Turtle Basics

Although turtles have a reputation for being low maintenance pets, this is not actually the case. For their own well-being and for the health of the humans around them, turtles require careful tending. Any potential turtle owner should be aware that the Humane Society recommends against adopting turtles as pets, particularly in households with children, primarily because of the risk of Salmonella. Still, under the right conditions, with informed and dedicated owners, turtles can be enjoyable and interesting pets.

Home Environment

Turtles require an environment that provides warmth, light, filtered water and dry space. The eventual size the turtle will attain must be considered at the outset, so that the turtle does not outgrow its home. An appropriately sized glass tank is usually at least four to five feet long.

In addition to including a pond area, the tank should include a graveled section with logs or rocks for the turtle to bask on. In most climates, artificial lighting with some UVB radiation is necessary since turtles are cold-blooded and need to be externally warmed. Most turtle species will benefit from having a small amount of aquarium salt in their water, but this should be thoroughly researched since salt can be harmful to some varieties of turtles.

While turtles in the wild will brumate (hibernate) during cold winters, indoor pets will not. Kept in a properly temperate environment, turtles will usually remain active all year round.


While young turtles are carnivores, mature turtles are omnivores and thrive on a varied diet. Commercial turtle food pellets provide a good staple, but should always be supplemented. Turtles do best with many different kinds of food, including strawberries, green leafy vegetables, and the fish, crickets, shrimp or mosquito larvae available at pet stores. They may also be fed swatted house flies. Any fly that has been poisoned will, obviously, sicken the turtle.


Hygiene is extremely important in tending turtles, in terms of both turtle and human health. Because turtle surroundings can quickly become dirty, it is important to clean them regularly and thoroughly. Special attention must be paid to keeping the turtle's water sanitary. A gravel vacuum cleaner or a siphon and hose are wise investments. Many turtle owners find it helpful to put the turtle in a separate enclosure for feeding in order to keep the home environment free of food debris, but this is not always practical.

Because of the danger of Salmonella, human hygiene is essential since even healthy turtles can transmit this disease. Hand-washing is of great importance. It is also necessary to clean any surface the turtle has had contact with, such as a floor or table, since it is possible for Salmonella germs to live on surfaces for some period of time.

Babies, young children, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems are more susceptible to disease and should not handle turtles. The Center for Disease Control recommends that households with such members not include turtles. For several decades, it has been illegal to sell small turtles (under four inches) in the United States. Such turtles are of grave danger to children who often touch the turtles and then suck their fingers or even put the turtles in their mouths.


Turtles, like all creatures, require exercise which is one reason to keep them in a suitably sized tank. They may be taken out to exercise on the floor sometimes, but precautions must be taken. Not only must one remember to sanitize the area where the turtle has been, but care has to be taken that no one steps on the vulnerable creature. Rocking chairs and wheelchairs put turtles at special risk of injury.

Additional Resources