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Turtles vs tortoises as pets – Should you consider keeping them?

by Janet
turtles vs tortoises as pets
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Most people will think of dogs and cats as pets, with some venturing out to unique options. Among these standout choices include tortoises and turtles, which are becoming increasingly popular among owners; but knowing the best choice can prove challenging. 

Both turtles and tortoises are under the same animal classification type; they both have a hard shell that they use to hide from predators, and are both reptiles. They also happen to be low-cost pets that are easy to maintain; but the key to making the right decision and keeping them happy lies in knowing their differences and comparing the conditions they thrive best in.

Comparison table of turtles and tortoises

Life span
60 to 80 years
20 to 40 years
Entirely on Land 
Mostly Water, sometimes land
Mostly herbivorous
Has a more dome shape, and it is quite heavy and thick.
Has a streamlined shape for swimming, while also being lightweight and smooth.
Short and strong, and clawed or flat feet
Long-clawed webbed feet or flippers

Turtles vs. Tortoises – How do they compare?


The areas each animal prefers as a habitat is the most significant difference between them, because these habitats influenced their evolutionary traits. 

Tortoises live their entire lives on land, while turtles can move between water and land with most of their time being in water. Some turtle species will spend more time on land, however, especially when they lay eggs or bask in the sun.

Additionally, the location of these animals’ habitats also differ. You can find tortoises in the Americas, Asia, and Africa, while turtles are in Africa and the Americas; on the other hand, sea turtles are mainly in the warmer ocean sections of the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic.

Physical characteristics

turtle vs tortoise

While the two reptiles appear similar due to their shells, a closer inspection reveals some differences in their physical appearance.

  • The shell: Both turtles and tortoises have different shell shapes, with a tortoise shell being thicker, heavier, and dome-shaped while the turtle shell is lighter and flatter. When considering the aquatic habitat of turtles, the modification makes sense because they need to move easily through the water. On the other hand, a tortoise is mainly a land animal, and it requires a shell that will protect it from other animals and the elements.
  • Their legs: Because their habitats are different, their legs also adapt to these areas. The tortoise requires to move their heavier shell across terrain, so their legs will be thicker and stronger and their hind legs look almost like an elephant’s legs. Most will have clubbed feet while some species have claws. On the other hand, a turtle’s legs are thinner and straighter, and this design allows them to paddle and swim easily. They also have webbed feet, with the exception of sea turtles that have feet looking similar to flippers or fish fins.


Turtles generally follow an omnivorous diet and eat a combination of vegetables, feeder fish, and insects. The case for tortoises is different, as they follow an herbivorous diet that consists mainly of hay, fruits, and fresh vegetables. Occasionally, they can also consume insects.


Both tortoises and turtles lay eggs that hatch live young. The only difference is that the turtle will bury the eggs and leave them until they hatch, but the tortoise will keep watch over the eggs until a few weeks after they hatch.

Additionally, the tortoise and turtle eggs have different incubation periods that vary according to the species – for instance, tortoise eggs can incubate between 8 to 11 weeks, while sea turtles have a 60-day incubation period.


Their lifespans are different, with tortoises having a longer lifespan of up to 150 years – although most will live an average between 60 and 80 years. On the other hand, turtles have a 20 to 40-year lifespan, except for sea turtles that live between 60 and 70 years.

Considerations to keep in mind when choosing them as pets

turtles vs tortoises

The choice you make between the two is entirely up to personal preference. However, there are some key considerations to think about before deciding on any of them:

  • Tortoise bodies can grow significantly large, so they need larger and more specialized habitats. On the other hand, turtles can comfortably live in a large aquarium, as long as you have a minimum water volume of 10 gallons per inch of the turtle’s shell. 
  • Tortoises have a longer lifespan, so it is important to place systems in place to care for them if they outlive you. However, turtles may also outlive you as well, depending on your age when you got them.
  • Although both turtles and tortoises are not huge fans of handling, a turtle is even less comfortable with human contact; they are also not as social as some tortoises.
  • Both these animals will require you to clean their habitats frequently. In the case of turtles, cleaning their spaces is more intensive because they will mainly spend their time in an aquarium setting, they are generally messier, and feeding them is a more intensive process as well. You will also need to provide turtles with a space where they can bask in light to dry off and warm up their bodies.
  • A tortoise requires sufficient space to move around, and they will also require a smaller water dish as their drinking point. Additionally, you must keep them regularly hydrated by soaking them in warm water.
  • If the idea of feeding your pet insects is a major turn off, it is better to keep a vegetarian tortoise than a turtle since feeding the turtle will be very difficult.


Choosing a tortoise or turtle is a great decision, but choosing them will depend on the space in your home and whether it is suitable enough for them as a habitat. The other details about caring for them such as food and incubation will depend on the species, and this information must come from the rescue center where you are buying them – never bring them in from the wild.


Which is easier to care for, a tortoise or turtle?

This depends on the species you get, as some are easier to manage than others. As a general rule though, all tortoises and turtles need plenty of space.

Does a tortoise make a good pet?

Yes, as long as you keep them in an outdoors environment and avoid playing with them too often. They are reasonably easy to care for and live a long life as well.


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