Turtles make awesome pets, but it isn’t always easy to determine the best species of turtle to keep as a pet.
People have different expectations and requirements to owning turtles - some want a turtle with a long lifespan, some want a turtle that will stay small forever, some will want a turtle with a gorgeous and colorful shell.
It isn’t as easy as just choosing a popular turtle species and hoping for the best, because they all have their own specific requirements and needs. Owning a turtle is a big commitment, they are aquatic reptiles that will need a pond, aquarium, or terrarium environment that is sufficient for them.
If you want to start your research for finding the best pet turtle for you, then you have come to the right place. We have examined and explored the 6 best pet turtles, even with a top pick turtle, as well as a general care guide for owning a new reptilian pet.
The Top 6 Pet Turtles
The red-eared slider, also known as a pond slider or slider turtle, is the most popular turtle species to own as a pet in the United States. They are distinct for their namesake red marks by their ears.
These small turtles grow up to 6 or 12 inches in length, and can live between 20 and 40 years with good care.
These turtles are primarily aquatic, so they will require an aquarium or pond enclosure with a basking area and UV light to regulate their temperature. They require a diet of commercially produced turtle food, shrimp, and insects.
One thing that pet turtles tend to lack in is levels of affection, because most species aren’t fond of constant handling. These red-eared sliders, however, don’t mind being handled. This makes them ideal for a family with children, as they are not prone to biting or scratching.
Though they may seem simple to care for, this does not mean they are low maintenance. All reptile pets require specific care and energy, especially as they can live for so long. This will be a long commitment to make, as these turtles can make a brilliant pet and deserve a good home.
Eastern Box Turtle
Eastern box turtles are actually similar to tortoises, due to their dome-shaped shell and are not aquatic. These little turtles prefer a terrarium environment, but will need access to water in their enclosure.
They are best kept indoors, as they may escape in an outdoor enclosure and may become prey to other animals.
These small turtles can grow up to 7 inches, and they can live anywhere between 40 and 100 years. This is a huge commitment that you must consider before buying any turtle, as they are likely to outlive you or need a new home once you cannot care for them.
They will generally eat anything, but their best diet includes live insects and grubs, and a variety of vegetables. Feeding a turtle is the best opportunity to bond with them, as they will gain a sense of trust and fondness overtime.
They don’t enjoy being handled as much as a red-eared slider, but after bonding with their keeper they can be calm and friendly when being held.
The painted turtle is the most native turtle of North America, and has four geographical subspecies - including the western painted turtle, eastern painted turtle, midland painted turtle, and southern painted turtle. These turtles can grow between 4 and 8 inches and can live up to 30 years with good care.
These turtles are probably the most low maintenance on our list. They look gorgeous, firstly, and they mostly eat fuss-free commercially produced turtle food.
They are aquatic and will require an aquarium or pond environment, with a basking area and UV light. They really like the warmth, and will spend most of the day basking in the heat from the UV light or the sun.
Painted turtles are sociable and can live harmoniously with other small turtles, but always prepare an area for hiding just in case there’s a predominant bully in the tank. These turtles don’t mind being held, just only handle them when necessary (ie for inspecting their health).
Map turtles are given their name for the markings on their shell that resemble contour lines. These are gorgeous little turtles that range from 4 to 10 inches in length, and can live between 30 and 50 years with good care. Females do tend to be larger, however, and will therefore require a larger tank.
Speaking of care, these turtles are also fairly low maintenance. Map turtles are hardy, and require a diet of commercial turtle food as well as insects and vegetables to assure they get all of their nutrients.
These turtles are aquatic and will require an aquarium or pond enclosure, with a basking area and UV light. They are most ideal for beginner turtle owners.
African Aquatic Sideneck Turtle
In terms of appearance, the African aquatic sideneck turtle is rather unique-looking. These fellas got their name from their necks that cannot tuck inside their shell, so their heads go to the side instead. Their faces are also permanently smiling, which is adorable.
These turtles grow between 7-12 inches, though they require a larger tank than other turtles of this size. As their name suggests, these turtles are aquatic and will also require a basking space with a UV lamp.
They usually live up to 30 years. African sideneck turtles like to eat cooked meat, including chicken and fish, as well as vegetables such as romaine lettuce.
These turtles differ from North American turtles in that they do not hibernate, they are active all year round. More time to enjoy their little smiling faces! They are, however, less common than North American turtles and are harder to find.
Whilst most other turtles are given their names due to their appearance, the musk turtles are given their names due to the musky, foul smell they produce when they feel threatened.
Not quite as poetic as the painted or map turtle, but still quite amusing. These turtles can reach up to 6 inches in length and live up to 20 years, which is ideal if you aren’t looking for a super long-term turtle.
Musk turtles are aquatic, though they prefer shallow water to swim in, and they require a basking area and a UV light. They will eat just about anything, ranging from commercial turtle food to insects and fish.
These turtles are naturally quite shy and anxious, so they will take time to (metaphorically and sometimes literally) come out of their shell. They can be handled, but they generally do not enjoy it. They are best suited for display pets.
The Best Pet Turtle
If we had to pick the best all-rounder turtle to keep as a pet, we would probably go with the red-eared slider.
There’s a reason they are the most popular pet turtle species in North America, and it’s because of their straight-forward maintenance and relaxed behaviour. For a family with children, this is most ideal as the turtles can be handled without wanting to bite or scratch.
Keeping a Turtle as a Pet: An Overview
Turtles are a super ideal pet, because whilst they have their own specific requirements, they are much more low maintenance than a lot of other pets.
Due to the size of small turtles, they do not require a huge amount of space for their enclosure - whether this is indoors or outdoors. However, this does not mean that you can simply ignore them.
Habitat for a Pet Turtle
Most turtles are aquatic, so they will require an aquarium or pond enclosure. This can be either indoors or outdoors.
If you choose to have an aquarium indoors, the turtles will be lacking the sun - so you will need to create a designated basking area with a UV light to replicate the warmth from the sun.
Likewise with an outdoor enclosure, in the colder months turtles will struggle with the temperature, so it may be worth having the pond in a greenhouse to maintain the heat.
A basking area is essential for all turtles. This could be an area of rocks that stand out from the water, or several logs. In the wild, turtles will lay or stand on these surfaces to soak up the warmth of the sun to help regulate their temperature.
They are reptiles, after all. Likewise, turtles will require hiding areas that are lower to the bed of the water to cool down or take cover if they are feeling anxious. This can be achieved by lower rocks and aquatic plants.
We recommend avoiding sharp rocks, as turtles can risk scratching their shells and skin which can create nasty infections.
In terms of the tank size, the general rule of thumb is to allow at least 10 gallons of water per inch of a turtle - for example, 30-40 gallons of water for a 4 inch turtle. This can vary, however, as some turtles prefer larger enclosures than others who aren’t as aquatic.
Terrariums are the best option for turtles who aren’t predominantly aquatic, like the box turtle. This is essentially a large basking area, or something similar to a tortoise enclosure. This is more beneficial for those who don’t want to regularly clean and change the water from the tank. They will still need access to water, regardless.
Speaking of cleaning, it is recommended to clean a wet enclosure (an aquarium or pond) once or twice a month. This is to ensure the cleanliness of the water to prevent infections from dirt.
Dry enclosures like terrariums will need to be cleaned once every few months. Obviously, if you notice that their enclosure is dirty, it will need to be cleaned as and when.
Each species of turtle will have different dietary requirements. For the majority of them, however, they can exist off a primarily commercial diet of produced turtle food. This food is designed to give the turtles all of their vital nutrients.
Turtles will usually eat just about anything. They mostly enjoy leafy greens such as dandelions and vegetables, as well as insects or even meat. Some also enjoy small fish such as krill and shrimp.
Providing the right care for a pet turtle is vital to maintaining a good quality of life, as there are unfortunately several health issues that can arise in poor care conditions.
Turtles are asymptomatic carriers of salmonella bacteria, which does not affect them, but can cause sickness in humans.
Much like how humans avoid consuming raw chicken, it is really important to wash your hands thoroughly after handling turtles. This is especially important for young children who are more likely to put their fingers in their mouths.
As mentioned before, sharp rocks and interior objects can scratch the shell or skin of a turtle. Whilst some scratches can be healed by proper cleaning (disinfecting the wound, taking out debris, and then bandaging them up), some superficial wounds can lead to nasty infections.
This includes shell rot, which is when bacteria builds up in the scratch of the shell and creates an infection. It is therefore vital to examine your turtles regularly to understand what is normal and abnormal for their shells, as this could save large vet bills in the future.
Other health issues include respiratory problems, dehydration, eye problems, overgrown claws or beak, and viral infections. All can be avoided with a proper routine and regular cleaning, as well as trips to the vet.
Where to Buy a Turtle
Buying a turtle is, unfortunately, not as easy as going to a pet shop and buying whatever. Extensive research is required, from researching the species of turtle, where it is best to buy it from, and whether you can legally buy one.
In North America, different states have varying laws and regulations on owning a turtle, as they are considered part of the exotic animal trade. You will need to be aware of your state’s laws, and it is always best to check with your local wildlife association which will also give useful information.
The best way to buy a turtle is through an established breeder or dealer. This way you can meet and examine the turtles and their environment in real life. You can give them a physical examination, and get a rough idea of how genuine the breeder or dealer is.
This can be a fickle business, however, as some dealers and breeders are unfortunately only in the trade for the money. They can often lie about health issues or the turtle species for the sake of selling, so make sure to do your own research prior to this.
Never buy a pet from a street seller, as this will be contributing to the bad side of the exotic animal trade.
If in doubt, it is always best to ask for advice from a vet or local wildlife authority.
When You Can’t Look After the Turtle Anymore
Due to the lifespan of turtles, there is always a chance that a turtle will outlive you if they have been cared for properly.
You will have to be aware of this prior to making the commitment, as you will need to make preparations for their next home. This could be with family or friends who you trust.
Some breeders or dealers may be able to take the turtle back, if you ask. It is also worth contacting your local vet or wildlife authority who may be able to provide advice or a new home that they can recommend.
Turtles make awesome pets. They are beautiful, fascinating, and fairly low maintenance compared to other pets.
With good and committed care, these animals can live long and healthy lives.