The Beginners Guide to Keeping Terrapins & Turtles


Over the years the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have had a significant impact on the pet care industry. Each time a Turtles movie is released it seems that demand for baby pet turtles goes wild. Over the years hundreds of thousands of pet terrapins have been imported into the UK in order to satisfy this demand. However, as many pet owners have found, caring for a pet turtle or terrapin isn’t quite as easy as you might first think…

Turtles Vs Terrapins: What’s The Difference?

Over the years the words “turtle” and “terrapin” have lost their meaning, often being used interchangeably. The first point therefore is what the real difference is between turtles and terrapins and so which word we should really be using to describe these little chelonians.

The fact is that here in the UK the word “turtle” typically refers to a shelled reptile that swims the ocean. Think of green turtles or loggerhead turtles. Those which swim in freshwater – such as ponds and streams – are more commonly referred to as “terrapins”. Consequently you would never keep a turtle as a pet, while pet terrapins are quite commonly kept.

Equally, it should be said that in the USA the word “turtle” is used to describe both types of aquatic reptile. Referring to the “terrapins” for sale as “turtles” is therefore something of an Americanism – though one that most British pet shops will understand perfectly. So while the words can largely be used interchangeably, for accuracy we will refer to them as “terrapins” in this article.

Understand Housing Needs

Terrapins have some quite specialist needs in captivity. For example they will need warm heated water to swim in, and then an area of dry land where they drag themselves out. Here they will need a basking lamp to lie under, which will allow them to dry out fully as well as raise their body temperature. They also need artificial sunlight in the form of UV light in order to synthesize vitamin D3 and so grow healthy bones and shells.

Baby terrapins may look small and cute when you see them in the pet shop, but they can grow rapidly under the right conditions. As active animals, they require a large tank, together with all the electronic gadgets already mentioned. This means that housing terrapins can be a very expensive business. Before you take on a baby terrapin therefore make sure that you’ll have the space and the money to give them the proper housing as they grow.

Be Prepared For the Cleaning Regime

The majority of pet terrapins are carnivorous and require meat to eat. This may be provided in the form of chopped meat from the butchers, live insects from a reptile shop or specially-made terrapin pellets. However leaving unwanted dead meat floating in the warm water of a terrapin tank can quickly turn the water sour. Terrapins therefore typically require a powerful filter and regular cleaning to minimize unpleasant smells or unhealthy water quality.

You will need to be confident that you have time available every single week to carry out extensive cleaning and maintenance required when keeping terrapins as pets.

Select the Right Species

Lastly be aware that there are a number of different terrapin species sometimes found for sale in the UK. In the past it was the red-eared terrapin (or “slider”) that was most commonly seen. These animals can be vast as adults though, attaining a shell length of over 30cm long. As a result they require more of a pond than simply a fish tank, and as a result aren’t really suitable pets.

This is one reason why so many of them have been released into public waterways over the years. Quite simply they grew so big that their owners were unable to successfully house them any longer. It should be said that releasing terrapins into the wild like this is both illegal and immoral. Not only are terrapins excellent predators that can kill off British wildlife in their hunt for food, but many terrapins still die of starvation or the cold if released into the British countryside.

The message is simple then; do your research before selecting a pet terrapin. Make sure that you’re adopting a species that attains a reasonable size as an adult, and so can be fully accommodated for the entirety of its life.

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