Why You Should Think Twice Before Adopting a Turtle As a Pet

It may seem like a good idea, but there are a few important considerations that probably haven't crossed your mind.

Turtles are super cute, but like all wildlife, they’re better off when they stay in the wild. This isn’t only a good idea for the turtles and the environment—it’s also a smarter and healthier choice for you. “No two turtle species are exactly alike. However, they have one thing in common: They typically do not make good pets,” says Sharon Deem, DVM, PhD, director of the Saint Louis Zoo‘s Institute for Conservation Medicine. If you have your heart set on bringing home a turtle, this might change your mind.

Many turtle species are endangered

Wild animals belong in the wild—period. Of course, that’s not specific to turtles, but some turtles are at an increased risk because they’re being taken out of their natural habitats. “Many turtle species are endangered due to over-collection for the pet trade,” says Jeanine Refsnider, PhD, a conservation biologist and herpetologist at the University of Toledo. “Demand for turtles as pets fuels this over-collection and continues to drive wild turtle populations toward extinction.” You wouldn’t want to contribute to a species going extinct just to have a pet, right?

Dr. Deem adds that there are more than 350 species of turtles in the world—and the majority of them are threatened with extinction. “When a turtle is taken in as a pet, we lose its important role in the ecosystem,” she explains, adding that turtles are “ecosystem engineers” that have important roles both as prey and predator.

An interesting note: Thanks to empty beaches due to COVID-19 restrictions, rare turtles are actually making a comeback in places like Thailand. Here’s more about how coronavirus is affecting the world’s endangered animals.

Turtles pose health risks to humans

How could a cute, little turtle possibly harm you? In a very simple, surprising way. “While all pets are capable of passing diseases on to people, turtles are notorious for shedding salmonella bacteria in their feces, which can spread all over their bodies and their habitats,” says Jennifer Coates, DVM, a veterinarian on the advisory board of Pet Life Today. If humans encounter salmonella, it’s usually via raw or undercooked chicken, meat, eggs, fruits, and vegetables. Cooking kills the bacteria, but if that doesn’t happen, eating it could lead to food poisoning. Sometimes the symptoms are serious enough to send you to the hospital, and they can even be life-threatening.

When you touch a turtle, handle an object in its tank, or clean the tank, there’s a chance you could get salmonella bacteria on your hands. If you don’t do a good 20-second hand wash, as you’ve learned to do for COVID-19, you risk ingesting the bacteria and getting sick. Turtles are linked to many salmonella cases, which is why the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has many rules around them.

Salmonella is a particular concern for kids. Children tend to touch pets more and not wash their hands as well as adults. WebMD adds that kids under age five are more likely to get sick from salmonella because their immune systems are still developing. Turtles are also one of the 11 animals you should keep away from your face.

It’s a big commitment

Turtles can live into their 40s or even longer. To have a turtle as a pet, you need to commit for the long term. What happens if you need to move, your job requires you to travel a lot, or you’re just not up to the care a turtle needs throughout its long life? Plus, if you get tired of caring for a pet turtle, you can’t just release it into your backyard. Depending on which species it is, it may not be able to survive outdoors. And that’s not all. If you let your turtle go free, “it can become dangerous for local wild populations of turtles,” notes Claudine Sievert, DVM, since a pet turtle can spread diseases to local animals.

Turtles are more expensive than you think

While buying the turtle itself isn’t that expensive, all the equipment you need can add up to over $1,000. Dr. Coates explains that turtles need much bigger tanks than most people realize: “a minimum of 10 gallons of tank space per inch, in length, of a turtle.” You also need a tank specifically built for them. Tanks for turtles shouldn’t have a glass top because the glass can filter out UVB light, which turtles need to produce vitamin D3. Turtle tanks need a UV light, enough space for swimming, a dry spot for basking, and a heat source.

Caring for any pet can result in significant costs, of course. Here are 10 of the most expensive health problems your pet can face.

They require a lot of care and maintenance

Turtles need fresh water and food daily like every other living creature, but their enclosures need to be “100 percent correct” in order for them to survive, says Sara Ochoa, DVM, a veterinary consultant for DogLab.com. What does that mean, exactly? The air and water in their tanks must be kept at specific temperatures and you’ll need to check the parameters frequently. You should also change the water in a turtle’s tank at least once a week and do a deep clean a few times per year. Dr. Deem adds that pet turtles need “proper diets, exercise, sunlight, habitat, and, for the species that need it, the ability to brumate,” which is basically turtle hibernation.

A better way to show your love for turtles

“For every turtle taken from the wild, that species may be one step closer to extinction,” says Dr. Deem. “My advice—keep ’em wild!” In the wild, of course, they still need help—and you can do your part by donating to an organization that protects them. One worthy organization: Palmarito Sea Turtle Rescue, a small operation on Palmarito Beach in Oaxaca, Mexico, an important nesting site for several types of turtles. Working with nearby Vivo Resorts and their foundation, Palmarito protects more than 400 turtle nests and releases about 40,000 turtle hatchlings back to the ocean every year. Vivo guests can help release the baby turtles onto the beach and protect them from birds while they make their way into the water. Until life is back to normal, however, here 15 simple ways you can help endangered animals without leaving your home.

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Johanna Read
Johanna Read, Canadian writer and photographer, writes about travel (including under COVID-19), wildlife, food, health and wellness, and responsible tourism. She aims to encourage travel that is culturally, economically, and environmentally sustainable. Johanna also writes occasionally about public policy, leadership, and management. She draws on her management consulting work (where she specializes in organizational culture and employee wellness) and on her background as a Government of Canada policy executive. Her BAH (psychology and sociology) and MPA (health policy) are from Queen's University. Johanna's bylines include Reader's Digest, Fodor's, Lonely Planet, USA Today, and Canadian Traveller. See her portfolio; follow her on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.