What’s The Difference Between Turtles And Tortoises As Pets?

Are you considering getting a reptile as a new pet? If so, you might find yourself pondering the age-old question – what’s the difference between turtles and tortoises as pets? While they both belong to the fascinating world of chelonians, there are a few key distinctions to consider. Turtles are aquatic creatures, making them more suitable for an aquarium habitat with access to both water and land. On the other hand, tortoises are land-dwellers, thriving in a dry and terrestrial environment. So, whether you’re leaning towards a water companion or a land-dwelling buddy, understanding the differences will ensure you make the right choice for your reptilian pet.

Physical Differences

Shell Shape and Size

One of the most apparent physical differences between turtles and tortoises is the shape and size of their shells. Turtles typically have a flatter, more streamlined shell that enables them to swim through water more efficiently. On the other hand, tortoises have a more domed shell, providing them with added protection against predators and allowing them to retract their head and limbs fully into their shell for defense.

Feet and Limbs

Another noticeable distinction between turtles and tortoises is their feet and limbs. Turtles have webbed feet or flippers, which are specifically adapted for swimming and allow them to navigate through water effortlessly. Conversely, tortoises have sturdy, elephant-like feet with thick, clawed toes that are well-suited for walking and gripping onto various terrains. These differences in feet and limbs reflect the divergent lifestyles of turtles and tortoises, with turtles being more aquatic and tortoises primarily terrestrial creatures.


The shape and length of the tail also differ between turtles and tortoises. Turtles often have long, slender tails that are well-adapted for swimming, aiding in their propulsion through water. In contrast, tortoises possess short and stubby tails that are primarily used for balance while walking or climbing. Tails serve different purposes for turtles and tortoises, underlining their distinct habitats and behaviors.


The eyes of turtles and tortoises exhibit distinct characteristics as well. Turtles typically have eyes positioned towards the side of their head, allowing them to achieve a better field of vision and observe their surroundings effectively. This feature is essential for turtles that reside in aquatic environments since it enables them to detect predators or potential prey from various angles. Conversely, tortoises have eyes positioned more towards the front of their head, providing them with better depth perception and aiding in their foraging activities on land.

Skin and Scales

The appearance and texture of the skin and scales also differ between turtles and tortoises. Turtles generally have smooth, slimy skin which reduces drag when moving through water. Some aquatic turtles may have specialized scales or scutes on their shells to provide protection and enhance hydrodynamics. In contrast, tortoises have rough and bumpy skin with thick and hardened scales, which offer additional protection against predators and external elements. These variations in skin and scales reflect the different lifestyles and habitats of turtles and tortoises.

Habitat and Environmental Needs

Aquatic vs. Terrestrial

One of the primary contrasting aspects between turtles and tortoises lies in their habitat preferences. Turtles are primarily aquatic creatures, spending a significant portion of their time in water. They require access to a well-maintained aquatic environment to thrive, with ample swimming space and clean, treated water. In contrast, tortoises are predominantly terrestrial animals, spending most of their lives on land. They require a setup that replicates their natural terrestrial environment, including areas for basking and hiding.

Water Requirements

As turtles are aquatic, their water requirements are of utmost importance. A suitable aquatic habitat for turtles should be spacious enough to allow swimming, contain adequate filtration and aeration systems to maintain water quality, and possess appropriate heating elements to regulate water temperature. Regular water changes and monitoring of water quality parameters such as pH, temperature, and ammonia levels are crucial to ensure a healthy and thriving turtle habitat.

Land Requirements

Tortoises, being terrestrial creatures, require a habitat that emphasizes land elements. This includes providing them with enough space to roam and explore, as well as structures for them to bask under a heat source. The enclosure should aim to mimic their natural habitat, with a variation in terrain, such as rocks, logs, and vegetation, to encourage natural behaviors. Adequate room for substrate, such as sand or soil, is also essential, as it allows tortoises to dig and burrow, which is crucial for their physical and mental well-being.

Temperature and Humidity

Temperature and humidity are critical considerations for both turtles and tortoises. Turtles require a specific temperature gradient in their habitat, with a basking area under a heat lamp to provide warmth for thermoregulation. The water temperature should also be maintained within a suitable range, typically between 75-85°F (24-29°C), depending on the species. Tortoises, on the other hand, need a warmer and drier environment. They require a basking area with a heat source to allow them to regulate their body temperature, with the ambient temperature typically ranging from 75-85°F (24-29°C). Humidity levels should be maintained around 50-60% for turtles and 30-50% for most tortoise species.

Feeding and Diet

Herbivores vs. Omnivores

The dietary requirements of turtles and tortoises differ based on their natural preferences. Turtles are generally omnivorous, meaning they consume a combination of plant matter, such as aquatic vegetation and fruits, as well as animal protein like insects, fish, and worms. Providing a varied diet that consists of commercial turtle pellets, leafy greens, vegetables, and occasional live or frozen prey (depending on the species) is crucial for the overall health and well-being of turtles. On the other hand, tortoises are primarily herbivores, consuming an assortment of leafy greens, vegetables, fruits, and occasionally plant-based pellets and minerals. A high-fiber diet is essential for tortoises, with a focus on providing a variety of suitable vegetation based on their species’ requirements.

Preferred Food Types

The specific types of food preferred by turtles and tortoises can vary depending on their species. Aquatic turtles often enjoy consuming small fish or insects as part of their diet, along with aquatic plants and leafy greens. Tortoises, on the other hand, prefer a diet rich in leafy greens such as collard greens, dandelion greens, and turnip greens. Various species of tortoises have their specific preferences when it comes to fruits and vegetables, and it’s crucial to offer a well-balanced diet that meets their nutritional needs.

Nutritional Requirements

Ensuring proper nutrition for turtles and tortoises involves meeting their specific dietary requirements. Turtles require a diet that provides essential nutrients such as protein, calcium, and vitamin D3 for shell and bone development. Nutritional supplements formulated specifically for turtles can help meet these requirements. Tortoises, being herbivorous, require a diet that provides adequate fiber, calcium, and vitamins. Calcium supplements and the provision of UVB lighting are essential to ensure adequate calcium absorption and prevent metabolic bone disease. Consulting with a reptile veterinarian or experienced reptile keeper can help determine the specific nutritional needs of individual species.

Lifespan and Size

Life Expectancy

The lifespan of turtles and tortoises can vary significantly depending on their species, habitat, and the care provided. Turtles generally have a longer lifespan compared to tortoises, with many species living for several decades. Some aquatic turtles, such as the red-eared slider, can live up to 30 years or even longer with proper care. Tortoises, depending on the species, can live for several decades as well, with some giant tortoises reaching ages exceeding a century.

Growth Rates

Turtles and tortoises also have contrasting growth rates. Turtles generally grow at a faster pace during their early years compared to tortoises. This rapid growth rate is especially prominent in aquatic turtle species. Tortoises, however, have a slower growth rate, and their growth largely depends on factors such as diet, habitat conditions, and genetics.

Adult Size

The adult size of turtles and tortoises can vary significantly depending on the species. Turtles, especially aquatic species, can grow to various sizes, with some small species reaching just a few inches in length, while others, like the leatherback sea turtle, can grow to be several feet long. Tortoises tend to be larger in size compared to most turtles. Some tortoises, such as the African spurred tortoise, can grow to be over two feet in length and weigh several hundred pounds. It is crucial to research and understand the potential size of a particular species before considering it as a pet to ensure suitable accommodations can be provided.

Behavioral Traits

Activity Levels

Turtles and tortoises exhibit different activity levels based on their natural behaviors. Turtles, especially aquatic species, are generally more active and require ample swimming space to thrive. They actively explore their environment, swim, and hunt for food. Tortoises, on the other hand, tend to be less active and have a slower pace. They spend a significant portion of their day basking, foraging for food on land, and exploring their immediate surroundings.

Social Behavior

In terms of social behavior, turtles and tortoises also display differences. Turtles, especially some aquatic species, tend to be more social and can tolerate or even enjoy the company of other turtles. However, it is essential to ensure adequate space and resources are available to prevent any aggression or territorial behavior. Tortoises, on the other hand, are generally more solitary in their natural behavior. While they may tolerate the presence of other tortoises, interactions among them are typically minimal, and providing separate enclosures is often recommended to avoid stress or aggression.

Burrowing and Shelter Needs

Tortoises have a natural instinct for burrowing and require suitable shelter options to fulfill this behavior. Providing hiding spots, such as hollow logs or sturdy plants, as well as ensuring sufficient substrate depth, allows tortoises to engage in digging and burrowing activities. Turtles, being aquatic or semi-aquatic, may not exhibit a strong instinct for burrowing, although some species may appreciate access to a basking platform or a designated hiding spot within their enclosure.


Hibernation or brumation, a period of dormancy during colder months, is a natural behavior observed in some turtles and tortoises. While not all species require hibernation, many turtles, especially those found in temperate regions, and most tortoises benefit from a period of reduced activity and cooler temperatures during winter months. Creating suitable conditions for hibernation, such as providing a cool area, reducing light exposure, and monitoring temperature and humidity levels, is crucial for the overall health and well-being of hibernating turtles and tortoises.

Maintenance and Care

Enclosure Setup

Creating an appropriate enclosure is essential for the well-being of turtles and tortoises. For turtles, a spacious aquarium or an outdoor pond with adequate water depth and basking areas is crucial. The enclosure should be escape-proof and contain suitable filtration and heating systems to maintain optimal water quality and temperature. For tortoises, an enclosure with a combination of both land and water sections is required, with sufficient space for them to roam, access to basking areas, and a variety of vegetation. The enclosure should be secure, providing protection against predators and escape attempts.

Water and Land Maintenance

Maintaining a clean and suitable water environment is essential for turtles. Regular water changes, diligent filtration, and monitoring water quality parameters such as temperature, pH, and ammonia levels are necessary to ensure the health of aquatic turtles. For tortoises, ensuring a clean and well-maintained land section, free from debris or soiled substrate, is crucial. Providing fresh food and water daily and removing any waste promptly helps maintain their enclosure’s cleanliness.


Regular cleaning of the enclosure is vital for the hygiene and well-being of turtles and tortoises. In aquatic habitats, removing excess waste, uneaten food, and debris from the water is essential to prevent bacterial growth and maintain water quality. For land areas, removing feces, soiled substrate, and spot-cleaning on a daily basis helps keep the enclosure clean and odor-free. Periodic deep cleaning of the entire enclosure, including disinfection and replacement of substrate, should also be done.

Veterinary Care

Proper veterinary care is crucial for the overall health and well-being of turtles and tortoises. Regular check-ups with a reptile veterinarian are recommended to ensure that any potential health issues are detected early and appropriate treatment is provided. Regular fecal examinations and blood work can help monitor the health of the pet and identify any underlying diseases or nutritional deficiencies. Additionally, annual vaccinations may be recommended for certain species to protect against common reptile diseases.

Handling and Interaction

While turtles and tortoises may tolerate handling to varying degrees, it is essential to remember that they are primarily wild animals and may become stressed or anxious when handled. Gentle and minimal handling is generally recommended, especially for tortoises, to minimize stress and potential injuries. It is essential to wash hands thoroughly before and after handling to prevent the transfer of bacteria or diseases. Supervised interaction and positive reinforcement through feeding or playing can help build trust and strengthen the bond between the pet and the owner.

Legal Considerations

Legal Restrictions

Before considering turtles or tortoises as pets, it is crucial to be aware of any legal restrictions or regulations that may apply. Some turtle species, especially those with larger size or considered endangered, may be subject to legal restrictions or require special permits for ownership. Researching local, state, and federal regulations can help ensure compliance with the law and prevent potential legal issues.

Permits and Licenses

Certain species of turtles and tortoises may require permits or licenses for ownership. These permits and licenses help regulate the trade and ownership of endangered or protected species. The requirements for permits and licenses may vary depending on the species and the jurisdiction. It is essential to consult with local authorities or reptile experts to determine the specific permits or licenses needed for owning a particular species.


Apart from specific permits or licenses, there may be general regulations in place governing the possession and care of turtles and tortoises. These regulations may include enclosure size requirements, specific housing conditions, or guidelines for the transport or sale of these animals. Ensuring compliance with these regulations helps prioritize the welfare and conservation of these animals and ensures responsible ownership.

Availability and Costs

Common Breeds

Turtles and tortoises come in various species, each with its unique characteristics and requirements. Common breeds of turtles include red-eared sliders, painted turtles, box turtles, and musk turtles. For tortoises, popular breeds include Russian tortoises, Hermann’s tortoises, sulcata tortoises, and leopard tortoises. Availability may vary depending on the region and local breeders or reptile enthusiasts.

Price Ranges

The cost of owning a turtle or tortoise can vary based on factors such as the species, age, size, and availability. Generally, turtles are more readily available and tend to be more affordable compared to tortoises. The price range can vary from affordable options for smaller turtle species starting around $20-$50, while larger or rarer turtle species or tortoises can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars.

Specialized Equipment

In addition to the initial purchase cost of the turtle or tortoise, owners should also consider the additional expenses associated with specialized equipment. Turtles require an appropriate aquarium or pond setup with filtration, heating equipment, and UVB lighting. Tortoises need an enclosure with suitable housing elements such as basking areas, hiding spots, and proper lighting and heating. The cost of these additional equipment items can range from a few hundred dollars to several hundred dollars, depending on the size and complexity of the setup.

Suitability as Pets

Space Requirements

Turtles and tortoises have specific space requirements that potential owners should consider. Turtles require an adequately sized aquarium or pond with enough water depth to swim and bask, along with adequate dry areas for rest. Larger aquatic turtles may need spacious outdoor ponds to fulfill their space requirements. Tortoises, being terrestrial, need a more extensive enclosure with ample space for them to roam, dig, and explore. The enclosure should be large enough to accommodate the adult size of the tortoise and allow for proper thermoregulation and natural behaviors.

Time and Commitment

Owning a turtle or tortoise requires a significant time commitment. Daily tasks include feeding, watering, cleaning, and maintaining the habitat. Turtles may need regular water changes and monitoring of water quality, while tortoises benefit from regular spot cleaning and maintenance of the land area. Owners also need to invest time in researching and understanding the specific requirements and behaviors of their chosen species to provide the best care possible.

Interaction and Socialization

While turtles and tortoises may not be as interactive or sociable as other pets, they can still form a bond with their owners through regular positive interactions. Turtles may exhibit some recognition of their owners and become more comfortable with handling over time. However, owners should respect the natural behaviors and instincts of these animals and provide a stress-free environment. For tortoises, interaction may involve observing and monitoring their behavior, providing enrichment through varied diet and environmental stimuli, and creating a trusting relationship through gentle handling.

Experience Level

Turtles and tortoises may not be suitable pets for first-time reptile owners or individuals with limited experience. Their specialized care requirements, including specific habitat setup, dietary needs, and potential health issues, can be complex for novice keepers. It is advisable for potential owners to gain experience with other reptile species or seek guidance from experienced reptile keepers. Consulting with reptile veterinarians or herpetological societies can also provide valuable insights and support for novice owners.


Turtles and tortoises, although both reptiles and exhibiting certain similarities, have distinct differences in their physical characteristics, habitat needs, dietary preferences, behaviors, and care requirements. Understanding these differences is crucial for potential owners to make informed decisions and provide suitable care for these unique creatures. Whether considering a turtle or a tortoise as a pet, it is essential to research the specific species, consult with experts, and ensure compliance with legal regulations and permits. With proper care, attention, and a suitable environment, turtles and tortoises can make fascinating and rewarding pets, offering their owners a glimpse into the captivating world of reptiles.