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. Turtles can live a very long time, so the turtle you choose will likely be your for many years.
The first decision you have to make, however, 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.
- Turtle habitats require a lot of maintenance, some of which (like water changes and vacuuming) can be tedious and unpleasant.
- 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 like fish: They're the kind of pets we mainly watch, not play with.
- Turtles are messy, never clean up after themselves, and can be smelly -- especially if you get lazy about maintaining their habitats.
- Turtles can be expensive to keep. Tanks, lights, lamp bulbs, heaters, filters, filter media, food, vet bills... it can add up to a lot of 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 you get a turtle when you're a kid, that turtle may still be with you when you have grandchildren. Think about that! If it's scary to you, then probably you shouldn't get a turtle. (But if you think it's cool, 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 specie of turtle just because you think it's the prettiest. (But make sure you consider all the other factors, as well.)
- Does the turtle specie 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?
Recommended Turtles for Beginners
On the assumption that you're a beginner, we're just 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 (basically, healthy), 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 specie of turtle.
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 not really painted; they're just called "painted" turtles because of their coloration. They look like someone painted them.) 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 sincerely believe they're one of the best choices for new turtle 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.
But Southern Painted Turtles are a good choice for other reasons, too. They're more lively than most adult turtles when they reach adulthood, they usually have very friendly, almost comical personalities, and they're 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 55-gallon tank.
"Stinkpots" get their name from their ability to emit a bad-smelling liquid from glands on the underside of their carapaces, 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!). They're not always stinky (at least, no more than any other turtles), and they won't stink up your house or room.
Musk turtles are not as friendly or tame as Painted Turtles or Sliders. Most of them don't like to be handled very much, and if you scare them or handle them roughly, they may bite you. But they are attractive, small, hardy, and easy to care for.
There are four subspecies of slider turtles, of which two are commonly kept as pets: the Red-Eared Slider (shown on the right), which is without a doubt the most numerous pet turtle in the United States; and the Yellow-Bellied Slider.
Slider turtles are hardy and easy to care for, and usually have pleasant, tame personalities. But they do grow to be rather large: Males commonly grow to between 7 and 9 inches, and females to 11 to 13 inches -- and occasionally even bigger. This means that you would need at least a 120-gallon tank to properly care for an adult female Slider. That's a big tank.
The Red-Eared Slider is the specie of turtle most commonly given away at fairs and carnivals, 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, too-small enclosures, if they manage to survive their first years at all. Many others will be dumped into ponds once they get too big for their owners to care for properly. Where I live, in New York City, the ponds in our city parks are full of RES 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 tank or pond of at least 120 gallons, along with all the filters and everything else needed to properly take care of a large turtle for possibly the next half a century. If you can do all that, then sliders are great turtles, and a great choice.
How to Buy a Turtle
In the United States, there is a law that makes it illegal to buy or sell turtles whose carapace lengths are less than four inches as pets. This law came about because of a large number of Salmonella cases back in the 1960's and 1970's, mainly caused by children who put their pet turtles in their mouths. Because of this law, you can't 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 pest shops that sell turtles only sell Red-Eared Sliders. They usually reach four inches in length in a year or so. Some other turtle species take a lot longer to reach four inches, and others may never grow that big at all. So if a Red-Eared slider is the kind of turtle you want, you should have no trouble finding one.
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, my personal definition (and that's all it is) is that a turtle hobbyist is someone who tries to learn 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 become an expert not only in caring for turtles, but an expert about turtles in general. A turtle hobbyist is kind of like a turtle scientist -- but one who doesn't get paid for it.
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.
If you're willing to make a commitment to learning everything you can about your turtle and become basically an amateur turtle biologist, then I think you can consider yourself a hobbyist, rather than 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 need very specialized care, and they deserve keepers who are willing to commit to giving them that care.
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 will have to register to read that part of the forum, but it's free.)
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.