asking about turtles in general, your first decision will be whether you’re interested in an aquatic turtle, box turtle, or tortoise. Knowing how much space you have, whether you can house the animal outdoors for all or part of the year, how much time you have for maintenance, and maximum lifespan are also key considerations. I recommend checking out the ReptiFiles Database of Turtle & Tortoise Care Sheets to browse the needs of some of the most popular species of turtle/tortoise and see what will fit best with your lifestyle.

  4. Glad you’ve found ReptiFiles helpful! And you have a great name 😉

  5. Hi Mariah I love your articles, They are very helpful, Keep it up! By the way Mariah is my name 😀

  6. Oh my gosh! My family was looking to get a turtle and reading this article made it so much easier to understand the turtles necessary conditions. Thank you so much!

  7. Yes, when turtles assume that position during basking, it’s an effort to expose as much of their body as possible to sunlight. This helps them warm up faster (which means less time exposed to potential predators) and dries out their skin more effectively, which keeps their skin healthy.

  8. Hi Daymon. You’re absolutely right that there are more species of turtle in the hobby than just red-eared sliders, or even pond sliders for that matter, although certainly they are the most common. Keep in mind that the general minimum recommended enclosure size for a pet turtle is 10 gallons of water per 1″ of shell length. Personally in my research and familiarity with turtles (especially more active species), I can see argument for twice that. So unless your painted turtle is 6″ long or less, it likely could use an enclosure upgrade. I haven’t heard of North Fin’s turtle food, but I will look into it. However, commercial turtle foods should still always be supplemented with a variety of fresh foods for well-balanced nutrition as well as being a source of enrichment.

  9. There is more to the pet turtle hobby than Red Ear Sliders. I’m admittedly no expert, but I’ve been keeping a Southern Painted in a 55 gal aquarium for a couple of years and he appears to be doing fine with a canister filter and regular water changes and a turtle habitat sitting on top for basking and UVB. I also acquired a couple of hatchling musk turtles that are being kept in 20 gal aquariums that I think will last them a long time. Also, although I supplement with frozen and freeze dried foods, North Fin makes a commercial turtle food that I feel is vastly superior to most other turtles pellets.

  10. I think those species are a little beyond the depth of this article, but you have a good point! I’ll keep those in mind for when I update this article next.

  11. You left out the many semi-aquatic that become decidedly terrestrial as they mature — like the Japanese and the North and South American wood turtles (incredibly friendly and responsive) and the Asian leaf turtles, like Cyclemys dentata (active, curious and engaging, especially at feeding time).

  12. Your posts are always so entertaining to read, as well as being informative!