Top 5 Small Pet Turtles That Stay Small

Turtles are extremely popular pets for a number of reasons. Many species have simple care needs, fun personalities and vibrant colors. Some are even smaller than 5 inches and are well suited to aquariums.

Many first-time keepers often adopt the wrong species! This has led to some turtles being released into the wild as people do not realize how big pet turtles can get. In this article we share the best 5 pet turtles that stay small…

ALSO READ: 7 Best Pet Tortoises: Small, Giant & House Breeds

5 Turtles That Stay Small

1. Spotted Turtle (3 – 4.5 inches)

Spotted Turtle

The spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata) is one of the smallest turtles in the hobby. Adults only reach around 3 – 4.5 inches in size and are famous for their spotted shell. The rest of their shell has both dark colors and lighter yellow markings.

These turtles have a large native range that stretches from some small parts of southern Canada, through most of the eastern coast of the US and even as far south as some parts of northern Florida.

In the wild they like to hide under mats of duckweed and other plants in order to avoid predators.

They also enjoy basking on debris like floating logs and rocks to rest out of the water.

These turtles are opportunistic omnivores and will eat a whole range of plant matter and algae. They also eat higher-protein animals like shrimps, insects and worms.

Spotted turtles are not the strongest of swimmers and will need to be kept in an aquarium that is shallow enough to allow them to stand on the bottom of the tank and still be able to breathe.

How Big Do They Get?

Hatchlings of this species are about an inch in length. Juveniles can be anywhere from 1 – 3 inches, and mature adults are around 3 – 4.5 inches when fully grown. Males of this species are slightly smaller than females, with around a half-inch difference between the two.

Their small size means that a single individual can be easily kept in a 20-gallon tank. This makes tank maintenance and cleaning much easier and also means they are well suited for a first-time reptile keeper.

Another similar pet turtle that stays small is the bog turtle. This US native is popular and fully grown will only reach around 3-4 inches.

Are They Good Pets?

Spotted turtles are active, small turtles that are enjoyable to keep as pets. Their small size and active nature makes them popular and they can be easily kept in an indoor home aquarium. Hatchlings can be kept in groups, but they may need to be separated when they get older depending on their temperament.

These turtles are much more expensive than other pet turtles that stay small. This may turn off some first-time buyers, however their small size and easy care makes the price worthwhile.

  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Average Adult Size: 3 – 4.5 inches
  • Lifespan: 25 – 50 years
  • Price: $75 – $125
  • Tank Size: 20+ gallons

2. Mud Turtle (4 – 6 inches)

Eastern Mud turtle

The name Mud turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum) is an umbrella term used for a group of very similar species. The Eastern Mud turtle is perhaps the most common pet, but it is often mistaken for the Florida Mud turtle. Eastern species are more terrestrial when compared to other aquatic turtles and will spend considerably more time out of the water.

These turtles have a native range that stretches from some parts of southern Delaware, across southern Florida and even into some parts of Texas in the US.

It is common to find them buried in piles of leaves, in shallow burrows or sitting at the bottom of shallow ponds.

Mud turtles are related to musk turtles and have the ability to emit a foul-smelling odor if they feel threatened. This trait may put off some keepers, but they have simple care needs that can be easily met by any beginner.

They are a good choice for anyone who is just starting to keep pet turtles.

These turtles are omnivores and will eat a wide range of food when kept as pets. They should be fed higher protein meals regularly, supplemented with leafy greens to create a varied diet.

Most Mud turtles have an olive/brown body with a large fold of skin that they tuck their head into when threatened. Some individuals have a lighter, more yellowish color.

How Big Do They Get?

Mud turtles are very small in size and will rarely grow larger than 5 inches. Most adults only reach around 4 inches in length, but if given proper care, some can grow to around 6 inches. Hatchlings are around 1 inch in length and juveniles are around 2 – 3 inches.

Are They Good Pets?

These turtles have somewhat of a moody temperament and will often bite if handled too often. It is important to note that they are best suited to keepers who prefer to watch their pets!

Mud turtles are a popular choice because they have very simple care needs and don’t need attention. They will require a tank size of anywhere between 40 and 55 gallons, depending on the size they reach. Their tank should have a large terrestrial area that allows for burrowing and exploration. They also require an aquatic area to allow them to dive and swim.

  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Average Adult Size: 4 – 6 inches
  • Lifespan: 20 years
  • Price: $20 – $25
  • Tank Size: 40+ gallons

3. Common Musk Turtle (3 – 5 inches)

Common musk turtle

The common musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus) is a popular small turtle because of its size and simple care. This species is an excellent candidate for a small home aquarium as fully grown adults only reach around 5 inches.

In the wild these turtles are native to the shallow freshwaters of the South eastern US.

These turtles prefer to spend their time in the water and will spend more time in the water than out of it. It is important to setup a tank that supports their aquatic lifestyle when keeping one as a pet.

Musk species are mainly carnivorous, but will occasionally eat vegetation. As pets they are not picky eaters and will often eat turtle pellets and some higher protein treats (small pieces of shrimp or fish).

Common musk turtles have a dark blackish- brown shell and a darkly colored head. They have a yellowish/brown underside and a yellow beak. Many individuals have a distinct horizontal yellow band that runs from the tip of their nose to the back of the neck.

How Big Do They Get?

Common musk turtles hatch out at around less than an inch in length. Juveniles will be around 1 – 2 inches in length and fully grown adults only reach around 5 inches in size.

Unlike other small pet turtles, this species is not the best swimmer.

They need to be kept in a tank that is shallow and has a place for them to bask in order to be comfortable. The water should be shallow enough that they can comfortably stand with their head above water level, without the need to paddle. The best tank setup should only have water that is around 3-4 inches in depth and a good portion of basking areas.

A submerged water heater and a UVB lamp that allows for basking is a must.

Are They Good Pets?

These turtles are best suited to beginners who would prefer to watch them in their enclosure, rather than handle one.

It is important to take care when handling a musk turtle as they will release a foul-smelling odor if they feel threatened, giving them their name. They can easily scratch and bite so they might not be the best pet for a child.

  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Average Adult Size: 3 – 5 inches
  • Lifespan: 50+ years
  • Price: $20 – $70
  • Tank Size: 30+ gallons

4. Reeve’s Turtle (4 – 6 inches)

Reeve’s Turtle

Reeve’s Turtles (Mauremys reevesii) have a rather muted appearance with few or no distinctive features. Their shell can be either brown, olive green or black and varies between individuals. Adults have yellow bands of varying intensities on their neck, head and legs.

This species has a wide native range that stretches across nearly all of Southeast Asia from Thailand to Japan.

These turtles can be found in shallow freshwater ponds and slow-moving streams. They will spend a great deal of time submerged in water and will need a large part of their tank to be dedicated to water.

Reeve’s Turtles do well in a 50-gallon tank with a portion of it that they can use to bask and rest. They enjoy highly decorated tanks as it allows them to hide themselves and feel more comfortable.

As with many other semi-aquatic species, the Reeve’s turtle is not the best swimmer and is best suited to an aquarium that has shallow water so that they do not need to paddle in order to breathe.

In the wild this species is known to voraciously eat live plants, so artificial plants are best in a tank.

How Big Do They Get?

The Reeve’s turtle is a very active, fun-to-watch species that will keep any keeper happy. This species is very small in size and can easily be kept in an indoor home aquarium. When fully grown, males of this species will reach 4 – 6 inches in length.

Are They Good Pets?

Reeve’s turtles are a great choice for beginner keepers because of their easy-going nature and calm temperament. As an added bonus, some have been known to enjoy human interaction and enjoy being handled. Their small size and easy care requirements make males a worthwhile species to keep.

  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Average Adult Size: 4 – 6 inches (males)
  • Lifespan: 10 – 15 years
  • Price: $50 – $150
  • Tank Size: 30+ gallons

5. Diamondback Terrapin (4 – 4.5 inches)

Diamondback terrapin

Diamondback Terrapin turtles (Malaclemys terrapin) have a very unique appearance and are popular with keepers for this reason. Their most noticeable trait is the repeating diamond-shaped patterns on each plate of their shell. They have gray bodies that are dotted with black spots.

Terrapins have a native range that stretches over a large majority of the East Coast of the US.

They can be found in brackish creeks and slow-moving streams in Massachusetts, Texas and even as far south as the swamps in the Florida Keys.

This semi-aquatic species is better at long-distance swimming than other turtles that stay small. As a result they will enjoy being housed in an aquarium with much deeper water. They are a highly active species and will often be seen happily swimming in all parts of their tank.

Terrapins are also active baskers and they will need an area of the tank for this.

When being kept as pets, Diamondback Terrapin turtles have been known for their susceptibility to shell rot. To avoid this it is important that you feed them a highly nutritious diet.

In the wild this species has a carnivorous diet, and they will accept a wide range of high-protein meals such as insects, pieces of fish and even hard-shelled invertebrates.

How Big Do They Get?

Baby Diamondback Terrapins will hatch out of their eggs at around 1 – 1.5 inches in length. Fully grown adults will reach anywhere between 5-6 inches in length (males) and 11 inches in length (females). One of the drawbacks of keeping these small turtles is that females are much larger and can grow to around 11 inches.

Are They Good Pets?

Diamondback terrapins are very docile and will put up with being handled regularly. The small size of males and their simple care needs mean they are a good match for beginners. These distinctly marked turtles are very popular as pets, however they do carry a much higher price tag than any other species on this list.

  • Experience Level: Beginner
  • Average Adult Size: 4 – 4.5 inches (male)
  • Lifespan: 20 – 25 years
  • Price: $300 – $450
  • Tank Size: 75+ gallons

Small Pet Turtles To Avoid

Red-Eared Slider (Trachemys Scripta Elegans)
Red-eared sliders are seemingly small turtles, but often turn out to be much bigger than owners expect them to be. They are a species that do not remain small their entire lives. Females can reach over 12 inches and need a tank over 125-gallons in size. These turtles are now an invasive species in many states due to ex-owners dumping them in local ponds due to their large size.

Common Box Turtle (Terrapene Carolina)
The common Box turtle is very calm-natured and easy to care for, but will spend a huge amount of time hiding. They are not an interactive species and make very disappointing pets if you wish to have a turtle you can engage with. It is even possible to go days without seeing them!

Painted Turtle (Chrysemys Picta)
Painted turtles are another example of a species where owners will often underestimate the size they can grow to. Some individuals will reach 11 inches in size.

Soft-shelled Turtles (Trionychidae)
Soft-shelled turtles are not commonly kept by beginners as they have complex behavioral traits and are more susceptible to infection and injury as a result of their soft, shell-less bodies. They also have more complex care needs than other pet turtles and are more aggressive.

Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra Serpentina)
Common Snapping turtles are large, aggressive and have powerful jaws. Their large size and aggressive behavior can make them dangerous and unsuitable pets for beginners.

What Is The Smallest Pet Turtle Species?

Pet Turtles That Stay Small

The spotted turtle is one of the smallest turtles that can be kept as a pet. This species will reach a maximum of around 3 – 4.5 inches in size. They are so small that it is illegal to buy them in some US states such as California, Colorado and Indiana. These states have a law that prohibits the sale of turtles that have a shell width of less than 4 inches across.

Their small size might make it hard for some keepers to buy one, but they can be imported from other states from licensed breeders.

Spotted turtles are instantly recognizable for their yellow-colored spots that cover the entirety of their shell. The number of spots that are present will vary, with some individuals having over 100 spots and others fewer than 20.

It is thought that these distinctive spots are used as camouflage!

Spotted turtles are a favorite amongst keepers, primarily due to their tiny size and simple care. Their size means that tank setup is easily managed and few alterations or changes are required as they grow.

Final Thoughts

Small turtles often make great pets and can be a good choice for someone looking to keep an interesting reptile. There are many species that have a manageable, small size and have care needs that are simple for most beginners.

Some of the best beginner species are the spotted, mud and Reeve’s turtles. More exotic species like Diamondback Terrapins can often be very expensive compared to other turtles that stay small. Let us know which one of our top 5 you would keep.

Nigel Robert

Nigel Robert

Nigel is the managing editor at More Reptiles. He is a lifelong reptile lover, biologist and wildlife consultant who brings a decade of experience working in reptile conservation and consultancy. He joined our team in 2020 and when he’s not reviewing reptile care sheets, he’s out looking for reptiles in the wild! Nigel is dedicated to herpetology and conserving wildlife which is why he is a member of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, Zoological Association of America, iNaturalist and the Nature Conservancy.

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