Choosing a Turtle
There are many different species of aquatic turtles that can be kept as pets or as a hobby, and choosing the right one is an important decision. In fact, you really need to be sure that you want to have a turtle at all. Turtles can live a very long time, so the turtle you choose will likely be your for many years. You don't want to get bored with your turtle (or for your turtle to get bored with you!).
Another way to look at it is like this: Let's say you're 16 years old and you get a young turtle. If you take care of it well, then you may be married and have children of your own -- or maybe even grandchildren -- and still have that turtle! It's a very big responsibility and a long-term commitment, so be really sure that that's what you want before you run out and buy a turtle.
So the first decision you need to make is whether you should get a turtle in the first place. Turtles are wonderful animals who make excellent pets, but they're not for everyone. Turtles require more care than many other pets, and keeping one is a long-term commitment. So let's look at some of the reasons why maybe you shouldn't get a turtle.
Reasons Not to Get a Pet Turtle
- Turtles are unique animals that require very specialized care, feeding, and habitats. These habitats can require a lot of space as the turtle grows. Your tiny turtle will need a very big tank when it grows up.
- Turtle habitats require a lot of maintenance, some of which (like water changes, vacuuming, and changing the filter media) can be difficult, yucky, or gross.
- Most turtles don't like to be held or cuddled, they don't do tricks, and you can't take them for walks on a leash. Turtles are the kind of animals we mainly watch and take care of, not play with.
- Turtles are messy and never clean up after themselves. Their habitats will also get smelly if you get lazy about maintaining and cleaning it.
- Turtles can be expensive to keep. Tanks, lights, lamp bulbs, heaters, filters, filter media, food, and vet bills can add up to a lot of money. Their habitats also use a lot of electricity, which there keepers have to pay for because turtles have no money.
- Turtles aren't the kind of pet that you can drop off with a friend if you decide to go on vacation. They live in specialized habitats that can't easily be moved.
- Turtles can live a very long time -- as long as 45 years. Keeping a turtle is a lifetime commitment. If that's scary to you, then probably you shouldn't get a turtle. (But if you think it's cool to have a pet for most of your life, then maybe you should!)
Choosing a Turtle
Well, you're still reading, so I guess the reasons listed above didn't scare you away. You must really like turtles! So let's talk about choosing the right turtle for you. Some of the most important things you have to consider when choosing a turtle are:
- What kind of temperament would you like your turtle to have? Some species are friendlier and tamer than others.
- How big a turtle can you handle? The minimum recommended tank size is 10 gallons per inch of turtle (measured by carapace length), so a turtle that grows to 12 inches will need a 120-gallon tank. How big a tank do you have space (and money) for?
- Is the turtle's appearance important to you? Turtles vary widely in their coloration and appearance, and there's nothing wrong with you preferring one species of turtle just because you think it's the prettiest. (But make sure you consider all the other factors, as well.)
- Does the turtle species (kind of turtle) have any unique care requirements that would make it difficult for you to properly care for?
- Are there any laws in the place you live against keeping certain turtle species in captivity? You need to check first. Not all turtles are legal everywhere, and for some you may need a license or permit.
Recommended Turtles for Beginners
This is a site for people who are beginners at keeping turtles, so we're going to talk about some of the "starter turtles" recommended for new keepers. These turtles are easier to keep than some of the other species, tend to be hardy (which means that they don't get sick as easily), and usually have pleasant personalities. Our short list of recommended turtles also assumes that you will be keeping the turtles inside, in a tank, not in an outdoor pond. For a more detailed discussion of other possible turtle choices, please click here.
The links in the descriptions below go to each species' page on Austin's Turtle Page. You can click those links for detailed information about each species of turtle.
Painted turtles aren't really painted. They just look kind of like they were painted. They're very colorful.
There are four species of Painted Turtles in the United States: The Eastern Painted Turtle, the Midland Painted Turtle, the Western Painted Turtle, and the Southern Painted Turtle. They're popular among turtle keepers because they're hardy, easy to care for, pretty, and usually have very pleasant, tame personalities.
The turtles on this site's video feed, and most of the ones in the pictures, are Southern Painted Turtles. I chose them for this site because I really believe that they're one of the best aquatic turtle choices for new keepers.
Southern Painted Turtles are one of the smallest of the aquatic turtles commonly kept in the United States. Males (boys) usually grow to 4 or 5 inches, and females (girls) usually grow to 6 or 7 inches. That alone makes them a good choice for people who have limited space, because larger turtles need more space than smaller ones do.
Southern Painted Turtles are also fun turtles. They're very lively and love to swim and move around, even when they're grown up. All turtles are lively when they're young, but Southern Painted Turtles stay lively all their lives, so they don't get boring. You might say that they're hyper, as turtles go.
I also like Southern Painted turtles because they have very friendly, almost funny personalities. They recognize their keepers and seem happy to see them when they walk in the room. They're also very attractive. I recommend them as an excellent choice for beginners or any turtle hobbyist.
Common Musk Turtles ("Stinkpots")
The Common Musk Turtle is the smallest aquatic turtle in North America, rarely growing more than 5 inches in length. They spend a lot of time underwater and prefer a deep tank (10 inches to 2 feet of water) with plenty of things to explore, but they don't need nearly as big a tank as some other turtle species. An adult Common Musk Turtle could get by with a 30-gallon tank (with extra-good filtration) if that's the best you can afford, and would be very happy in a 50- or 75-gallon tank.
"Stinkpots" get their name from their ability to emit a bad-smelling liquid from glands on the underside of their carapaces (upper shells), kind of like a skunk does. They only do this when they think their lives are in danger. They probably don't like the smell, either! But they're not always stinky (at least, no more than any other turtles), so if nothing scares them, they won't stink up your house.
Musk turtles are a very good choice if space is your number one concern because of their small size. They're also very hardy, pretty, and easy to care for. But they're not as friendly or tame as Painted Turtles or Sliders. Most of them don't like to be handled, and they may bite you if you handle them roughly.
There are four different kinds of slider turtles, two of which are commonly kept as pets: the Red-Eared Slider (shown in the picture on the right), which is without a doubt the most popular pet turtle in the United States; and the Yellow-Bellied Slider.
Slider turtles are popular because they're hardy and easy to care for. They also have pleasant, tame, friendly personalities. They're really great turtles, but they do grow to be pretty big: Male Red-Eared Sliders commonly grow to between 7 and 9 inches, and females to 11 to 13 inches. Sometimes they get even bigger.
If you have a very big tank (or a turtle pond), then Red-Eared Sliders are a great choice. But understand that for your turtles to be happy and stay healthy, you should have a minimum of 10 gallons of water for every inch of turtle; so you would need at least a 150-gallon tank to properly care for a large adult female Slider. You would need 120 to 140 gallons of water, and you can't fill the tank to the top or else the turtle may climb out.
Red-Eared Sliders are the turtles most often given away at fairs and carnivals, usually when they're tiny hatchlings, and usually to people who have no idea how big the turtles will grow or how much care they will require. Sadly, many of these turtles will live very unhappy lives in filthy enclosures that are much, much too small for them. Many others will be dumped into ponds once they get too big for their owners to care for properly. Where I used to live in New York City, the ponds in the city parks were full of RES that had been abandoned by their owners. How sad.
Why am I telling you this? Because slider turtles make great pets -- but only if you're able to provide them with the care and space they need. So please don't choose a slider unless you have the room (and the money) for a big tank or a pond, along with all the filters and everything else needed to properly take care of a large turtle. If you can do all that, then sliders are a great choice as your first turtle.
The Diamondback Terrapin, Malaclemys terrapin terrapin, is the only turtle on this page that is not strictly a freshwater turtle. It actually prefers brackish water, which is in between fresh water and salt water in salinity (amount of saltiness). It's the water found near areas where water from the ocean (which is salty) mixes with water from rivers and other bodies of fresh water (which are not).
In a captive habitat, it's the keeper's job to maintain the right amount of salinity by measuring and managing something called specific gravity. This is a little more than a "beginner" skill, but Diamondback Terrapins are tolerant enough of different salinity ranges that they can be happy in a freshwater habitat. So if you have experience managing marine aquariums, managing a brackish habitat for a DBT should be easy for you; and if not, you can simply keep them in fresh water.
Diamondback Terrapins are very active turtles with friendly personalities. They love to bask and they love to swim. They're also very powerful swimmers who appreciate a somewhat bigger and deeper tank than other turtles their size. They're also great pond turtles if you have the room for a pond. They like the water to be as deep as possible.
Adult male DBTs usually range from about 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm), and adult females from about 6 to 9 inches (15 to 23 cm). To keep the water clean, the usual "rule of shell" (10 gallons of water for each inch of carapace length) still applies; but because DBTs are such active and strong swimmers, I like to give them bigger tanks just so they have more space to swim around in.
By the way: The turtles who occasionally close the runway at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City are Diamondback Terrapins.
How to Buy a Turtle
In the United States, there is a law that makes it illegal to buy or sell pet turtles whose carapace (upper shells) lengths are less than four inches. This law came about because a lot of children got sick with Salmonella cases back in the 1960's and 1970's, usually because they put their turtles in their mouths or kissed them.
Because of this law, you can't legally buy a hatchling (baby) turtle in most pet shops, nor any turtle (even an adult) whose carapace length is less than four inches.
That's why most pet shops that sell turtles only sell Red-Eared Sliders. They usually reach four inches in length when they're about a year old. Other turtles take longer than that, and a few may never reach four inches. For example, there are adult male Southern Painted Turtles or Common Musk Turtles who never reach four inches in length.
So if a Red-Eared slider is the kind of turtle you want, you should have no trouble finding one at a pet shop. But if you want another kind of turtle, you'll probably have better luck going through a breeder. But you can only buy a turtle less than four inches in length from a breeder if you intend to keep it as a "hobby," not as a "pet."
What's the difference?
Well, it's hard to say, really. The way I define it is that a turtle hobbyist is someone who learns as much as he or she can about turtles, tries to create a nature-like environment for them (which is part of the hobby), and studies the natural science of turtles to learn as much about turtles as he or she can. A turtle hobbyist is kind of like a turtle scientist, not just someone who feeds his or her turtles and hopes they do okay.
I compare being a turtle hobbyist to keeping fish. Anyone can have a pet fish. All you need is a fishbowl, water, and a fish to put in it. But an aquarist (a fish or aquarium hobbyist) does much more than that. An aquarist learns about things like the native areas his or her fish come from in nature, the kind of water they need, the kind of food they eat, etc., and then tries to create a little piece of that natural environment in a glass tank.
As a turtle hobbyist, you will do your best to learn these things about your turtle, and then will try to create a mini-version of that environment right in your home for your turtle to live in and enjoy. You'll try to make everything just right for your turtle to be healthy and happy. You will become such an expert that even if you're still a teen, you'll know more about turtles than 99 percent of adults do!
If you're willing to make a commitment to learning everything you can about your turtle and become an turtle expert, then I think you can consider yourself a hobbyist, not just a "pet owner." If you're not willing to make that commitment, well, then you probably shouldn't keep turtles, anyway. They're very beautiful animals who deserve keepers who care enough about them to become experts.
If you're sure you're ready to make that commitment, then you can find a list of breeders, both good and bad, here. (You'll have to register to read that part of the forum, but it's free.) As a hobbyist, the four-inch minimum carapace requirement won't apply to you, and you can buy a hatchling (baby) turtle if you want.
Adopting a Turtle
Another excellent way to get a turtle is to adopt one. Online turtle forums usually have adoption sections. General community listing sites like CraigsList.org also have ads for animal adoptions, and your veterinarian or local pet shop may know of someone who has a turtle who needs a new home.
Most turtles that are up for adoption are turtles whose owners couldn't care for them anymore. They're usually adult or near-adult turtles, so you probably won't get to watch them grow. But probably the life they were living wasn't very good, and maybe you can give them a better, happier one. So if raising your turtle from a hatchling is not that important to you, consider adopting a turtle and giving it a new, better home.