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Turtles, Tortoises, and Terrapins

What is the difference between a turtle, tortoise, and terrapin? Maybe you haven’t even heard the word terrapin. They have some similarities and some differences that I will discuss in this article. First off, all of these shelled reptiles are cold-blooded, so need warmth. Pets need a heat lamp (with UVA/B light) and basking rock/ledge. The swimming water, for the turtles and terrapins, needs to be heated. Some may try to hibernate if not kept warm enough and this can be dangerous. All species are fairly long-lived and need ample space. Even the shortest-lived can still live 30 to 50 years, while the largest tortoises can live nearly 200 years! Some of the smaller tortoises, even those kept as pets, can possibly live 70 or more years.

There are many pelleted and freeze-dried diets that can make caring for these guys easier, but for the healthiest pets, fresh foods are always suggested. A varied diet is best. Vitamin A, D3, and calcium are very important in their diet. Great foods include fresh chopped spinach, romaine lettuce, dandelion greens, carrots, broccoli, and chopped apple can be fed to all species. Turtles and terrapins can also be fed shrimp, earthworms, crickets, and small fish, like minnows (preferably not goldfish). These foods can be fed live and it is ideal to feed live at least on occasion to give them something to do. Live foods should be purchased from the store, as wild-caught may have parasites.

Please remember, never take turtles, tortoises, or terrapins from the wild (or any animal for that matter). Not only is this wrong and sad for the creatures used to freedom, but it may also be illegal where you live. Wild turtles, tortoises, and terrapins may also have parasites or other sicknesses. It is best to find a breeder or rescue from a shelter, though you may have to get one from a pet store if you can’t find a breeder or rescue.


Turtles live mainly in water, though some do come up to bask in the sun. They may have “flipper-like” feet as seen in sea turtles (who can’t be kept as pets) or webbed feet with claws as seen in turtles found in freshwater. These guys are omnivorous, eating plants as well as small fish, invertebrates, and insects. They are made for swimming between their specialized feet and having shells that are fairly flat, soft, and made to glide through the water.

Pet turtles need water as the main part of their living set up, but also some form of a ledge or a floating ramp to get out of the water. Remember, most pet turtles live in lakes and ponds in the wild, so they are meant to swim in large amounts of water all the time. Small tanks aren’t adequate for even a single turtle. Even the smaller turtles need a very large tank, upwards of 100 gallons. Filters are needed in their tanks to help keep the water clean, as tanks become smelly very quickly. Turtles are often kept with others of the same species but remember the more turtles, the more space you need and more cleaning you have to do. Painted turtles and mud turtles are two species fairly commonly kept as pets.


Tortoises are exclusively land animals that rarely go in the water. They have stubby, blocky feet with claws for digging. As land animals, they have heavy-duty, dome-like shells that they can “lock” tight to hide in when attacked. Tortoises are mostly vegetarian, eating grasses, weeds, cacti, and some fruits and vegetables. They only need a shallow bowl of water to occasionally go into, otherwise mostly land. They may like a large box of some sort (preferably wooden) to hide in when they want to rest.

Most enjoy being outdoors but will dig out and find other ways to escape, so you need to monitor them or construct a very secure enclosure. In the wild, tortoises can roam quite far and should not be made to stay in a small enclosure. Also, consider due to their natural environment, tortoises are fairly solitary, and don’t need companions. If you end up with two males, they may even end up fighting. Many people will use a kiddie pool filled with a substrate such as dirt and gravel, for an indoor setup. For larger tortoises, this may not work if they can climb out. If they must be in a smaller enclosure, consider setting up a larger one outside for “play time” during warm parts of the day, where you can watch them. Russian, red-footed, and sulcata tortoises are common species kept as pets.


Terrapins are fairly similar to turtles, but also somewhat similar to tortoises. They are semi-aquatic, meaning they spend time almost equally in water and on land, so a mix of the two in most ways. Due to this “mix”, they have rounder shells than turtles, but not quite the dome shells of tortoises. Their feet are not near as stocky as tortoise feet, but similar to turtle feet. Terrapins are omnivorous like turtles, eating plant matter, fish, invertebrates, and insects. They need swimming water and land, usually more land than terrapins. They may like a log or wooden house to hide in for sleeping when not in the water. Ideally, they would have a large enclosure that is half water and half land with a hiding place and a filter in the water. They also need a very large tank. Box turtles, commonly kept as pets, are called turtles but are really terrapins. Red-eared sliders are another commonly kept species.

Whether you prefer turtles, tortoises, or terrapins, they all take a lot of work to keep them healthy and their enclosure clean. With their needs and long life spans, you need to really consider if one of these cute creatures is really appropriate for your home.

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