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.
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.
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?
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 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 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? 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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