How to buy a pet turtle and make the right choice in 13 easy steps?

How to choose and buy a pet turtle? It can seem easy. People just go to a pet shop and buy any pet turtle.

But when they come home they realize the turtle is sick. This happens a lot.

Learn what are the crucial steps in choosing a pet turtle.

This page gives you a short and a detailed guide how to buy a pet turtle.

How to choose a pet turtle in 13 simple steps?

cute aquatic turtle

Here are the signs that show a pet we can take home:

  • pet swims properly
  • submerges good
  • the pet is reactive and it is moving around
  • has no difficulties while withdrawing into the shell and coming back from it
  • the limbs look normal, not swollen nor too thin
  • it doesn't make bubbles while breathing
  • doesn't make noise while breathing
  • doesn't breath through the mouth
  • eyes are bright and don’t have layers on them
  • eyelids are not swollen
  • the skin has no wounds nor fungus
  • the shell has no cracks and it is not missing pieces
  • the pet doesn't smell bad.

The most important is to choose a pet that is healthy so do not hesitate to choose as long as you need to.

Most important - choose a healthy animal

If you are a person with an eye for details this might even help you choose any pet, since the rules are always the same. Choose a healthy animal. That will, for the most part, guarantee that you will not have problems with it, at least not straight away.

I am sure you are eager to take it home as soon as possible.

Make sure it is legal to own a pet turtle

First consideration should be the Law in your country.

I have had my small pet turtle in an European country that has no restrictions on selling this pet. So when I bought him (yes, a little cute turtle-boy) he was about 1.5 inches in diameter.

In the States, however, you cannot buy this turtle in a pet shop if its shell is smaller than 4 inches in diameter. If you do see smaller turtles of this kind in pet shops, they are illegal.

It is forbidden by Law, for health reasons, since in the '70s they were linked to a great number of salmonella sickness cases. It is nothing to be scared of, if you wash your hands before and after handling your turtle. Make sure your kids do the same and don't let them put the turtle in the mouth (kids often do this). Some countries completely forbid sales of this little pet.

But let's say you want it and it is available for you to buy it.

What to pay special attention to?

small pet turtleBefore you look at the pet, look at the pet shop. If it looks like it is not keeping the turtles in good conditions you should not buy a pet turtle there (in the image on the left you can see bad conditions that some pet shops keep turtles in). Maybe you will have a desire to save a poor pet from that terrible place but it won't help.

You will take your pet home and probably have a problem with an ill animal, while the pet shop owner will just put another small pet turtle in the same tank.

Related: learn about turtle tanks

When you go to a pet shop don't hesitate to spend some time there. Observe the turtles. Of course, buy a pet turtle that is happy. It might not smile at you to show it is happy but a healthy turtle will probably be swimming around, playing or maybe chewing on some food.


Check the way it swims around. If it is just floating or leaning to one side while swimming, if it looks like it has trouble swimming, skip that one.

Just think of a human SCUBA diver. If he has no control of his moves and is not able to dive, you would think something is wrong with him.

Well, something is wrong with the turtle if it is not submerging properly; most likely it is a respiratory problem. I would not recommend to buy a pet turtle like this.


If it is sitting on a rock, looking all odd and peaceful, not reacting to you, don't take that one. OK, maybe it is resting, but don't take chances.

If it is healthy, even very tired, it should react to you because you are big and scary in turtle's eyes. Of course, every pet deserves a home, one better than a pet shop, but you don't want to find your turtle dead after few days. Or even worse, let your kid find it.


If it is possible, try to see the turtle eat. It swallows food easily? Than it is OK. If it has no appetite there might be something wrong with it.

I do need to mention that the lack of appetite could be caused by feeding it with food it doesn't like, but again, don't take chances. My small pet turtle could eat 24/7, no matter how tired he was.

Related: what will you feed your turtle

Inside the mouth

While you are at it, try to see the inside of the mouth. It needs to be pink, healthy looking without any color changes (too pale or gray) and without green or yellow (or any color for that matter) parts on the tongue or in the mouth.

Maybe it is harsh of me to say it that way, but what I have always hated the most when it comes to pets is seeing them sick or dead (fortunately did not see many of these). Buy a pet turtle to make you happy not sad.

Let's just say there are some happy turtles in the tank and you like one of them. You are on your way to buy a pet turtle that is more likely to be with you for a long time.

Reacting to you

Look at the turtle and its behavior carefully. If you took it out of the water to check it, you scared it, so it will withdraw into its shell. The turtle stays inside longer if you touch it, than if you don't. So be prepared to wait for a while for the turtle to come back out. And when it starts doing it and you make a sudden move, you will scare it again. And you will have to wait more. At this point of time, you will probably think that we should include a guide on "How to buy a pet turtle in less time".


When it finally shows its head back and pulls out those tiny legs, look at them. If they are swollen or the limbs are just hanging from the shell skip this one. The normal thing for it to do (at least my turtle did it always) would be to move the limbs around, like it will run away.


Don't forget to smell it. Well kept healthy turtle shouldn't have very strong odor. Don't worry, I am not about to suggest to taste it… although it looks a bit like a sandwich.


small pet turtle looking bored

The turtle must breathe normally, through its nostrils, without making any bubbles. The mouth should be closed.

While breathing, the turtle shouldn't make any noise. You do not want to buy a turtle with respiratory problems.


Make sure the eyes look healthy. They should be clear and bright without any strange looking layers on them. Eyelids shouldn't be swollen and the turtle should follow your moves, being in or out of the water.

Turtle's skin

The skin needs to look healthy and equally colored (mostly green of course... unless it is albino). The soft parts of the turtle shouldn't have any open wounds. Pay attention that the skin is not covered with fungus.

The rule for the Red Ear Slider is that it has a red stripe, on both sides of the head, which goes form behind the eye, along the neck (that is where the name came from). Don't search for the ears, I guarantee it has them ;).

Turtle shell

The shell of the turtle should have a nice pattern of markings that go from yellow-green to dark green. As your turtle grows older the shell will change the color. Shell can have a green layer over it, but don't confuse this with previously mentioned fungus growth on the skin. These are algae and they are nothing to be worried about.

Look closely at the shell to see if it has any cracks. It is not good if it is broken in some part or missing a piece. Again, anything different than "normal" screams - do not buy a pet turtle like this.

As I will always repeat, every pet deserves a home but you do not want to start with a problem. Make sure that the shell is not soft because it is a sign of an ill turtle. Also, while you are holding the turtle look at it from all sides and make sure it is symmetrical.

You chose a healthy one? Good. You see how it is easy to become an expert on how to buy a pet turtle?

If you're from a country without limitations about this pet's sales, you will have a nice choice of small cute turtles and just once in a while you might run into a slightly bigger one.

In my country the big ones usually come from people that can't provide bigger habitat for their turtle. They don't want to flush the turtle down the drain or hurt it in any way so they just take it to the pet shop that will provide better conditions.

Big or small - young or old

small pet turtle looking boredSmaller and younger animal might be more sensitive. If you have some thoughts on if you will be able to take good care of it, you can go with the older one. Choose the age of the pet according to your available time, younger pet usually needs a bit more care. Of course, older pet will be bigger so it will need a bigger tank.

If you are sure your kids are going to carry around their new small pet turtle, play with it and just not let it out of the hands (although it is not really good for the turtle and it won't like it) buy a pet turtle that is a bit older. It will have stronger shell so you won't have to worry if the child is holding it too firm.

My personal choice has always been to buy a pet turtle that is young. I just feel it gets used to us easier. And I do have free time to spend with it so I can provide as much attention and care as it might need.

Take in consideration your life habits and go with the flow. Buy a pet turtle you like. Which ever small pet turtle you choose I will be here to help you take good care of it.

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