Choosing Your Turtle

Once you’ve decided what kind of turtle you’d like, the next step is finding somebody who has one to sell. Try to find a source who only sells captive-bred turtles. One of the chief threats facing many wild populations of turtles worldwide is over-collection for the pet trade. You can do your part for turtle conservation by asking where the turtle you are thinking of buying has come from.

Where to Get Your Turtle

There are three basic sources for a pet turtle: local breeders or collectors, a mail order breeder or wholesaler, and local pet shops.


One of the best places to get a pet turtle is from a local breeder or collector a person who breeds a small number of turtles as a hobby. The advantages are numerous: Most noncommercial, local turtle breeders are very conscientious about their animals and take extraordinary care in keeping and caring for them. (If they didn’t, they would have no young turtles to sell.) Since the breeder has a wealth of experience in keeping and raising this species, they will be able to answer any questions you have and pass on useful information and tips on caring for your turtle. (I have met very few turtle breeders who did not relish the chance to help out a beginner.) Price-wise, most noncommercial private breeders are competitive with mail-order dealers, without the shipping costs.

There are a few disadvantages as well, and they must be carefully considered. The biggest problem in dealing with a noncommercial breeder is finding one. Noncommercial turtle breeders are not nearly as common as hobbyists who breed snakes or lizards. Even if you live in a large city, it is unlikely many turtle breeders will live near you. And, since few local turtle breeders advertise, the only way to find them is through word of mouth. Your local herpetological society should be able to direct you to reputable breeders in your area–if there are any.

Another potential problem is variety. Breeding turtles takes a lot of room and some expenditure of money. For this reason, most private breeders tend to specialize in one or, at most, a small number of species. And unless you are fortunate enough to find a person who breeds the species you are looking for, you may be out of luck.

The biggest problem, however, is that breeders prefer to sell their stock as soon as possible after it is hatched. In the United States it is illegal to sell any turtle with a carapace less than 4 inches long. There is an exception made to this rule if the turtle is used for “research purposes”; regardless, a large number of breeders and dealers will sell baby turtles anyway.

Through the Mail

By far the most variety is available if you get a pet turtle through a mail-order dealer or commercial breeder. For some of the more exotic turtles, this may be the only source of that species. Breeders can be found through local herpetological societies, and commercial dealers can be found on the Internet by doing a search for the keywords “turtle breeder” or “turtle prices.”

The first step in obtaining a turtle by mail order is to decide what species you would like. Then contact the dealer for a price list and to find out if they have the species you want. Since turtles may be sold under several different names in the pet trade, most dealers list the Latin scientific name, and this is the name you should order by to ensure that you get exactly the species you want.

Turtles are hardy creatures, and shipping them is not difficult. Most dealers will place your turtle inside a cloth bag or a plastic container, along with some moistened paper towels or moss to keep her hydrated and as padding to prevent her from being bounced around. This container is then placed inside a shipping box, with several inches of newspaper or foam peanuts as insulation and padding, and the shipping box is completely sealed with tape to prevent rapid temperature changes. The box will then be marked “Live Harmless Reptiles.”

There is sufficient air inside the box for several weeks, although most turtles reach their destinations within a few days.

You should specifically request that the shipping company require a signature from you upon delivery. This prevents the delivery person from simply leaving the box by your front door, where it may be exposed to direct sunlight and become too hot for your turtle.

When your turtle arrives, she will be a bit disoriented by her trip, so you should remove her gently from the packaging and place her in her enclosure. Make sure she has food and water, and then leave her alone for a few days to adjust to her new surroundings.

Turtle Buyer’s Club

One option to explore if you want to reduce mailing costs is a local turtle buyer’s club, in which several people get together and order a number of turtles, which are shipped as one order. Since the shipping charge is per box, not per turtle, this practice will lower the shipping cost per person and enable everyone to get the turtles they want at a lower cost than if they placed their orders individually. Your local herpetological society can probably help you set this up.

The best way to place an order with a dealer is by telephone. The dealer will need to know what species you want and what airport you would like them shipped to (for an extra charge, you can sometimes have the package delivered right to your door from the airport).

Pet Stores

One big advantage a local pet store has over a mail-order dealer is that you are able to closely examine the turtles before you buy them. If you are able to find a turtle you want in a pet store, take the opportunity to examine her carefully. Choosing a healthy turtle to begin with will save you a lot of problems, heartache, and expense down the road. A good pet store should be able to point you to the local herpetological society for help and advice concerning your turtle.


Because it may take several weeks for the signs of an illness to be visible, it is a good idea to quarantine any new turtle you bring home, particularly if you already have other turtles or reptiles. Quarantining is simply isolating the new turtle for a period of time so that any potential health problems can be seen and treated. Even if this is your first turtle, you should not skip the quarantine — it is necessary to watch for signs of any impending illness.

The quarantine tank should be in a separate room from the rest of your reptile collection. Whenever you service your turtle tanks for feeding, cleaning, and other tasks, always do the quarantine tank last to avoid carrying pathogens or parasites from one cage to the next. It may also be helpful to keep the temperature in the quarantine tank a few degrees higher than normal.

Keep a close eye on your new turtle for at least thirty days, keeping in mind all of the potential danger signals mentioned in the box on page 45. If you have a land turtle, be sure to examine her feces whenever they appear. If the feces are loose or watery, if they begin to develop a greenish color, or if the feces begin to take on a strong, unpleasant odor, this may indicate intestinal troubles. Also, if the feces contain a number of thin objects that look like pieces of thread, these are worms, and they will need to be treated by a veterinarian.

In addition to the normal quarantine, new turtles should be given a routine checkup by a veterinarian, including a fecal exam. Most turtles who are sick will usually begin to show symptoms within thirty to forty-five days. Some turtle keepers, particularly those with large collections, like to keep their new arrivals quarantined for at least sixty days, because once a disease or parasite has been introduced into a large collection, it is very difficult to contain and control.

If, at the end of the quarantine period, your turtle is still healthy, active and eating regularly, you can move her into her regular home. After removing the turtle, the entire quarantine cage and all of its contents should be emptied and cleaned with a strong saltwater solution or a disinfectant, followed by a thorough rinsing. Do not use any cleanser that contains pine oil or pine tar, because they are very toxic to turtles.

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