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Before You Get a Pet Turtle or Tortoise

Updated on August 12, 2010
Whitney05 profile image

Whitney has raised and bred different species of geckos, snakes, lizards, tortoises and other exotics since 2003

Getting a Pet Turtle

You see those teeny tiny turtles at all of the gift shops at the beach, buy one with a small kritter keeper and a pinch of food, take the turtle home, and follow all of the directions from the sales associate. But, do you know what kind of turtle you bought? How big it will be? What the proper care instructions are?

Turtles and tortoises seem like they'll be a cheap pet to care for. Most pet stores will sell you a smaller species of tortoise with a 20 gallon aquarium, sand, and other supplies, but no tortoise should live in an aquarium that small, much less with sand as the only substrate. You're bound for health problems and a much shorter lifespan, not to mention an unhappy tortoise.

Turtles and tortoises can live well over 25 years, most living 50 and older. You want to make sure that a pet turtle is the right pet for you and that you can provide optimum housing and care throughout a long turtle life. These animals are a true commitment, and will outlive many pet dogs and a few cats with proper care.

Before you get a pet turtle or tortoise, you need to make sure that you do all the proper research. Find the best one for you.

Housing & Space Requirements

Even if you buy the turtle or tortoise at a smaller size, you need to prepare for when the animal grows larger. That 20 gallon tank just isn't going to be enough for your two new red ear sliders when they're full grown; you will need to upgrade. Do you have room for the proper sized enclosure? Do you have the money to purchase the enclosure and any accessories that you may need?

A good rule of thumb is to stick with 10 times the length of the turtle or tortoise by 5 times the width; which means a baby turtle enclosure will not work for a full grown turtle.


It's always better to go as big as you can. These animals need exercise, which means they need space.

You should also consider that most turtle and tortoise species do best with an outdoor enclosure. Do you have space in your yard to set up a safe enclosure for your pet? It can be quite expensive to dig up a pond in the back yard for your sliders or to create the optimum area for a red footed tortoise.

When it comes to making an outdoor enclosure, you have to keep in mind whether or not the animal can escape; whether predators can get to your pet; whether you have non-toxic plants that the animal can graze; and whether or not your pets will run into any fertilizers or pesticides.

You'll find that it's not always just space requirements that can be an issue, but time. You'll need to spend time daily keeping the environment to keep it clean.


Turtles and tortoises are relatively hardy animals in captivity, which make them popular pets, but if you don't have proper housing and diet, and you're not about to provide optimum conditions, your pet can get sick.

If you can't keep your temperatures high enough, the tortoise can get sick. If the humidity is not kept high or low enough, the tortoise can get sick. When it comes to aquatic species, you'll need to clean the enclosure regularly, or the tortoise can get sick.

Whether your pet stays healthy, really depends on how well you take care of it and how well you're able to ensure the enclosure and housing is kept according to that species' requirements and needs.

You'll find that the common health problems with turtles can include, but aren't limited to:

  • Shell rot
  • Fungus
  • Metabolic bone disease
  • Respiratory infection
  • Ear abscess


Depending on the species, the diet can be pretty simple or need to be kept varied. Aquatic turtles, can generally be fed on pellets, fish, earthworms, re-hydrated dog or cat food, and even plant material.  Most tortoises, need a wide and varied diet of leafy greens, vegetables, plants, weeds, grasses, and some even need fruits in their diet as well as a protein source.

If you can't provide the required diet that the animal needs, then it's a good idea that you find a different pet to care for because without proper diet, the animal can and will become sick.

It's always best to try to create and optimum diet without having to use commercial diets.

Miscellaneous Considerations

Turtles and tortoises are not going to be as friendly as a dog or a cat will be, so if you're looking for a pet that is going to interact with you a ton, then you may not want to bring home a pet turtle. Yes, they can be quite interactive at times, but you will find that some species are more interactive and personable than others. For example, the red footed tortoise will come up to you and beg for food or rub their head against you to have their neck or head rubbed. Some aquatic turtles will follow you as you walk through the room. But, you'll never get the same personality in a turtle or tortoise as you would a dog or cat, or even a rat or ferret.

Because they live a long time, the initial cost of buying the animal is going to be the least amount of money you spend on it. You still have to set up a fairly large environment, and throughout the animal's life (25 years or more), you'll have to keep up the environment with fresh water, new substrate, heating, lighting, and humidity. You'll also have to spend money one food and vitamins on a regular basis. That takes a lot of money on a long term basis.

When you go on vacation, you can easily board your dog at the vet or a boarding kennel, but it can be a lot harder to find someone to sit for your turtle. Yes, your turtle will be fine for a day or two, as long as you can set the lighting and heat on a timer, but what happens if you have to be gone for a week or more? Your pet still needs to be fed and cared for.

Turtles and tortoises can be very friendly, but they can carry a hard bite, and within that bite they can potentially carry the salmonella bacteria. Keep this in mind. There's no reason why you can't keep a pet tortoise and never get salmonellosis, but you need to make sure that you follow care precaution, which you'll find are pretty much common sense hygiene.

Where to Buy a Turtle

If you've made your decision, done your research, and you're ready to buy your turtle or tortoise, you need to figure out where's the best place to buy it from.

Pet stores are the most common source for a new tortoise or turtle, but you'll want to be leery because these places are prone to carrying animals that are sick and have parasites. You don't know where the animal came from originally, and in most cases, neither do they. You have a high risk of purchasing a wild caught animal, which you'll actually find that most older tortoises are going to be wild caught. Even though most large retail pet stores, like Petsmart and Petco say it's against their rules to sell wild caught specimens, they don't realize the majority of adult Russian and Greek tortoises (over 4 years old and about 4" or longer) that they frequently get in are wild caught.

Wild caught tortoises and turtles can carry parasites and diseases, which is why it is important that they are properly treated for parasites before they're ever sold to the pet store or to you. Pet stores just can't guarantee this to their customers.

Another, more safer, option is to purchase directly from a breeder. You can get the history of the animal, whether it's a hatchling or an adult. Even if the breeder purchased the adult from another seller, he'll be able to provide you any and all information that you need. The breeder will be able to tell you whether the wild caught turtle has been treated for diseases, how well the animal is eating, what he's eating, and how he's being kept.

Breeders and private sellers can provide you will all the help and assistance that you'll need in order to know that you're able to provide the best housing and diet. More reputable sellers will be there for you whenever you have a question, and you can be guaranteed that they're providing you with good information. 

Some people say that you should never purchase a wild caught turtle, but you'll find that long term captives that have been properly treated for any potential diseases or parasites make just as good of a pet as a captive bred one. Just make sure that the breeder that you purchase from is a reputable one, so that you don't get ripped off.

Take your time when deciding where to purchase your tortoise and from who. When you make rash decisions, you generally make bad decisions.


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    • Whitney05 profile image

      Whitney 7 years ago from Georgia

      Mist turtles require an aquatic area as well as a land area, if that is what you are referring to.

    • profile image

      Chris  7 years ago

      Wich lives in water?? My friend had one, not sure wich but it smelt abit pongy fishy... It was a clean tank etc it had a little pond in it.

    • Whitney05 profile image

      Whitney 8 years ago from Georgia

      Can you imagine a baby tortoise that big getting over 100 pounds. That one won't but some species start off teeny tiny and end up ginormous. Research is definitely the key here.

    • Lady_E profile image

      Elena 8 years ago from London, UK

      That's the tiniest Turtle I've ever seen - quite cute. (in photo) Interesting info in your Hub. I wouldn't mind having them as pets. They seem harmless.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 8 years ago from London, UK

      Lot of good advice and information but I don't think I could warm up to have a turtle as a pet.

    • Whitney05 profile image

      Whitney 8 years ago from Georgia

      I know a few people that help them along the road. It's definitely a nice act.

      Re-hydrated dog food is dry dog food that has been soaked in water and reptile vitamins.

    • darkside profile image

      Glen 8 years ago from Australia

      Excellent hub! Though all yours are. But this one stood out for me because I've been thinking of turtles a lot lately. We get terrapins around here. Unfortunately a few of them are dead (smashed) on the road. When I see a live one crossing the road I pull over and help him across. Occasionally I bring them home and put them in the dam at the front of our property.

      What is "re-hydrated dog food"?