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Turtles & Tortoises: Choosing One as a Pet

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Are you thinking about making a turtle or tortoise your first pet reptile? Or, maybe you already have a reptile pet or two and you want to add a shelled friend to the family.

If so, great choice. They are such interesting and generally gentile reptiles. But first, turtle or tortoise?

Tortoise vs. Turtle: Major Similarities and Differences

There are two major similarities with the first being clearly noticeable to the naked eye: they both have shells. The other major similarity is more academic. They are both classified under the Testudines order.

The most glaring difference though is that tortoises are land dwelling while turtles spend a majority of their lives in water, though this doesn’t make them amphibians.

The differences don’t stop there though.

Diet

Turtles generally like to have a diverse diet. They like their fruits and veggies, but they also enjoy live food.

Tortoises on the other hand lean more towards a vegetarian type diet. Not all tortoises skip live food though, so some of them are omnivores.

Lifespan

Both turtles and tortoises are not good pets for those that are not in it for the long haul. Many turtle species live 3 to 4 decades.

But, if you though that was long, you might not want to take on a tortoise. These wonderful creatures can live up to 150 years or more! This cutie is almost 190 years old.

Appearance

Since turtles spend so much time in the water, their shells have adapted to their lifestyle. That means they tend to be smoother and flatter than those of a tortoise, which allows them to glide through water easily.

On the contrary, a tortoise usually had a much more bulbous shell. And, they often have bumps in patterns.

Keeping One as a Pet

Paradoxically, most people that keep one of them as a pet lean towards a turtle. But, turtles require a bit more maintenance due to their aquatic nature and dietary habits.

Tortoises tend to be much easier to care for.

One reason for this trend is most likely the lifespans as a child can be with the former for their entire life but the latter will most likely have to be passed on to a new owner at some point.

Enclosures

If you plan on buying a turtle, you’ll need to set up an aquatic enclosure. This can be a little tricky. Think of it as a more complex fish tank.

The basic of what you’ll need include:

  • a properly sized aquarium tank
  • a safe but suitable substrate
  • the right ratio of water area to land area for your particular species
  • a water filtration system
  • the right lighting (species dependent but usually a mix of UVA and UVB
  • a way to maintain the correct temperatures

For a tortoise you will need:

  • More space than you will for a turtle – consider making your own enclosure and avoid standard aquarians which tend to be too small
  • a proper substrate that’s safe and easy to clean
  • proper lighting (usually a mix of UVA, UVB, and a heat lamp)
  • some privacy – too much openness can lead to an anxious pet

Spend some time prepping your enclosure before making a pet purchase as you’ll be happy you set it up properly up front instead of trying to make corrections later down the line.

Other FAQs and Considerations

The above covers a lot of the basics, but there’s a lot more research to do if you decide to go through with getting your new pet. Here is a little more info to help.

What are the best turtles to keep as a pet?

To be fair, “best” is subjective. But, the most common types for beginners and experienced reptile keepers alike are the red-eared slider, Eastern box, and Western painted. There are others too, but these three are extremely common.

What are the best tortoises to keep as a pet?

This is difficult as they range in size from small to extremely large, so deciding what size you want can help you narrow down what species to consider. But, in terms of common species by size there are:

  • Small: Russians and Indian Stars
  • Medium: Red-footed and Leopards
  • Large: Sulcata

Can I let them outside?

Yes, if you have a proper setup you can definitely let them outside. You will want to ensure their safety, but many owners have both indoor and outdoor enclosures setup to allow for this.

If you have any other questions, please let us know here.

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