Turtles Vs. Tortoises, 6 Key Differences as Pets

Unlike mammal pets, tortoises and turtles are exotic and need special care. First-timers are often torn in between the two, not knowing which one makes a better companion. We investigated the differences and similarities to help you make a better choice. 

Turtles and tortoises have unique physical and habitual differences that are suitable for various exotic pet lovers. Tortoises have a dome-shaped shell, strong feet, and live longer. On the other hand, turtles are aquatic, have webbed feet, and a flat shell.

Tortoises and turtles may seem similar on the surface, but the two are worlds apart. We delved deeper to find out the significant differences and unique qualities to help you distinguish between the two. Read on as we give you the guidance you need. 

Turtles Vs. Tortoises

The Difference Between Tortoises and Turtles

You may have to take a closer look to tell tortoises and turtles apart since they are from the same scientific family and share a lot in common. Interestingly, several factors distinguish the two. We compiled all the essential traits that will help you find which reptile works best for you. 

1, Physique

The first observable feature in both animals is the shell. You will notice that the tortoise’s armor is dome-shaped or curved outward, making it bigger and heavier than that of the turtle. In contrast, the turtle’s shell is flat, lightweight, and streamlined. The physical appearance enables the two to live comfortably in their natural environments. Turtles spend most of their lives wading through ocean waters; therefore, a heavy shell will only drag them behind.

While the turtle shell facilitates swimming, the tortoise’s acts as a shield of defense against predators and harsh elements. Turtles also tend to shed the scutes in their armors before growing out new ones underneath. In contrast, the tortoise’s shell doesn’t peel; instead, the keratin cover keeps layering to make the armor hard. Just as their shells help them adapt to their respective habitats, the two have specialized limbs too. 

The turtles’ legs assist in swimming since they are flat and webbed in most cases apart from the sea turtles that have fin-like flippers. Such limbs help aquatic creatures paddle and dive deeper into the water. Since the tortoises spend most of their lives on land, it has thick, strong, and short elephant-like feet to help them walk on rough terrains. Some species are also avid diggers and have claws on the paws.    

2, Reproduction

The females from both creatures lay a lot of eggs at a go. The turtles’ eggs are exceptionally soft and slimy, as with most reptiles, and as soon as they hatch, the offspring remain in the nest for up to 120 days. They stay there independently and move to the water as soon as they can crawl. On the other hand, the female tortoise lays around twelve eggs at once, at the same size as a ping-pong ball, and they also take between 90 to 120 days to hatch. The offspring will then move in with their mother after hatching.  

3, Swimming Capability

Most turtles, except for the box species, are aquatic creatures. Therefore, they have, over the years, adapted to swimming thanks to their streamlined bodies and fin-like feet. They are swift swimmers and can spend a lot of time underwater without emerging for air. Tortoise would rather avoid the water. They only need it for drinking and soaking. 

Their feet and heavy shells usually bog them down when swimming, and they are likely to drown. The heavy dome-shaped body and stubby feet drag them while in the water, making it challenging to paddle and propel against the waves in water. The advantage of the curved shell is that tortoises find it easier to retreat into it whenever they have to, unlike the turtle. 

Read more: How Turtles Can Swim but Tortoises Don’t? Facts You Should Know

4, Habitat

You can quickly tell the two apart when in their natural setting. Tortoises live exclusively on land, unlike the close counterparts that spend their entire lives in water bodies. Although tortoises are terrestrial animals, they still need water to soak and hydrate their bodies. Therefore, it is best to provide them with a water source, but be careful they don’t drown in it.

On the contrary, turtles can come to land for a while to bask, hibernate or lay eggs, but they soon after retreat back to the water to look for food. There are aquatic and semi-aquatic turtles like the box turtle that resemble a common tort. You will tell the difference by noticing its finesse at swimming because they are more adept at it than the ordinary tortoise.

5, Diet

The food choice can also help you determine whether you are dealing with a turtle or a tortoise. In the natural setting, tortoises are generally herbivorous, feeding primarily on vegetation. Desert torts prefer shrubs, herbs, and fleshy plants like the cactus. They also indulge in any other short, leafy plants provided that they aren’t poisonous. The wild creatures in the rainforest can also eat fruits as treats in addition to plants. 

Read more: What Do Tortoises Eat: 23 Facts You Should Know (Explained)

However, those in captivity don’t mind fleshy meals once in a while. Turtles are majorly omnivorous, but other species are more inclined to either meat or plants. You can always tell that the reptile is a turtle if you find it eating snails, insects, smaller fish, or crabs. 

Read more: What Turtles Do and Don’t Eat: A Complete Guide for Beginners

6, Lifespan

It is crucial to know your pet’s lifespan. Chelonians are known to live longer than most animals, human beings included. Most tortoises live longer than turtles, with smaller and medium-sized species reaching close to eighty years and the giant ones comfortably surpassing a century. Notably, saltwater turtles have a longer lifespan than their freshwater counterparts. The freshwater species can span a maximum age of seventy to forty, respectively. Therefore, your pet tortoise will likely outlive you. If you intend to have a lifetime companion, the tortoise is the right pick for you. It’s incredible how your pet tortoise can keep going strong and even see different human generations.

Which Makes a Better Pet: The Tortoise or the Turtle?

Turtles and tortoises often appeal to exotic pet lovers. They are hardy and outlive mammal pets, giving them a good reputation even among first-time keepers. The decision now narrows down to which one of them will be more suitable for you. 

The tortoise will be the right one for you if you are going for a terrestrial animal that is mainly herbivorous. You may also need a substantial outdoor space if you have a giant or medium-sized species. The turtle would work fine if you love aquatic animals and would want to own an aquarium. You can customize the tank and spruce it up as you like to use it as an aesthetic piece of décor. Both reptiles make great exotic pets, and you can always weigh out your options to find the one that matches your personality. 

The exotic animals need ample space, especially tortoises. The difference is that you need a tank for the turtle and a wide area, preferably outdoors, for a tort. They also need special requirements such as basking spots and UVB lighting systems for their shell growth. In addition to an aquarium, you will need a filter for your turtle’s home. Therefore, tortoises are less demanding when it comes to habitat requirements. In matters of diet, you will find turtles easier to keep. Tortoises need special healthy meals and would otherwise get sickly when they don’t get the right foods. 

Most importantly, a tortoise needs a lot of care since it is likely to outlive you. They can also outgrow the indoor space, meaning that you will need more room outdoors. Turtles, on the other hand, can live in medium-sized aquariums. You will also notice that tortoises are more social and comfortable with human handling. You may also find their homes simpler to clean than the turtle tank. Turtles can get pretty messy, and only a powerful filter will do the job for you. 

Generally, both reptiles make excellent pets, even for a beginner. The main factor to consider is the habitat. You can go for a tortoise if you have enough space to house a terrestrial animal or choose a turtle if you can look after an aquatic species. Either way, it is best to obtain one from the right source and provide the proper diet and the essential additional requirements. 


You will never regret going for exotic pets like turtles and tortoises. They are hardy, disease-resistant, and easier to maintain than other conventional pets. They are from the same family, and people often confuse them due to their similar traits. However, when you look closely, you will find distinctive physical features. 

Some owners love the tortoise’s dome-shaped shell and elephant-like feet. Others also love that they are hardier and live longer than the turtles. On the other hand, turtle owners adore that their pets live in aquariums that you can customize to serve as aesthetic art pieces. Regardless of your preference, you are confident of a great lifetime companion.

Harvey Wells

I am an intense cool pets lover. I have tortoises, tarantulas and a few other exotic pets. And I would love to share what I have learned.

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