Like most other pets, turtles need the right amount of stimulation and exercise to thrive. The Internet is filled with turtle parents touting the benefits of letting their turtles roam free around the house. But is having a free-range turtle really the best idea?
Can I let my turtle walk around my house? No, you should not let your turtle walk around your house. This poses a variety of risks to both you and your pet. There are better ways to allow your turtle to exercise and explore while also keeping everyone safe.
In this post, we’ll explore exactly why allowing your turtle to roam around your home unsupervised is actually quite dangerous. We’ll also discuss a variety of ways that you can keep your turtle happy by providing the right types of mental stimulation.
Why Is Roaming the House Dangerous for My Turtle?
There’s a long list of reasons why allowing your turtle to have the run of your home is unsafe for them.
First, your turtle can easily get lost. In the wild, turtles are prey animals. For one, this means they are naturally inclined to seek out good hiding places, away from predators. Placing your turtle in open, unfamiliar territory can cause them a lot of undue stress.
In their natural habitat, turtles will burrow into the sand, hide under rocks, and submerge themselves under water. When they are inside your home, your turtle will seek similar opportunities to hide. They’ll conceal themselves under the nearest bed, couch, or table and often seek out dark corners. Once your turtle finds a good hiding place, they can be quite difficult to locate.
Second, it is easy for your turtle to become injured when you let them roam around your home. As previously mentioned, turtles are great at hiding in dark places and blending in with their environment. They can easily get stepped on or kicked by their unwitting owners, or take a lethal tumble down the stairs.
In addition, turtles are not exactly compatible with other house pets. Dog bites are a very common injury among turtles and tortoises and they are best kept away from their mammalian counterparts.
Turtles are also curious animals by nature. If they see something they think they can eat, they will do so. Online forums are filled with stories of turtles and tortoises who have ingested items such as nail polish, rat poison, rocks, carpet, dog food, dust bunnies and hair, jewelry, and wires.
A turtle cannot break down synthetic material once it is ingested, and this undigested item will likely cause an impaction.
Lastly, the temperature on the floor of your home is likely too cold for your turtle. Turtles are cold-blooded creatures and require external heat sources to maintain the proper body temperature. In the summer, the temperature of the average home is about 78 degrees Fahrenheit (personally, I keep my house at 73°F during the day).
In the winter, the temperature of most homes ranges from about 70-75°F. While this might seem warm enough, the floor is drafty, even in a home that is well-insulated, and will always be cooler than the ambient temperature in the home. Not great for a cold-blooded turtle.
Additionally, the windows in a typical home block out UVB light. This means that your turtle does not have the proper opportunity to bask and absorb the light she needs if she roams for a good portion of the day. Turtles need 10-12 hours of UVB light each day to maintain good health .
Why Is Letting My Turtle Roam Unsafe for Me?
The biggest safety risk for any turtle owner is Salmonella bacteria, which is carried by many turtles and can be transmitted to humans. In fact, the sale of small turtles (with shells less than four inches long) was banned in the United States in 1975 in an attempt to prevent the spread of Salmonella.1
There was also a Salmonella outbreak as recently as January 2020 that was linked to pet turtles.2 In that particular instance, twenty-six people were infected, and 8 were hospitalized. For this reason, among others, turtles are best kept as mostly ornamental pets and handling is not recommended (overhandling also causes stress for the turtle and can lead to biting).
Allowing your turtle to roam around your house enables them to the bacteria that often lives on their shells and skin. Salmonella bacteria can then survive for up to four hours on dry surfaces within your home, and can be indirectly transferred to you, your children, or other pets.3 Even a turtle who appears clean and healthy can carry Salmonella.
Salmonella can cause life-threatening infections in people, even though the same bacteria does not make your turtle sick. Infants, young children, elderly people, and people with decreased immune systems (because of pregnancy, diabetes, or HIV/AIDS, for example) are at increased risk of serious infection.
Symptoms of a Salmonella infection include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, fever, and headache.
Always be sure to thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water after handling your turtle, or any item that they have come into contact with. If you experience any of the above symptoms after handling your pet turtle or touching their housing, toys, or food, call your doctor immediately.
Providing Your Turtle With the Right Habitat
The best way to keep you and your turtle safe and happy is to provide her with a habitat that is appropriately lit, heated, and is large and stimulating enough to keep her well-entertained.
Aquatic turtles should live in tanks or aquariums that are at least 55 gallons in volume. These tanks should be semi-aquatic, meaning they have a large aquatic area for swimming, as well as a smaller “landing dock” where your turtle can rest and bask outside of the water.
Be sure to provide them with a UVB light source, as they need up to 12 hours of this type of light per day. Keep the warm, or basking end of their tank around 95°F and keep the cool, or aquatic end around 75°F. Use substrate such as slate or rock, that is too large for them to ingest.
An outdoor, turtle-safe habitat is optimal for terrestrial, or land-dwelling turtles. If this isn’t doable, use a terrarium that has at least twelve square feet of space. Provide a cool area, as well as a warmer basking area, with hiding spots in each.
Most turtles require daytime temperatures of 75-85°F, a basking area around 95°F, and nighttime temperatures around 70-76°F. They also need 10-12 hours a day of UVB light. Provide access to a fresh, clean dish of water that is also large enough for your turtle to soak in.
Be sure to do your research on the type of substrate and the level of humidity that is best for your turtle, as it varies a bit by species. Eastern box turtles, for example, do well in moist, but well-drained substrate. The relative humidity for these types of turtles should be about 80% just above the surface of their substrate, and close to saturation, or 98%, below the surface.4
How to Create a Stimulating Environment for Your Turtle
Providing your turtle with a captive habitat that closely resembles her natural habitat is an excellent start. However, the captive environments of many turtles do not often provide enough enrichment for them.
Just like dogs and cats, your reptilian pet craves opportunities for play. Not only do they enjoy playtime, but a lack thereof can cause self-injury, lack of appetite, and shortened life expectancy.
One easy way to provide some mental stimulation for your pet turtle is with the appropriate substrate. Tanks without substrate are easier to clean and maintain, but this is unfortunately not the best option for your turtle.
Rocks and gravel that are large enough to discourage ingestion are highly recommended. For aquatic turtles you can also mix in shells, aquarium gems, and either fake plants or turtle-safe live plants.
Floating logs are also a fantastic option for aquatic turtles. They provide a natural-looking object on which they can climb and can also provide a great hiding spot, if they’re wide enough.
You can add natural branches to your terrestrial turtle’s terrarium. Just make sure they are reliably secured and won’t fall over onto your pet and injure them. You can add rocks that are large and flat enough to climb, as well as artificial or real (non-toxic) plants.
Terrestrial turtles also love a good hiding spot and these come in many forms — Clay pots, cardboard boxes, hollow logs, and other secure items.
There are a couple other great ways to enrich your turtle’s environment. One is to offer her live insects (such as mealworms and crickets) or feeder fish. Another is to provide turtle-safe toys to your pet! There are several options on the market, including turtle treat balls and floating treats.
Even though it isn’t particularly safe to give your pet turtle the run of your home, there are ample options for keeping your pet occupied, exercised, and entertained. Be sure to provide her with a roomy, stimulating habitat, and you’ll have one happy turtle.