turtle in the forest

Turtles vs. Tortoises: Which Makes a Better Pet?

When most people enter the world of herpetology for the first time, they often think of starting with a turtle or tortoise. Many people are under the misconception that these creatures live on nothing. They mistakingly get them thinking that as long as they have food and water, that they will live to be 100 years old. However, it takes a certain level of skill to own either a turtle or a tortoise. Let’s talk about what their differences are and what conditions they need to thrive.

Turtles vs. Tortoises

In most of the USA, people call all reptiles that have a shell a turtle. But there is a big difference between the two.

Turtles live most of their day in the water. They have webbed toes to enable them to swim and can spend hours sitting underwater. It’s not uncommon to see some turtles underwater for up to seven hours. Turtles only come up out of the water to breathe and bask.

Tortoises are a land welling reptile. They do not have webbed toes, and can not swim. The tortoise spends most of his days roaming for food, soaking up some sun, and occasionally going for a quick soak.

So as you can see, these two creatures have very different living conditions. For one, you will need an aquarium, and the other a terrarium. For the sake of saving time, we will call both of these creatures turtles. And use the terms “aquatic turtle” and “tortoise” when talking about specific requirements.

Are Turtles Good Pets?

Like every pet, this depends on your situation. Thousands of aquatic turtles are placed for adoption or released into the wild every year because families cannot keep up with their habitats. Aquatic turtles are not the best pets for a first-timer. They have a lot of particular needs that, if not met, could end fatally for your pet. But they are great for teens and adults who have some knowledge of the responsibility of pets. If you have ever owned fish, aquatic turtles are not that far off.

Turtles are also not the best pets for children. Since turtles harbor a bacteria called salmonella, turtles don’t make the best companions for them. And they aren’t a very cuddly creature, so children lose interest quickly.

Are Tortoises Good Pets?

Tortoises are a lot like aquatic turtles and do require a lot of maintenance. Without the proper setup and diet, your tortoise will fade away. If you are new to owning reptiles, there are a few tortoises that make great pets to start. But, if you’ve never owned a pet before, you might find them to be challenging to keep up with.

Like the aquatic species, tortoises do not make good pets for children, and for all of the same reasons.

Pros And Cons Of Owning Turtles

If you feel like you would make a good home for a turtle, you may want to know about the good and the bad. These pros and cons will help you decide if you are capable of taking on your turtle’s needs.

Pros Of Owning A Turtle

  • Turtles of all varieties have incredibly long lifespans. Some tortoises are known to live 50 or more years without a hitch. It just takes good husbandry and love.
  • Aquatic turtles and tortoises are fascinating to watch. Whether your turtle is sleeping with his leg cocked to the side, or munching on greens in that adorable way you will never be bored.
  • Turtles are also surprisingly quiet. They barely make a sound, which can be useful for people who live in apartments.
  • There are over 350 species of aquatic turtles and tortoise. And with each one, they have different requirements and personalities. The more options you have, the more likely you will find one to match your lifestyle.
  • A great pro of owning a turtle of any kind is that there are tons of rescues across the USA. People surrender their turtles every year because they are unable to provide for them. If they do not find homes, their long lives are at risk of being cut short.
  • Another positive thing about turtles is that they are not likely to bite. As long as you have proper handling and don’t hand-feed your turtle, you shouldn’t have any accidents.
  • And finally, turtles don’t need a lot of exercise to keep them happy. If they have an adequate habitat size, there is no need to have to walk your turtle. Unless, of course, you want to. They don’t mind the time in the outdoors eating fresh weeds and flowers.

Cons Of Owning A Turtle

  • Since turtles use basking lights and aquatic turtles have a water filter, you can expect your electric bill to be slightly higher than before. Some might not notice a difference but expect a $10-$20 increase.
  • Another con is that turtles take up a lot of space. Depending on the variety you get, you might end up with a 75-gallon tank for an aquatic turtle or a 4-foot long terrarium. So if you are looking for something that takes up less space, a turtle probably isn’t for you.
  • The biggest con is that they require a lot of attention. Monitoring temperature and lighting systems are a twice-daily task. They also need to be fed fresh foods daily that can take some time to meal plan. And then on top of that, you have cleaning. Aquatic turtles take more time to clean and need it more frequently than tortoises.
  • As mentioned before, turtles are not very cuddly. They do not enjoy being handled and will not be a companion like a dog would.
  • Most people do not think about the price that it takes to set up a turtle of any kind. Both aquatic turtles and tortoises can cost up to $500 to get set up with everything you need. Then on top of that, you will be spending anywhere between $30-$60 a month on food. And if your turtle gets sick, you can expect a specialist visit to cost a lot more.
  • And finally, depending on the type of turtle you get, you might have to worry about hibernation or brumation. If this is not done correctly, you risk shortening your turtle’s life or stunting their growth.

General Turtle Care

Now that you know the good and bad of owning a turtle, you can start thinking about care. Each breed will have particular needs, so it is best to look up what your turtle thrives off of. But here are a few basic turtle care needs.

HABITAT – The first thing that you need to look up is what your turtle will need. Most aquatic turtles need a 75-gallon aquarium and filter to live comfortably. For a smaller turtle, this 20-gallon turtle starter kit at Amazon is an excellent choice. Tortoises are the most comfortable in a terrarium with a screened front. This screened area is how your tortoise will get fresh air and prevent respiratory infections.

BEDDING – Aquatic turtles do not have bedding per se, but they do need a gravel bottom and a hideout with lots of greenery. They also need to have a basking area of land to get out of the water completely. Tortoises need a soil substrate along with other hideouts and greenery. These habitats will both need weekly cleaning.

HEAT LAMPS – All turtles will need to have basking lights and a UVB lamp. Basking lights are what provide warmth within your habitat, and UVB offers vitamin D, which is necessary for calcium absorption. There are many different wattages of lights, so you will need to figure out how large your habitat is and how warm your turtle needs. From there, most lamps have a chart to pick the best wattage for you.

DIET – No matter what type of turtle you get, they all eat a fresh diet. Each turtle has a slightly different food though. Some turtles eat mainly bugs and worms, while others eat more vegetables than anything else. These supplies will need to be bought, stored, and kept alive in some cases in your home.

Health Conditions In Turtles

No one likes a sick pet, and that is why it is essential to familiarize yourself with common illnesses. Most of these illnesses are caused by improper husbandry, but occasionally it can be something inherited.

  • Calcium Deficiency – the most common issue in most reptiles is a calcium deficiency. Signs of this are weakness, soft shell, easily broken bones, and sometimes pyramiding of the shell.
  • Respiratory Illnesses – If your turtle is not getting enough fresh air, it is common for them to get sick with upper respiratory illnesses. You will see a runny nose, wheezing, and sometimes coughing when your turtle has this.
  • Parasites – Your turtle should be checked for parasites shortly after you buy them. Pests are common in turtles because most of them are caught from the wild. Some common signs of parasites are diarrhea and weight loss accompanied by loss of appetite.
  • Shell Rot – This is more common in aquatic turtles, and is the result of bacteria from unclean water enters the bloodstream. This rot will look like slimy slim over your turtle, sometimes a cloudy white area, and a foul smell.

Treatment for these illnesses is possible if caught soon enough. And you can expect a speedy recovery.

Popular Aquatic Turtles

Red-eared slider

Now that you know the basics, its time to pick what type of turtle you would like. From here, you can do even more research into what your turtle will need.

  • Red-Eared Slider – These are the most common of all aquatic turtles. These turtles are very enthusiastic and can be very active during the day. They love to swim and bask most of their days.
  • Razor-Back Musk – These turtles are unique. They have beautiful markings and don’t get as large as other turtles. Their smaller size means that you can use a smaller tank.
  • African Sideneck – These turtles always look like they are giving you a goofy grin. They are very active and love to explore.

Popular Tortoises

trio of popular types of tortoises - Mediterranean Spur-Thigh - Russian - Hermann's
Mediterranean Spur-Thigh | Russian | Hermann’s
  • Mediterranean Spur-Thigh – These tortoises are fun to watch and are the most active of all the tortoises.
  • Russian – These tortoises are some of the most common for the first time tortoise owner. They can be found in almost every pet store and are very easy to take care of.
  • Hermann’s – These tortoises are also very common and have a beautiful shell. They are curious creatures and love to explore.

What do you think? Do you think that an aquatic turtle or tortoise is the right pet for you?

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