Every parent has probably had the experience of having their child lobbying relentlessly for a pet of their own. When the thought of managing a dog or cat seems like too much of a commitment, alternative pets like turtles are often considered. After all, they are small and stay contained in an enclosure. Before you go that route, however, you may want to consider the situation carefully.
Turtles, tortoises, and terrapins--I will just refer to them as turtles in a general sense--can make wonderful pets. They are surprisingly intelligent and interactive when given the chance. As reptiles, however, they are not nearly as flexible or adaptable as mammals when their environmental needs are not precisely met. It is not acceptable to allow them to suffer and die from malnutrition and neglect as a result of your lack of knowledge or concern. Once you make the promise to care for that life you are responsible for doing right by that animal who is totally dependent on you.
The two most common species available in the pet trade, Box turtles and Red-eared sliders tend to be the best choices for environments like ours in Colorado because they are already adapted to temperate climates.
Red-eared sliders are an aquatic species that will require free standing water as well as a good haul out area for sunning. In the wild they are primarily carnivorous, eating fish, earthworms, bugs, and some plant material. Reproducing that variety at home takes some work, so be prepared to offer more than a monolithic diet of ground beef. After all, it is fairly rare for a Red-eared slider to take down a cow in the wild.
In nature Red-eared sliders tend to reside in ponds or on slow moving stretches of river. The relatively large amount of water compared to the small amount of turtle means that turtle waste is quickly diluted and doesn’t affect the turtle’s surroundings much. In an aquarium it will soon become obvious that these little guys rapidly produce enough waste to overwhelm even the burliest of filtration systems, so very frequent tank cleaning is needed.
Box turtles are more terrestrial in nature. They also have a more omnivorous diet that includes many types of plant material as well as insect and sometimes even animal protein. In captivity, however, they often behave like finicky children and refuse to eat anything but their favorite food, and a box turtle that refuses to eat anything but iceberg lettuce is heading for some nutritional deficiencies in a short period of time. Often it requires special attention to make sure that proper nutrition is not only offered, but consumed.
In the winter wild box turtles stop eating and find a burrow in which to hibernate. Although it is best for captive box turtles to be allowed to hibernate, it can be a tricky and somewhat dangerous proposition. If the gut is not entirely empty the contents will rot over the winter. If even a tiny amount of respiratory infection is present it will smolder all winter and become severe pneumonia in the spring. If the temperature is not low enough the turtle’s metabolism may stay just high enough to burn through all its reserves, but not high enough to wake up and eat. For these reasons, if in doubt it is usually better not to allow hibernation.
There are lots of great things about having turtles as pets, and a little extra research and work goes a long way toward providing a happy, healthy home for pet turtles and the children who love them.