Thinking about a pet turtle?

Having a pet turtle can be a very rewarding experience. So few animal companions can be friends for life. However, before jumping into life with a turtle, you do have to get a full perspective on exactly what this means.

Turtles, being reptiles, have very different needs from more traditional pets. Overlooking some of these needs can lead to health conditions and shorter lives. Let's explore what it will take to keep a turtle happy and healthy in your care.

Required Accessories

A turtle is a reptile and needs lots of sunlight to be healthy. No, you cannot put the tank next to the window and think that will do. Glass from the window and the walls of an aquarium filters out nearly all the UV from the sunlight. You need both a UVA and a UVB light sources and the special fixtures they go into; these lights simulate the sun. They allow the turtle to process calcium and other important vitamins and nutrients. Normal house lights don't do this. Please make sure to read the manufacturers suggested lifespan for these lights. Although they will light up for years, they will stop producing UV light typically after one year.

Even small turtles need plenty of living space. For aquatic turtles this means tanks. Buying a larger enclosure early will save you money. There are plenty of suitable alternatives to glass aquariums that will provide equally as much space (if not more) for a fraction of the price. The only sacrifice you make is the aesthetics of a glass aquarium. Believe it or not, solid and opaque walls are healthier for your turtles. Make sure you check out prices before purchasing that cute little turtle in the pet store. Just as important, make sure you have the room for a tank of the proper size. Enclosures for tortoises and terrestrial turtles can be less expensive than aquatic turtle habitats, however they do require a more hands-on approach. There are no great terrestrial habitats available commercially. A good terrestrial habitat can be made from things like bookshelves, or unused pieces of furniture that you remodel. Try googling a tortoise table!

Let's talk about keeping your water clean. For your terrestrial turtles, this simply means changing out their soaking pond water regularly. For aquatic turtles this means filters. Filters do not have to be ultra expensive. There are many great companies making quality products at reasonable prices. If there is one item you do not want to skimp on, this is it. Make sure your filter is for the right size habitat. Turtles can be messy, so make sure you choose a filter rated for twice the size of the turtle's habitat. Under-powered filters mean a lot more work and more frequent water changes. A well-balanced habitat will remain clean, clear, and smell-free for three to six months at a time.

Don't get squeamish

They will also need food, and not just pellets! Face it, no one likes to eat the same thing everyday. Pellets should only be one part of a varied diet. Turtles want live food such as worms and crickets. Let's not forget snacks, too! Variety is the key to a healthy diet and a happy turtle.

Take care of your pet & find a vet

Most towns have plenty of dog and cat vets, but you may need to travel to get to your closest turtle specific vet. Reptiles have different care requirements than traditional pets and medications that work fine for your cats may in fact be toxic to a turtle. Small animal vets may not recognize disorders that reptiles are susceptible to. Turtles are incredibly hardy and a well cared for turtle may never get sick. However, if your turtle does get sick, you do not want to waste precious time searching for a vet. Be prepared!

Building a good home

You will also need some turtle supplies... floating logs, basking dock, rocks, sand, gravel, plants (live and/or artificial), tank heater for the winter, and perhaps an auto feeder, if you go on vacation. Extension cords, surge protectors, and GFIs are useful to have as well. Save yourself a lot of effort and pick yourself up an inexpensive mechanical timer, that way if you would like to sleep in or you are on vacation, your little friend does not have to miss a moment of daylight or basking time and can get a good night's sleep.

What does a pet turtle cost?

When you are looking at that $20 pet turtle at the store, hopefully now you can see the costs that aren't shown initially. Your pet turtle doesn't have to be prohibitively expensive, but it certainly isn't a simple, cheap, or dare we say, disposable pet. Yes, it will cost a little bit of money to set up your turtle, but if done wisely, a lot of these costs should be one time only and will help to make turtle ownership the rewarding experience that it should be.

Turtles don't snuggle

Turtles are not social animals. Unlike cats or dogs, a turtle will not suffer if you are not spending tremendous amounts of time with him/her. Turtles can be FANTASTIC pets for people with busy lives. Your friend may not even notice that you've been gone for a while, as long as he has a warm basking area, good food, and an interesting habitat to live within. Turtles may not snuggle, but you will find them to have complex personalities and almost no animal can beg for a treat like a turtle.

A pet for life and beyond

Turtles are incredibly long-lived animals. Your average pet turtle or tortoise can live anywhere from 60-100 years, possibly more with good care. Your turtle is less of a pet and more of a family member. A child's turtle will become a family responsibility when they are away at college or in a first apartment which doesn't allow pets. It takes a family to keep a healthy turtle. Your friend will need care when the kids are away, and when you are old and gray. Always think ahead and make sure you have a plan. This means family and friends to provide care when things are tough and a will and estate planning to make sure your turtle's future will always be secure.


When inviting a turtle into your life, it is important to follow a few guidelines:


Buy your turtle from a reputable source, not a flea market or side of the road vendor (they may be selling wild captured turtles)


Consider adopting before purchasing... there are many homeless pet turtles


Do as much research as possible about how to properly care for your turtle


Give it everything it needs... scenery, filter, a place to hide from you, and all the proper lights


Be dedicated to taking care of your turtle; it's a living creature


Finally ... give it the respect that an animal that has been on earth for over 200 million years should be given