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.
However, considering the health and well-being of the turtle should always take precedent over personal pet ownership ambitions. All turtles will grow, so when you pick your tiny turtle, make sure you base your decision on the average adult size of that specific turtle species.
With that being said, let’s jump into discussing the cutest turtles that stay small!
Table of Contents
Small Turtle Species #1: Mississippi Mud Turtle (4 inches)
Despite the name, these turtles are more commonly found in southern Missouri and eastern Oklahoma although their natural habitat ranges from Texas to New York.
Their coloring does not stand out as it ranges from black to brown, can be mottled, and may have a yellow underside. They typically have one or two yellow stripes on the side of their head, which makes them easier to identify from other turtles in the area.
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.
The aquarium floor should be bare or covered in large rocks that are too big for the turtle to put into his mouth. Rocks will need to be disinfected every two weeks.
The aquarium will need a good external cannister filter to keep the water clean. The water should be between 74°F and 84°F. Use a submersible heater to maintain the temperature.
A basking lamp over a stone or log should be given in an area of the aquarium. Keep the basking area temperature between 85°F and 92°F.
The Mississippi mud turtle will eat a variety of aquatic animals like mussels, insects, and crayfish in the wild. They will also eat some plants and even a few small amphibians if they happen to have the misfortune of crossing the turtle’s path.
To mimic this carnivorous diet, these mud turtle can be fed worms, small or medium feeder fish, and insects as part of their regular diet.
They can be supplemented with commercial food but some people prefer to have the turtles eat a mainly commercially prepared diet.
Small Turtle Species #2: Bog Turtle (3-4 inches)
The name of this turtle is a little on the nose. Don’t most turtles enjoy bogs?
Well, this one enjoys bogs in not one but TWO main locations in the United States.
The northern population lives around New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. The southern one lives around Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia.
It is important to note that both these populations are considered threatened due to the black-market sale of Bog Turtles.
If you buy one, make sure you are using a reputable breeder that deals in captive bred bog turtles only.
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.
Their habitat is not too complicated, although you should house male turtles separately as they often get territorial. Otherwise, they are adaptable, hardy, and will eat almost anything.
If you want to breed them, this is also done easily in captivity.
Water should be cleaned regularly and heated to 65°F to 75°F with a basking spot between 85°F and 90°F.
They eat both plants and animals so give them a range of proteins like insects and worms plus fruit and vegetables like leafy greens and strawberries to keep them healthy.
Small Turtle Species #3: Common Musk Turtle (2-4.5 inches)
The common Musk turtle has the potential to be quite small, with the females being slightly smaller than the males. They have a wide range of natural habitat that includes most of eastern North America.
However, unlike some turtles, they do NOT like brackish water and spend the winter burrowed in mud.
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.
⭐️Fun Fact: Did you know, the Common Musk Turtle is also referred to as the “stinkpot” turtle because of the acid they excrete that gives them a musky odor?
The common musk turtle eats small invertebrates like snails and mollusks in the wild. As a pet it will love worms, crickets and cut up fish.
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)
The spotted turtle ranges between 1 and 5 inches, but don’t get too excited thinking your turtle may be only an inch long. The majority of these turtles reach between 3 and 4 inches by adulthood.
The Michigan Spotted turtle is, of course, commonly found around Michigan but its natural habitat ranges around all of the great last and the Eastern Coast of the United States.
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.
The part of the aquarium that is water should be about 3 to 6 inches deep with water that is between 75°F and 85°F.
The ambient air should range between 82°F and 86°F with a basking spot of 88°F.
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, also called the Chinese Pond Turtle, is from Asia with habitat in China, North and South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.
They are somewhat easy to find as they breed easily in captivity and tend to be more readily available in the warmer months between May and September.
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.
One turtle should be in an aquarium that is 50 gallons and each additional turtle will need at least another 15 gallons. Even baby turtles need a 10 to 15-gallon tank to start.
🤓Expert Tip: Don’t want to have to stress over creating the perfect aquatic environment for your turtle? Why not consider a pet tortoise instead? Tortoises make great pets for individuals and children alike and have their fare share of differences from turtles (from habitat to care and beyond) that can make them more appealing pets for some.
The basking area for the Reeve’s turtle is NOT optional and they like things on the warmer side. These guys love to sunbathe at about 85°F to 95°F and have a balmy ambient temperature of 75°F to 85°F with a water temperature of 70°F to 80°F. In addition to heat, the Reeve’s turtle also needs a shady area and place to hide.
These turtles (both sexes) do show some territorial aggression and should be handled minimally. They can get aggressive with each other, but they do not usually inflict damage.
With that consideration, this turtle is probably best for a moderately experienced turtle owner.
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.
They have a unique look with a high contrast carapace (shell) with yellow and orange and lighter legs and skin that tend toward grey and white.
There are many color variations and their skin is often spotted or their shell could also be grey or white with little orange and yellow.
⭐️Fun Fact: In Connecticut, you cannot collect or possess a Diamondback Terrapin due to their dwindling numbers. In fact, according to Connecticut’s State Website, the Diamondback Terrapin was listed as a “species of special concern” under the state’s Endangered Species Act.
Diamondback Terrapin personalities tend toward docility but the females can be more aggressive and are more likely to bite.
Given their larger size, extra care should be taken when handling females.
Adult terrapins cannot be crowded as they may start to nip at each other. Expect to use a 40-gallon long aquarium for one or two adult terrapins.
Some people opt to use Rubbermaid bins instead of aquariums. The water needs to be filtered and circulating and at a temperature of 76°F to 78°F. Give them a basking area of about 80°F to 90°F.
You should aim to feed them either a commercial turtle food OR mimic their natural food by giving them a variety of shellfish like shrimp.
Diamondback terrapins water requirements are a little more unique than that of other turtles…
In the wild they live in brackish water. This means that wild caught turtles absolutely have to have saltwater added to their water to prevent shell rot. This is done at a ratio of about 1 tablespoon per gallon.
It is, however, more accurate to use a hydrometer and aim for a buoyancy rate around 1.014.
Captive-bred turtles that are raised in freshwater may not need salt added, but you will need to watch for signs of shell rot and add salt if necessary.
If you keep your turtle in brackish water it’s a good idea to have a dish of fresh water available for drinking.
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.