Turtles, Tortoises and Snakes

Advice for having a pet reptile.

pet turtle
The Humane Society of the United States estimates that 11 million pet reptiles live in this country. Unfortunately, keeping reptiles as pets may not be such a good idea. In fact, the HSUS recommends that reptiles not be kept as pets for a variety of humane, conservation and public health and safety reasons. Reptiles require high maintenance, much more so than dogs or cats, and when they are kept as pets they are very vulnerable to infection and disease.

But if you're intent on having a pet reptile, make sure you know what you're committing to and be prepared to care for your pet properly. Here's a look at two popular pet reptile choices: turtles and snakes. (Remember, no single article can cover all of the important issues about any animal. Always conduct thorough research before committing to any pet.)

Turtles and Tortoises
What's the difference between a turtle and a tortoise? Basically, a turtle spends most of its life in water, while a tortoise is a land dweller. There's even a turtle that's called a terrapin, which divides its time between the water and land. For simplicity's sake, let's call them all turtles for now.

  • Safety: Reptiles in general carry the Salmonella bacteria, and turtles are especially notorious for spreading the disease. Certain people are particularly vulnerable to Salmonella infections, including children under the age of five, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems. Symptoms of a Salmonella infection include diarrhea, fever, and stomach pain and can become serious if the diarrhea is severe or the infection has affected other organs. You can minimize the risk of an infection by washing your hands after touching a reptile and anything it has come into contact with. People who are at greater risk for infection should avoid any contact with turtles and other reptiles.
  • Food: Most turtles eat a wide range of fruits and vegetables. Some may need nutritional supplements such as extra calcium. Some species also eat worms, insects, and fish. As with any animal, consult a knowledgeable expert to determine the correct diet for a particular species. Remember, there is no one-food-feeds-all rule here.
  • Housing: Factors such as size and natural habitat determine what kind of housing a pet turtle needs. Turtles that spend most of their time in water will need a home that includes a pool of water. Tortoises live on land, so they'll need a dry "house." And don't forget that both are reptiles, which makes them ectothermic (cold-blooded). This means you're responsible for creating and maintaining the appropriate temperatures in their habitat. Again, this will vary depending on the species of turtle.
  • Important tips: In 1975, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the sale or distribution of turtles with a carapace (shell) of less than four inches. This was done in an attempt to cut down on the number of cases of Salmonella infections via turtles. Remember, all reptiles-including all turtles- carry the Salmonella bacteria, no matter what size they are. The U.S. government hoped that banning the smallest turtles would keep these animals out of the hands of little kids, who are drawn to small animals and are at a higher risk for becoming infected. You may still find these banned turtles being sold or given away, despite the ban. If you find someone violating the ban, you can report them to the FDA.

Snakes
There are thousands of species of snakes in the world, from the very small to the very large. Smaller may seem better when it comes to ease of care, but it's not the only factor to take into consideration.

  • Safety: Although some people like to live on the wild side, steer clear of venomous snakes when choosing one for a pet. Also do thorough research about the species of snake you have your eye on, as even some non-venomous snakes have been shown to be dangerous due to toxic saliva. As with turtles, there is a risk of coming in contact with Salmonella when handling a snake or things in its environment. And here's another "eww" factor: Some snakes emit feces as a defense mechanism when they feel threatened. (Besides being gross, feces can contain Salmonella.)
  • Food: Feeding pet snakes could be an issue if you're squeamish. Most snakes eat other animals, such as mice and rats. Larger snakes may need a meal as big as a rabbit. Many people buy pre-killed prey to feed a pet snake, and this seems to be the preferred feeding method over providing live prey. Live prey could be dangerous to a pet snake if it bites the snake before the snake decides to eat his meal. The good news is that most snakes only need to eat once a week. But there are always exceptions. Some snakes need to eat more often or have specialized diets that include termites, snails, or fish. Know what your snake is supposed to eat so you can provide the right type of food for it.
  • Housing: Obviously, a snake isn't an animal that you permit to roam freely around your house. You'll need a tank big enough for your particular snake. Make sure it has a secure lid and the proper type of substrate (the material that lines the bottom of the cage). Also include some kind of box for the snake to hide under. Like other reptiles, snakes are cold-blooded, which means they use external sources of heat to regulate their body temperature. As with a pet turtle, it's your responsibility to provide the proper levels of heat for your snake, usually via a heat lamp at one end of the tank.
  • Important tips: Always choose captive-bred snakes from reputable breeders, not wild-caught snakes.Popular snake choices for pets include corn snakes, rat snakes, and king snakes. But do your research first, as every species has different needs and will have a different level of tolerance for being handled. Rat snakes, for example, have a reputation of biting until they get used to being handled.

Jennifer McGuiggan is a freelance writer and editor in Greensburg, Pa. She writes for a wide variety of clients and publications, and sometimes writes about her cats Gatwick and Cheska on her blog: thewordcellar.blogspot.com.

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Comments (7)
Photo of Amanda C.
Amanda C.
I've handled hundreds of snakes in the last three years and I've never suffered the effects of salmonella. One factor may be that I was handling captive bred designer ball pythons in Chicago.
Posted: July 12, 2012 at 8:39 PM
Mary S.
Mary S.

I have a Russian tortoise named Fred. We have had him for 15 years. When my son was little he had asthma and
couldn't have a dog or cat, so his doctor recommended a lizard or tortoise or snake. The tortoise won. My son
is grown and gone now and I have inherited Fred, but thats okay we get along fine. His favorite food is
raw turnip greens. He loves them.
Posted: July 09, 2012 at 12:25 PM
Barbara C.
i have had my 2 red eared slider turtles for almost 3 years now. they are so clean cause they have a weekly tooth brush bath. i scrub their feet, necks, shell and tails. they are easy to take care of and they dont bark, shed, pee everywhere lol
Posted: May 03, 2012 at 2:36 AM
Amy M.
Lucky my mom won't let me get any reptile
Posted: February 03, 2012 at 9:24 PM
Photo of Kayla H.
Kayla H.
If you want a reptile that's not a snake or turtle, there are lizards. I personally found an iguana to be an amazing pet. i loved my iguana. I'm all for snakes though, just my parents wouldn't let me have one so i got an iguana.
Posted: January 28, 2012 at 2:15 PM
Jessica O.
I have snakes, 4 to be exact, and its true it takes ALOT of maintenance, money , and time. But if you KNOW you can handle it then get a reptile as a pet but it's not as easy to get rid of if choose not to keep it anymore as say a dog or a cat is. You must KNOW you want it an can care for it. Dont just think.
Posted: August 29, 2011 at 5:28 PM
Linda M.
I love all pets but spider . Bugs
Posted: August 14, 2011 at 2:58 PM
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