With few exceptions, Chelonians (Turtles) make harmless and appealing pets. They adapt well in captivity and with proper care can live a long time. They have fewer health problems than the average cat or dog and can be quite lively, colorful, and attractive. They display intelligence, recognizing their keepers and knowing when it’s feeding time.
Some are easier to keep and more readily available than others. Most of those commonly sold in pet stores are fairly inexpensive and require simple care.
Choose a beginner type to start with. A water turtle or box turtle make a good starter pet. Once you’ve learned about them and cared for them, you will find them to be amazing pets. As your skills and knowledge increase you will gain an even greater appreciation of these incredible animals, and may wish to explore keeping the more advanced Chelonians.
There are some personality characteristics that are common to all turtles and tortoises. They are quiet, shy, and harmless yet display intelligence. They can identify their keepers and know when it’s feeding time.
Turtles and tortoises are very sensitive to loud noises, vibrations, and sudden bright lights. Move slowly around them as they can be quick to frighten if they feel threatened. If frightened, most will withdraw their head, legs, and tail into their shells; though aquatic turtles will first try to swim quickly away. Those with less shell have developed other defense mechanisms; like the snappers who have an extremely strong mouth, the musk turtles which can emit a rather distasteful odor, and some that have strong claws or extreme agility. Once they have withdrawn, they are often very slow to re-emerge.
Turtles and tortoises are quite happy and content being kept as a single pet. Though most species can usually be kept together, there can be territorial tension, especially when in breeding mode. This is most apparent when different species are kept together. Some tortoises have been known to ram and even kill other tortoise species.
Always wash your hands before and after handling!
How to Choose Your Turtle or Tortoise
When deciding which turtle or tortoise is for you, keep the following basic considerations in mind:
- How much do you want to spend?
- How much space do you have for it?
- How hardy is it and how easy is it to care for?
- What color, shape and size do you want and is that turtle or tortoise readily available?
- Another very important consideration in choosing a turtle or tortoise involves the type of environment it needs. See also: Guide to a Happy, Healthy Box Turtle
To pick a healthy turtle or tortoise, here are some things to look for:
- Make sure the eyes are bright and clear, no discharge or encrustations.
- Make sure the eyelids are not swollen or puffy.
- Listen to it’s breathing, no wheezing or bubbles coming from the nostrils.
- Avoid those that are gasping with an open mouth
- The turtle should not be listless, its limbs should be working.
- Make sure the limbs are not dangling or weak when you pick it up.
- Make sure the limbs don’t look thin and spindly.
- Look for any open, unhealed wounds on the soft areas of the turtle.
- For aquatic turtles, release it in the water. It should submerge rapidly and it shouldn’t swim with one side higher than the other.
- The shell should be firm unless it is a soft-shell turtle (leathery shell) or a hatchling.
- Cracks and pits are not necessarily an indication of anything wrong, but be sure to check them to make sure there is not any type of infection or unhealed wounds.
Many turtles and tortoises are protected so check with authorities in your area on laws governing your selection.
Housing & Care
Knowing what type of turtle or tortoise you have will help you determine what type of housing your pet will need to keep it happy and healthy. Your pet’s housing is also what provides its sense of security. Be sure to also check the page describing your particular turtle or tortoise for more in depth information on its specific needs.
Each turtle or tortoise has a specific type of environment that it needs. There are basically three habitat types:
Water Turtles: Aquatic and Semi-aquatic turtles.
Those that are closely tied to the water which includes the aquatic turtles and also some of the semi-aquatic turtles. These turtles have a long history of being kept as successful pets.
- Aquatic turtles kept indoors are most commonly housed in an aquarium. Outdoor housing is usually seasonal, used during the warmer months, and is generally some type of pond. These turtles produce a lot of waste so their water will need to be heavily filtered. Basking types will need a large smooth rock or a partially submerged log to climb on and ‘sun’ themselves. The non-basking types will simply float at the top of the water, but also like to climb on floating vegetation to bask.
- Semi-aquatic turtles can also be housed in an aquarium but will need more land than water. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, but a common method is to provide a water dish in one corner of an aquarium or a terrarium that is firmly anchored to the bottom. They can climb in and soak and then climb back out again.
Because they need a larger land area, there are many types of enclosures that can be used, as long as they are provided with a water area. They can also be kept outdoors, again usually seasonally.
Land Turtles and Tortoises
Those that live mostly on land which includes all the tortoises and many of the land turtles, box turtles.
- Land turtles require less equipment and it is easier to maintain a clean terrarium than an aquarium. These turtles also seldom carry diseases that can be passed to humans.
- Land turtles are often set up in terrariums rather than aquariums, because the bulk of their environment does not need to be water. They will need access to clean water in a spill proof water dish. They can also be kept in an outdoor enclosure.
- Tortoises need almost the same type of enclosure as the land turtles but even drier conditions, similar to the desert type of box turtle. They too will need access to clean water in a spill proof water dish. They can also be kept in an outdoor enclosure. An outdoor enclosure not only reduces the maintenance workload but allows for plenty of room, which is important for larger tortoises.
Heating and Lighting
All turtles and tortoises thermoregulate their body temperature by sunning themselves. You will need to provide a source of heat and light for both turtles and tortoises. This helps not only to stimulate them to eat, but also provides the necessary external heat for thermoregulation. A general rule of thumb is that Chelonians will be most content in daytime temperatures between 75 – 85° F (24 – 29° C) and a brightly lit hot spot for basking.
For aquatic turtles, you can use a submersible heater if there is enough water or an undertank heater. Use a thermometer to measure the water temperature. For all types or turtles and tortoises provide an incandescent bulb mounted about 12 – 18″ (30 – 45 cm) above the basking area. This heat source needs to maintain the basking area at about 88 – 94° F (31 – 24° C). If you are housing your turtles indoors then you should also provide full-spectrum lighting. Outdoor environments can eliminate the need for artificial lighting and heat requirements.
Besides needing adequate light and heat to warm themselves, all turtles and tortoises need a cool secluded area to sleep. They will also use this area if they are getting to warm. Aquatic turtles often sleep submerged, but near to the surface around twigs or vegetation. Semi-aquatic turtles will sleep burrowed into grassy areas or a sphagnum moss substrate. Land turtles and tortoises will do well with a small shed or bushy area.
Water: All turtles and tortoises need readily available clean water.
- Aquatic turtles can dehydrate if kept out of the water for too long. They need to be able to fully submerge themselves, and many must be submerged in order to swallow their food.
- Semi-aquatic turtles need to occasionally get wet all over, but won’t spend all their time in the water.
- Tortoises and land turtles need a spill proof water dish available.
Food: Daily feedings not only take care of the immediate energy needs of turtles and tortoises, but provide for their long term health. You can tell if your pet is hungry, because it will be acting restless, moving around nosing things. If a chelonian goes too long without nourishment it can become quite weak. If it gets too weak, it will loose all interest in eating and it can be difficult to get it to start eating again.
- Aquatic turtles diet varies as an adult from what it eats as a juvenile. As a juvenile it will eat vegetable matter, but also insects and worms. As an adult it becomes primarily a vegetarian, eating dark green leafy plants.
- Land turtles are omnivorous their whole life, eating many kinds of vegetables and fruits as well as earthworms and even occasional bits of dog food.
- Tortoises are primarily vegetarians, but they do enjoy a wide variety of vegetables and some fruits.
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