Pet turtles are almost as popular as aquarium fish. And since they can live in glass enclosures folks often wonder which types of pet turtles are right for them.
Turtles live a lot longer than fish, however. Most grow much bigger. And since they all need access to air, heat, and land, setting up a turtle tank is a little more complicated than an aquarium. But if you know what you’re getting into, water turtle pets are enjoyable and fascinating to care for.
10 Types of Pet Turtles
There are dozens of different types of turtles in the pet industry. But there are a select 10 species that are considered good pet turtles. Some live on land, most live in the water. And all are undemanding and long lived if you meet their care needs.
Western Painted Turtle
The Western Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) is a widespread native of North America. You will see them in ponds all throughout the USA as well as both Canada and Mexico. They are one of the best kinds of turtles because they are not only hardy but more colorful than other turtle breeds.
Western Painted Turtles have delicate yellow stripes on their skin and an orange to red belly. A grown turtle will reach up to 10 inches long. Painted Turtles don’t enjoy being handled and spend much of their time in the water.
If you are looking for small pet turtles the Musk Turtles (genus Sternotherus) are a good place to start. Found in the eastern United States these little guys get their name from foul smelling secretions they release if stressed.
Since they do stink when startled, not everyone enjoys handling a Musk Turtle. They don’t grow much larger than 5-6 inches, however, and are great house turtles for the space limited. Musk Turtles are mostly aquatic and will even eat underwater.
Strong filtration is needed to keep the water from becoming fouled by all that mess. Musk Turtles are avid swimmers yet they still need a basking spot to warm up and digest their food.
Red Eared Slider
As the most popular types of turtles as pets in the world, no list would be complete without the Red Eared Slider (Trachemys scripta). Native to the South and Central USA, you find these sold as baby turtles in shops around the world.
Red Eared Sliders get their name from the blaze of red running along their heads. As one of the larger turtle pets they grow up to 16 inches long. So make sure you’re willing to buy a spacious aquarium for a cute baby turtle you take home.
Like most water turtles, Red Eared Sliders don’t enjoy being held. They may even bite if provoked. That said, they are very easy to care for and long-lived (up to 40 years).
Mississippi Map Turtle
The Mississippi Map Turtle is found in the Mississippi River basin. Map Turtles get their name from the pattern of lines on their shells, which resemble a map. Sometimes you find them sold as “Sawback Turtles” due to the ridge running along the top of their shells.
Map Turtles spend almost all of their time in the water. They even choose basking places where they can soak up sun without going onto land, like tree branches and rocks. You should use a floating island or driftwood chunk as a basking place in a Map Turtle aquarium rather than a land paludarium setup.
Being fully aquatic, Mississippi Map Turtles are very resistant to fungal and bacterial infections. They also stay small (6 to 10 inches), making them one of the best pet turtles for beginners.
African Side Necked Turtle
The African Side Necked Turtle (Pelomedusa subrufa) is a Sub-Saharan species with an unusual body plan. Growing up to 10 inches long these water turtles can’t retract their head into their shells all the way. So instead they twist their neck sideways to make it fit.
A large aquarium for a turtle is important since this is a very active species. That said, Side Necked Turtles are more tolerant of being handled than other types of turtles. You do need to socialize them when young. But they eventually stop retracting and explore their environment with interest when removed from the aquarium
Another small turtle pet species to think about is the Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata). These turtles stay between 4 to 6 inches long and just need a turtle tank small as a result. Despite being so little the Spotted Turtle is very long lived. They will live up to 100 years and should be thought of as a long-term commitment.
Spotted Turtles are not just aquatic pet turtles. Their enclosure should be land-based with shallow sections of water that the turtle pet can climb in and out of. They also eat more plants than some of the other types of turtles on this list. Pond weeds and algae form an important part of their diet.
Eastern Box Turtle
Interested in terrestrial turtles as pets? If so then the Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) might be right for you. This species lives on land, just soaking in shallow water to drink or cool off. Since they can’t swim you will need to design a land-based enclosure. Or even keep a box turtle outside if you live in the right climate.
Eastern Box Turtles are slow movers, even by turtle standards. They get their name from their tall, boxy shell. Which they can retract into and then seal off if threatened. Box Turtles can be trained to be hand fed.
As omnivores you should feed them a mixed diet, with earthworms, goldfish, and other meaty items alongside a commercial turtle blend and vegetables. Box turtles enjoy leafy greens and juicy fruit as treats, like strawberries and cantaloupe.
Soft Shelled Turtle
Unlike most pet turtles the Soft Shelled Turtle (family Trionychidae) has a rubbery back. As aquatic turtles you just need to provide a floating island or piece of driftwood as a basking area. Some Soft Shelled Turtles can’t even swallow their food unless they are submerged.
If you are looking for a turtle as a pet that you can hold, don’t choose Soft Shelled Turtles. Since they don’t have a hard shell to protect them they tend to be aggressive and will bite.
And as large as an adult turtle is (14-24 inches) this nip is quite painful. That said, Soft Shelled Turtles are easy to care for, very unique looking, and undemanding.
Yellow Bellied Slider
The Yellow Bellied Slider (Trachemys scripta) is a close relative of the Red Eared Slider and very similar in appearance and care needs. These types of turtles for pets are medium sized a nd grow 7 to 13 inches, depending on the sex.
Yellow Bellied Sliders are found as far north as Illinois and are great types of turtles for outdoor ponds. They also eat more greenery than Red Eared Sliders and enjoy fresh lettuce, spinach, grapes, and other vegan options.
The last on our list of the best types of pet turtles is a little controversial. The Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii) are two of the largest water turtles in the world. They will reach up to – or even exceed – 100 lbs and have a dangerous, bone-crushing bite.
As large carnivores, Snapping Turtles will eat anything they catch. Fish, small mammals, birds, and even other turtles are on the menu for them. Only turtle keepers that understand the size, age, and power of these types of turtles should try keeping them.
Aquatic Turtles as Pets
Any of the different kinds of turtles from this list will make a fine, long-lived pet. Most don’t enjoy being held, however. And some, like Snapping and Soft Shelled Turtles, are prone to biting, no matter how long you care for them. As long as you don’t mind a pet that you will enjoy without too much handling, aquatic turtles make good pets for both kids and adults.
Aquarium For a Turtle
When choosing an aquarium for a turtle, space is the most important consideration. “Breeder” style tanks like the 40 breeder are ideal because they have a wider footprint than “long” style tanks.
Footprint also matters because you don’t tend to fill an aquarium turtles’ setup to the brim. Instead they are filled halfway or three quarters, depending on the species. A submersible or hang on the back filter is also important. Turtles will both eat and poop in their water, which turns it into a foul soup if you don’t keep up with maintenance.
Turtles also carry salmonella is not kept clean. These bacteria are a danger to you and anyone handling the turtle or items from the tank.
With such a variety of turtle breeds out there choosing the best types of pet turtles is a little confusing. But this list will give you a solid introduction to the 10 different types of turtle you should be thinking about. Beginners and advanced hobbyists alike will have great success with each of the different turtles listed here.
More Frequently Asked Questions about Pet Turtles
Still thinking about what turtles are best for pets? Since I get a lot of questions about turtle pets here are a few of the more frequently asked questions I get regarding these aquatic reptiles.
Sea turtles are not suitable as pet aquarium turtles. They are very specific in their care requirements – some eat sponges, marine algae, and jellyfish, for instance. Sea turtles also grow huge – some up to six feet long and hundreds of pounds. Most are also endangered species, making it illegal to keep a pet sea turtle.
The smallest pet turtle on our list is the Spotted Turtle. Males will not grow much larger than 4 inches in length. If you only have space for a small turtle aquarium then these are the best types of pet turtle to add.
The best pet turtles for beginners is the one that’s easiest for you to care for and you enjoy the most. Some, such as Box and Side Necked Turtles, are more engaging with their keepers. Others, such as Snapping Turtles, look much more impressive. But the easiest to find and care for are Yellow Bellied Sliders, Map Turtles, and Spotted Turtles. These species stay small and are very undemanding.