Top 10 Myths Debunked About Pet Turtles: What You Need to Know

Top 10 Myths Debunked About Pet Turtles What You Need To Know

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Turtles bring good luck. It’s a very popular belief worldwide (especially people who practice feng shui). I don’t think I can prove whether it’s true or not. But there are other myths that I can and will debunk in this article one by one.

Most turtle keepers get into the hobby thinking turtles are easy pets. They don’t require a routine meal or can survive in a small tank like fish. It’s common for people to believe that the shell is deprived of any sensory receptor. 

Unfortunately, the list of myths doesn’t end here. Considering almost 2 million turtles (growing every year) are kept as pets in the United States, it’s high time we let go of myths and embrace them as they are.

Key Takeaways

  • Turtle shells have nerves. For some species, the shell is quite sensitive as well.
  • Almost every turtle with severe shell damage (due to mishandling) dies.
  • People who believe in legends & cultural traditions keep turtles in their houses for good fortune.
  • Turtles are carnivores (even though they will try processed food if you offer it).

10 Popular Myths About Pet Turtles

Myth NumberMyth DescriptionDebunked Truth
Myth 1Turtle Shells Don’t Have Nerves!Turtle shells are full of nerve endings and are quite sensitive, especially in sea turtles​​.
Myth 2It’s Okay To Feed Bread To A TurtleBread is not suitable for turtles; their primary diet should consist of meaty insects, plants, sea cucumbers, and algae​​.
Myth 3Turtles Make Great Pets For BeginnersTurtles require more attention and care than many realize, including special tanks, vet care, and a nutritious diet​​.
Myth 4Pet Turtles Do Well Under Artificial LightingTurtles need sunlight or UVB for Vitamin D and to keep their shells strong, which artificial LED lighting in regular fish tanks doesn’t provide​​.
Myth 5Turtles Are Not IntelligentTurtles are capable of learning, navigating their habitat, solving mazes, and can remember specific details for up to 8 months​​.
Myth 6Turtles Don’t PlayTurtles do play in their own way, with preferences varying by breed; they can interact with various toys and enjoy roaming outside their tank​​.
Myth 7Turtles Are Not Picky EatersTurtles can be selective about their food, especially if they are used to a specific diet; they inherently can slow down their metabolism, affecting their feeding habits​​.
Myth 8Pet Store Turtles Are Good OptionPet stores often do not provide high-quality living conditions for turtles, and some turtle species sold there might carry parasites due to negligence​​.
Myth 9Turtles Shed Their ShellsTurtles do not shed their shells; however, they do shed the outer layer of the shell, known as scutes, once a year​​.
Myth 10Pet Turtles Don’t Need Food EverydayDespite their slow metabolism, pet turtles should not be starved and need to be fed at least once a day, with meal portions varying based on maturity​​.

Myth 1: Turtle Shells Don’t Have Nerves!

I have seen amateur turtle keepers paint the animal’s shells. Such actions showcase how little we know about turtles. Against popular belief, the turtle shell is a living system full of nerve endings.

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The shell has approximately 60 different bones. It’s an extension of their rib that eventually grows outside their skin.

Keratin in the exterior part of the shell is responsible for all the exciting & colorful patterns you see. So, they do feel pain when you hold the shells too tightly. It’s also the reason why some turtles act so aggressively. Most of them just have a susceptible shell.

And the sensitivity increases even more in a sea turtle’s shell. Their shells are essential organisms that detect water pressure. That way, a turtle can tell how deep it is inside the ocean. So, you have to be extra careful handling a sea turtle.

As for the painting part, the shells can easily absorb all the paint and harmful chemicals through blood vessels. Yes, you heard it right. The scutes have blood vessels that transport chemicals inside the shell and skin. And it can hamper the turtle’s health.

So, you have to start considering turtle shells as actual skin. Yes, it contains fewer nerves than humans do. But they still can feel everything. For example, you will see a turtle move away when you try to scratch its shells. It’s all because they can feel your touch.

According to a recent AVMA survey, turtles have surpassed dogs as the most popular reptile pet in the US. This increase in popularity has led to more misinformation about proper care.

Myth 2: It’s Okay To Feed Bread To A Turtle

People often feed bread to wild turtles. It mostly happens in temples. Having little to no knowledge about what turtles eat, visitors try to offer human food even though it’s doing nothing for the turtle’s health.

Sadly, some turtle keepers do the same thing with their pet turtles. Turtles will indeed eat plants, sea cucumbers, and algae. But their primary source of nutrition comes from meaty insects. They do not need for food rich in carbs like rice or bread.

So, does it mean that your turtle will get sick if you feed it bread? Not necessarily. As I said earlier, turtles chew on various things under the sea. A little snack here & there doesn’t hurt them. But you must ensure they are not entirely dependent on such a diet.

To add some thrill to the tank, try dropping live worms, shrimps, etc.

I am sure your turtle will appreciate having hunting experiences inside the tank. Or, if you are a complete newbie who knows little about pet care, try sticking with a turtle food brand. All the instructions you need regarding when and how to provide the food are already on the packet.

baby turtle close up
Owner: Stephenie Ciprian

Pet Turtle Diet & Feeding Chart

Pet Turtle Diet Feeding Chart

For a printable version of this amazing diet chart, click here!

Myth 3: Turtles Make Great Pets For Beginners

Unfortunately, fish & turtles are always the first choice of an amateur pet owner. It seems like people assume turtles are easy to handle. But that’s a total misconception. A turtle requires more attention and care than aquarium fish.

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You have to prepare a special tank with basking facilities. It also helps the tank resemble its natural habitat.

Also, turtles need vet care, proper handling, grooming sessions, and a nutritious diet, everything a domestic pet would need.

Apart from all these factors, not every turtle enjoys being a pet. You might get your first turtle from a shelter house because it’s cute. Or, I know that many people believe having a turtle in the backyard brings good fortune. Whatever your reason is, you must check the breed before adopting.

Some breeds are difficult to handle for even the most experienced turtle keepers. Here is a list of the most aggressive as well as the friendliest turtles. Have a look.

Least Aggressive Turtles  Most Aggressive Turtles  
Red-Eared SlidersCommon snapping turtles  
  Yellow-Bellied Sliders  Helmeted turtles  
Box turtles  Soft-shell turtles  

At least don’t pick an aggressive turtle as your first pet. Both you and the pet will suffer.

The Humane Society estimates the lifespan of many common pet turtle species to be 30-50 years when properly cared for. This highlights why turtles require long-term commitments that debunk the myth they make good pets for children.

Myth 4: Pet Turtles Do Well Under Artificial Lighting

Land turtles can’t stay underwater forever. They might explore the water for a while and then come back up on a dry surface. It’s called basking. And there is one main reason basking is essential for your pet turtle. They need to get the sunlight or, may I say, the UVB.

UV-B contains wavelengths ranging from 218nm to 315 nm. It’s a requirement for turtles to get all the Vitamin D they need to keep their shells strong and free from parasites.

Unfortunately, a regular fish tank set-up with artificial LED lighting doesn’t fulfill these needs.

It would be best to let the turtle see sunlight for a few minutes daily.

light and UVB requirements for different turtle species

Turtle SpeciesLighting TypeUVB WattageUVB Distance from Basking AreaHours of Light/UVB per Day
Red-Eared SliderIncandescent or ceramic heat bulb, linear UVB bulb5.08-12 inches10-12
Russian TortoiseCeramic heat emitter, linear UVB bulb10.08-12 inches10-12
Box TurtleCeramic heat emitter, compact UVB bulb5.06-10 inches10-12
Mud TurtleIncandescent or ceramic heat bulb, linear UVB bulb10.010-14 inches10-12
Musk TurtleCeramic heat emitter, linear UVB bulb10.010-14 inches10-12
Snapping TurtleCeramic heat emitter, linear UVB bulb10.012-16 inches10-12
Redfoot TortoiseCeramic heat emitter, linear UVB bulb10.010-12 inches10-12
Sulcata TortoiseCeramic heat emitter, linear UVB bulb10.0-15.012-16 inches12

Lighting Guide For Turtle Keepers: Infographic

If you want a printable version of this PDF, click here.

Myth 5: Turtles Are Not Intelligent

I am not saying that turtles are as bright as a border collie. But turtles are not completely dumb creatures unaware of their surroundings. Their survival tactics are great examples.

Turtles can navigate their habitat quite well. I was surprised at how quickly they learn. No doubt, turtles are the ultimate maze masters. And these skills are not instinctive behavior. You have to teach them. But the point is turtles can pick up on your commands and solve complex mazes. Apart from that, they can follow the gaze of their fellow turtles.

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Also, if you offer food daily at the same time, you will soon find the pet waiting for you at the designated place. That means they are trainable. You can influence them to adopt certain behaviors.

According to research, turtles can remember specific details for up to 8 months. I guess you have to be smart to be alive for 100 years.

Myth 6: Turtles Don’t Play

If you are someone who doesn’t like cuddly pets, turtles are exactly what you need. I know many people like observing their pets without having to run after them all the time. That’s why they opt for pets like turtles, which don’t need much human interaction whatsoever.

Turtles don’t play the “conventional” way other domestic pets like dogs or cats do. But they still play in their own way and won’t mind entertaining you as well.

And to participate in their play-time, you must understand how they play.

Some breeds, like the red-eared sliders, are incredibly inquisitive. They would move around the decoration pieces inside the tank. Their favorite toys are shells, rocks, gravels & even kid’s toys. You will often find your turtle loosely buried under sand.

When it comes to playing, every turtle has a different style. Some even like going outside and walking on the grass. At the same time, some are affectionate and want to follow you around all the time.

My personal favorites are Read-eared sliders, African side-neck turtles, and yellow-bellied sliders. These breeds are known for their active & playful nature. As long as you don’t mind letting them play outside the tank (even roaming around the house), they will be contented & well-entertained.

Myth 7: Turtles Are Not Picky Eaters

Wild turtles live without food for up to 6 months in a row. 

It’s because they intentionally go into hibernation to save energy during winter. You can already tell that turtles don’t really thrive in the cold. But that’s not our point. What I am trying to say is that every turtle inherently has the ability to slow down metabolism at a minimum level.

That’s why even though pet turtles hardy hibernate, they can be extremely tough to feed. Considering that they don’t get hungry very often, they will quickly disapprove of any food you give them.

For example, I have seen turtle keepers having a hard time feeding regular pellets to their pets. All because the owners used to provide fresh live shrimp very frequently.

Recent news reports from Canada and the US have highlighted spikes in illegal turtle poaching and releases due to misguided purchases of exotic turtle species as pets. This underscores the importance of debunking the myth that any turtle can be a pet.

Myth 8: Pet Store Turtles Are Good Option

Given all the protests against pet stores, I don’t think it’s a viable option to get your turtle from such places. Pet stores are notorious for not providing high-quality living conditions for animals. The food is not enough, the cages are too small, and the majority of the stores don’t follow any quarantine rules.

So, there’s a high chance your turtle is carrying deathly parasites inside its body due to the negligence of the store owner.

Apart from that, states like Hawaii & California (among many others) have imposed strict laws to restrict pet stores from keeping exotic pets.

And some turtle species fall into the “exotic” category. You have to look for a dedicated and ethical breeder to find such rare & exotic sea turtles.

So, if you live in any such state, you will miss out on some extraordinary breeds. I highly recommend checking out your local rescue shelters for exotic animals.

Myth 9: Turtles Shed Their Shells

It seems like we have a lot of misunderstandings about turtle shells. No, turtles don’t shed their shell. Turtles carry the same shell they were born in until death. Yes, the cover grows and becomes more complex in structure with age, but a turtle can’t shed or leave it when they wish.

However, if you mean “peeling,” then yes, turtle shells do peel off from time to time. It’s like any other vertebrae, such as snakes getting rid of dead skin.

As I said, the shell is covered with scutes. It’s like a keratin plate. Turtles shed this outer layer of the shell once every year. It’s instantly replaced by scutes. The process is not painful at all. It is similar to how we cut our nails or hair when they are too long.

But that’s about it. If you are waiting for your pet to shed the entire shell and grow a new one, that’s not happening anytime soon.

Myth 10: Pet Turtles Don’t Need Food Everyday

Turtles are known for their slow metabolism. It means their body takes much longer (approximately 2 to 3 weeks) to digest food than any other domestic pet you own.

Their slow movements also contribute to such metabolic rates. However, that doesn’t mean you should starve your pet turtle for an entire week.

Even though turtles can survive without food for several weeks in the wild, your specific pet might not have such endurance. The conditions in the wild are harsh, forcing the turtle to adapt their body to function with a limited supply of food. But turtles found in pet stores are regularly fed. They are trained to expect food at the same time every day.

So much so that your pets might “beg” you to feed them every time you pass the tank. That’s why, despite what you know about a turtle’s metabolic mechanism, try to feed at least once every single day. The portion of the meal will vary depending on how mature the turtle is.

Juvenile turtles will do well with a little pinch of pellets every day. At the same time, an adult (above three years) will need bigger portions. To know more about how and when to feed a turtle, check out this article.

Weekly & Monthly Turtle Feeding Schedule

Turtle AgeWeek 1Week 2Week 3Week 4
Hatchling/Baby (3 months or less)Pellets or feeder insects dailyPellets or feeder insects dailyPellets or feeder insects dailyPellets or feeder insects daily
Juvenile (3-12 months)Pellets or feeder insects dailyPellets every other dayPellets 2-3 times per weekPellets 2-3 times per week
Young Adult (1-3 years)Pellets 2-3 times per weekPellets 2-3 times per weekVegetables/greens 2-3 times per weekOmnivore pellets 1-2 times per week
Adult (3-7 years)Vegetables/greens 2-3 times per weekOmnivore pellets 1-2 times per weekOmnivore pellets 1-2 times every 10 daysVegetables/greens 1-2 times every 10 days
Mature Adult (7+ years)Omnivore pellets 1-2 times every 10 daysVegetables/greens 1-2 times every 10 daysVegetables/greens 1-2 times every 10-14 daysOmnivore pellets 1-2 times every 14 days

Before You Leave!

Here, I have debunked a lot of popular turtle myths one by one. But it seems like people often forget how many different turtle species there are. And every species has unique characteristic that makes it stand out.

If you are new to turtle keeping or considering adopting one very soon, you must check out these 42 prominent turtle species that very few people know about.

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About Author

Muntaseer Rahman started keeping pet turtles back in 2013. He also owns the largest Turtle & Tortoise Facebook community in Bangladesh. These days he is mostly active on Facebook.

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