pet turtles are expensive and a lot of work

Clarence as a baby in January 2006

Clarence as a baby in January 2006

Look at that little guy! Cute, right? This is Clarence, a few days after I brought him home from the pet store. I bought Clarence seven years ago from a nice reptile specialty shop in New Hampshire. It was not an impulse purchase. I’d seen baby turtles there before and waited a few months before heading back down with $100 in hand to spend on a nice tank set up. Baby turtles are illegal to sell in many states, and for good reason. First of all, they can carry salmonella, and kids are more likely to put a small turtle in their mouths than a big one. Always watch kids and wash up very well after handling aquatic turtles. I have never had any issues with salmonella, but here is some info from the FDA about the potential danger:

The reason I am glad it’s illegal to sell baby turtles in most states is because most people should not own baby turtles. Hatchlings are ridiculously cute, but they only stay very small for a few weeks or months. I have seen a lot of people lose interest once their babies start to grow and they realize how much work and expense goes into aquatic turtle care. Just search the Craigslist pet section and you’ll find a lot of people trying to get rid of their older pet turtles. Unfortunately I am sure many captive turtles end up being released into the wild once their novelty has worn off, and there they stand a slim chance of survival.

Don’t buy a baby turtle unless you want to care for an adult turtle! The photo above shows Clarence as a baby, at two years, and seven years old. The proportions in the photos are a little off, and he is actually larger than he appears here. His shell is about 7″ long. He is likely to grow a few more inches and live for another thirty or more years. I have upgraded his tank three times and gone through at least four different filters as he has grown. Turtles are messy and their tanks become very foul smelling if not properly maintained.

This is Clarence’s current tank. I just added the rock waterfall/filter in the left corner. There is a second canister style filter on the right side of the tank. There is also a water heater, a thermometer, a basking platform, and a moss ball that traps phosphates and nitrates in the water.

Approximate costs associated with keeping an aquatic turtle:
Turtle- $15 to $75
Tanks (at least 10 gallon to start)- $30 to $200 each
Basking platforms- $15 to $40 each
Filters (you may need more than one per tank)- $30 to $100 each
Filter cartridge replacements (replace at least monthly)- $5 to $20 per pack
Thermometer- $5 to $10
Heater- $10 to $20
Lamps- $10 to $35
Replacement bulbs- $10 to $15 each
Food- $60 yearly
Water quality treatments- $40 yearly
Electricity costs- $???
Specialty vet visits- $???

Multiply all those costs over a 35-40 year lifespan and you easily end up with a total of $6,000 to $10,000 for one turtle. If you have more than one turtle, expect to spend at least twice as much on food and filter cartridges. Add in a few hours per month for tank maintenance. Do you want to spend more than 600 hours of your life cleaning nasty turtle poop water out of a big heavy tank?

Clarence gets a bath

Clarence spends most of his day basking on the platform below his heat lamp. He is a very social animal and always swims over to greet his visitors. He likes to follow your fingers if you move them around the sides of the tank, and occasionally he busts out his “jazz hands” party trick which you see a little of in this video. That finger waving behavior is normally displayed by males in courtship, but can also be used by both sexes as a show of dominance or territoriality. When he was younger, I put a small plastic turtle in his tank and he used to display like that toward the toy.

Clarence isn’t my first turtle. When I was a kid I caught a baby red eared slider near a pond, and to my surprise, my mother let me bring it home. He was barely bigger than a quarter. I named him Pee Wee and put him in a fish bowl filled mostly with dirt and just a tuna can full of water. I had no idea what to feed him. In those dark ages before the internet, my next step was to go to the library and look at some books about turtles. I ended up moving him to a ten gallon tank that had a more appropriate water to land ratio, but it was still too small. That tank had a simple fish filter, no lights, and no heater. Pee Wee lived with a spotted salamander named Lance and an assortment of other fish and newts. It was a well intentioned but poorly executed attempt at keeping a terrarium. Like all those animals, Pee Wee was often sick, never grew much, and lived only a few years. Basically I did everything wrong, starting with capturing a wild animal to keep as a pet. (Another reason it is largely illegal to buy and sell baby turtles is that too often they are taken from the wild as eggs or hatchlings.) I was really heartbroken when he died, and even at that young age I understood that I had deprived him of a natural and healthy life cycle. Of course baby turtle mortality in the wild is extremely high and he may easily have been run over by a car, starved to death, or become a meal for a bigger predator if I hadn’t brought him home. Still, that lesson stayed with me and has made me a more responsible pet owner.


All that said, turtles are actually pretty cool as pets if you know what you’re getting into. I think Clarence has a happy life. Turtles are unique and fun to watch, they have good personalities, and don’t require a lot of day to day care once you have a good system set up. Like any pet, do a lot of research and make sure you’ll be able to keep up with all the care they will need throughout their lifetime. Don’t get a turtle for your kids! A six year old isn’t able to understand or care for one properly, and probably won’t want to haul around a pet turtle until they’re forty years old. Clarence and his friends will thank you.