By Johnathan David, Everything Reptiles

Although turtles aren’t often where people’s minds go when they first start thinking about what kinds of pets to get their children, they’re actually a fantastic option as a child’s first pet.

In addition to all the lessons kids learn about empathy and responsibility from keeping any pet, turtles are self-contained in tanks that can stay in a child’s room and ensure that the turtle is seen as “their” pet, not a collective family animal – or collective family (read: parental) responsibility.

This clear demarcation of ownership can be thrilling for kids, but it also makes it more difficult for parents who want to make sure their kids are, in fact, being responsible pet owners and keeping their turtle happy and healthy.

Parents should make sure they have a clear sense of what goes into caring for a turtle, so they can figure out how to divide the labour between themselves and their kids in a way that gives the kids a real taste of pet ownership and animal care, but also ensures the parents are there as a stopgap to make sure the standards of care are being maintained.

Before deciding to own a pet turtle, think carefully about all the things you will have to do to care for your pet responsibly!

Choosing a Turtle

Many types of turtles make great pet turtles when properly cared for. It’s the “properly cared for” part that gets tricky, though, especially for parents looking to share responsibility for the turtle with their children. Fortunately, several species are actually ideal for allowing first-timers and young kids to get the hang of reptile ownership.

The main species of turtles kept as pets in Australia are the long-necked turtles such as the Eastern Long-neck Turtle, Chelodina longicollis which is one of the easiest turtles to keep as a pet, and the short-necked turtles such as Murray River Turtle, Emydura macquarii macquarii.

Turtles enjoy being handled (safely), and their upkeep is so simple that many children can manage it themselves, so long as they have an adult looking over their shoulder, making sure they’re doing everything up to the standard needed to keep the animal happy and healthy.

In Australia, it is illegal to catch any animal from the wild and make it a pet. Nor are you allowed to release a pet animal to the wild. It is best to source a turtle as a pet from a specialist pet shop who deals in turtles. They will tell you if you need a licence to keep the kind of turtle you choose, and if so, they will tell you how to get one. A specialist pet shop is also the best place to buy your turtle food.

Several species are actually ideal for allowing first-timers and young kids to get the hang of reptile ownership.

Feeding

For some people, the idea of keeping a pet reptile might conjure up the image of a freezer full of dead mice, waiting to be thawed and fed to a waiting snake. Thankfully, feeding a turtle is usually not that gruesome; although many species of turtle are omnivorous, most pet turtles are more than happy with commercially available turtle food pellets – no dead mice necessary.

There are some turtles that do require insects as part of their diet, so those may not be the ideal pet for anyone squeamish about the idea of putting live crickets and mealworms into a terrarium a few times a week.

How often a turtle needs to be fed (and what) generally depends on what species of turtle it is. Fortunately, this is often something kids can manage for themselves, and probably should.

Kids love routines and schedules, and feeding a turtle is exactly the type of well-defined, regular task that even the most scatterbrained of children can thrive on. It’s also a great, low stakes example of immediate natural consequences; the kid will see fairly quickly that they forgot to feed the turtle, and the turtle is unhappy about this. A few hours’ delay in their meal won’t harm the turtle, but it will help the kid learn the importance of meeting their obligations when another living creature is relying on them meeting those obligations.

Turtles enjoy being handled and make great pets for kids.

Tank Maintenance

Turtle tanks, unfortunately, don’t clean themselves, but they do need regular cleaning, especially if the turtle in question is aquatic/semi-aquatic and has standing water in their tank. A good rule of thumb is to switch out the water in the tank every week, and do a full cleaning every three weeks to a month.

Again, these are exactly the sort of routine, well-defined tasks that kids can thrive on, although full-tank cleanings should probably be done with adult supervision and assistance, to ensure the proper standards of thoroughness have been met.

Commercial tank cleaners are available, but bleach or distilled white vinegar mixed with water will also work – although even older kids should not be cleaning a tank with bleach with adult supervision and assistance.

Where adults will probably need to step up is in maintaining the chlorination levels for any water in the tank. While mineral water can be used in a turtle’s tank with no additional treatment, tap water, while cheaper, will need to be treated with a dechlorinating chemical or water conditioner.

Any water put in the turtle tank will need to be tested for appropriate temperature and pH levels, to ensure it is safe for the turtle to swim in. Kids can help with this step, but parents should ultimately take responsibility for this, both because letting kids play with chemicals like water conditioners is not a great idea and because checking the pH once a week is ultimately less work than comforting a kid who made a mistake with this and feels like they hurt or killed their turtle.

Overall, turtles are less work as a pet than a dog or cat, especially for parents who want to draw a clear boundary between themselves and their kid’s pet. After all, a dog, ultimately, is a family pet, regardless of what an individual kid thinks!