Which category do you prefer and which is best for you?

Although North Americans use the word "turtle" to cover all species of chelonian, from land tortoises (completely terrestrial in most cases) to marine turtles (completely oceangoing except for the infrequent interludes when females lay eggs on a beach), other English speakers use the words tortoise, terrapin and turtle as follows:

Of course in some ways this is an artificial division and not very accurate, but it does raise a point: if you are interested in these creatures, should you be looking for a tortoise, a terrapin or a turtle? Do you want one that trundles around on the garden lawn on a sunny day or which sits in or around the pond? Do you want to keep one in a dry enclosure indoors or in an aquarium full of water?

There are pros and cons with most pets, and at the end of the day not only your interest but also your ability to care for them properly must dictate your choice. What follows is a look at the advantages and disadvantages of each of these three "categories".


Although British people at least think of tortoises if someone describes a reptile with a shell, most chelonians are not tortoises. Tortoises are in fact a rather specialised group of chelonians that have adapted to a thoroughly terrestrial (dry land) way of life.

Although tortoises have been very commonly kept as pets in the UK in the past, it has to be acknowledged that in fact they are not that easy to maintain in the temperate climate of this country. Despite the hotter summers and milder winters that Britain now gets, a tortoise living in the garden will still get probably less than half of the sunshine hours it would regularly receive in its natural habitat, even if that habitat is only 2-3 hours away by plane. Of all the tortoises available, a handful are reasonably adaptable to life in the UK if kept correctly. Some others would need to be kept indoors if they were to be kept at all, which for large tortoises such as Sulcata's or Leopard Tortoises would be impractical.

The situation in Europe is somewhat better, as although the winters are colder the summers are brighter and hotter, at least in central and southern Europe. In fact colder winters can be an advantage for tortoises that hibernate, while others can be brought indoors. I know a German couple who overwinter their non-hibernating tortoises in a heated basement. In North America the situation largely depends how far north or south you live, but given the continental climate, even in Canada some tortoises might thrive in the hot summers if they can hibernate or be given sheltered accommodation in the winter. Places such as Florida or California are ideal for some species, but correct humidity requirements must be observed.

As a rule, the Gopherus tortoises of North America and the small South African tortoises rarely fare well outside of their native environment. At the very best they should be considered difficult and left to experienced keepers.

Tortoises have two potential advantages: they are mainly or entirely herbivorous (handy if you dislike the idea of feeding your pet live food or meat), and they are often very personable and intelligent. If kept properly they can live long lives.


I use the term here quite broadly to cover not only Red-Eared Sliders but also American and Asian Box Turtles and any other chelonian which lives in a similar manner, ie partly in and partly out of the water.

Contrary to a commonly held misconception (which I believe I have seen in some pet shops), terrapins do not like living solely in water but need dry land to haul out on and bask. How much time they spend in and out of the water varies from species to species, but if you are going to keep terrapins, you need to be able to provide both environments. If you want to keep them in a tank, this means providing a dry area they can haul themselves out onto, which depending on the species can be as simple as a floating piece of wood or as complicated as a separate area with plant cover. Likewise, if you are going to keep them in the garden you will have to provide some area of water, which can be as simple (depending on the species) as a children's inflatable swimming pool or as complicated as a landscaped pond area with overhanging trees.

Some box turtles, mainly the American, have a reputation for being tricky, or at least not as simple as people were once led to believe. However, Red-Eared Sliders are fairly easy to keep with the proviso that they have a reputation for being messy, ie fouling their water on a fairly rapid basis. There are ways and means around this, including the use of powerful tank filters and feeding the animals in a separate, and easily washable, area. This is less of a problem outdoors, where faeces tend to be acted upon by nature, but should still be considered.

Terrapins tend to be omnivorous, taking both plant and animal food.

Again, the availability and suitability of species depends upon location, but given that many terrapins are found in more northerly latitudes than tortoises, one can normally find something to cater to one's taste and capabilities.


I am using the term here to cover those turtles which spend most if not all of their lives in water. Marine turtles are NOT considered here as (a) they are unobtainable, (b) impossible to keep alive without specialist equipment or access to the coast, and (c) are for the most part severely threatened in the wild anyway.

I think it fair to say that most chelonians fall into this category. In captivity they can be either kept in aquaria, with the proviso that they must be able to either come up to breathe or else have suitably shallow water, or else outside, depending on the species and its natural habitat. Most of these animals spend their lives swimming in the river or else walking along the bottom looking for food. Virtually all of them are carnivorous, with the occasional plant matter being taken.

With this last category, one has a huge choice of species, from the common and hardy (eg small Asian or American pond turtles) to the demanding and bizarre (the Matamata or the snake-necked chelids). Some require little maintenance and can be left outdoors overwinter, while others (mainly from the southern hemisphere) may require heated tanks.

For those people living in cool or cold climates, turtles may actually be the best choice, especially if you prefer to keep your pet outdoors. There are some species which are hardy enough to live outside most of the year round. On the other hand, if you are interested in the aesthetic aspect of keeping turtles, then a suitably-sized tank of small turtles in the living room makes an interesting display.

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