It’s a little embarrassing to write this article, not only because everyone who knows me knows I am a turtle and tortoise nerd, but also because I have literally loved turtles and tortoises to death.
You see, even though I had read several books on these extraordinary reptiles, I still couldn’t care for them as needed. Because of this, several have died under my (lack of) care.
Before you read the reasons you shouldn’t get a tortoise or a turtle, I want to emphasize that I speak as someone who was convinced that he had the means and environment to keep such a wonderful pet.
Some people I’ve met can keep these pets alive, but few can keep a turtle or tortoise and have them thrive. If you’re thinking about getting one, for the sake of these beautiful creatures, please read this list first and sleep on your decision. If you truly think you have the requirements to purchase a pet turtle or tortoise, then, by all means, go ahead—but only then!
Four Things You Didn’t Know About Turtles and Tortoises
Many people purchase baby turtles or tortoises because of how cute they are, not knowing that these animals have more to them that meets the eye. Here are four things most people don’t know about turtles and tortoises:
- They can carry salmonella. In fact, selling small turtles (shells less than four inches long) was banned in 1975 to prevent the spread of Salmonella. According to the CDC, this ban “likely remains the most effective public health action to prevent turtle-associated salmonellosis.”
- They live for a long time. If maintained properly, some turtles can live for decades (even longer than humans) and grow to be a foot long. Some box turtles in the wild are over 200 years old. (How’d you do on the pop quiz!?)
- If released into the wild, pet turtles can be a danger to local populations of turtles and tortoises. Because of the pet-trade, red-eared-sliders are now considered one of the world’s 100 most invasive species.
- They need room. Turtles and tortoises need about 10 gallons of tank space for every inch of shell. Red-eared sliders are the most common and least expensive pet turtle, and they grow to 7 – 9 inches long, meaning you’ll need 70 – 90 gallons of tank space.
Nine Things You Need to Know Before You Buy a Pet Turtle
Like any pet, you need to do your research before getting a turtle or tortoise. Here are nine things you need to think about before purchasing one.
- The start-up cost of buying a turtle and its habitat (which can be $600 – $1,200), is actually the cheapest part of turtle ownership. Your turtle will require hundreds of dollars in upkeep each year.
- Turtles can live for a very long time, often over 25 years. Be prepared to care for a turtle for its entire lifetime.
- Turtles need fresh, clean water and bedding. You should expect to spend about half an hour each day caring for your turtle. You’ll need to find someone to help care for your turtle while you’re gone.
- Most turtles and tortoises hibernate for 10-20 weeks. You’ll need to make sure it has an appropriate hibernating environment.
- Your turtle or tortoise will need fresh fruit, vegetables, mice, and insects to eat.
- Turtles do not really interact with or particularly like humans. Keep in mind that your pet will mostly interact with you only at feeding time.
- Though cute, turtles and tortoises do not make good pets for children, especially because they can transmit salmonella.
- If you do choose to purchase a turtle or tortoise, choose the species carefully. For example, it probably doesn’t make sense to have a turtle from a tropical climate if you live somewhere that gets very cold.
- Never purchase a turtle that was wild-caught. Before getting one, ask the dealer for proof that the turtle was captive-bred and raised. This will ensure safe pet-trade practices as well as help make sure you have a healthy turtle.
Even though it is, in theory, possible to provide your turtle with the environment it needs to thrive, most people don’t have the time, money, or desire to put so much effort into their turtle pet. Here are the main reasons you shouldn’t get a turtle or tortoise.
1. You Don’t Have Enough Room
Like mentioned above, even the smallest turtles and tortoises require a lot of square footage to live happily. Many turtles also need both an aquatic and a terrestrial environment, a place where they can completely dry off.
A medium-sized tortoise such as a South American Yellow or a Red Foot requires serious square footage. It can be expensive to provide that in tank form, but don’t think this means they can freely roam your house. Read the next reason to find out why!
2. You Can’t Maintain the Correct Temperature Consistently
In a well-meaning attempt at giving my now-deceased Red Foot tortoise some more room to roam, I let him amble through my former Chicago apartment.
He disappeared! I couldn’t believe it! It wasn’t until several weeks later that I found his rigor mortised carcass. He had somehow found his way into the only non-heated room in the house.
Even without mishaps like this, it’s difficult to maintain the correct temperature in a tank environment, and you’ll need to purchase thermometers to make sure your pet is at the ideal heat level.
3. You Can’t Give the Reptile a Secure Habitat
I once had a box turtle named Geronimo (not a good name for a turtle.) I thought I had a wonderful habitat set up for him in my yard with over 100 square feet of space surrounded by chicken wire. However, he either climbed out, or a cat jumped in and claimed him. Either way he disappeared within the span of a week.
If you try to give them the space they need in anything besides a tank environment, you’ll find it hard to secure.
4. You Think You Know Everything Because You Read One Article or Book
I thought I knew everything I needed to know because I’d read one book about box turtles when I was a kid. I placed three healthy specimens in a barren enclosure on my porch. However, all three perished, overheating in this enclosure which didn’t provide the required temperature gradient or shelter needed by all reptiles.
It was also too small, and lacked substrate. You will find a lot of conflicting information on turtles and tortoises published as if in great authority. If you are serious about being a good pet-owner, you’ll need to read several sources to understand the high level of care that these animals require.
5. The Turtle and Tortoise Pet Trade Threatens Native Species
This reason could arguably be #1 on the list, but I wanted to get some of the extreme cautions out of the way first. Where I live (Wisconsin in the United States), there used to be a large population of box turtles.
Hundreds of thousands of these were sold to the pet trade and to educational/medical suppliers in the past four decades. The species is not protected, but I fear it’s too late. I’ve been looking for them in the wild all my life and have never seen one. You can hear the same story all over the world: Asian, Indian, African (especially Madagascar species) are all on decline. In many parts of the world, it’s against the law to own some species.
6. They Carry Diseases
I once cuddled up with my Red Foot tortoise and fell asleep only to wake up with a putrid warm and wet turd planted inches from my nose. Tortoises can carry salmonella and herpes to name two of the more upsetting diseases out there.
Although the claims that all small turtles carry salmonella are dubious, anyone handling these creatures would do well to constantly wash their hands after handling. Oh yeah, and don’t take naps with them. Or give them to kids that might lick them or their fingers after handling.
7. You Can’t Give Your Turtle or Tortoise an Adequate Diet
Most turtles and tortoises are omnivores, though some are strict vegetarians and others are carnivores. Each species has not only a varied diet, but in many cases each has a very specific list of foods that are usually only available in their home range.
Whatever you do, don’t think your pet can survive on pellets from a pet store. This is a death sentence. All turtles and tortoises need a lot of fresh food.
8. Your Dog Might Eat Your Turtle
My roommates once had an ornery pet Chow. I came home from work one day to find the dog tearing open my box turtle. It was a tragedy.
Also, about a month later, the dog mysteriously died. I’ve read that many box turtles carry built up levels of toxins in their bodies because they eat mushrooms and other things that are poisonous to most other animals.
9. You Can’t Afford a Head-Started Hatchling
In another mixture of misguided attempt at animal husbandry I bought a half-year-old leopard tortoise because he was cheap, around $100. Unfortunately, his enclosure was too close to a window. It wasn’t encased because I thought that tortoises didn’t need to be in a tank-type enclosure. I was wrong.
At that tiny size, the creature needed humidity and temperature that was strictly monitored, and grossly absent in the enclosure I provided. I brought the hatchling to a veterinarian where he administered a vitamin that brought him around for a few days.
Instead of taking the vet’s advice and putting him in an enclosed tank until he was larger, I brought him home to his former enclosure. The tortoise perished a few days later.
10. You Want an Exotic Pet for a Status Symbol
This is maybe the worst reason to buy a turtle or tortoise. It means your heart is not really in it, and you will not be taking all the steps necessary to care for this environmentally needy pet.
If you want people to know how interesting you are, read a book or buy a Rolex. Leave these vulnerable creatures out of it.
11. Once You Buy One, They Are Not Easy to Rehome
Turtles are the most abandoned pet in the United States (probably because of the reasons I’ve outlined above). However, releasing your pet into the wild is a bad idea. It’s very dangerous for the turtle (who is unlikely to survive), and to the native population, which it can infect with diseases or damage through increased competition for resources. Zoos are also often reluctant to take them, because of the aforementioned reasons.
If You Still Want a Pet Tortoise or Turtle, Get Informed
If you must buy a turtle or tortoise, read a lot about them. Ask trainers, vets, or zoo keepers how to successfully care for these delicate creatures. Just because they have a shell does not make them indestructible.
If I have exposed myself to ridicule here so be it. I deserve it. I should be ashamed of my gross mistakes in turtle and tortoise pet-care and I am. I hope that this article at least, will give some people food for thought about purchasing a turtle or tortoise.
I have vowed to never purchase another turtle or tortoise again, unless I own a property where I can provide it the absolute best environment.