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The Best Small Turtle Pets for Reptile Enthusiasts with Limited Space

The world’s most popular pet turtle, the Red Eared Slider, is a poor choice for those lacking space for a huge aquarium and filter.  A number of smaller, less active turtles are easier to accommodate in homes and classrooms.  Today I’ll cover some of my favorite aquatic, semi-aquatic and terrestrial species, all of which are being bred in captivity.  Unless otherwise stated, all can be kept in a 20-30 gallon aquarium or similarly-sized plastic bin.  This list is by no means exhaustive, so please be sure to post your own choices and share your experiences below.  Please see the linked articles and post below for in depth information on care and breeding.

Common Musk Turtle, hatchling

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Karlwj1985

Common Musk Turtle, Sternotherus odoratus

As I type this article, I’m being watched by a Musk Turtle that I acquired in 1969, so I can vouch for their hardiness!

Found across a wide chunk of eastern North America, females rarely exceed 4 inches in length, while males average 3 inches.

As turtles go, these engaging little guys are quite simple to care for.  Reptomin can comprise 50-60% of the diet, with the balance being supplied by other aquatic turtle foods, earthworms, freeze dried shrimp, and minnows.

While Musk Turtles occasionally bask, they can (if fed properly) obtain sufficient Vitamin D from their diets and do not need a source of UVB light.  Highly aquatic but somewhat weak swimmers, they do best in 5-8 inches of water with an easily-accessed platform.

A relative, the Flattened Musk Turtle, Sternotherus depressus, is

North America’s smallest turtle.  A mere 3 – 4 inches in length, it lives only in Alabama’s Black Warrior River, and is not often seen in private collections.

Chinese Big Headed Turtle, Platysternon megacephalum

Although not commonly-seen in the trade, this hardy, unusual turtle adapts well to captivity.  I’ve cared for several 30 year-olds in zoo collections, and one owned by a friend is 45-50 years of age.

Native to Southeast Asia, Big Headed Turtles inhabit cool, fast-flowing streams.  The head, almost half as wide as the rectangular carapace, is protected by bony, shell-like plates along its top and sides.  The large jaws are similarly reinforced – an adaptation to preying upon snails, clams, crayfishes and similar invertebrates.

Big Headed Turtles are very aware of all that goes on around them, and will “greet” their owner at feeding time.  But their “greetings” must be viewed with caution, as many resent handling; bites and scratches can be quite severe!  Children should not be trusted with this species.

Poor swimmers, Big Heads do best when kept in shallow water.  I always offer crayfishes, fresh and canned snails and crabs, but others have had success with standard carnivorous turtle diets.  They become uncomfortable when water temperatures rise above the mid-seventies, and fare best at 68-72 F.  I heat a semi-submerged basking area to 80 F, but find that it is rarely used.  A red/black reptile night bulb will help you to observe your turtles after dark, when they are most active.

Somewhat shy despite their impressive jaws, Big Headed Turtles should always have access to submerged caves.  Old crockery flowerpots work well; I also favor the Penn Plax Turtle Pier, which provides a dry basking site as well as an underwater shelter.  Aided by strong legs and a long tail, Big Headed Turtles are accomplished climbers.  Be sure to cover your aquarium and employ screen clips.

Mud Turtle, Kinosternon subrubrum, and Relatives

Four subspecies of Mud Turtle have been identified, with the eastern race being endangered in several states.  Now bred in captivity, this droll little turtle is an excellent choice for novice turtle-keepers.

The attractively-marked Striped Mud Turtle, Kinosternon bauri, ranges from southern Georgia to the Florida Keys and appears regularly in the trade.  It is also modest in size, and makes a fine pet.

Mud turtles may be kept as described for Musk Turtles, above.

Russian Tortoise

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Nicholasink

Russian or Horsefield’s Tortoise, Testudo horsfieldi

Although small by tortoise standards (it tops out at 8.8 inches, and many are considerably smaller), the Russian Tortoise needs more room than the others I’ve included in this article.  A plastic wading pool or modified rabbit cage makes a good home, especially if out-of-cage exercise is provided.

The three Russian Tortoise subspecies range from the southeastern coast of the Caspian Sea to western China and Iran, and are adapted to surprisingly cold climates.

Pet Russian Tortoises will accept many foods, but must be provided with a low-protein, high-fiber diet if they are to thrive.  Unfortunately, misinformation as to their needs is widely distributed…please read this article and post any questions below.

Russian Tortoises require deep, dry substrates in which to construct nighttime sleeping pallets.  If unable to do this, they often become stressed and dehydrated.  A mix of sandy soil and oyster shell is ideal.  Please see the article linked below for more on diet, temperatures, UVB and other aspects of tortoise care.

The minute Egyptian and Padloper Tortoises are much smaller than the Russian, but are rather delicate and best left to well-experienced keepers.

Spotted Turtle

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Dave Pape

North American Spotted Turtle, Clemmys guttata

Although becoming increasingly rare in the wild, this beautiful little turtle breeds readily in captivity.  Hatchlings are well-worth the high prices they command…breeders seem to know that it’s difficult to find a smaller, more attractive and personable turtle pet!

At an adult size of 3.5 – 4.5 inches, Spotted Turtles rank among the world’s smallest Chelonians.  They become as tame and confiding as any Slider, and will do fine on the Musk Turtle diet described earlier.  Some individuals will also take aquatic plants, kale and other greens, and insects of all kinds are relished.

Spotted Turtles frequent the still, well-vegetated waters of bogs, swamps and flooded meadows.  Captives should be kept in shallow aquariums provisioned with a basking site and ample UVB exposure.  The tiny hatchlings will feel stressed in bare environments, so be sure to add hideaways and floating plastic plants.  Water temperatures should range from 70-74 F, with a basking site of 85-88 F.



Further Reading

Musk Turtle Care

Russian Tortoise Care

Popular Mud and Musk Turtles


  1. avatar

    great artcle . Thanks Frank

  2. avatar

    Great reading, hopfully if i can recover from Sandy i can set aside asome space for some turtles.

  3. avatar

    Hi Frank,

    I find very interesting your longevity report on your musk turtle, got to love them.
    About the big head turtle specifically I would suggest that a larger and more complex habitat would be advisable, also considering it would be desirable to achieve a captive breeding event with any animal kept. In Europe in general big heads are extremelly rare and comand a very high price, and even then its generally only old males. In recent years there are signs of hope for a possible self sustaining population, with a larger number of babies being born each year from a hand full of mostly private breeders. But at least here they are nowere near common and like other asian turtles you have few wild founder animals well represented on the population.


    • avatar

      Hi Pedro,

      Thanks very much; same situation here re the bigheads…would love to see more interest but rare even in zoos; breeding enclosures need to be huge, I’ve always had problems with agression, all needs to be just right.

      Best , Frank

  4. avatar

    A bit off topic, but I would love to see albino red eared sliders being the subject of a future article. Was amazed the first time I saw one many years ago, never got to own one (very rare and expensive here and only if you know the rigth people) but still fascinated by it and never figured out who produced the first ones and how were they introduced to the hobby. Just recently figured the history of the first albino corns, very interesting =)


    • avatar

      Thanks for the reminder…have had a similar article in mind; theyn are very expensive here also. At the zoo, I cared for an albino American alligator and common snapping turtlr….gators were from a clutch of albinos that a commercial hunter found…they wouldn’t have lasted a day in the wild in the swamp; I’m sure he retired after selling them off! The snapper was an adult, turned up in a commercial eel trap in the NE USA (N. Jersey)…amazing that it had survived, as hatchlings, even normally-colored, suffer high losses due to predation. Best, frank

  5. avatar

    I have had a western painted turtle for approximately 25 years. She is lively, as big as she’ll ever be at about 6 inches in shell length, easy to care for & actually sometimes comes when called. She is a delightful member of a Manhattan apartment household that also includes cats. Highly recommended turtle pet for those with limited space.

  6. avatar
    Lisa Broussard Januska

    Hello Frank,

    Hope you had a great Thanksgiving! My great Nephews were here yesterday, and met my Musk Tilly. They just were so enthused, now they have to have one….imagine that? They have other reptiles, and are good with them, so I know they would do well with a turtle, and I am not ready to give up Tilly to them. So, my question, where can one purchase a Musk? I lucked out, as she ended up swimming in my pool, and I rescued her. I have no idea where to purchase one, I have looked at the local Pet Co and Pet Smart stores, and no one carries these little ones, only bigger turtles. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated, thank you! I hope you have a wonderful holiday weekend!!

    • avatar

      Hi Lisa,

      Thanks..a happy, healthy one to you and yours also. They are rarely available in stores…check listings here; I scanned quickly and saw hatchling common and razorback musks for sale. Please keep me posted, frank

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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