Pet Turtle Guide: What You Need to Know

Written by AZ Animals Staff
Updated: April 3, 2022

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Before Buying a Turtle

It is surprisingly easy to buy a turtle to keep as a pet. But many people do not do their research first and, as a result, experience many surprises after taking their new pet home. For example, did you know that many turtles can live more than 50 years? This makes being a good pet owner much more than just providing a clean habitat and food for the reptile. Turtle ownership is a long-term commitment with many responsibilities.

Being responsible with a pet turtle starts with learning what type of species you want before making your purchase. Research its average lifespan and how big it will get in adulthood. What do you need to care for your turtle or tortoise? How big should the species’ habitat be? Sadly, most people fail to provide a habitat of the right size for their pet reptile. Many use the wrong materials in the habitat, making the turtle uncomfortable, causing health problems and possibly even limiting their life.

Your turtle’s health hinges on having the right type and size of habitat. It also relies on providing an environment of the right temperature. If the temperature where they live is slightly higher or lower than their optimum range, the animal can get sick and die. The same is true of humidity within their habitat. They can also get deathly ill if their aquarium or cage is not kept clean.

Another important consideration about your potential pet is whether the species is prone to biting. Some can cause serious injuries to people and other pets. These bites, or even just handling your pet, can also transmit bacterial infections like salmonella. For these reasons, choose the right species for your household and have the animal screened by a licensed vet for the salmonella virus.

With so many considerations and factors affecting a turtle’s survival, get to know your turtle species before adoption. Have their appropriately-sized habitat ready in a space of the right temperature and humidity. Ensure you use the right materials in the cage and have all the right foods on hand. When you do your research first, you will be able to raise a happy, healthy animal that could be your pet throughout much of your life.

How much does a turtle cost?

When you see a little turtle crossing a road and stop to pick it up, it will not necessarily make a good pet. Taking a turtle out of the wild is a major lifestyle change for this wild animal. For this reason, it is best to buy your turtle or adopt one from a licensed breeder, pet store or animal rescue center. Getting a very young turtle makes the animal’s acceptance of living in an aquarium much easier. They will not miss a life in the wilderness. Wild turtles can carry a multitude of viruses and other illnesses, anyway.

When you buy or adopt a turtle, it is still an extremely affordable pet to purchase. Depending on the species, you can find free turtles from other pet owners and turtles available for $10 to $40 from pet stores and animal shelters. If you choose a pet from a licensed breeder, you will typically pay $50 to $100. Wherever you source your new pet, the average cost for a box turtle is $25 to $50. A painted turtle runs $20 to $40. A red-eared slider is only $10 to $30 and a common wood turtle is $20 to $100.

Setting up a safe and comfortable habitat for your pet will cost between $200 to $800, making your new pet startup costs about $210 to $900 including the turtle and depending on the species.

Annual costs are between $285 and $575 for most owners. This includes $45 to $275 in veterinary care services for wellness checks, parasite treatments, and emergency care if the animal becomes ill. Food costs for a turtle run about $240 to $480 per year. Annual maintenance of the habitat is $130 to $200. With your turtle’s lifespan being anywhere between 10 years and 80 years, you can expect to pay from $2850 to $46,000 over their entire lifetime!

New Turtle Owner Shopping List: what to Buy

Like any pet, your turtle needs a safe and comfortable habitat to call home. But these reptiles are particularly sensitive to their surroundings and have very specific needs in regard to temperature, humidity, and cleanliness. They also need an appropriately-sized habitat, one that gives them enough room for stimulation and growth.

Beyond habitat, your turtle needs other tank supplies, equipment, bedding, toys, food, water, and treats. Below is your shopping list for your new pet:

  • Habitat, aquarium, or cage — When buying your turtle’s habitat, select one according to the size they will be in adulthood, not their current size. This is very important because the animal quickly outgrows the small tanks most owners initially choose. Choose a tank that provides 10 gallons for every inch of your turtle’s shell length. For most species, an 80-gallon tank will provide adequate space throughout their life stages.
  • Swimming feature — Research your species of turtle to know whether it needs a swimming feature in the habitat
  • UVB heat lamp — Turtles rely on their pet owners to provide sunlight simulation for basking and temperature control from a UVB light
  • Submersible water heater – Again, if your turtle requires a swimming feature, you will need to heat the water to keep the animal from getting too old and becoming ill
  • Aquarium filter — For aquatic turtles with water in the tank, provide an aquarium filter to keep the water clean
  • Basking platform — Whether you have a swimming turtle or a tortoise needing desert-like conditions, you need to provide plenty of space for basking under the heat lamp
  • Gravel “bedding” — According to your turtle’s species, choose the best type of bedding for the bottom of their tank. Note that sand is not recommended for health and comfort reasons.
  • Habitat accessories — While not required, adding attractive plants and accessories to your turtle’s tank will help them feel at home and give them places to hide
  • Toys — Even turtles enjoy having toys! Browse the selections in the turtle section of your local pet store.
  • Food and water bowls — Like any pet, your turtle needs consistently clean food and water bowls designed for easy use
  • Food — Most turtles are omnivores. For this reason, the best food choices are turtle pellets for daily feeding along with treats of fruits, vegetables, live insects, chicken, beef, turkey and fish
  • Pet carrier — To easily transport your turtle to other places like the veterinarian, invest in a hard case pet carrier or a plastic mini-aquarium suited to their species and size

If you prefer, you can invest in a turtle habitat starter kit. These kits make taking home the new pet easier by providing everything you need before you bring them home. The downside is that these setups are often temporary, being too small for most growing turtles. But they can give you time to learn about your pet’s needs before investing in more permanent surroundings.

When you first get your turtle, you also need to set up a veterinary visit to screen the animal for salmonella and other conditions. Your vet can recommend parasite treatment, vitamins and other supplements as needed.

Ongoing Needs: What You Need to Care for Your Turtle

Once you get your pet home and settled into his or her habitat, you will learn more about what they like and do not like about their home. It may be that your turtle needs more basking comforts, like a basking platform or a basking pier that enables easy movement from their sunny spot into the water. You may want more plants or toys. Or maybe you will realize that your turtle needs more space as it grows. The turtle habitat is often a work in progress, one that changes throughout the pet ownership.

Beyond habitat additions and changes, there are ongoing needs you must meet for your turtle. These needs include:

  • Food — The majority of your turtle’s diet will be turtle pellets
  • Vegetables and fruits — Provide more vegetables than fruits, since vegetables pack more nutrition. Place a few teaspoons of leafy greens such as kale, collards or mustard greens in their food dish 3 to 4 times per week. Offer a small amount of fruit as a treat 3 to 4 times per week.
  • Protein to hunt — Turtles love hunting their prey, so you should provide live insects like crickets or mealworms for them to stalk and enjoy. For aquatic turtles, place feeder fish in the habitat pool
  • Vitamins and supplements — Calcium and Vitamin A are two important supplements, but you should follow your veterinarian’s advice for specific supplementation
  • Habitat cleaning supplies — You will need to keep your turtle’s habitat clean to also keep the animal healthy. This typically means cleaning the habitat once monthly.
  • Toys – Your turtle’s toys need replacement from time to time, just as with any pet

Turtle Exercise and Ongoing Care

The turtle’s habitat is the biggest key in keeping the animal healthy and happy. Exercising your pet also means providing a habitat that makes activity easy and enjoyable for them. This habitat also requires special attention and care to provide for a healthy lifestyle.

Exercise

If you have an aquatic turtle, you need to provide plenty of swimming area, but also UVB light and basking platforms for getting the sun and heat they also need. If you have a turtle or tortoise that also needs space to roam on land, the habitat must provide room to do so along with ground substrate that is comfortable for them and easy to keep clean. A habitat large enough for the reptile to explore is important for them staying fit.

Health

Besides exercise, it is critical that you pay attention to your pet’s feeding. Supply your turtle with enough food for them to eat in 20 to 30 minutes. Then remove the food dish. Leaving food for your turtle to “graze” on all day can lead to overfeeding and health problems. Supply your turtle with the supplements recommended by your vet, such as for vitamins, minerals and parasite control. If your turtle shows signs of illness or behavioral changes, take them to the veterinarian for a wellness check.

Habitat Cleaning

Cleaning the turtle’s habitat is a chore, for certain. But it is an important aspect of your pet’s ongoing care. Cleaning the tank means removing the turtle from the habitat and putting the animal somewhere safe. You then must remove all items from the tank, including the plants, substrate, water, feeding dishes, heat lamp, filter, water heater and other accessories. For a wet tank, you should perform these tasks 1 time to 2 times monthly. For a dry tank, you can clean the tank every 2 months or more often if needed.

Use a very diluted warm bleach solution to soak the habitat and all non-electric accessories. After letting this solution sit for about 15 minutes, rinse all surfaces and objects thoroughly. Allow all pieces to air dry. If you use live plants, trim them as needed.

When putting the clean habitat back together, use clean substrate. Most turtle owners use their preferred bedding of peat moss, aspen, wood shavings, coconut shells or crushed walnut shells. In wet habitats, it is common to use aquarium stones or small pebbles.

Feeding Your Turtle

It is very important to give your turtle the appropriate amount of food each day. Overfeeding can lead to multiple major health problems and permanent shell deformities. For this reason, you should only provide the amount of food your turtle can eat in 20 to 30 minutes. The exception to this rule is for treats. If you supply protein, fruits or vegetables, remove leftover scraps from the habitat after 3 to 4 hours. The exception to this removal is live insects or worms which you can leave for the turtle to hunt.

How much and the type of food both rely on your pet turtle’s species and size. Do your research and only give them what they need. Keep this food in its own dish. Do not feed directly from the habitat floor because this will mix the food with feces and urine. Remove the dish after the turtle has stopped eating and wash it daily. Be sure to wash your hands after handling anything in or from your turtle’s habitat.

How long will your turtle live?

Turtles have varying lifespans depending upon their species and the care provided for them in captivity. But most turtles live between 25 to 80 years, and some turtles have even lived more than 100 years! If you keep your pet turtle healthy and care for it well, you can have the same pet for most of your lifetime.

Follow your veterinarian’s guidance to provide the longest and healthiest life for your reptile. Avoid overfeeding and keep the habitat at the right temperature and humidity. Also keep the habitat clean.

Common Health Issues for Turtles

Turtles are frequently overfed by their owners. To avoid overfeeding, learn about your pet’s species and dietary needs. Only leave the food dish in your pet’s habitat for 20 to 30 minutes at a time and according to the proper feeding schedule. For many species, this means feeding an adult turtle 1 time every day to 2 days. Juveniles often need to eat 2 times per day, with this also being species-specific.

Other common health issues for turtles include:

  • Vitamin A deficiency
  • Calcium deficiency
  • Parasites
  • Respiratory diseases
  • Abscesses
  • Shell infections
  • Shell fractures

Where to Buy Your Turtle

Wild turtles are not the right choice as pets. These animals have lived in the open outdoors and do not do well in a size-limited habitat. They miss hunting and the freedom to wander as they choose. If you do bring a wild turtle into your home, such as from a rescue, have it thoroughly checked by your veterinarian. Then provide it with the largest possible habitat or shelter it outdoors with a water feature and other surroundings it needs to retain some freedoms.

When buying a pet turtle, you can find multiple species available through national pet supply retailers, local pet stores, breeders and animal shelters or pet rescues. It is also common to find turtles available through online directory listings, such as from relocating families. There are not usually any special permits or licenses required for ownership of a pet turtle. But this can also depend on the species. Check your local and state laws before purchasing your pet or adopting a reptile. If you live in a rental property, most landlords and property management companies require payment of a pet fee. This is usually an upfront deposit, a small addition to the monthly rental rate or both.

About the Author

AZ Animals is a growing team of animals experts, researchers, farmers, conservationists, writers, editors, and -- of course -- pet owners who have come together to help you better understand the animal kingdom and how we interact.

Pet Turtle Guide: What You Need to Know FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Where can I buy a pet turtle?

You can typically buy a pet turtle at a local pet store, national pet supply retailer, through a breeder, from online listings or at your local animal shelter.

What is a good price to pay for a turtle?

Depending on the species, a turtle typically costs anywhere from $20 to $100. This price also varies according to where you obtain the pet. Animal shelters, national pet supply retailers and online directory listings typically offer lower rates than buying from a reptile breeder, for example.

Do turtles cause salmonella?

Having a pet turtle means having to take great care to avoid salmonella. This bacterial virus is transmitted by turtles with the condition. If your turtle has salmonella, they will not necessarily show signs or symptoms. For this reason, it is very important that you have your pet reptile screened by your local veterinarian. Whenever you touch your turtle or anything in its habitat like food dishes or accessories, you must wash your hands thoroughly. Also keep the pet out of your kitchen entirely, to avoid transmitting this dangerous ailment.

Do turtles make good pets?

Turtles can be fun to watch and provide for. But it is important to know that turtles can live a very long time, up to 80 years! So you should not take lightly the decision to own one of these pets. They also require more maintenance and care than most people realize. You must be committed to keeping their habitat clean and safe to ensure the reptile’s good health.

Will my pet turtle recognize me?

Most pet turtles do recognize their owners by sight and sound! In fact, many owners of these reptiles notice that their pet swims to the tank’s surface or otherwise “greet” them when they come into the room. This means that caring well for your pet raises the potential for them to treat you differently than other people.

Do pet turtles get lonely?

Pet turtles are not social animals. If they are placed in a cage or aquarium with another turtle, they will typically fight. This fighting usually starts after sexual maturity. Both females and males will fight other turtles, regardless of gender. They do not get lonely and prefer living alone in their habitat.