Ranging from small and cute through to huge and messy, turtles are a great pet if you get the right one, but living for decades and sometimes growing to 50 cm or even larger the wrong choice may mean you have a long time to regret it. The number of turtles in rescues mean that there are few if any spaces if you decide you no longer want your new pet, and no zoo or aquarium is able to take them either. Turtles are the sort of pet that shouldn’t be handled any more than nesercary and are totally unsuitable for small children.
This list is a fraction of the hundreds of species of freshwater turtle, or even the species available in the pet trade, but hopefully it will give you a few ideas.
Sold as cute little hatchlings about the size of 50p piece, sliders and cooters are amongst the most commonly sold turtles in pet stores. Sadly these are possibly the worst turtles for the average keeper. They grow quickly for turtles, and can get to 20cm + in the first few years, needing a 300 litre tank at that stage, with a huge external filter and frequent water changes. Imagine the messiest fish you’ve ever seen and double it. They can fight if kept together, are very good at escaping and whilst some can be very successfully kept in outdoor ponds, even in the UK, others have genetics from more southerly populations, or may not have the immune system to survive outside. Long term these can become the size of toilet seat and will need a tank approaching 700 litres.
Whilst they start out cute they soon lose that pretty colouration and become a duller darker colour. They can be friendly and will come for food but still prefer not to be handled and are more of a watch and admire sort of pet than a cuddle and stroke sort of pet, especially as they may carry salmonella.
Staying smaller than Sliders and cooters, maps are much more suited to being pets, even the larger species max out at 20cm and they are slower growing than sliders. They get their name from the lines that appear to make map like patterns on their shells. The most commonly seen in pet shops are Mississippi Maps, False Maps and Ouachita Maps, all of which grow to the larger end of the scale. Black knobbed maps and Texas maps along with a number of other species grow to much smaller sizes but are much rarer.
Probably amongst the most suitable for keeping as a pet, the most available species the Common Musk, or Stinkpot grow to a maximum size of 15cm. Known as stinkpots because they can release a foul odour from their musk glands under the edge of their shells, but this is rarely reported amongst keepers. Females are a lot more common in the pet trade, so if you get one it’s worth thinking of a female name rather than a male. Whilst these are mostly aquatic they will still bask and will need UV light and a basking area. They are more bottom walkers than swimmers so footprint of the tank is more important than height, and give them plenty of ways to walk to the surface to get a breath.
Often confused with Common Musks, Mississippi Muds are a friendly little species, they will bask more than musks and if given the chance will spend a lot of time on land, give them plenty of space to bask. White lipped muds are a colourful little species, although despite their diminutive size they can be aggressive to other turtles.
Common and Alligator snappers are not for the faint hearted, many people think that they should be on the Dangerous Wild Animals list and require a licence to keep them. Growing to up to 60cm long they can weigh more than 100kg. Able to inflict serious damage they shouldn’t be handled if avoidable. Becoming more common in rescue centres these are an expensive pet that will need some serious research and commitment, especially as they can live up to 50 years, so you may have to leave them to someone in your will.
They will need a huge enclosure even though they are a very slow growing species. They prefer to feed on live food, although they can be trained to eat other food. However the Animal Welfare Act means that feeding live food is a grey area legally and under no circumstances can the prey item suffer unnecessarily.
Emys were once a native of the UK and so are perfectly suited to our climate, becoming endangered in their native range, in part due to feral sliders and cooters out competing them for food and possibly passing on parasites, as well as habitat loss.
Growing to a maximum of 20-25 cm they are a great choice for a larger tank. They can become very tame and will actively seek out their owners, although they are experts at begging and will do their best to convince you that they are starving to death even whilst trying to swallow their last meal. Mostly dark with yellow markings on their faces they one of the plainer species available, but their personalities more than make up for this.
Of all the turtles I have owned one of my R. p. manni is the friendliest turtle I have ever met. He seems to be almost as excited to see me as my dogs after I’ve been gone for the day, having said that I have others that I rarely seen unless it’s feeding time. As the common name implies these are a brightly coloured turtle with red and yellow marks across their heads and shells.
A semi aquatic species from Central and South America they require a large land area and a smaller water area to bath and drink from, they prefer high humidity so are more suited to a vivarium than many other species and need higher temperatures. Growing to a maximum of about 20cm they can be kept in groups, but as always look out for aggression and completion for food.
Well over half of all Asian turtle species are threatened by extinction mostly by the food market that means thousands are smuggled out of their natural habitat each year. Cyclemys species are not helped by the fact that the genus is under review and many species may be going extinct without us realising as they are lumped together with another group.
A large turtle that gets to 25cm but being almost circular they have a much larger volume then others of a similar length. They spend their time split between the water and the land so always provide each in roughly equal measure. They’re relatively poor swimmers and so make sure that they can reach the surface when standing on the bottom.
Some of the species on this list won’t be available in your average pet store, but they may be able to order them for you. Even better often breeders advertise on pet classifieds, or some turtles come up for rehoming. Do your research and enjoy looking for and owning your new pet.