Getting a Pet Turtle

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on July 23, 2023
3 min read

Turtles are one of the oldest kinds of reptiles on the planet. Their hard shell and slow-moving mannerisms make them unique pets. They’re hardy creatures and can be fun to care for. They may seem like low-maintenance pets, but most turtle species can live for decades, which makes them a lifelong commitment.

Turtles need a lot of special care and plenty of room to grow. Turtles can live for many years, and they continue to grow during their lifetime. They need specific living standards to give them a happy and healthy life. 

Small turtles are often mistreated and mishandled, leading to premature death. Turtles shipped by mail often don't survive the trip, and those kept in small tanks in pet stores live unhappy lives. 

If you’re interested in buying a turtle, you’ll need to determine what kind you want. The many species require different living environments. Rather than buying from a pet store, adopting a turtle from a local animal shelter or rescue group is the best option. 

Consider the other main aspects of caring for turtles, including where you'll keep them, what you'll feed them, and safety precautions.

Health risks. Before you buy a small turtle for your family, consider that they can transmit Salmonella to humans, causing serious illness. The CDC does not recommend small turtles for children under the age of five, older people, or people with compromised immune systems. 

Because of the risk of disease transmission and endangered native turtle populations, some states require permits to own a turtle. Check your state’s laws before deciding on the right turtle for you. The best turtle varieties for beginners are male painted turtles. These include U.S. mud and musk turtles and male red-eared sliders. They are relatively easy to care for and don't require a lot of special attention. 

Habitat. Before bringing your turtle home, you’ll need the right lighting, temperature, and water filtration system. They will need room to walk about their enclosure, and they’ll need their space cleaned frequently. 

Turtles need a lot of space to roam. Water turtles need large aquariums with plenty of room to swim and a place to get out of the water and sit under the heat lamp. Even small turtles need an aquarium that’s no smaller than 29 gallons, or 4 feet long and 18 inches wide. Your turtle needs plenty of space to grow. 

Lifespan. Many types of turtles can live up to 20 years or longer, and they'll continue to grow. Their space, diet, and other needs will change as they do, so do your research to choose one you can continue to care for.

Diet. Your turtle’s diet will depend on the type of turtle you choose. Water turtles have a different diet from land turtles. Generally, turtles eat insects, fish, dark leafy greens, and freeze-dried mealworms. They need a healthy mix of 80% vegetables and 20% fruits. Turtles like squash, watermelon, and tomatoes. 

How much food you give them will depend on the type of turtle you get and their size. You don’t necessarily need to feed your turtle every day, but they can be fed four to five times a week. This is not the case for young water turtles, which need feeding every day. 

After bringing your turtle home and getting them adjusted, consider joining a local turtle and tortoise society or club. These groups can be a helpful resource for caring for your pet turtle and giving them a long, healthy life.

When caring for your turtle, always wash your hands after handling, and don’t bathe them or wash their habitat pieces in your kitchen or bathroom. If possible, also wash their habitat outside or in a designated bin or tub. This will help prevent the spread of Salmonella to family members or other pets. 

Because reptiles are common carriers of Salmonella, don’t cuddle or kiss your turtle. Make sure children wash their hands and avoid putting their hands in their mouths after playing with turtles to avoid illness. Even if your turtle appears healthy, it’s safer to assume all reptiles can spread Salmonella. 

If for some reason you find that you can no longer care for your pet turtle, you can contact a turtle society for help. Don’t release your turtle into the wild. Pet turtles are not adapted to the outdoors and can become a threat to native turtle populations.