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Davis Journal

Turtles are fun, but may not be right for first-time pet owners

Mar 09, 2023 02:23PM ● By Alisha Copfer

An African sideneck turtle, this one named Avocado, is a popular pet choice due to its size and quirky personality. Photo by Alisha Copfer

From the common slider to the elusive leatherback, turtles, tortoises and terrapins don’t get the attention they deserve. While having a leatherback turtle as a pet is illegal and impractical, there are several species that are available as pets here in Utah. It is important to know that taking turtles from the wild as pets is illegal in Utah, and it is also illegal to transport or possess turtles that are protected under state and federal laws.

The most common species of turtle to have as a pet is the slider. These turtles are aquatic and require large tanks with fresh water and features they can climb on and burrow under. They also require an enclosure with a suitable temperature range, lighting and a basking area to maintain their health. Slider turtles also need a variety in their diet that includes both animals and plants; they love goldfish and mealworms.

Red-eared sliders have a distinctive red or orange stripe on both sides of their head, which gives them their name. They can grow up to 12 inches long and, with the proper care, can live up to 30 years.

Another commonly kept species is the box turtle. One of the fun facts about these turtles is that they are the only known turtles that can completely close themselves into their shells. This is due to their hinged plastron (bottom shell) that can be pulled up to close off the opening of the shell. While only some species of box turtles are native in Utah, they are often purchased as pets. 

In Utah, the most common tortoise species kept as pets is the Russian Tortoise. This small tortoise is popular due to its hardiness and ease of care. Russian tortoises typically grow to be between 6 to 10 inches long and require dry enclosures. These tortoises primarily feed on grasses and other plants. As a pet, they should be fed a diet consisting of a variety of leafy greens, vegetables and fruits. Russian tortoises have a long lifespan and can live for over 50 years when cared for properly.

Owners should know that turtles are relatively intelligent. Scientists have discovered that turtles can learn to navigate mazes better than rats, can be taught to perform basic tasks and have even demonstrated long-term memory functions. When buying a turtle as a pet, owners need to understand that the turtle or tortoise is likely to have a long life. This means that they are going to be a significant commitment. The turtle’s lifespan will depend on the species, but the average turtle can live between 20 and 30 years, with some living more than 40 years.

It’s important to note that turtles, tortoises and terrapins can carry the salmonella bacteria, which can cause illness in humans, especially young children. Therefore, it’s important to take proper hygiene precautions, such as washing hands after handling the turtle or its habitat.

Turtles, especially those four inches and smaller, commonly carry the Salmonella bacteria on their outer skin and shell surfaces. So, surfaces such as countertops, tabletops and carpeting can also become contaminated with the bacteria. Proper handling and hygiene practices are extremely important in preventing the spread of Salmonella. Turtles of any size can carry the bacteria in their droppings even if they look healthy and clean. These germs can easily spread to their bodies, tank water and anything in the area where they live and roam. So, always make sure to wash surfaces and anything that the turtle touches frequently.

Turtles are not recommended as pets for children younger than 5, adults aged 65 and older and people with weakened immune systems. These people are more likely to get a serious illness from germs that turtles can carry.