Owning a turtle that stays small has many benefits, but even though they come in a smaller package doesn’t necessarily mean they’re easier to care for.

In this guide, you’ll learn:

  • Which turtles stay small even into adulthood?
  • Do smaller turtles make good pets?
  • How do I care for a small turtle?
Turtles That Stay Small thumbnail image

Small turtles make great pets for any experience level of reptile owner. Whether it’s your first turtle or you maintain a backyard habitat of many turtles, any species on this list make excellent pets.

In this article, we will discuss a few popular small turtle species that do not grow too large and would make good candidates to be housed as pets.

Before we get started, even though smaller turtles can inhabit smaller enclosures, we still highly recommend getting the largest tank possible. Ensuring a large enough home for your turtle when it is fully grown is essential in keeping turtles happy and healthy.

Larger enclosures will not only keep your turtle happy, but it will actually make cleaning and maintenance easier because larger tanks stay cleaner longer.

Pro-tip

It is recommended to provide 10 gallons of space per 1 inch of turtle shell, however the larger an enclosure, the happier your turtle will be, so go as big as you can!

5 Turtles That Stay Small And Make Great Pets

1. Spotted Turtle

The Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata) is a small species of semi-aquatic terrapin that inhabits vernal pools of the east coast in the United States. From New Jersey to Florida, these brightly colored turtles are aptly named for their bright yellow spots they have on their shell, contrasting against a dark black or sometimes brown shell. Spotted Turtles are a threatened species, as habitat destruction and degradation have caused populations to plummet. Despite this fact, the Spotted Turtle has been successfully bred in the thousands in captivity, and plenty is available in the pet trade.

How Big Do Spotted Turtles Get?

Spotted Turtles, like many other species of turtles, exhibit sexual dimorphism, in which males are significantly smaller than females. Regardless of this fact, both males and females are quite small, with males reaching roughly 5 inches and females around 5-7 inches.

Spotted turtle
Spotted Turtle

Diet Requirements

The diet of the Spotted Turtle is similar to that of the Eastern Box turtle and other box turtle breeds, as they are an omnivorous species. Offering a variety of foods is the key to a balanced diet, including mixed greens and lettuce, leafy vegetables, fruits, vegetables, and high protein prey items such as worms, crickets, snails, and fish. A staple diet of aquatic turtle pellets is also acceptable, with the previously mentioned foods offered a few times a week as a treat. Feed sparingly, as pet turtles can suffer from obesity fairly easily (especially more personable species like this one!)

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Habitat & Enclosure

Replicating the natural habitat of the Spotted Turtle is key to keeping them happy and healthy. Due to their lack of webbing, Spotted Turtles are not great swimmers, therefore the depth of water in their enclosure should be no deeper than the length of their shell vertically.

Spotted turtles require a basking spot to sun themselves however, they will also greatly benefit from and utilize a small land area with a substrate to bury themselves in if provided.

Providing a substrate such as sand to burrow in or aquatic plants to hide in will help your Spotted Turtle feel more at home and secure. Sphagnum moss both on land and in the water provides an excellent area for a Spotted Turtle to hide in and forage for prey.

Pro-tip

Slightly acidic water will help keep your Spotted Turtle’s skin clear of fungus, and adequate water filtration is necessary for high water quality.

An adult Spotted Turtle can be comfortably housed in a 55-75 gallon aquarium, filled halfway or abundant with driftwood and items to help them climb to the surface (similar to a musk or mud turtle).

Do They Make Good Pets?

If given the proper environment, Spotted Turtles make excellent small pet turtles given their small size, absolute beauty, and inquisitive personalities. Providing as natural an enclosure as possible and keeping high water quality are key aspects to keeping a Spotted Turtle, and you will be rewarded with a beautiful and interactive pet turtle!

Musk, Mud, & Stinkpot Turtles

Musk, Mud, and Stinkpot turtles are small, highly aquatic species of turtles that often feed on vegetation and crustaceans at the bottom of fast-moving streams and riverbeds, most commonly found in the United States. They have these “smelly” names because they can emit a foul smell if threatened.

There are a variety of species of Mud and Musk turtles, and many make excellent pets for a variety of reasons. The common factor amongst all Mud and Musk turtles is that they’re personable, very friendly, and food motivated, and they stay small!

They also are a very forgiving species and can handle some of the mistakes a beginner might make, including low temperatures or not providing a proper basking area.

We will go over a few of the more popular and easy to find species of Mud and Musk turtles below.

2. Razorback and Common Musk Turtle

The Razorback and Eastern Musk Turtles (Sternotherus carinatus, Sternotherus odoratus) are two species of Musk Turtle native to the southeastern United States. They inhabit fast-moving freshwater streams and creeks. Musk turtles feed off of crustaceans like snails and small freshwater clams.

Razorback and Eastern Musk turtles can emit a strong-smelling musk (hence their name) if threatened but rarely do so unless extremely stressed or provoked.

Razorback musk turtle on table
Razorback Musk Turtle

How Big Do Musk Turtles Get?

Musk Turtles only get to about 5-6 inches in length, regardless of sex.

Diet Requirements

They appreciate a more carnivorous diet to best replicate their natural diet, including commercial pellets, dried shrimp or fish, fresh shrimp, crickets, roaches, bloodworms, and earthworms. These Musk Turtles will also consume a small amount of plant matter occasionally.

Habitat & Enclosure

Musk Turtles come from fast-moving, freshwater systems and enjoy more water flow compared to a pond species like the Red-eared slider. Their water temperatures should be between 75-82 degrees Fahrenheit. High water quality is necessary, so using adequate filtration is a must for keeping this species.

A full-grown Musk Turtle can be kept in a 40-gallon aquarium, however, a 75-gallon tank is recommended.

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Important

Drowning hazard– Mud and Musk Turtles are bad swimmers. Providing tank extra decorations to help them reach the surface will prevent drowning.

Do They Make Good Pets?

Yes, Razorback and Common Musk Turtles make good pets. Their small size and ready availability in captivity, make them excellent pet turtles. They eat the majority of common turtle commercial foods and are one of the best pet turtles that stay small.

3. Eastern and Three Striped Mud Turtle

The Eastern and Striped Mud Turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum, Kinosternon baruii) have similar care and habitat requirements so we are grouping the two of them together in this section.

The Eastern Mud Turtle and Three Striped Mud Turtle are the most common Mud Turtles that are kept in captivity. Both species are native to the southeastern United States and inhabit ponds, creeks, lakes, and streams with a heavy amount of sediment to bury into.
Mud turtles utilize land areas as well to burrow into the mud, hence their name of Mud turtle

Three-striped mud turtle (kinosternon baurii)

How Big Do Mud Turtles Get?

Mud turtles only reach about 5 inches when fully grown, making them an excellent candidate for a species of turtle that stays small and can be kept comfortably in a 40 gallon aquarium.

Diet Requirements

Mud turtles are omnivorous and will consume prey items such as crickets, worms, small fish, shrimp, as well as commercial pellets, and occasional greens or aquatic plants.

Habitat & Enclosure

A fully grown Mud turtle can live peacefully in an aquarium as small as 40 gallons but can benefit from larger habitats.

Their water temperatures should be between 75-82 degrees Fahrenheit. Driftwood and other decor will make the turtle feel more secure and provide areas to climb to the surface for air.

They benefit greatly from an enclosure with a soft substrate at the bottom, including either sand or mud.

Adding live aquatic plants will add life to your turtle tank, but also remove nutrients from the water and help make the Mud turtle feel safe, and add a naturalistic feel to the tank setup.

Important

DROWNING HAZARD: Turtles need tank decor that allows them to reach the water surface for air.

Do They Make Good Pets?

Yes, Mud turtles, given their small size, availability, and fun personalities make excellent pets for beginners.

4. Painted Turtle

The Painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) is a species of turtle native to the United States that has been divided into four subspecies, including the Eastern Painted Turtle, Midland Painted Turtle, Southern Painted Turtle, and Western Painted Turtle.

Western Painted Turtle

The Painted Turtle is aptly named for its bright markings, which vary in coloration from reds and greens to yellow stripes on their face and bright plastron.

Painted turtles inhabit freshwater ponds and lakes, similar to sliders, and are omnivorous as well

Important

We only recommend Male painted turtles for pets. Females can reach up to a foot in length while Males only reach 5-7 inches.

How Big Do Painted Turtles Get?

It is important to distinguish a male painted turtle from a female, as males stay significantly smaller than their female counterparts.

Male painted turtles will only reach 5-7 inches, compared to females who reach nearly a foot in length.

Diet Requirements

Painted turtles eat a variety of foods, and will readily accept commercial pellets, dried shrimp, or fish, but also eat leafy greens and other plant material as they mature into adulthood.

Habitat & Enclosure

Painted turtles require high water quality and heavily filtered water because they produce a large amount of waste.

Painted turtles need an area to bask and fully sun themselves, as they do so heavily in their native environments.

Painted turtles bask a lot compared to Spotted turtles or even Mud and Musk turtles, so providing a solid area to dry off completely is important.

Their water temperatures should be between 75-82 degrees Fahrenheit, although they can tolerate freezing temperatures should you choose to fully brumate your turtle.
A minimum tank size of 40 gallons is recommended, but larger aquariums will be utilized and appreciated by your Painted turtle!

Do Painted Turtles Make Good Pets?

Yes, Painted Turtles make good pets, but remember to get a male. They are brightly colored and interactive pets that make great additions to those looking for a pet turtle.

They are widely available, vary in coloration by subspecies, and can handle mistakes a beginner might make.

Male Painted turtles will thrive in an aquarium habitat compared to females, who may require more space than a tank can adequately give them.

5. Map Turtle

Map Turtles (Graptemys) are another species of turtle native to North America, inhabiting river deltas and streams, many of which branch off from the Mississippi River.

They have very distinct patterns on their skin and shells and are named after the “maps” that they seem to have in their shell and skin patterns.

They come in a variety of subspecies, including Mississippi Map Turtles, False Map Turtles, and Common Map Turtles however, the care amongst them all is extremely similar.

Northern Map turtle on rock
Northern Map Turtle

How Big Do Map Turtles Get?

Females reach monstrous sizes (up to 12 inches), while males only get up to 6-7 inches, on the larger side. It is important to distinguish males from females because the discrepancy between sizes is so apparent in Map turtles in particular.

Diet

They are a river-based species of excellent swimmers that feed off of crustaceans and a small amount of plant material in their native habitats.

Male map turtles have a similar diet to females, consuming primarily snails, freshwater mussels and clams, fish, and shrimp in the wild.

Map turtles occasionally consume greens but are more adapted to a carnivorous diet. They will readily accept commercial pellets in captivity, and other treats you may give them such as dried or live fish and shrimp.

Habitat & Enclosure

A male map turtle should have an aquarium of around 55 gallons, but preferably 75 gallons. Their water temperatures should be between 75-82 degrees Fahrenheit. Most species of Map turtles, coming from riverine systems, will appreciate driftwood to hide or climb and utilize this primarily to bask in the wild.

Using driftwood both under and above the water is sure to be interacted with by your Map turtle should you choose to add a piece. They require high water quality and adequate filtration.

Do Map Turtles Make Good Pets?

Map turtles can be very skittish. If given the proper environment, places to hide, and some conditioning to the presence of humans, they can make not only friendly but beautiful pets as well.

Map turtles are a rewarding species to work with and will also appreciate any extra space you give them! They are readily available and breeders have successfully bred many different subspecies. This gives you plenty of options when looking to add one to your family!

What Are The Main Benefits Of Owning Small Turtles?

  1. Small turtles do not require large enclosures to be comfortable.
    • For example, adult female red-eared sliders will be extremely cramped in a 40-gallon aquarium. While an adult female Spotted or Mud turtle will have plenty of space and room in a planted 40-gallon setup! They can live out the duration of their lives in a smaller aquarium compared to needing to constantly upgrade setups with a species that grows much larger.
    • A smaller aquarium is more attainable and takes up less space in your home than something larger, therefore it’s more practical to keep a smaller turtle if you can only provide a smaller aquarium.
  2. A smaller aquarium will equate to lower maintenance costs, including electrical and water bills, therefore it is more affordable to keep a turtle that does not get as large as some other species.
    • Along with cost, feeding a turtle that is smaller is more affordable, as less food will last longer with a turtle that does not eat as much. In the long term, food costs can add up quickly, especially feeding a larger turtle that needs to eat more in order to survive. By keeping a small turtle, you not only keep running costs low but food costs as well.
  3. A turtle that does not grow to large size can be easier to handle, and therefore might make a better pet to be interactive with for educational purposes or for fun!
    • While it is not recommended to handle your turtle often to limit the stress on the animal, it is less daunting to interact with a smaller turtle than one that is larger and has sharp claws. Smaller turtles are not as powerful, and easier to handle if interacting with smaller children for educational purposes or outreach.
  4. With a smaller turtle, it is possible to keep two of the same species together rather than one individual in the same size tank.
    • In a 55 gallon tank, one can comfortably keep 2 to 3 mud or musk turtles, while that size tank would only be suitable for one adult slider. Turtles can be aggressive with one another, therefore the more space is given to them, the less a chance that multiples housed together will act violently towards one another.

FAQs

What is the smallest species of turtle?

Speckled tortoise

The smallest species of turtle in the world is the Speckled Tortoise (Chersobius signatus), growing to a maximum size of about 3 inches. Unfortunately, this species is endangered and rarely, if ever, offered in captivity. Their population is significantly declining due to habitat loss and construction, poaching for the pet trade, and the introduction of non-native predators. Many small species of turtles, including the Speckled Tortoise, Black Breasted Leaf Turtle, and Bog Turtle, are endangered and therefore not offered in captivity. There are no real species of dwarf turtles or miniature turtles, as most grow to at least 5 inches, even amongst the smallest species.

What small turtles make good pets?

The best pet turtles that stay small are Spotted turtles, Eastern Mud and Striped Mud turtles, Razorback and Common Musk turtles, and the males of most common pond turtle species, as they do not grow as large as their female counterparts. They are interactive and friendly, relatively easy to care for, and do well in captivity, unlike some other small species of turtles.

Do turtles stay small in a small tank?

Despite common myths, turtles do not grow to the size of their enclosures and will not stop growing if their enclosure is small. If cared for properly, turtles in smaller enclosures will quickly outgrow them and require something larger. Turtles not kept in proper conditions (most often without a source of UVB light) and forced to live in a small aquarium can have their growth stunted. These turtles often suffer from metabolic bone disease (MBD) and although they can live with the disease, they often have their lives cut significantly shorter than normal and are extremely unhealthy.

Do pet turtles smell?

Pet turtles will not smell if the proper filtration and adequate space is provided to them. Turtles can be messy when eating, and produce a large amount of waste, therefore it is important to ensure your filter can handle the bioload. The prevention of smell is simple if steps are taken to keep your water quality pristine and smell to a minimum, including frequent weekly water changes of 25% and feeding your turtle in an external feeding enclosure.

Do pet turtles bite?

Pet turtles can bite if they feel threatened however, most smaller species of turtle won’t cause too much damage if they bite aggressively. Some turtles may confuse your hand for food, in which case the bite will most likely not cause any harm to you, as their test bites are less forceful than aggressive ones.

Is a turtle an easy pet?

If you make sure to use the proper equipment and keep up with maintenance, turtles can be very easy and rewarding pets. Besides spot cleaning any waste and doing water changes, coupled with monthly filter cleanings, turtles do not require a significant amount of attention. However, a turtle aquarium that is under filtered and overfed can lead to more maintenance than is expected.

Where to buy turtles that stay small?

Most species mentioned in this article can be found by turtle breeders at your local reptile expo. Also, a quick search online or through turtle forums will often yield results of hatchling, juvenile, or adult turtles for sale. Overnight shipping will ensure the turtles are safely and quickly shipped to your door for next day delivery.

Dan Roselli

Dan Roselli

Dan has raised, cared for, and rehabilitated turtles for over 10 years. His most recent turtle project involves two rare spotless white Ornate Diamondback terrapins!

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Dan Roselli

Dan Roselli

Dan has raised, cared for, and rehabilitated turtles for over 10 years. His most recent turtle project involves two rare spotless white Ornate Diamondback terrapins!

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