Best Small Turtles for Beginners

Small turtles make excellent pets due to their size and low maintenance. This makes them ideal as a first pet, or for a pet for children!

The main issue with having a small turtle as a pet is often that owners may not have done enough research on the particular species – and the once small turtle may grow.

This means constant upgrades in tanks, which defeats the purpose of small tanks for small turtles. We have found the best small turtles that stay small and make wonderful pets.

Small Turtles

7 Turtles that Stay Small

Red-Eared Slider

Red-eared slider turtles are a popular breed for beginners. Ranging anywhere in size between 6 and 12 inches, these little turtles can live up to 20 or even 40 years old with good care. They have been given their name due to the characterizable red marks on either side of their head.

These turtles are omnivores, and as they mature into adults they become more herbivorous. They like to feast on edible aquatic plants, freeze-dried krill, leafy vegetables such as dandelions, and other vegetables like squash.

They like to live in large aquariums, and the general rule of thumb is 10 gallons of water for one inch in length. You can have multiple red-eared sliders, just as long as there is enough water.

They dislike regular handling, so they are best for viewing purposes. These turtles are aquatic, but they enjoy basking on a surface under UV light to regulate their temperature.

Red-eared sliders are illegal for selling and buying in some states, so it is best to check with your local wildlife authority.

Map Turtle

Map turtles are also a popular choice of small turtles and a bred regularly. There are 13 species of map turtle altogether, and some of the most common are northern map turtles, Mississippi map turtle, false map turtle, and the black knobbed map turtle.

The map name comes from their distinctive shell pattern that mimics the lines of a map.

They grow between 5 and 12 inches in length and can live between 20 and 40 years with good care. Map turtles have commercial turtle diets, including leafy greens that are high in nutrients and insects for protein.

They are mostly aquatic but do require an area for basking and a UV light to regulate their temperature.

These turtles don’t like to be held constantly, but are friendly and rush to their owner once they get used to them. They are fairly lively and can live peacefully with some other small turtle breeds.

Painted Turtle

Painted turtles are known for their gorgeous markings that look like paint, hence the name. Their red coloring often means they get confused with red-eared sliders.

Native to America, these tiny turtles can size between 5-8 inches in length and can live between 30 and 40 years with good care. There are four subspecies of painted turtles, but the most common is the western painted turtle – the largest of these species that reaches 8 inches.

a small painted turtle

These turtles enjoy commercial aquatic food that satisfies their needs and nutrients. They also enjoy leafy greens such as dandelion greens and parsley, as well as the occasional aquatic plant.

They require a large tank – for a fully grown single male, a 40-gallon tank will do. They will need a basking spot, UVB light, and a heat source. These turtles can cohabitate with other turtles as long as the tank is large enough as they are sociable, but they do not enjoy handling.

Musk Turtle

Unlike the previous turtles whose names are related to their physical appearance, musk turtles are given their name due to the musky, foul odor they produce when they feel threatened. Lovely. Their other nickname is Stinkpot.

These turtles can be quite a handful, even if they do only reach 3-5 inches in length. They can live between 30 and 50 years and can be quite feisty. Therefore, they require owners who have had previous experience in keeping turtles.

If they feel uncomfortable they will let you know, as they have a tendency to scratch or stretch their neck out to bite a potential threat. They probably aren’t the best pet turtles for children.

Musk turtles are nocturnal and prefer shallow water, though they do need a basking surface which they hardly use. These turtles are mostly carnivorous, but they do eat commercially produced turtle food.

Mud Turtle

Mud turtles deservedly get their name due to their favorite habitats: shallow ponds with muddy bottoms.

They’re quite similar to musk turtles in behavior: they’re pretty grumpy and will naturally want to bite with their little beaked mouth if they feel threatened. Ranging between 3-5 inches, they may be little but they are fierce.

These turtles do not bask much at all, but they will require a basking area with a heat lamp. The water should never fall beneath 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mud turtles can be fairly picky, and only sometimes will they accept commercially produced turtle food. They are more carnivorous, as in the wild, they eat fish, worms, crustaceans, and amphibians. They also enjoy chicken, shrimp, mealworms, and krills crickets.

Also similar to the musk turtle, mud turtles will produce a foul smell when they feel threatened. Therefore, they are not recommended for regular handling as they can also be prone to biting. Intermediate-level keepers are required.

Also read: Do Turtles Bite?

Diamondback Terrapin

Diamondback terrapins stand out for their gorgeous diamond-patterned carapace.

The color and design vary for each terrapin, as some shells can be brown or grey and the bodies can range from white to yellow to brown to grey.

Diamondback Terrapin

Due to their beautiful appearance, these terrapins are unfortunately a protected species that may require a permit depending on your state’s laws. It is therefore important to buy these animals properly, which we will discuss later.

These terrapins range between 5-7 inches in length and can last up to 30 years. Due to their rarity and protected status, they can be quite expensive, costing between $250 and $400.

They are fairly simple to care for, with each terrapin needing at least 40 gallons of water. They require a basking area and UV light, with the temperature around the mid-80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Their diet is mostly carnivorous, though they can eat commercially produced turtle food also. They enjoy insects such as mealworms and fish such as shrimp. Due to their large webbed feet and strong jaws, they like to crush shellfish and snails.

Box Turtle

Box turtles are unique because they spend most of their time on land, so they require a terrarium home as opposed to an aquarium. Each variation of the box turtle species will have its own specific requirements, such as humidity, basking, and salty water.

Visually, they are similar to tiny tortoises, and they reach between 4-7 inches in length. Their shells are the shape of high domes with tiny heads. In the wild, they can live up to 100 years, whilst in captivity, they live to around 40.

As mentioned before, they require a mostly dry environment, but will still need water – though they aren’t the best swimmers. They can eat commercially produced turtle food, as well as leafy greens and insects, and meat. Box turtles, like any other turtle, require a UVB light if they are indoors.

These turtles are good beginner pets, but they can have complex behavior. They are susceptible to stress and can get anxious when being held constantly which causes them to nip. They are not the best pets for children to handle.

Also read: Can Box Turtles Swim?

Why small turtles make good pets

Small turtles are one of the most popular reptile pets, due to their compact size, simple maintenance, and simple beauty. Whilst they do require a suitable aquarium or terrarium, their size means that they do not take up much space in comparison to other pets.

There are over 200 species of small turtles in the world, but only some of them maintain their small size throughout their lives – including the ones we have mentioned above.

Small turtles may be low maintenance compared to a dog, but they still require care and maintenance. Whilst some small turtles can be unfriendly and not enjoy handling, some will get used to their keepers over time, making them loveable pets.

They will also require a clean tank every 3 weeks, as well as fresh water regularly. It is worth getting a small container for these cleaning sessions and for vet trips. They only need to be fed around 4 or 5 times a week.

It is important to know the gender of your turtle, as small turtles are mostly sexually dimorphic and will show other characteristics of sex differences than their reproductive organs. Males are usually smaller than females, for example.

Where to Buy Small Turtles

Before you even consider buying a small turtle, you need to be aware of your state’s laws and regulations on owning a turtle.

Some areas have strict bans on owning species such as box turtles as they are an endangered species in their native area, and therefore need to be protected in the wild. You may require a permit for owning turtles and reptiles depending on where you live.

The best way to buy small turtles is through certified breeders and dealers. It is best to see the turtles in the environment that they are currently in to get a clearer understanding of their requirements. You can also meet the breeders or dealers, which means you can ask for documents.

The main thing you should do is to do your research extensively and to ask for professional advice from a vet. Unfortunately, the exotic animal trade can be fickle, and some dealers may lie about the health of the turtle (or the fact that some won’t stay small forever) and sell them regardless.

This cannot be stressed enough, but never take a turtle from its natural habitat. Wild turtles are important for maintaining their own ecosystems, which benefits larger biodiversity and keeps the planet running smoothly.

Small turtles are also often endangered due to habitat destruction and hunting for their meat and shells. Females especially need to be left alone to allow them to reproduce.

It is also recommended to avoid street sellers, as this would be investing money into the bad side of the exotic animal trade.

Small Turtle’s Habitat

Small turtles can live many years, so they require a suitable habitat to remain in. It cannot be overcrowded, as much as most small turtles can cohabitate with other small turtles.

As mentioned before, the general rule of thumb is to allow 10 gallons of water per inch of one turtle: if a turtle is 4 inches long, they need around 40 gallons of water. This does depend on the species, however, as some turtles require more or less water depending on how much they enjoy basking.

The basking area is vital in every aquarium or terrarium. This is usually an area of rock or stones or logs out of the water and underneath a UVB light. The point of basking in indoor environments is to mimic the sun’s natural light and warmth that reptiles require to regulate their temperature. When they need to cool down, they will swim to the depths of the water.

Terrariums are best for land-based turtles such as box turtles, though they will still require some water. We recommend cleaning aquariums and wet enclosures once or twice a month, and dry enclosures every few months. You will need to stay on top of maintaining feces and debris from food and plants.

In the wild, small turtles live in small areas of freshwater including rivers, lakes, and canals. It is important to somewhat replicate these natural areas for a pet turtle, however, these turtles would have been bred in captivity or as pets, so they should only live in what they are used to. A large change of environment could make them uncomfortable for longer until they get used to their new home.

Health Issues

As with most reptiles and especially turtles, small turtles are asymptomatic carriers of salmonella. This means they do not have any side effects from carrying this bacteria but will spread it.

This bacteria, similar to consuming raw chicken, will cause sickness, fever, and diarrhea in humans. To prevent this, frequent and thorough hand washing is required when handling the turtles.

There are several other different illnesses and health issues that could affect small turtles. These include:

  • Scratches on the shell and body
  • Respiratory infections
  • Eye problems
  • Abscesses
  • Overgrown claws

Some of these will not be obvious to the keeper, so it is important to understand the normalities and abnormalities of your small turtle. Some superficial scratches on the shell and skin will heal with regular cleaning, but they can cause infections if left untreated.

Respiratory infections can be caused by cold temperatures and are characterized by breathing problems, lack of appetite and energy, and bubbles from the nose and eyes. Abscesses are usually caused by infections of scratches and injuries.

Overgrown claws can be avoided by regular clipping, as they can curl and embed into the skin. In the wild, this isn’t a problem, as their digging and transportation naturally clip and strengthen their nails.

Also read: Can turtles breath through their butts?


Small turtles are an ideal pet and fascinating species of reptiles.

Despite their size, they are incredibly beneficial to the maintenance of their ecosystems in the wild. Their size is useful for keeping them as pets, as they do not require much room indoors.

Each small turtle species has different behavioral requirements, as some like to be handled more than others, so it is important to do proper research to know which species is right for you.

Regardless of your intentions for wanting a small turtle, you should only adopt or buy one if you are prepared to give them their best life.

Dorothy Razo

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