holding a freshwater turtle in the wild

Pet Turtles for Kids

Is your child begging you for pet turtles? Turtles can be cute, interesting pets that are fun to watch. One of the best parts about pet turtles is that they’re active during the day, so you don’t have to stay up late to see them moving around!

But there are some things to think about before getting a turtle as a pet.

Things to Know About Pet Turtles

  • Different turtles have different habitats. Some live in the water (aquatic), others spend some of their time in water (semi-aquatic), and some live on land (terrestrial).
  • Turtles are different than tortoises. Tortoises are land dwellers only.
  • They may seem small at the pet shop, but they will get much bigger!
  • Turtles live a LONG TIME. Many live 10-80 years, including pet turtles. They will become part of your family. So seriously, think about the time investment because if you don’t want to care for them for that long, it’s so important NOT TO RELEASE THEM INTO THE WILD. This can have a destructive impact on the local ecosystem.
  • Aquatic pet turtles require a bit of setup and good maintenance to keep the water clean – they are very messy and stinky! An important note: Always wash your hands well after handling your turtle or anything in the tank
  • Each species requires different food, but most are omnivores (they eat plants and animals). So it’s good to consider the expense of feeding pet turtles live fish or invertebrates. Pet tortoises are mostly vegetarians, though.

Setting Up a Pet Turtle Tank

Credit: The Turtle Girl (she has helpful videos)
  • Aquatic pet turtles can live in a tank or pond, in groups, and with larger fish (they’ll eat small fish)
  • Aquatic pet turtles need a large aquarium, width 3x and length 5x the ADULT size, or for 1″, you need 10 gallons of swimming size (general rule, species dependent)
  • The larger the tank, the happier pet turtles will be and will have fewer health issues. The water will also be more stable and easier to maintain (smaller tanks need more frequent cleaning and water changes)
  • Visit websites that offer used supplies in your area, as many people have aquariums for sale (some come fully stocked with heaters and may even be turtle-specific)
  • The setup should have a screened lid.
  • Turtles poo. A lot. So, a good filter is needed. TetraFauna ReptoFilter 50 Gallons (extra filters available) can be used in shallower water when needed so you can build waterfalls, and it is specially designed for odor removal for reptiles like pet turtles.
  • If you live somewhere colder, you may need a heater for the water (this one is available in different watts for appropriate aquarium sizing, and also can be submerged so in shallower tanks can be placed horizontal)
  • A heat lamp is important for basking (see below)
  • Pet turtles need a log or rock above the water line to bask on, a floating dock (this one adjusts to water levels automatically), or a slope of some gravel to allow them to climb onto or use a turtle topper.
  • An aquarium vacuum to clean up the bottom of the tank regularly
  • On the tank bottom, you can use large Pebbles or coarse gravel, or nothing, making cleaning easier.
  • Keep the clutter minimal (plants/rocks)

A really great resource that has a wide variety of free species-specific care sheets is reptilesmagazine.com

Or the book Aquatic Turtles as Pets: writers for this book include a pet trainer, veterinarian, and other pet-care specialists.

There is also so much information online from turtle keepers and other experts.

Heating & Lighting

Turtles, like most reptiles, are cold-blooded and will rely on you to keep them warm.

Basking is important for turtles as it helps them dry off and avoid fungal and parasitic infections, and pet turtles need UV lights for health.

  • Two thermometers are best, one for water temperature and one for air temperature.
    • The water side of your turtle’s habitat should be kept at 75-85o F (24-29o C)
    • The dry side with a basking spot should be 85-90o F (29-32o C)
    • At night, when the basking light is turned off, the temperature inside the tank should remain 65-75o F (18-24o C)
  • Use an underwater heater to maintain the water temperature.
  • A UVA heat bulb for basking and light (must be reptile-specific or can cause damage, but be strong enough)
    • If the tank temperature dips below 70o F overnight, you’ll want to get a night-specific heat lamp

Food for Pet Turtles

The type of food to provide depends on the turtle species. As a general rule, most turtles are omnivorous.

Many pet turtles will happily eat commercial turtle food.

You can also buy a variety of feeder fish at your local fish store (it is not recommended to feed them fish caught in the wild, as they can introduce disease or parasites to your turtle and will also deplete the wild stock).

Pet turtles will also eat earthworms, snails, slugs, beetles, grasshoppers, moths, crickets, mealworms, wax worms, and other insects.

Turtle Handling

Lift a turtle around the midsection, not the legs.

Always wash your hands after handling your pet turtle or anything in the tank (it’s a good idea to do that before you touch them, too). ALL ANIMALS can potentially carry viral, bacterial, fungal, and parasitic diseases contagious to humans. Turtles, in particular, can carry bacteria that’s bad for us – so even if you want to, don’t snuggle or kiss your turtle!

freshwater turtle basking in the sun on a log

Don’t Buy, Adopt

Unfortunately, impulse buying results in many unwanted turtles. Google your local area – there are often turtle rescue places. They live so long that it’s worth rehoming!

For example: Adopt a Turtle Rescue

honorary adoption

If you prefer not to have a live pet turtle, adopt a sea turtle! You can track by coordinates and a bracelet; see this article on Turtle Ideas.

paper mache turtle

Make your own turtle!

See this post for free, detailed instructions on how to make a paper mache turtle.

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