Whitney has raised and bred different species of geckos, snakes, lizards, tortoises, and other exotics since 2003.
Choosing a Pet Turtle or Tortoise
Turtles and tortoises can be such a joy for children and adults. Some are very friendly and personable, which makes them that much more fun to have as pets, but the problem lies with proper care and their long life span.
Turtles and tortoises live for many years, which most people aren't prepared to deal with. When getting a turtle, it is truly a commitment. It's not an animal that will die within a few years.
These animals not only have a long life span, but they also require large enclosures. Even smaller species of turtles and tortoises require ample space, whether inside or out. It's important that they have a proper enclosure; they need to be able to exercise to stay healthy.
When it comes to tortoises, fish tanks are one of the absolute worst things that you can use as housing. You won't be able to stick a turtle in a 20-gallon tank and expect it to be happy and healthy. Tortoises also need some outside time as they need ultraviolet (UV) light to stay healthy, even if it's just for a few hours a day, several times a week.
Do Your Research
It's very important to do your research before getting a pet turtle or tortoise as they are big commitments. You need to be informed before you decide whether or not you will be able to properly care for one. You can read this article to learn about any reasons you should not have a pet turtle or tortoise.
What Is the Difference Between a Turtle and a Tortoise?
If you are unfamiliar with these reptiles, here are some key differences.
- Environment: Turtles live in water most of the time while tortoises predominantly live on land.
- Shell shape: Tortoises usually have large domed shells. They may have bombs on them as well. Turtles have a flatter shell that makes them more streamlined. Tortoises typically have heavier shells as well.
- Limbs: Tortoises have legs that are short and bend at an angle. Turtles have webbed claws that help for swimming.
- Diet: Tortoises are mostly herbivores who eat various vegetation. Turtles are omnivores who eat vegetation as well as animals like insects and fish.
- Life span: Tortoises can live for a very long time. Some life spans of domesticated species can be as long as 70 to 80 years with good care. Domesticated turtles have relatively shorter life spans ranging from 20 to 40 years.
Best Beginner Turtles
The following turtles are recommended for first-time owners. Read more detailed descriptions of each type below.
- Red-eared slider
- Box turtle
- Razor-backed musk turtle
- Painted turtle
- Size: Six to eight inches on average.
- Life Span: 20 to 30 years.
- Diet: Commercial turtle food, leafy greens, crickets, and freeze-dried shrimp.
Red ear sliders are native to parts of the Southern United States. They can be found near the rivers and fishing docks of northern Florida to over halfway up the East Coast through parts of Georgia and South Carolina, as well as west through the coast of Texas. Sometimes you can even find the RES in parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Illinois, and Indiana.
This species of turtle is probably one of the more popular pet turtles. Children often bring them home from the beach in their tiny plastic containers. They love their quarter-sized pet, but what they don't realize is that these turtles can potentially reach up to 13 inches in length (six to eight inches is more likely). What parents don't realize is that they need larger enclosures and a commitment of both the child and parent as this species can live between 20 to 30 years.
They require large enclosures, so a small fish tank won't contain one adult for long. An adult should be housed in at least a 40-gallon tank. The water needs to be about 75 to 85°F. Because the species is semi-aquatic, they need a land area to bask, which should be about 90°F. The basking temperatures can easily be provided by a UV heat lamp.
These turtles will eat an omnivorous diet of aquatic plants and meat proteins. You can offer commercial pellet diets, but this turtle typically prefers minnows, earthworms, crickets, guppies, and aquatic snails. They can also be provided fresh plants such as dandelions, endive, escarole, chicory, kale, sweet potato, zucchini, and green leaf lettuce.
- Size: Up to five inches.
- Life Span: More than 50 years with proper care.
- Diet: Varied diet of vegetables, fruits, insects. Can be different depending on specific species.
There are several locales where box turtles live. In many cases, the eastern box turtle will be found in the pet trade, but the North American and Asian box turtles are also popular. These species can be found in various parts of the United States, as well as Asia.
In general, box turtles have an average life span of at least 40 years, but it's not uncommon to find a 100-year-old specimen.
These turtles do best when housed outside, but a large 50-gallon tank will suffice for one adult turtle. They generally do best with a basking site, enough substrate to burrow in, and high humidity. When outside, they love to swim and bask by a water source, so it may be ideal to set up a large outdoor pen with a kiddy pool with shallow water to swim in. Otherwise, when kept inside, you'll want to mist the turtle and soak it several times a week.
When housing inside, you want to offer UV lighting via a UV tube or UV heat bulb. I prefer the heat bulbs as they provide a basking site with warmer temperatures. It's ideal to keep them around 85°F at the basking site, but box turtles will thrive in a wide range of temperatures, ranging from room temperature to a little warmer (around 90°F).
Box turtles are omnivorous species, but they thrive on a high protein diet, especially within the first few years of life. These turtles will eat snails, crickets, earthworms, minnows, guppies, eggs, small mice, salamanders, slugs, fungi, flowers, dandelion, fruits, grasses, berries, and various vegetables.
Razor-Backed Musk Turtle
- Size: Five to six inches.
- Life Span: Roughly 20 years.
- Diet: Commercial pellets, insects, worms, fish.
This species is native to the United States, ranging eastward from eastern Texas to Mississippi and northward to Southeastern Oklahoma and Southern Arkansas. The turtle is commonly found near the shallow edges rivers and near fishing docks, basking on sunny days.
This turtle is a very hardy species that are quite inexpensive, which makes them that much more popular. They aren't brightly colored like other turtles, but they are neat pets.
Musk turtles live for about 15 to 20 years and reach about five to six inches in length as an adult. You will need at least a 20-gallon tank, but larger is definitely better for this aquatic specimen. If you decorate the aquarium, you'll find that larger turtles will destroy all of your efforts; they'll make the enclosure how they want it. Make sure that any décor and basking sites are fully secured to prevent accidents.
There needs to be a basking site where the turtle can get out of the water to warm up, which needs to be around 90°F. The basking area needs to be large enough to accommodate the turtle.
Musk turtles are carnivorous and live healthily on commercial turtle chow, minnows, worms, and insects.
- Size: Five to ten inches.
- Life Span: Can potentially live up to 50 years.
- Diet: Commercial pellets, romaine, dandelion, parsley, crickets, worms, guppies.
This attractive species is native to North America. Their range is widespread from the Atlantic to Pacific and from southern Canada to northern Mexico. Their size can range between 5 to 10 inches. You can expect this turtle to live for around 20–30 years, potentially longer.
An ideal enclosure for this turtle would feature at least 20 gallons of water for them to swim in. 10 gallons would be needed for each additional adult specimen. It would be a good idea to add some type of substrate as well.
If kept indoors, a UV light is necessary. Their basking area should be around 85–95°F. Their water should be around 75–80°F.
This turtle has a mixed diet of protein and plant matter. Lettuce, duck weed, fish, and worms would be a good diet.
These turtles are not domesticated by any means, so they should only be handled when necessary. They are not exactly social, but they can live with other specimens. They should be separated if they show any aggression.
Best Beginner Tortoises
If you're more interested in a tortoise as your first pet, consider the following types.
- Russian tortoise
- Greek tortoise
- Red-footed tortoise
- Yellow-footed tortoise
- Size: Eight to ten inches.
- Life Span: Around 40 years.
- Diet: Hay, dark lettuces, kale, collards, and turnips.
This species is a smaller tortoise that is very popular among keepers. They are native to Afghanistan, northern Pakistan, parts of Iran, and China. They can be found in sand and clay desserts with sparse grass.
This tortoise can grow up to 10", but they typically range to about 8 to 9" in length. They have average life spans of around 40 years, so they are definitely a commitment.
One Russian tortoise can live in a 50-gallon tank as an adult, but they really should have an outdoor pen as well. Setting up a medium to large-sized pen is ideal for them to get UV lighting and sun rays. This species does need UV, so when setting up an indoor pen, you'll want to provide a UV heat bulb, as well as any other supplemental heating to get the temperatures around 90–95°F in the basking area.
These tortoises thrive on mixed grasses and weeds, as well as spring mix lettuce from the grocery store.
- Size: Up to 10 inches.
- Life Span: Up to 50 years.
- Diet: Collard greens, endive, and parsley.
There are different locales for Greek tortoises, but in general we can say they are an African tortoise species, even though they also come from parts of Europe as well.
These tortoises can reach up to 10" in length, but they generally average around 6", which makes them one of the smaller tortoise species. Like most tortoises, they have an average life span of at least 30 years or more.
Greek tortoises require at least a 50-gallon tank for one adult, but they should really have an outdoor pen of at least 4'x2'. While inside, the species requires a UV heat bulb and plenty of substrate to dig and burrow in. The basking temperature should be around 90–95°F.
These guys do well on a diet of mixed grasses, weeds, and spring mix lettuce.
- Size: 10 to 16 inches.
- Life Span: Up to 50 years.
- Diet: Leafy greens like dandelion greens, endive, and mustard greens.
This is probably not the most ideal for a beginner, but it's still considered a beginner tortoise based on its temperament and overall ease. These tortoises are native to the southernmost parts of Panama through Argentina, Columbia, and Brazil. They live in tropical forests.
This species is a larger tortoise that can grow up to 16 inches in length, which means it will require a rather large enclosure. They actually do best when housed outdoors.
Younger individuals will suffice being housed inside as long as they get a few hours several times a week outside to enjoy the sunlight. Younger individuals can be housed in a 50-gallon tank. Adults need an enclosure that is at least 4' x 8'.
Humidity is a must with this species. If you don't have proper humidity, your tortoise will experience pyramiding, which is irreversible.
The diet of red-footed tortoises includes fresh vegetables, fruits, and proteins. You want to provide proteins starting at six months old, just once a week. They tend to thrive on spring mix lettuce, squash, zucchini, mushrooms, strawberries, and melon. Proteins can be provided in the form of worms, crickets, roaches, or high protein dog or cat food.
Red foot tortoises have an average life span ranging from 30 to 50 years, so these are truly a commitment.
- Size: 15 inches, potentially more.
- Life Span: 50 years.
- Diet: Collard greens, mustard greens, romaine, squash, carrots, and melon.
This is a rather large tortoise that can grow up to around 15 inches on average. They are native to the Amazon Basin in South America, usually in drier forest areas.
An 8'x4' enclosure would be ideal for this tortoise. Along with a dish of fresh water and a basking area at 90°F, these animals should have substrate with peat moss and sand. A top layer of cypress mulch would also be nice. These tortoises can be quite personable, but they can be shy. They may often retreat into their shells. Their environment could feature some type of hiding spot. This can double as an area where they can cool off as well.
This tortoise is mostly an herbivore. You can feed them romaine, kale, squash, carrots, and melon.
Pet Turtles That Stay Small
You may be interested in a turtle species that stays relatively small. They are easier to handle, do great in homes and apartments, and need smaller living spaces. Here are some species to consider.
- Mud turtle: This turtle generally grows to around four to five inches. They are found throughout the Americas and are easy to keep as pets. Keep in mind that they can live for up to 50 years in captivity. They have a carnivorous diet of fish and invertebrates.
- Spotted turtle: This is a semi-aquatic species that generally grows to 3.5-5 inches in length. They do well in captivity in an aquarium that has roughly three to six inches of water and some substantial land area. Their omnivorous can include commercial turtle foods, vegetation, and proteins like worms and crickets. This turtle can live for at least 25 years, likely longer. Keep in mind that this species is considered endangered in some areas, so check your local laws before picking up a spotted turtle.
- Diamondback terrapin: This species typically grows between five to seven inches. They are pretty docile and require some brackish water in their environment. Any temperature above 70°F will be sufficient. They can live between 25 to 40 years. These turtles are mostly carnivorous, so feed them turtle pellets, dried shrimp, and snails.
- Reeves' turtle: This species, native to China, usually grows to around five inches. Their enclosure should have shallow water as this turtle isn't the best swimmer. You can expect this turtle to live around 10-15 years; some have lived for over 20 years. They are omnivores that can eat leafy greens as well as fish and worms.
Turtles vs. Tortoises as Pets
You may be trying to decide whether you want a turtle or a tortoise as a pet. Both are amazing choices, but you should know the clear differences before deciding.
- Water environment: Most turtles will spend a lot of their time in freshwater. They usually need a good amount to swim in. Over half of their environment must be suitable for swimming. A tortoise will spend most of their time on land and only need shallow freshwater for drinking and bathing. A turtle will likely need some water filtration for their tank.
- Life Span: Both turtles and tortoises can live for a very long time. Between the two, tortoises generally have a longer life span. While most turtles can last around 20 to 40 years with good care, a lot of tortoises can live up to 80 years. Be sure to do your research as some specific species can last longer.
- Diet: The majority of turtles have an omnivorous diet. Some species will lean more towards a carnivorous diet. This means you may have to pick up feed like insects, fish, and shrimp. Some species have even been known to eat small mice. Tortoises are mostly herbivores, so you can expect to feed them vegetables like kale and cauliflower.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2010 Whitney
Max on June 24, 2020:
Pls i have a toitose and i dont no what to do
summer on February 11, 2020:
hi, I have a question if anyone could answer it would be much appreciated what is the best tortoise for a beginner I want one that stays small so I only have to buy a few tortoise tables throughout its life, I also live in a cold environment what tortoise would be suitable for what I'm needing
thank you xx
ROBYN on June 15, 2019:
You posted a picture of a Radiated tortoise not a yellowfoot. Also Box turtles and redfeet tortoises eat meat, such as worms lizards, bugs and carion.
Mason Dobreuenaski on June 05, 2019:
Yellowed bellied sliders were mot mentioned .why not?
Mjnunez017 on May 15, 2019:
Those tutus are so cute!!!!!!!!!
Sally Wynne on May 15, 2019:
I just do not understand why people have wild animals as pets. it is so cruel. Especially when taken from a hot country to a cold. So many die from the wrong care. Please stop taking our African tortoises. In South Africa we are not allowed to
touch a tortoise if we see one in the bush.
bob the builder on March 05, 2019:
this is nice to find something like this...
Wurtle the Turtle on January 06, 2019:
So with the Greek Tortoise, do I have to have a heat lamp if they're inside for like 10 to 15 minutes a day? And do they need any water to swim in in the enclosure? For instance, I have and old Rabbit enclosure that is 4 by 6 feet. Would that work?
Tortoise lover on December 05, 2018:
Do you have to be near those places to have that certain kind of tortoise
jacob on November 22, 2018:
cool! Actually, what happened is there is this youtubers friend who has 2 baby red ear sliders (this was before I read this) and they where sooooo cute! So a few months later I read this and at the top of the beginner turtles list there were red ear sliders! and my friends are going on a vacation so I'm baby sitting their pet crested gecko and yesterday I got the crested gecko.
Zoe on November 21, 2018:
I want a box turtle now that i found out that some red eared slider is hurmful to peole
Ben on November 04, 2018:
I love turtles and tortoises i also like dogs
Jeff on October 24, 2018:
I love the information
Jina on September 29, 2018:
My 7 year old grandson is wanting a tortoise to raise. What do you think would be the best pet for him?
EL on July 25, 2018:
I have one asian box turtle and green turtle.. after reading this article im now confused if i can take care of it as my children pet..
E on June 02, 2018:
Where can you buy a box turtle in NYC?
Aiden on April 28, 2018:
I want a turtle not a tortoise can you post more turtles?
jennifer on April 22, 2018:
i love tame
Maddy on April 10, 2018:
Hi my friend wants a small turtle but not a tortoise , what would be the best option for her?
amolas on March 27, 2018:
PetPowerz on March 10, 2018:
Hi I Love All Animals...
turtle boy on February 27, 2018:
i like turtles
mike on February 05, 2018:
I love turtles
Beach Ball on January 10, 2018:
I am trying to decide which turtle to get
Anurag on January 10, 2018:
Can u tell me which species i have of turtle
vinnie on October 28, 2017:
I love turtles
I like turtles on October 18, 2017:
email@example.com on October 08, 2017:
can you send me a list of what you need for a razor backed musk turtle pleas respond
jerry on April 30, 2017:
Are musk turtle's good pets pleas respond to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
skyfire on August 08, 2010:
Box turtle looks cute, i wish i could keep 2 of them. :| Unfortunately, Keeping turtle as pet is illegal in India. :(
Barbara Bethard from Tucson, Az on August 04, 2010:
wonderful information about turtles and tortoise' Whitney and the writing just flowed right along/ so easily read as usual/ kept me interested to the end!!