Aquarium Turtles as Pets

Choosing aquarium turtles as pets or other amphibians has become a popular choice. The question though is, is it a good option for you? Wow, this will be a tough one to answer. Why? Because I love small pet turtles. And I am a person that is hardly ever objective when loves something. But in this case - I will just have to be! Let us cover all aspects of pets in apartments and see how turtle ranks there.

turtles as pets
Aquarium Turtles as Pets is  Popular Option for Amphibian Lovers
Source: All Creatures Animal Hospital

Facts About Turtles

Common aquatic turtles as pets found in pet stores include:

  • Painted Turtles (common in pet stores)

    baby painted turtle
    Baby Painted Turtle is a Common Choice when selecting Turtles as Pets
    Source: United States Fish and Wildlife Service

  • Red Ear Turtles (common in pet stores)

    red ear turtles
    Red Ear Turtles at the Tortugas de Orejas Rojas Zoo

  • Map Turtles
  • Asian Leaf Turtles

How to Tell the Sex of a Turtle

In general, to tell the sex of a turtle start by examining the tail. The male turtle tail is bigger than the female. The male phallus and female genitals are contained in an area of the tail called the cloaca. In females, this is located just before the end of the upper shell. In males, it is just past the end of the upper shell.

Turtle's lifespan

When you commit to turtles as pets it is a long term relationship. If you take good care of your pet it will live for decades. Basically, you can have it for life. The rule is that the bigger the specie is, the longer it will live. They will live approximately 20 to 40 years.

Size of the turtle

I am mainly discussing apartment pets so I will do the same here. For small apartments the best, and the only proper turtle as pet is an aquatic turtle. So the size of the pet will not play a big role. Although you will need to consider getting a fairly large turtle tank. Aquatic turtles will grow from 5 to 11 inches long.

Cost of the pet

There are two common turtles as pets found in pet shops. They are Eastern painted turtle and Red ear slider turtle. The price is around $15 - $20 US dollars.

Wild or bred in captivity

Definitely not a wild one. First of all it is not a good idea to remove wild animals from their habitats. Then it might be illegal. The animal can also be sick and you don't want your kids to play with a sick wild animal. Turtles bred in captivity are not expensive and they are a much better choice.

Turtle Hibernation

In the wild, turtles hibernate during the winter.  This instinct is retained by some aquarium turtles, however, in general it is not encouraged since turtles have to be in excellent shape to survive. For this reason, hibernation is a controversial subject among veterinarians and animal professionals. If you do encourage your pet turtle to hibernate, first have him or her checked by a veterinarian. Afterward, with-hold food for 2 weeks and bring the temperature of the habitat down to 45°-55°. The temperature can be reached at once or gradually.  Never bring the temperature to freezing levels.

What You'll Need When Caring for Turtles

There are quite a few items you'll need to properly care for your turtle. This includes:

  • Habitat or  Tanks for Turtles
  • Turtle Food
  • Turtle Vitamin Supplement
  • Turtle Calcium Supplement
  • Cricket Keeper
  • Cricket Food
  • Turtle Treats
  • Heat Light and Fixture
  • Under Tank Heater
  • Tank Water Filter
  • UVB Lighting
  • Substrate (slate, rock or gravel)
Note that this list will change slightly depending on the turtle breed. (see below)

Habitat and Tanks for Turtles

Forget about small plastic containers with a palm tree in the middle, that is completely inappropriate habitat for turtles as pets.

This is what makes turtles as pets pretty expensive. You will probably need several hundreds of US dollars to set up a turtle tank. You will need a tank, basking area, UV light, water heater, water pump and an aquatic turtle tank filter.

You can make a dry basking area yourself or buy one. Here are some basking platforms with price range starting from around 8 US dollars. Depending on the tank and turtle size, you can buy ones that are anywhere from $8 to $20 US dollars. Basking platform is one of the things you can save money on. You could even make the tank yourself.

If you want some decoration, you might spend more money but it is not a must because you can decorate the tank yourself with some small rocks. Remember that the health of your turtle is directly related to the health of his or her environment. In terms of size a rule of thumb is 10 gallons per turtle inch. In general a 40 gallon turtle breeder tank is needed with a screened top.

Turtle Habitat

Pet aquatic turtles swim and drink the same water. Because of this the water needs to be frequently changed. In terms of materials in the tank, large smooth gravel, rock or slate is required. Some turtles need an a location in the tank where they can be in the water with the head sticking out. The red ear turtle breed needs a place to rest with no water. Most turtles need an area where they can bask outside of the water. Being out of the water helps to dry the skin and shell, reducing bacteria levels. It also helps with UVB light absorption.

Turtle Tank Temperature

Turtles as pets should be kept at 95° for areas out of the water and 75° for areas where there is water. Heat is produced by either a ceramic heater or incandescent light.

Turtle Tank Lighting

A turtle tank should be lit with UVB rays for 10 to 12 hours a day in the basking area. Light helps the body absorb heat and work optimally. The UVB helps the turtle naturally synthesize vitamin D and absorb calcium. The turtle light should be placed 1 foot from where the turtle will bask.

Turtle Care and Upkeep

Upkeep of turtles as pets will not be too expensive. As you can see, the set up is a bigger problem. Turtle food price is acceptable. You can add some meat, fruit and vegetables from your own food (before you prepare it). Turtle pellets are reasonable priced. You will need some turtle vitamins (which are actually very cheap) and that is it. The upkeep should be less than 50 US $ a month (maybe even less then this, depending on the country).

Now, the vet might cost some. But if you got a healthy pet at the beginning, you provide a good turtle diet and clean the tank regularly (at least 1x per week), maybe you will not need a vet. The key to turtle care is maintaining clean water. When replacing the water, clean dechlorinated water will be needed at 75° degrees.  If the water is chlorinated it should bother the turtle since turtles do not breath in the water. New water can be completely or partially replaced in larger tanks at the same temperature. Turtles do not like temperature change. To prevent turtle shell rot the ideal PH is 6.7 to 6.9. Any feces and uneaten food should be removed as soon as possible. Turtles do not like to be frequently handled and may bite.  Never combine turtle species in the same tank.

turtles as pets
Both photos courtesy of Dimitris Siskopoulos
turtles as pets

Commitment and Interaction

How much will you need to commit to turtles as pets? As far as it comes to socializing the pet, there is nothing to worry about. They don't need it. They don't even need you to play with them. So this pet is good for people that don't want to spend time interacting with their pet.  You can also read this brochure from the AVMA on choosing an Amphibian (PDF Download).


Make sure that buying or keeping turtle as pets is legal in your country.

You will need some time to clean them up, though. In case you bought all the necessary equipment for the tank, you will need to clean it up completely every 4 to 5 weeks. If you did not buy everything (especially the filter), then the turtle tank will get dirty easier and you might even have to clean it every week. If you invest more money at the beginning you will save money and time in the long run.

Making mess

Turtles as pets don't make a mess outside the tank but they make a big mess on the inside. So, as already said, either you buy them water filters or be prepared for some cleaning. You can make the tank water "last longer" if you feed your turtles in a separate bowl.

Is the silence worth it?

People usually think that turtles are easy to keep pets because they are so quiet and they just swim around all day. Don't be tricked by this. You will need a lot of maintenance time to keep a small pet turtle happy.

Turtle Food and Diet

The diet is made of various turtle foods but it will be very easy to provide everything the pet needs, just check out our turtle diet page. When young a turtle is a carnivore (will eat insects such as crickets) and when older will eat plants (omnivore). Map and Asian leaf turtle live on live comet goldfish, earthworms, meal worms, bloodworms, crickets and snails. Rad Ears also benefit from the aforementioned foods. Painted wood and red ear turtles eat dark leafy green vegetables, and chopped vegetables.   All breeds eat turtle pellets.

Most of the common pet turtles (red-eared sliders, painted turtles) will do well on a combination of commercial turtle pellets, fish pellets, gut loaded insects, earthworms, small fish (goldfish, guppies, and minnows), greens, and water plants. Check with your veterinarian or pet store for the best turtle diet for your pet.

Young turtles are fed everyday while adults eat every other day. Turtle food should be sprinkled with a vitamin and calcium supplement.

Tip: Feed your turtles in a smaller tub of water out of the main tank. This will improve the water quality in the main tank.  Water in the tub can be changed after every feeding.

Turtles as Pets for Kids

Turtles as pets for kids is not a good idea if the children are going to be always supervised when handling the pets.  If you plan to take care of them, clean them and only let your kid look at it or play a bit than it is OK. A child can not take proper care of a small pet turtle. Children should be supervised and taught proper hygiene.

Important note when it comes to turtles for kids: turtles can be a source of salmonella so make sure your kids wash hands every time they play with the turtle. Surfaces also can spread salmonella if a turtle is allowed to crawl on counter tops or carpet.  The CDC describes examples of turtles and salmonella including people who became sick after touching, feeding, changing turtle water or cleaning the habitat. Two teenagers became sick after swimming in an dechlorinated in-ground poll after their tootles also took a swim.For more on tootles and salmonella download this brochure from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


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