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Before buying a pet, you always want to do your due diligence. Many a pet has wound up on Craigslist or donated to a different owner because their first owner was not properly prepared. Truly, some pets take much more work than others. Turtles make wonderful first pets and are relatively low maintenance — especially small turtles.
A common occurrence with pet turtles is that owners will buy the wrong breed and they seemingly never stop growing! That means they have to upgrade to a massive tank or find a new home for their surprisingly big turtle that they may have grown attached to. In this post, I talk about the types of pet turtles that stay small and provide my readers with an overview of turtle breeds.
Let’s face it… tiny pet turtles that stay small are irresistibly cute (opens in new tab). So irresistible, in fact, that a law was put into place in the United States saying that turtles under four inches cannot be sold commercially.
This happened in 1975 after two decades of baby turtles being sold by mail order or in “dime stores.”
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided to ban these tiny turtles because too many kids were putting them in their mouths and getting infected with salmonella.
In reality, the law probably saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of turtles who never would have otherwise made it to adulthood.
Fortunately, now people know better. This means that for thousands the dream of owning these petite reptiles is alive and well.
Small Turtle Species #1: Mississippi Mud Turtle (4 inches)
These turtles that stay small can sometimes reach eight inches in length but are typically between 3.5 and 4 inches. Hatchlings are only one inch in length when they are born, so they have a bit of growing to do before they reach adult size.
In captivity, Mississippi mud turtles need a habitat that mimics their natural environment. Small adults will need a 40-gallon aquarium at minimum, but aquariums ranging from 50 to 100 gallons are preferred.
If you are going to make a custom aquarium, aim for 6 inches of aquarium floor per 1 inch of adult turtle. By those measurements, a turtle that is 6 inches long should have at least 36 inches of floor to maneuver.
Long aquariums, rather than tall, are preferable because these turtles do like to travel.
Small Turtle Species #2: Bog Turtle (3-4 inches)
Bog turtles are so incredibly popular because they are the smallest natural turtle in the United States. In fact, the longest Bog turtle ever recorded was only 4.5 inches long!
Most of them are an average of 4 inches long with many only reaching 3 inches. This is a fantastic turtle if size is one of the most important factors for you.
One or two turtles can be kept in a 40-gallon aquarium, but as always, give them the most space you can possibly manage.
Bog turtles are easily recognizable by their yellow or orange splotches on either side of their temple.
Their shell is usually dark brown or black and could be marbled with red or brown streaks.
Small Turtle Species #3: Common Musk Turtle (2-4.5 inches)
These little guys are good climbers and will often climb high into trees so if you are keeping one in an aquarium, take extra precautions to make sure they can’t get out.
They do not need as deep water as other turtles so about 18 inches is fine.
No substrate is necessary but large gravel works fine if you want to make your aquarium more attractive.
This turtle does not bask as much as other turtles, but still likes the option. Therefore a basking spot of about 90°F should be offered.
Like all turtles that stay small, a UVB lamp should be available to help them absorb nutrients. Keep the water temperature between 72°F and 78°F and you should have a happy turtle.
Small Turtle Species #4: Michigan Spotted Turtle (3-4 inches)
This turtle is easily identified by the yellow polka dots along its back. These spots fade as the turtle gets older, often transitioning into a yellow hue.
It’s even possible to find a spotted turtle without spots.
It has a wide, smooth carapace in brown or black and is a very attractive turtle.
The Michigan Spotted Turtle has no problem thriving in captivity, making it an excellent pet for new turtle owners.
This turtle is semiaquatic so it will need some land area in its habitat and an aquarium of at least 20 gallons. However, a larger aquarium will give you more room to landscape and the turtle more room to move.
Spotted turtles love to eat and will eat a wide variety of food. This is just another reason they are so easy to keep.
They can eat:
- pre-killed adult mice
- fish (live or frozen)
- pink (baby) mice
- commercially prepared turtle food.
Small Turtle Species #5: Reeve’s Turtle (6 inches)
The Reeve’s turtle is not the smallest of the small turtles. The largest variations can grow up to 9 inches but they are usually about 6 inches long with females being larger than males.
They like water that is either still or slow moving and can be found in the wild in quiet marshes, swamps, and sometimes even flooded rice paddies.
One strange thing about this turtle is that they are not great swimmers! They do better in water that is not too deep, but deep enough that they can right themselves if they end up on their back.
A good rule of thumb is to have water that is 1.5 times the length of their shell. With those calculations, a six-inch turtle would have water that is about 9 inches deep.
The Reeve’s Turtle needs quite a bit of space because they are not as small as other small turtles, and because they are SO active.
Small Turtle Species #6: Diamondback Terrapins (5-9 inches)
This incredibly popular turtle has quite a variation in size between the sexes. The males tend to be about 5 inches long while the females can be up to 9 inches.
The easiest way to sex the Diamondback Terrapin is to look at their tales. The males have much wider and longer tails than females.
When they are finished growing, the male will be smaller than the female with a tail that is about three times as long. The males also mature much faster.
This can make it tricky to sex them when they are very young and you may need to consult an expert if you are getting a baby.
There are seven subspecies of the Diamondback Terrapin and they all live along the Eastern and Southeastern coastal areas in the United States with some populations focused around west Texas and southern Florida.
Benefits of Turtles That Stay Small
Besides the fact that tiny turtles are totally adorable, they do possess several other benefits both new and seasoned turtle owners alike can appreciate.
Benefit #1: Affordability
While small turtles are no longer a dime, they are still very cheap. And because you don’t need a giant terrarium or expansive filtration system like you would with larger turtles, the cost doesn’t escalate.
Once you have your basic set up, there is very little additional cost other than turtle food, filters, and replacement bulbs.
Benefit #2: Less Work Overall
For the same reasons turtles that stay small are more affordable, they are also less work.
There will be either zero or minimal substrate to clean, the filtration system will need to be cleaned about once a week, and the turtles need to be fed typically every two or three days.
If you set your basking lamp on a timer you won’t have a lot left to do.
Benefit #3: Easy to Feed
Many reptiles and amphibians are notoriously hard to feed in proper ratios, but turtles tend to be a lot easier.
That doesn’t mean you can feed them anything and expect them to thrive. They still need a biologically appropriate diet.
However, they will eat easily and will eat a variety of food specimens so do some research or follow the instructions of your vet and you will have one happy turtle.
Wrapping Up Turtles That Stay Small
Small turtles are never going to be as small as you might dream. They won’t stay one inch long, but there are many species that do not grow very big.
The box turtle is another species that only grows up to 6 or 7 inches in length.
They may not be as tiny as some of the other species on our list. But they tend to be readily available in pet stores across the US and can be great pets.
We didn’t dive into detail on them in this article because we already have a dedicated baby box turtle care guide!
Overall, turtles that stay small make excellent pets as long as they have the right home habitat. Always choose a turtle from a reputable buyer who sells captive-bred turtles in order to get the healthiest turtle possible.