Are Turtles and Tortoises a Right Pet For You?

When it comes to keeping reptiles as pets, turtles and tortoises are some of the most popular. Their innocuous, placid demeanor proves appealing to people who are skeptical about or even frightened of other reptiles, such as snakes, lizards, monitors, and so on. On the other hand, these animals are also misunderstood, with many owners being highly unaware of the actual requirements and needs to keep these animals content and healthy.

Red Eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans); source

Red Eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans); source

I volunteer at my local herpetological society, and I can tell you without a doubt that the number one animal surrendered to us are turtles. People are often unaware of the potential size and housing needs of these animals. Some of the most obtainable turtles are red-eared sliders, which are abundant at pet stores such as Petco and Petsmart; however, while these are typically purchased as small, young animals, they do typically reach sizes of around 12 inches- with some even exceeding this- and the typical rule of them as far as housing is that the turtle should have ten gallons of water for every inch of shell. Generally speaking, an adult red-eared slider should have a tank of no less than 120 gallons, in addition to having all that water and space, will also need a heated basking area for it to climb onto and warm up. And tortoises grow even larger-some species, such as the Sulcata tortoise, can grow to over 30 inches long and weigh more than 200 pounds. Like all reptiles, turtles are cold-blooded and need to thermoregulate to stay healthy.

Another thing to take into account is the impressive longevity of these animals. Some turtles and tortoises have been shown to be negligibly senescent, meaning that rates of death due to aging do not increase as the animal grows older, and in many cases, it will far outlive the owner. When you choose a turtle or tortoise as a pet, you are choosing an animal that will almost certainly succeed you in death. Unlike rodents and fish, these animals are a very long-term commitment.

It is also worthwhile to point out that some of the most commonly found and popular turtles and tortoises found in the pet trade are not necessarily the best animals suited for being pets. Aquatic turtles, although personable when food is involved, are better off with minimal handling due to stress, and some larger tortoises can be quite destructive indoors and it is often recommended that tortoises are kept mostly as outdoor pets-which can pose a problem in areas where temperatures are not warm year-round.

Another thing to consider would be diets. The vast majority of turtles are omnivores, meaning they consume both plants and animals. While this is typically not an issue for people who keep various reptile species, they certainly aren’t as easy to feed as a corn snake or a kingsnake, both of which are perfectly content to take a mouse and call it a week. It is also crucial to point out that some turtles (particularly red eared sliders) tend to leave amount a very substantial amount of waste after meals. Even with the best filtering system available, frequent cleaning and disinfecting of the aquarium is absolutely essential for maintaining a happy and healthy pet. There are also turtles (such as the box turtle) that will hibernate during the winter months, even in captivity. While it is healthy and beneficial to allow and assist with this, it should also be pointed out that they should not be fed beforehand. If the animal’s stomach is not completely empty before entering hibernation, the contents of its stomach will begin to rot, which leads to many other issues. An inexperienced keeper might find it more beneficial to keep these temperatures steady and not allow the animal to enter hibernation.

Now that I’ve named some disadvantages of turtles as pets, it’s also worthwhile to mention that there are many advantages to keeping these animals as well. It’s worth noting that they are silent animals and will not disturb your (or anybody else’s) peace. They are also very docile and tolerant animals (although they do have mouths, and it is important to remember that anything can bite). And as stated before, turtles and tortoises can be quite personal, and will approach humans to beg for food. They enjoy fruits, veggies, and even earthworms and other insects, and acclimated animals have been known to approach humans for some handouts.

Despite the curiosity and tolerant dispositions of these animals, I would not recommend them as pets for younger children. Again, these animals are a very long-term commitment, and like any reptile, have a good chance of carrying salmonella, which is dangerous and potentially fatal, particularly in very young children. Most younger kids are not particularly privy to the importance of hygiene, and predominantly not when it comes to animals that, by all appearance, look perfectly fine.

While these animals may not be ideal pets for small children, they can also be very rewarding for kids who are older and understand the hygiene practices and why this is important. As with any animal, it is imperative to teach kids to respect them and learn what specific behaviors mean. Also, as reptiles, they do not require the same amount of attention as dogs or cats do, and therefore may be more suitable for busier households.

Overall, turtles can be challenging pets, but also very rewarding as well. As long as the owners understand the risks, the requirements, and don’t cut any corners, you can have an entertaining, docile, and curious pet for a very long time. And while they certainly should not be kept as pets for small children, older children can learn a lot for caring for the turtle or tortoise; after all, studies have shown that caring for a pet helps children develop empathy and learn to nurture and care for others, which are all positive and amazing traits for humans of any age. Turtles provide many benefits for their humans, and some extra work and research goes a long way to keep everybody happy.

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