Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Buy a Toy, Not a Real Turtle

Are turtles good pets for children? With a certain movie out now, parents everywhere have been asking that question.

By: Land Turtle and Tortoise Rescue/Facebook
Real turtles (not the ninja kind) need a lot of care. Can your family provide that? By: Land Turtle and Tortoise Rescue/Facebook

With the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in theaters now, children will be asking for pet turtles to relive the motion picture or enjoy having their own “ninja turtle” team at home.

But are turtles really good pets for children? Review this list to see if your home is really ready for a pet turtle.

What Species Are You Really Getting?

Can you differentiate between turtle species when they are little? How do you know what you are really buying? Is the turtle a slider, snapper or box turtle?

The species is an important piece of information because many factors change between turtle species:

Habitat

Some turtles are aquatic, while others live on land.

  • You may need to buy a large tank for the inside of your house or build a pond in the backyard. Tanks will require non-chlorinated water, pumps, thermostats, bulbs and much more.
  • Ponds will have to be dug and built.
  • If you hire a landscaper, you’ll need to make sure she or he has experience building ponds for turtles so the habitat is appropriate for your species.

Size

How big will your turtle get? Some turtles remain relatively small, such as the map or stinkpot turtles. Aldabrans and sulcata tortoises can range from 80 to 200 pounds and can grow larger than a wheelbarrow.

Figure out your size limitations to determine which species you can care for and which are too much turtle for you. This video shows the difference in size as red eared sliders age each year.

Age

How long will your turtle live? You might get a small turtle with a lifespan of 10 years, or you could end up with a large turtle at maturity who will live for 150 years — yes, that long. In the case of the larger turtle, the animal will outlive you.

So will your children take over the turtle’s care, or will you have to create a trust and set aside funds for as long as the turtle may live? This is an important decision, and arrangements need to be made in advance so your turtle is not abandoned or neglected.

This video discusses how long turtles can live:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-nE_2Oh8nQ

Food

Different species of turtles have different dietary needs. Some turtles eat a plant-based diet, while other species need meat and protein. Additionally, it is possible to overfeed a turtle. This can cause obesity and additional growth.

Health Care

Pet turtles, like any pet, should see a vet annually to monitor their health. If you end up with a 100-pound turtle, you will have to figure out how to transport it or find a veterinarian who does house calls.

Vet visits can range from $50 to $100 or more depending on your particular turtle and the care or treatment required. You will need to be aware of the warning signs of illness to know when your turtle needs care, such as cloudy eyes or refusing to eat.

Care and Illness

Whose turtle is it anyway? Will your child care for the turtle, or will you?

A routine needs to be in place for the turtle’s feeding, cleaning, overall care and care for the habitat (pond maintenance, tank cleaning, etc.). A set diet and routine feeding schedule is important to establish based on your turtle’s species to prevent overfeeding.

Turtles can carry salmonella, and this puts young children, people with suppressed immune systems and the elderly at risk. Salmonella can live on surfaces, so it is not necessary to touch the turtle to become sick. When handling turtles, hand-washing afterward is a must.

“We’re now seeing emerging diseases of reptiles and amphibians spread by these pets. It’s a great concern because our reptiles and amphibians have a hard enough time with the loss of wetlands and the loss of habitat without introducing these new diseases,” said Jonathan McKnight, with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “If they’re out there people are going to touch them, they’re going to contact their mouth and salmonella is a nasty disease to have.”

Legal Issues

Laws regarding turtles vary by state, county, parish and town.

Some states allow people to keep turtles without restrictions, while individual counties and towns may require permits and for your turtle to be microchipped. Some of the permits specify which species of turtles can be kept and how many.

Particular species are also banned in certain areas, and laws can change regularly. A law revision/proposed rule change was submitted in West Virginia recently that would allow the state to declare an animal dangerous and/or require permits costing $100 per year, and turtles were grouped in with the animals listed.

Selling small baby turtles with shells less than 4 inches long is illegal. They are still commonly sold in high-tourist areas, fairs/carnivals and on the streets of major cities. Check the size before you buy to ensure you are not supporting an illegal operation.

If you find baby turtles being sold, you can report the seller through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

When the Novelty of a Pet Turtle Wears Off

Sure, a movie with talking animals can be mesmerizing to a child — but the cost, care and considerations are real. When your child (or you) becomes bored with the turtle or no longer feels like providing care, what can you do?

Don’t

Release the turtle into the wild. Native turtles already live there. When you introduce a turtle whose species is not present there, there is a risk that the new turtle could introduce disease to the native turtles, compete with them for food sources, or not be able to fend off predators or find food. Just because a turtle is a turtle does not mean it can survive in the wild, and this is compounded when a turtle has been a domestic pet for longer periods.

Do

Place an advertisement in your local newspaper to see if anyone is interested in adopting your turtle. Make sure they are informed of the species and the care necessary before you hand over your pet.

Do

Contact local shelters and rescues. Although some may not accept turtles and the ones that do might already be at capacity, they can help you find a foster home or help you find someone to adopt your turtle. There are also turtle and tortoise rescues across the country that are used to dealing with these situations.

Additional Resources

Kristine Lacoste

View posts by Kristine Lacoste
Kristine Lacoste, editor in chief of Petful, has been researching dog and cat breeds for nearly a decade and has observed the animals up close at dog shows in both the United States and the United Kingdom. She is the author of the book One Unforgettable Journey, which was nominated for a Maxwell Award from the Dog Writers Association of America, and was host of a weekly pet news segment on the National K-9 Academy Radio Show. In addition, she was the New Orleans coordinator for Dogs on Deployment, a nonprofit that helps military members and their pets, for 3 years. Kristine has researched and written about pet behaviors and care for many years. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology, another bachelor’s degree in English and a Master of Business Administration degree.

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