Turtles: The Complete Guide to Caring for Pet Turtles

Turtles have a broad, sleek shell as well as non-retractable heads and limbs. Sea turtles, unlike other turtles, are unable to pull their limbs and heads into their shells. They are fragile on land because their limbs are flippers that have been modified for swimming. The massive, bony shell of a sea turtle protects them against predators and abrasions.

The species determine the shell’s shape, size, and color. The carapace is the top side of the shell, and the plastron is the bottom side. The shell of all species save the leatherback turtle species is coated in a layer of horny plates known as scutes. Scientists use scutes and their patterns and number to identify sea turtle species.

Many turtle species are given names based on morphological characteristics. The leatherback turtle, for example, is named from its shell, which is leather-like rather than hard like that of other turtles.

How big are turtles?

The fact is that different species of turtles are sized differently. A turtle species only measures about 4 inches in length (the Chersobius signatus belonging to South Africa). Some turtles can grow to be about 500 kilograms heavy and about 9 feet in length.

Therefore, you will have to seriously consider the amount of space you can dedicate to your turtle in your home. It’s not exactly ideal to have a 500-kilogram reptile roaming around your living room after all!

What are turtle shells made of?

A turtle’s shell is the only one of its kind among vertebrates, and it protects the animal from the environment.

Turtle

It is mostly made of hard bone and is divided into two sections: the carapace, which typically has 50–60 bones and covers the animal’s back, and the plastron, which contains only 7–11 bones and covers the animal’s belly. The plastron’s lateral extensions link them.

The upper portion of the shell, the carapace, also merges with the ribcage and vertebrate column of the turtle’s posterior. In contrast, the under-belly part, the plastron, comprises the breastbone girdle and gastralia of the anterior portion of the turtle’s body.

The outermost covering of the shell, referred to as scutes, is actually made of the same type of protein that our nails and hair are made ofkeratin.

Turtle shells also have a certain amount of flexibility, albeit this flexibility of shells vary from species to species.

At the risk of a little technicality, some turtle species, such as box turtles, lack the extensions and instead have their carapace bones fused or ankylosed together to form a single unit.

Several species have hinges on their shells that allow them to extend and compress, mainly on the plastron. Due to the lack of bones, softshell turtles have rubbery edges.

The leatherback turtle’s shell comprises thick connective tissue covered in leathery skin, with very few bones.

How does a turtle breathe?

Underwater Photography of Turtle

It is quite fascinating to know that despite the fact that many turtles spend much of their lives underwater, they all breathe air and must surface at regular intervals to replenish their lungs. Immersion times range from a minute to an hour, depending on the species.

Some animals can breathe through their cloaca, made up of enormous sacs coated with numerous finger-like projections that absorb dissolved oxygen from the water.

Which is the strongest of the turtle’s senses?

A turtle’s visual senses are, by far, the strongest of all of its senses. Turtles utilize their vision to locate food and partners, avoid predators, and navigate.

Black and Yellow Turtle on Brown Sand

The retina’s light-sensitive cells include both rods for low-light vision and cones with three separate photopigments for full-color vision in strong light. The fourth type of cone may detect UV light, as hatchling sea turtles respond to ultraviolet light in the lab.

Still, it’s unclear if they can discriminate it from longer wavelengths. The red-eared slider, a type of freshwater turtle, has seven different cone cells, giving it an excellent ability to distinguish between colors!

Sea turtles use visual cues recognized in weak light to navigate themselves on land at night. They can see in clear surface water, muddy beaches, the deep ocean’s darkness, and even above water.

Because the cornea, the curved surface that permits light into the eye, does not assist in focusing light on the retina as it does in terrestrial turtles, focusing underwater is solely handled by the lens, which is located beneath the cornea.

What is the Best Pet Turtle Food?

Before telling you what you should be feeding your pet turtle, you will first have to ascertain whether your turtle is omnivorous, carnivorous, insectivorous, or herbivorous.

Most turtle species are opportunistic omnivores, with land turtles being more herbivorous and water turtles tending to be carnivorous. Most turtles eat plant matter or immobile creatures like mollusks, worms, and insect larvae since they lack quickness.

Fish, amphibians, reptiles (including other turtles), birds, and mammals are eaten by some species, such as the African helmeted turtle and snapping turtles. They may ambush them or forage for them.

The alligator snapping turtle’s tongue features a worm-like extension that it employs to attract fish. Many turtle species enrich their regular diet with eggshells, animal bones, hair, and even droppings for extra nutrition.

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Here is a rough sketch of some of the foods you can feed your pet turtle!

Vegetables and fruits

Dark and leafy veggies like kale, collard, and mustard greens, cut, are the greatest vegetables that you can include in your pet turtle’s diet. Turtles can also consume shredded carrots, squash, and zucchini, among other things.

Water lettuce, water hyacinth, and duckweed are options if your pet turtle prefers edible aquatic vegetation. Shredded apples and melons, as well as diced berries, are good options for fruits.

Turtle owners and caregivers can add reptile calcium and vitamin powders to fruits and vegetables.

Commercially available food pellets for turtles

Commercially available food pellets should form the bulk of your pet turtle’s daily diet. The reason is that these pellets have wholesome nutrition that ensures that your turtle stays healthy.

Some minerals and vitamins that your turtle may fall short of on a natural diet that you provide can be covered up by these food pellets.

Some types of fish and insects

Fish and some insects are fantastic sources of clean protein along with essential vitamins and minerals. Supplementing your pet turtle’s diet with fish and insects can go a long way in helping your turtle meet its nutritional requirements!

Behavioral Tendencies in Turtles

Turtles, Reptiles, Animals

Communication in turtles

Turtles may not be the most sociable creatures. They are certainly not as expressive as animals like ravens, dogs, cats, and other animals. They do, however, communicate with one another.

Rather, it would be more apt to say that turtles need to communicate if they want to survive in their natural wild habitats. Turtles have evolved to employ non-verbal forms of communication to express a wide range of information since they lack vocal cords, to begin with.

They can also make hissing and other low-frequency noises. Turtles only have a few means of communicating compared to other birds and mammals, but these gentle prehistoric creatures have been around for a long time (220 million years).

This is due to communication methods that have obviously worked for centuries!

Turtles are intelligent creatures.

Turtles depend on two main types of intelligence – experiential and instinctive. These types of intelligence will not help you teach it to roll or fetch or do anything that a pet dog would do. However, bear in mind that its intelligence has enabled it to survive for centuries altogether.

Turtles can learn things like who their caregiver or owner is, what they should and should not eat, and anything else that will help them stay alive. Therefore, albeit intelligent, their intelligence is of a different type than animals like dogs and cats.

Defense mechanisms used by turtles

The most obvious defense mechanism is naturally retreating into its foolhardy shell. Freshwater turtles take asylum in the water. However, some types of turtles may seek shelter from danger on land due to the shallow temporary ponds in which it lives.

A softshell turtle may dive underwater and bury itself beneath the seafloor if alarmed. The turtle may bite or discharge from its cloaca if the predator persists. Several species use musk glands to produce foul-smelling compounds.

Threat displays and the Bell’s hinge-back tortoise’s ability to play dead are two further techniques. Big-headed turtle hatchlings squeal when assaulted, perhaps frightening the predator.

Migration tendencies in the turtle species

Turtles have also been known to be the sole reptile species that actively migrate over long distances. In fact, scientists say that turtles may use the Earth’s magnetic fields along with a technique known as ‘imprinting on salmon’ to navigate back to their original nesting site!

How do Turtles Reproduce?

Turtle, Turtles, Kiss, Couple, Encounter

Courtship rituals in turtles

Mating season for turtles usually takes place in water that is between 50 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit in the spring, summer, and fall. When a male turtle pursues a female turtle, and they meet face, that’s when the courtship ritual begins.

Typically the way these proceeds is that the male strokes the female’s neck and face with his front claws, and if the female is interested, she returns a similar gesture. This process is repeated until the female approaches the bottom of the pool, signifying to her partner that she is ready to copulate.

However, terrestrial tortoises and turtles live and mate on land. Thus their courtship rituals are a little tougher. Male turtles can even choose to immobilize female turtles by biting or nipping at their head, neck, limbs, and front carapace.

Copulation may include shell bumping, with the male nodding, squealing, or grunting.

Eggs and hatchlings

Sea Turtle, Baby, Young, Survival, Beach

Turtles lay their first clutch of eggs three to six weeks after mating on average. A majority of turtles construct a nest on a safe site on the land before laying their eggs.

The pregnant female turtle spends less time in the water and more time on land during the last few weeks of her pregnancy, sniffing and clawing at the ground, trying to choose the ideal spot to lay her eggs.

Turtles usually build their nests in a warm location with sandy or damp soil. Turtles will also avoid scouring the ground and building a nesting site if the weather becomes too hot. They can spend days before the weather cools down, and they can resume their digging.

The turtle digs a nest using her hind legs and then deposits the eggs after it is complete. Turtles Larger lay larger eggs and have more eggs each clutch. The turtle’s work as a mother is virtually done once she lays her eggs.

Female turtles can actually retain sperm in their bodies, notably in the oviduct or the Fallopian Tube, which can hold up to three clutches of eggs and can last up to three years.

Every year, many turtles and tortoises lay many clutches of eggs, and a single clutch of eggs might have multiple fathers. Incubation takes 45 to 75 days for most turtles, depending on the temperature inside the egg.

Warmer temperatures hasten development, while cooler temperatures hasten it. A fresh turtle hatchling’s egg teeth, which falls off about an hour after hatching and usually never grows back, split open the egg.

Interestingly enough, a newborn turtle’s body and shell uncurl only after hatching. The young turtle will have a little yolk sac emerging from its plastron when it emerges from the eggshell (the underside of the shell).

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It looks and functions similarly to the mammalian placenta that remains connected at delivery in humans and other mammals, and it’s located just where a “belly button” would be. Further, the yolk sack also served as food for the young turtle’s nutritional needs for the first few living days!

Lifespan

The fact is that the lifespan of a turtle varies with where it is situated, i.e., its natural habitat and what species it belongs to.

Obviously, true to the lore, there are some turtles that have lived longer lives than multiple generations of human beings, while others have lived only for about 30 or 35 years of age. Usually, the larger the size of a turtle, the longer its life expectancy.

Speaking specifically about pet turtles’ lifespan, they can live to be anywhere between 10 years of age and 80 years of age. However, sea turtles have their own to live as old as 120 or even 150 years of age!

Natural Habitat of the Turtle Species

The natural habitat of the turtle species, in general, is too vast to restrict to one specific region. However, even though turtles have adapted to a wide range of habitats, the vast majority of turtle species can be found in southeastern North America and South Asia.

Turtle, Baby Turtle, Beach, Hatchling

Most species live in bodies of water. These bodies of water could be as small as ponds or as large as rivers and seas. Tortoises are entirely terrestrial, whereas other types of turtles spend time on both land and water.

The turtle species can typically be narrowed down to specific regions. For example, the gopher tortoise and the Eastern box turtle, for example, are both terrestrial and live in the southern United States.

Still, they are rarely seen together because the box turtle prefers moist forest, and the gopher tortoise prefers open woodlands on sand ridges.

Although the eastern mud turtle is often thought of as an aquatic turtle, it is dormant summer months, nesting beneath vegetation in forests near ponds and streams.

The alligator snapping turtle resides on the United States Gulf Coast’s deep, slow-moving streams and backwaters. You can read about the specific habitats of the different species of turtles in our dedicated articles for them too!

Types of Turtles

Red Eared Slider

The red-eared slider is likely one of the most popular pet turtles in the world. Because the Red-Eared Slider is so popular, they are readily available and simple to obtain as pets. These turtles are attractive, gregarious, and friendly, and they are usually busy all day.

They enjoy swimming but are normally kept indoors to avoid being exposed to the outdoors. They can, however, live outside if the weather is warm and the environment is suitable.

UV lighting for warmth, plenty of space to bask, and a water source to spend time in should all be included in indoor housing.

African Sideneck Turtle

What sets this species of turtles apart from its counterparts is that they can’t bring their heads into the safety of their shells like most turtles.

It might also be difficult to keep the African side-necked turtle as a pet because, to swim, they require a great volume of absolutely clean water. You also have to be mindful of the weather you keep it in because these turtles do not perform well in temperatures below 70 degrees.

They prefer lettuce, shredded carrots, and other food as healthy and inexpensive snacks that they may have daily.

Eastern Box Turtle

All you need to know about Eastern Box turtles is that they are tiny, don’t enjoy being handled, are generally shy, and require humidity to maintain their respiratory health!

At times, you might be able to use food and treats to bring it out its hidey-hole and socialize a bit, but it would be best not to expect much from the Eastern box turtle species. 

Western Painted Turtle

The shells of the Western Painted aquatic turtles have a unique design that makes them quite different and fascinating to observe. One of the best ways to ensure their long-term good health is to ensure that the water in their water tank stays fresh and clean at all times!

Further, you will have to provide their enclosure with one basking light to satisfy their natural light requirements. The Western Painted Turtle is a shy animal. This is why it would rather hide than interact with you directly.

It does not particularly mind being in the limelight as long as it does not need to approach you or come too close. 

Mississippi Map Turtle

One reason why the Mississippi Map Turtle makes for a great pet is its lifespan of 30 years. Albeit less than most other species of turtles, it still means that at least you will be able to love it and care for it till you can!

As an owner of one of these species, you must remember that these small turtles are shy and fearful of harsh noises and disturbance. Their enclosures should be far away from the noise and constant activity.

If you can ensure peace to your Mississippi Map turtle, you can rest assured of the fact that your turtle will live a long and healthy life free of health issues.

Common Musk Turtle

Another popular pet turtle, the Common Musk Turtle, is as common as its name suggests and may be found in pet stores all around the world.

The fact that you won’t have to worry about maintaining them too meticulously is one of the reasons why you can consider bringing home this turtle as your first pet turtle!

Bear in mind that the common musk turtle can show aggression if handled beyond its liking and release a foul odor as a defense mechanism. Furthermore, they dislike swimming and, as a result, are poor swimmers. 

Spotted Turtle

The Spotted turtle species are obviously so-called due to the patched pattern on their turtle covers. This species actually has a long lifespan, with some living to be centenarians.

Therefore, you must ensure that the turtle will be looked after by your family too if you choose to buy one of these.

Since they eat a diversified diet, you can feed them foods including leafy greens, peas, other vegetables, and fruit and meat. These turtles only need a little room to be content and, therefore, are great pets for children too!

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Yellow-Bellied Slider

These are tough, tiny aquatic or sea turtles who also follow a sleep cycle similar to human beings. Therefore most yellow-bellied slider turtles prefer to sleep at night and be active in the day.

Since these turtles are quite common pets, you can easily find them at pretty reasonable costs in a pet turtle market. Being natural sea turtles, they are also good swimmers and prefer the water over land to spend time in. 

Reeve’s Turtle

The Reeve’s turtle is a carnivorous species that is not only adorable to look at but also makes for a great first-time pet! Further, it does not require a family commitment like some larger turtles do because its life expectancy is about 15 years of age.

The one physical characteristic that is common to all Reeve’s turtles is their longitudinal stripes that are usually found in trios on their shells.

Wood Turtle

The Wood turtle is a shallow-water species of turtle that is pretty small, and therefore, makes for a convenient pet!

Their most striking feature is the dome shape that is created by the carapace of their shell, along with the uniquely colored lines that span the entireties of their shells!

Leatherback Sea Turtle

Even though you can’t keep the leatherback sea turtle as your pet, it was still worth mentioning since the leatherback turtle is one of the most popular species and is now on the brink of extinction.

Leatherback turtles source their name from the fact that their shell is leathery rather than hard like other turtles’. They are the largest and most migratory sea turtle species, spanning both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Every summer and fall, Pacific leatherbacks migrate from their nesting grounds in the Coral Triangle to the California coast to dine on the abundant jellyfish.

Green Sea Turtle

The green sea turtle is probably the largest marine or sea turtle species that is also a herbivore.

The greenish tint of their cartilage and fat is what gives green turtles their name, not their shells, contrary to popular belief. Green turtles are primarily found in tropical and subtropical environments.

Common Snapping Turtle

The common snapping turtle is a large species of turtle that is named after its strong jaws and a tendency to snap using its strong jaws! Bear in mind that snapping turtles are known to be aggressive toward anything that it perceives as dangerous.

How Can You Take Care of Pet Turtle and Decide Whether it’s the Right Pet for You?

Person Holding Black and White Turtle

Taking good care of a pet turtle isn’t a job everyone can undertake. If you wish to bring home a pet turtle, you need to make sure you are well-equipped to care for it in the best manner possible!

The amount of space and care you can dedicate to it is something you will have to consider before you can even decide whether or not a turtle is right for you!

Housing your pet turtle

It will be ideal if you buy an enclosure for your pet turtle, depending on its species and size. Once you have selected the ideal size for your pet turtle’s enclosure, you will need to add bedding to it.

The substrate, or bedding material, should be easy to clean and specifically turtle-safe. Butcher paper, newspaper, towels, or, better yet, artificial turf are all good options.

If you’re using Astroturf, buy two pieces and cut them to suit the cage’s bottom. One portion is kept within the cage, and the other is kept outside the cage and is constantly clean. You’ll always have a fresh and dry piece to replace the turf inside the cage if it becomes soiled.

Clean the filthy turf with regular soap and water (do not use harsher products unless your reptile doctor recommends them), thoroughly rinse it, and hang it to dry until the next cage cleaning.

Regulate the temperature of its enclosure

Turtles are cold-blooded creatures that require a consistent temperature to thrive. Turtles prefer a temperature of 60 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit to dwell in. Therefore, the temperature in its enclosure is something you will have to be attentive to.

Some turtles may survive in temperatures as low as 50 degrees at night, but anything lower than that can cause them to hibernate or get ill. For aquatic turtles, it is best to heat the water and incorporate a basking light to warm the air in the tank.

Keep a watch on your turtle’s hibernation patterns.

You should consult your veterinarian regarding the expected hibernation patterns of the species of your pet turtle.

Depending on that time duration, you will have to create the best environment possible for your pet turtle to hibernate in. These hibernating spaces must be free of any disturbance and intrusions.

They Are A Big Time Commitment

Turtles live for a minimum of 10 years as pets. Additionally, it’s not a straightforward task to maintain a pet turtle.

Therefore, you will have to ensure that you can dedicate the time, not only on a daily or weekly basis but also on a yearly basis, since your turtle will live a long life when you care for it properly!

Handing turtles is a big NO.

While it may seem enticing to hold your pet turtle and seek wisdom from it (like in Kung Fu Panda), you should avoid it.

Unwanted physical contact can be a harrowing experience for your pet turtle. Therefore, your turtle is a pet animal best enjoyed from a distance.

Turtles Can Get Too Large For Captivity

Some breeds of turtles can grow to be about 5 feet or more. Naturally, it is not always possible to keep a reptile that big in a domestic setting.

Therefore, be sure to buy or adopt a turtle of a breed that grows to a manageable size!

FAQs

Can I release my pet turtle into the wild?

No, you can’t release your pet turtle into the wild.

Do turtles make good pets for kids?

No, turtles aren’t good pets for kids since they have high maintenance needs and need a protected environment to thrive in.

How much does it cost, on average, to own a turtle?

Owning a pet turtle can cost anywhere between $500 and $1500, to buy one, in addition to the cost of veterinary visits and any medication that may be required.

Is a turtle a reptile?

Yes, a turtle is a reptile.

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Gulshan
Hi, I am Gulshan, a pet blogger, and author. I've been working with the local pet groups for the past five years. I have been fascinated by our pets and am here to share that wonder with you.