Turtle vs. Tortoise: What’s the Difference?

Turtle Climbing out of Bin

For many people in the world the term “turtle” encompasses every reptile with a shell on it’s back, but it’s not quite that simple.

While there are many similarities between turtles and tortoises they are actually very different creatures!

Let’s start with the shells!

Both turtles and tortoises have similar shells. These shells are made up of a carapace (the top) and a plastron (the bottom) which are connected on the sides.

These two pieces of shell are actually made up of the animal’s ribs and spine, and they keep him protected from predators that would normally prey on slow moving creatures.

As an added bit of protection turtles and tortoises also have scutes on the top of their carapace. These scutes are made of keratin and are basically like a skin covering the bones of the animal.

While some turtles may shed their scutes over time tortoises do not, theirs just continue to grow as they do!

Fun Fact: Depending on the species, scutes can be vibrantly colored like that of the box turtle or drab like the Galapagos tortoise.

Tortoise Super Up Close

It’s a common misconception that the shell of a turtle or tortoise is simply that, a shell, but unlike hermit crabs it is impossible for a turtle or tortoise to live without his shell.

You see the shell of these creatures has actually evolved over time, and is made up of the animal’s rib cage and spinal cord.

While this is a super cool adaptation, it is one that comes with a lot of responsibility!

The shell of a turtle or tortoise is a good indicator of it’s health.

While wild animals shells are usually in great condition—unless they have been involved in an accident like a narrow escape from an alligator or a hit and run by a car, those in captivity can experience quite a few more issues.

Shell rot is one of those issues. Found almost exclusively in captive turtles and tortoises this disease is caused by poor husbandry and results in ulcers on the shell.

If you notice ulcers on your pet’s shell be sure to get him to a vet immediately as this condition must be treated with antibiotics and if left unchecked can be life threatening!

Pyramiding is another disease found mostly with captive turtles and tortoises that causes the shell to grow unevenly into a pyramid shape.

Caused by a poor diet, a lack of certain vitamins, minerals, or sunlight, or too little or too much humidity this disease can be life threatening if the causes are not discovered and rectified.

Unfortunately, once pyramiding has occurred there is no way to reverse it, but you can make changes to the animal’s diet and environment to prevent further incorrect growth.

Tortoise on the Pavement Outside

Now on to the differences!

1. One of the main differences between turtles and tortoises is that of habitat. Tortoises are terrestrial, while turtles spend the majority of their time in the water.

2. Another is their anatomy. Most turtles have webbed feet to help them move around in the water with ease, while tortoises have thicker, stockier feet that allow them to carry their heavy bodies and move around on land.

3. For the most part, turtles have much lighter shells than that of their terrestrial cousin, the tortoise. This is to keep them aerodynamic, help them swim faster, and make it easier on their thinner legs when they come onto land for short amounts of time.

4. While most tortoises are almost exclusively herbivores due to their slow moving speeds, turtles are omnivores and will eat just about anything they can find from fish, to plants and bugs.

Due to habitat loss, other environmental changes and the pet trade, many turtles and tortoises have found themselves on the endangered species list.

My personal favorite species, The Egyptian or Kleinmann’s Tortoise is one such species.

Listed as Critically endangered, these tiny tortoises are facing extinction if something can’t be done to end their illegal capture and protect pockets of their habitat for future generations.

You may be wondering what exactly you can do to help and fortunately helping is easy. One of the most important things we can do as consumers is hold those we shop with to higher standards.

Make sure the pet stores where you shop sell only captively born and bred reptiles and amphibians.

While they can always lie the easiest way to find out whether or not they are an environmentally friendly supplier is asking where they get their animals.

Only the shadiest of pet stores will sell wild caught animals, but it is very common for them to sell captive born.

What exactly is the difference between captive born and captive bred?

Captive born simply means that the animal was born in captivity, while that is a step in the right direction it isn’t enough. Captive born means that while the animal was born in captivity his mother may have been wild caught while gravid (pregnant).

This is why as consumers we need to make sure every animal we purchase is from a line of animals that has been in captivity for several generations.

While it can be hard to be sure that your pet store animals were responsibly sourced it is very easy to find a local breeder that can help you find the perfect pet.

Many cities hold quarterly reptile shows where you can meet breeders in the area and see a wide variety of reptiles and amphibians.

This is the best place to get a new pet as you have the opportunity to talk to the person who is breeding and get to know their animals.

Be sure any animal you bring home looks healthy, avoid any animals that have discharge coming from their eyes or nose, or have tiny black dots on their scales as these can be mites.

Turtle on Brown Spanish Tile

Another way to help our reptile friends the turtle and the tortoise is by volunteering, fostering or adopting from a local reptile rescue.

There are an overwhelming number of unwanted reptiles and amphibians, and many rescues are underfunded and understaffed.

If your locality doesn’t have a rescue be sure to check with your local wildlife center as they may actually be the rescue for your area!

Always remember to do your research! Whether you simply love admiring turtles and tortoises in the wild or you want to have one as a pet, keep in mind that knowledge is power.

You can never know too much about the creatures around you, and if you are considering getting one as a pet he will thank you for doing your research before bringing him home!

Bonus: Check out this awesome article if you are considering getting a reptile as a pet!! 

Dog Shedding and Sitting on a Red Rug

How to Control Dog Shedding

Does your dog shed? Learn how to control their shedding!

10 Adoption Stories Guaranteed to Put a Smile on Your Face

If you love dogs, chances are you love a good dog adoption story! These ten stories are ones that I experienced first hand while working at animal rescues and shelters over the last eight years. They may make you laugh, cry, smile or a little of each, but they are guaranteed to warm your heart!…

Long Haired Beauties, What’s the Best Long Haired Cat Breed?

Are you looking to add a long-haired cat to your family, but aren’t sure which breed is right for you? Look no further because I’ve got you covered, from the Brachycephalic Persian to the dainty Turkish Angora there is a long haired cat out there for every personality type. Persian: One of the oldest cat…

Pug Smiling at Dog Park

Here’s How to Find a “Good” Dog Park!

Learn the insider secrets of finding the best dog park possible!

Dogs Walking on Path

How to Spot the Signs of Discomfort and Stress in Dogs

Do you know when your dog is stressed out or in discomfort?

Two Turtles Sunbathing on a Rock

How to Choose the Turtle for You

Turtles come in all shapes and sizes, with different living environments and dietary needs that you will need to be prepared to accommodate.

Pitbull Laying Out on the Beach

How to Rent a Dog for a Day

Want a furry friend, but don’t know if you can make the commitment just yet ?

Dog From a Painting Chewing on a Page from a Book

BO-ZING! 8 Most Popular Dogs in Literary Fiction

Even though Spot was used in the early 1930s to teach kids the fundamentals of reading, he certainly isn’t the only canine to find his way into a good book.

Dog Drinking Water out of Fountain

How Much Water Should Your Dog Really Drink?

It’s important for us to know what is and what isn’t normal for our pets.

Neapolitan Mastiff Outside in the Yard Protective Dog Breed

The 10 Most Protective Dog Breeds

These 10 breeds are all known for their dedication to their owners and their willingness to protect them.

Dog Playing with Pink Toy on Bed

Is Your Dog Possessive Over their Toys?

It’s normal for young pups to be a bit possessive over their toys…

Pug with Wrinkles on Face by Seaside

How to Clean Your Dog’s Skin Folds

The wrinkly faces of the Pug, Bulldog, Shar Pei and other brachycephalic breeds are adorable, but they also require regular cleaning.

Cat Profile in Plane Looking out Window

How to Fly with Your Cat

You have to give yourself plenty of preparation before you and your cat are ready to go jet set off on a plane somewhere.

Pug with Flowers in His Face

10 Dangerous Things in Your Yard for Your Dog

Have you taken a good look at your yard to be sure that everything is safe for your furry friends?

Chow Chow Least Obedient Dog Cover

Watch Out! The 10 Least Obedient Dog Breeds

Every dog can be trained, but some are simply a little less motivated than others.

Two Greyhounds Laying in the Backyard

How Long Should You Leave Your Dog Alone?

There is no short answer to this question as many factors can affect it.

Black Cat in Litter Box Newspaper on Wall

Why Should You Clean the Litter Box so Frequently?

Keeping your cat’s litter box clean is extremely important to her psyche as well as her health.

Millennials Spoil their Pets Jack Russell Sleeping

How Millennials are Changing Pet Parenthood

Millennials are putting off big life events like getting married and having children.
Instead, they’re having fur babies.

What Size Dog Should You Choose Dog Reading Self Help Book

What Size Dog is Best for You?

One thing that you definitely need to consider is size.

Puppy in Training to be a Guide DogPuppy in Training to be a Guide Dog

How to Train Your Dog to Become a Guide Dog

Dogs have been helping humans for hundreds of years, so it’s no surprise that one common job for dogs is guiding the blind.

White Albino Labrador

How to Train a Deaf Dog—It’s Easy!

Luckily, training a deaf dog isn’t so different from a fully-abled dog.

White Great Dane Laying on the Couch

Why are White Coated Dogs Deaf?

Deafness affects white coated dogs, but not all white coated dogs are deaf.

Sheep Dog with Matted Fur in his Eyes

How to Get Mats out of Your Animals’ Fur

Mats in fur are an issue that many dogs face, especially shaggy ones.

Pitbull out in the Summer Sun

How to Prevent Your Dog From Overheating

It’s up to us. Our dogs don’t know when they’re overheating.

Three Greyhounds Sleeping in Dog Beds in Family Room

April is Adopt a Greyhound Month! 50 Amazing Facts about Greyhounds

The Greyhound, the professional sleeper.

Black Cat on Window Sill

7 Myths about the Black Cat and Why You Should Have One

Black cats are famous for “bad luck.”

Small Brussells Griffons Eating in Kitchen in a Line

What is Food Aggression and How Do You Stop It?

A useful response in the wild, but not so much in the home.

Yellow and Black Snake

How to Help Your Snake Shed his Skin

Shedding skin is a natural process for all reptiles.

German Shepherd Dog with Green Backpack on Back

The Top 10 Dog Traveling Gear Must Haves

Luckily, you don’t need to bring a ton of things.

Two Dogs Hike in Los Angeles

Love Traveling? Countries to NOT Travel With Your Dog To

Watch out for Belarus.

Dog Eating a Treat

Yum. Yum. Yum. Can Dogs Eat Sugar?

We love sweets, but can our dogs eat them, too?

Pitbull Looking up at the Camera

Going Out of Town? Best Pet Sitters in Atlanta

Going out of town and need someone to watch your dog?

Maine Coon Backlit by the Sunset

Feline Monsters: Norwegian Forest Cat vs. Siberian Cat vs. Maine Coon

Not only are these cats’ big, their personalities are larger than life, too.

Boston Terrier by Water

French Bulldog vs. the Boston Terrier: What’s the Difference?

To the untrained eye, French Bulldogs and Boston Terriers could be the same breed

Labradoodle Hybrid Dog with Tongue Out

Why Do People Want Hybrid Dogs?

They’re cute and they’re…healthier?

Two Cats on the Floor Bonding

5 Reasons Why You Should Adopt an Older Cat

Adopting an older cat is a great way to get an amazing cat without all the work of kittenhood.

Black Cat Outside on the Lawn

10 years? 15? How Old Do Cats Live?

Cat’s have nine lives, but how long are those lives?

Grey and White Cat with Green Eyes

How to Prevent Cat Bladder Infections

Bladder infections are the number one reason cats visit the vet.

Dog on Hillside in San Francisco, California

The Top Dog-Friendly Cities in the U.S.

How can you go wrong with a pub-crawl with your dog?

German Shepherd with Pointed Ears

What is Schutzhund and How Do You Train Your Dog for it?

This sport has withstood the test of time.

Dog International in England Shakespeare House

Your Introduction to Traveling Abroad with Your Dog

Going to a new country with your dog can be a great experience.

Brown Horse with Black Mane Trotting in Dirt

How to Manage Chronically Infected Wounds in Horses

This can be a scary thing, because infections can eventually lead to the horse’s death if left untreated for too long.

Alusky Hybrid Frozen in the Snow

The Alusky—the Hybrid of Two Great Arctic Breeds

One portmanteau that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves—the Alusky.

Two Dogs with Tongues out with Separation Anxiety

How to Beat Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is a well-known problem for many pet parents.

Alaskan Malamute Standing in the Mud

65 Fun Facts About the Alaskan Malamute

They’ve lived alongside humans for thousands of years.

Egyptian Mau on Cat Tree

Where Do Different Cat Breeds Come From?

There are over 70 specific recognized breeds…that’s a lot of cats.

Alaskan Malamute Outside in the Snow

Your Go-To Guide to Snow Dog Breeds

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow…

Girl Waving at Computer

10 Ways to Build a Strong Relationship with Your Dog

Not sure how to help your pooch feel more appreciated?

Siberian Cat Profile Outdoors

How to Read Cat Body Language

There are many tell-tale signs to indicate Kitty’s mood.

White American Eskimo by the Lake

What are the Top 10 Dog Breeds that Shed the Most?

Did you know that a dog’s coat serves three distinct purposes?