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Turtles - Exactly What Kind of Animal Are They?

Considering getting a pet turtle but finding yourself wondering what these fascinating creatures actually are? Are turtles reptiles or amphibians? Are turtles good pets? Our Huntsville vets are here to answer your turtle questions.

Turtles are they reptiles or amphibians?

A turtle is a type of reptile that makes its home in either saltwater or freshwater. The term "turtle" refers to any reptile of the order in the Testudines family, and includes some species that dwell on land as well as in water. Because this category of species was previously known as Chelonia, all members of this family are referred to as chelonians.

So why are turtles reptiles? Turtles fit into this category of creatures because they are four-legged vertebrates with a cold-blooded metabolism and scales covering their body. Amphibians, on the other hand, have a smooth scaleless coating that is water-permeable. Turtles are protected by a tough, impenetrable shell. As with other reptiles such as crocodiles, snakes, lizards, and the Tuatara, turtles have lungs to help them breathe.

What are the characteristics of reptiles?

See below to compare the attributes of reptiles vs amphibians.


  • This class includes animals that dwell on land (snakes, lizards, tortoises); mostly in water (turtles); and on both land and water (crocodiles and alligators). There is no immature (larval) aquatic stage in reptiles.
  • Breathe using the lungs
  • Dry, scaly skin
  • Lay their eggs on land. These eggs have shells.


  • Frogs, toads, newts, salamanders, and caecilians are members of this class; they typically have an aquatic larval stage (e.g., tadpole) followed by a terrestrial adult stage.
  • Breathe using gills at the larval stage and with the lungs during adulthood.
  • Have smooth skin. Adults also use the skin as a secondary breathing organ.
  • Normally lay eggs in water. These eggs are surrounded by a gelatinous covering.

What are the defining attributes of turtles?

To be classified as a turtle, an animal must be cold-blooded, have no teeth, four legs, and have a bony shell. The shell is a turtle's most distinguishing feature. Their shells have a top and bottom and connect on both sides of the turtle's body to form a skeleton box.

But turtles may actually be more diverse in their characteristics than you expect.  There are in fact three different types of 'turtles:' turtles, tortoises, and terrapins.

The main difference between the three is where they live. Turtles spend most of their lives in the water, tortoises on land, and terrapins split evenly between the two.

Turtles vary dramatically in size and can be found n the wild all over the world - except for Antarctica. Some turtle species stay a small as four inches whereas others can get up to four feet in size!

Are turtles good family pets?

While turtles can make excellent, and comparatively low maintenance pets, they do have have very specific housing and nutritional requirements that must be met in order to stay healthy and live a long life.

You'll need to buy a large terrarium with enough room for your turtle to move about freely. In most cases pet turtles require a terrarium that has an area of water and an area of dry 'land'. Your turtles enclosure will also need to be cleaned daily to remove turtle droppings and any other mess that could quickly accumulate and make your turtle sick.

In terms of diet, you may need to purchase calcium-enriched turtle food formulated to help keep your pet's shell strong. Consult your exotic animal veterinarian to determine the best food to feed your pet turtle, and for guidance on how to care for your hard shelled pet.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

Our Huntsville exotic animal vet can provide veterinary care and valuable guidance to help you give your turtle their best shot at a long and healthy life. Contact Whitesburg Animal Hospital today to book an appointment for your turtle.

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Whitesburg Animal Hospital is accepting new patients! Our experienced vets are passionate about the health of Huntsville companion animals. Get in touch today to book your pet's first appointment.

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