6 Pet Turtles That Stay Small & Cute (With Pictures)

Turtles make great pets, but not everybody has space for a large turtle like a red-eared slider. If you’re wanting a small turtle but don't know which species to choose, you're in the right place as I'm going to take you through the 6 best pet turtles that stay small.
Pet Turtles That Stay Small
Diamondback Terrapin (top left) Mud Turtle (top right) Musk Turtle (center left) Reeves Turtle (center right) Painted Turtle (bottom left) Spotted Turtle (bottom right)

Small pet turtles are super cute, take up less space, and on the whole, are easier to take care of than larger turtles.

Don’t be fooled into thinking you can sit back and do nothing though, they will still need a good tank setup and regular cleaning to keep them healthy and happy.

Turtles have a long lifespan, so you need to be prepared for the long-term commitment.

Can You Have Small Turtles As Pets?

Yes, you can have small turtles as pets, as long as they are not an endangered species and meet the law set by your state.

Why Are Tiny Turtles Illegal?

There are laws around the sale of turtles and some states are stricter than others or ban the sale of certain endangered species of turtles altogether, be sure to check out your state laws!

Turtles are potential carriers of salmonella and smaller turtles are linked with more outbreaks, although fully grown turtles can be carriers too.

Male vs Female Turtles Size

Generally, but not always, male turtles are smaller than female turtles. 

If you are wanting a small pet turtle a male would usually be the better choice.

Pet Turtles That Stay Small

Here are our top picks for turtles that stay small.

1. Diamondback Terrapin

Diamondback Terrapin -  Image courtesy of Ryan Hagerty, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Diamondback Terrapin – Image courtesy of Ryan Hagerty, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
  • Scientific Name: Malaclemys terrapin
  • Male Adult Size: 5 inches
  • Female Adult Size: 7.5 inches
  • Minimum Tank Size: 50 gallons
  • Care Level: Intermediate
  • Lifespan: 30 years

Diamondback terrapins are super cute and come in a variety of colors depending on the subspecies.

They are not the best choice for beginner turtle keepers as they are prone to fungal infections.

They prefer brackish water (slightly salty) and can develop health issues if kept in freshwater tanks, due to the lack of salt. 

In the wild, they are found along the Atlantic coast and Gulf coasts.

A 55 Gallon aquarium would make a great home for a male, or a 75 gallon for a female.

2. Mud Turtle

Mud Turtle
Mud Turtle
  • Scientific Name: Kinosternon
  • Male Adult Size: 4-6 inches
  • Female Adult Size: 4-6 inches
  • Minimum Tank Size: 40 gallons
  • Care Level: Beginner
  • Lifespan: 50 years

One of the best small turtles for beginners is the mud turtle. 

Don’t be put off by their name, they don’t need an enclosure that’s full of mud!

There are 4 species of mud turtle:

  • Common mud turtle
  • Sonoran mud turtle
  • Striped mud turtle
  • Yellow mud turtle

The common and striped mud turtles grow to approx 4-5 inches, while the Sonoran and yellow mud turtles grow up to 6 inches.

Wild Mud turtles are predominantly found in North America, Mexico, and Africa.

40 gallons is the minimum size of tank you’ll need for a mud turtle. 

Mud turtles are not the best swimmers, so make sure you provide some tank decorations like large rocks or driftwood to help them reach the water’s surface.

3. Musk Turtle

Musk Turtle
Musk Turtle
  • Scientific Name: Sternotherus odoratus
  • Male Adult Size: 3-4 inches
  • Female Adult Size: 3-4 inches
  • Minimum Tank Size: 40 gallons
  • Care Level: Beginner
  • Lifespan: 50 years

The musk turtle shares many similarities with the mud turtle, and both of them make a great choice for a first-time turtle owner.

They get their name from the strong musk-like odor they emit if they feel threatened.

There are 4 species of musk turtle:

  • Common musk turtle
  • Flattened musk turtle
  • Loggerhead musk turtle
  • Razorback musk turtle

This dwarf turtle rarely grows over 4 inches, with females being slightly smaller than males. 

The stinkpot common musk turtle is one of the smallest turtles in the world!

Wild Musk turtles are mainly found on the Atlantic coast of North America and southern Canada.

You’ll need a minimum tank size of 40 gallons for a musk turtle.

Like the mud turtle, musk turtles are not the best swimmers, so make sure you provide some tank decorations like large rocks or driftwood, to help them get to the water’s surface.

They have a feisty temperament and don’t like to be handled.

4. Painted Turtle (Male)

Painted Turtle
Painted Turtle
  • Scientific Name: Chrysemys picta
  • Male Adult Size: 3-6 inches
  • Female Adult Size: 4-12 inches
  • Minimum Tank Size: 55 gallons
  • Care Level: Beginner
  • Lifespan: 25-30 years

The painted turtle is a popular choice amongst pet turtle keepers due to its easygoing nature.

There are 4 species of the painted turtle:

  • Western painted turtle
  • Southern painted turtle (smallest painted turtle species)
  • Eastern painted turtle
  • Midland painted turtle

There’s a wide range of sizes between species and genders, so if you want to guarantee you’ll have a small turtle, choose a male as they are considerably smaller than females.

The southern painted turtle is the smallest of the species, with females growing up to 6 inches, and males up to 5 inches.

You’ll need a minimum tank size of 55 gallons for male painted turtles.

5. Reeves Turtle

Reeves Turtle - Also known as the Chinese Pond Turtle
Reeves Turtle – Also known as the Chinese Pond Turtle
  • Scientific Name: Mauremys reevesii
  • Male Adult Size: 4-5 inches
  • Female Adult Size: 6-8 inches
  • Minimum Tank Size: 50 gallons
  • Care Level: Beginner
  • Lifespan: 20 years

Also known as the Chinese pond turtle, the reeves turtle is another popular choice as a pet turtle, especially in their native regions of China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan.

They have a docile nature which is a big part of their appeal to pet turtle owners.

Reeves turtles are known for eating any plants put in with them, so they are not the best choice for a planted turtle tank.

A 55 Gallon aquarium would make a great home for a male, or a 75 gallon for a female.

6. Spotted Turtle

Spotted Turtle
Spotted Turtle
  • Scientific Name: Clemmys guttata
  • Male Adult Size: 3-5 inches
  • Female Adult Size: 3-5 inches
  • Minimum Tank Size: 55 gallons
  • Care Level: Intermediate
  • Lifespan: 50 years

The spotted turtle is very distinct from every other turtle on this list being black and covered in yellow or orange spots. Females tend to have more spots than males.

Not being very good swimmers they need to be kept in a tank only half full of water and provide tank decorations such as driftwood or large rocks to help them get to the water’s surface.

A 55 Gallon tank would make a great home for a spotted turtle.

Spotted turtles are (at the time of posting) on the endangered species list so make sure you check your local laws on owning an endangered species for a pet.

Why Small Turtles Make Good Pets?

There are many benefits to choosing a turtle that stays small as a pet, the main reason is that tank setup costs will be cheaper and they take up less space.

They Need Less Space

A female red-eared slider can grow to around 10-12 inches in length meaning you’ll have to provide her with at least a 100 gallon tank.

On the other hand, a female musk turtle grows to around 4 inches in length so she would only need a 40 gallon tank which takes up far less space and costs less.

Lower Costs

A smaller tank doesn’t need a high-capacity filter or a powerful water heater like a larger tank.

Those smaller appliances cost less to buy and use less power, which is a good thing with the rising energy bills these days!

Smaller turtles also eat less food than larger turtles, saving you even more of your hard-earned bucks.

Easier To Clean

Eating less food means smaller turtles don’t make as much mess as a larger turtle does.

That doesn’t mean you don’t have to clean your turtle tank, it just means there’s a bit less of it to do which gives you more time to spend with family and friends or do a list of chores that your significant other gives you!

Turtle Handling

A smaller turtle is easier to handle than a larger turtle.

I recommend not handling your turtle too much to reduce stress on them, but there may be occasions when you have to handle them such as vet visits.

If they are handled too much and feel threatened they may bite you.

Turtles are also potential carriers of salmonella, so it’s best to keep handling them to a minimum, especially for children.

Turtle Tank Mates

With small or mini turtles, you may be able to keep more than 1 of the same species in the same tank.

As long as they’ve got enough space and adequate water filtration you’ve got a good chance of keeping 2-3 of the same species of turtle together.

If you want to keep fish in with your turtle, the mud turtle or musk turtle are your best choices.

Will Turtles Stay Small In A Small Tank?

No, turtles will keep growing until they reach their natural size unless they are kept in poor conditions and are unwell.

There is a myth that putting a turtle in a small tank will stunt its growth and keep it small, this isn’t true!

You need to find out how large your turtle will grow and get a suitable tank for that size. 

When it comes to choosing the right size tank for a pet turtle, the general rule of thumb is to provide at least 10 gallons per 1 inch of turtle shell carapace length.

6-inch turtle = 60-gallon tank (minimum)

How To Measure A Turtles Carapace Length
How To Measure A Turtles Carapace Length

With that in mind, I’ll now go through some turtles to avoid if you want a turtle that stays small.

Turtles That Don’t Stay Small – Don’t Get Caught Out!

I’ve seen many horror stories online of people being wrongly informed that the following turtles will stay small….yes they might only be small and super cute in the store, but before long you could have a turtle that’s over 12 inches on your hands.

If there is a species of the turtles listed below that falls into the ‘small turtle’ category, I have mentioned which one you need to get, but make sure you buy from a reputable breeder so that you don’t end up with a large species by mistake.

Some of the turtles listed below will need a tank size of over 100 gallons, with excellent filtration when they are fully grown, which can be expensive.

If you are told your turtle will stay small by keeping it in a small tank, that’s a lie…not to mention cruel!

1. Map Turtle

Map Turtle
Map Turtle
  • Scientific Name: Graptemys geographica
  • Male Adult Size: 3-6.5 inches
  • Female Adult Size: 4-12.5 inches
  • Minimum Tank Size: 60 gallons
  • Care Level: Beginner
  • Lifespan: 30+ years

If you’re told “It’s a map turtle, they only stay small” you need to find out exactly what type of map turtle it is before handing over your cash.

There are 14 different species of map turtles! There’s a wide range of sizes between them.

Although some of these turtles do come under the ‘small turtle’ category, it’s a bit of a lottery and you could easily end up with a large turtle on your hands.

  • Alabama Map Turtle
  • Barbour’s Map Turtle
  • Black Knobbed Map Turtle
  • Cagle’s Map Turtle
  • Escambia Map Turtle
  • Mississippi Map Turtle & False Map Turtle (also known as sawback turtle)
  • Northern Map Turtle
  • Ouachita Map Turtle
  • Pascagoula Map Turtle
  • Pearl River Map Turtle
  • Ringed Map Turtle
  • Sabine Map Turtle
  • Texas Map Turtle (smallest map turtle species)
  • Yellow-Blotched Map Turtle

If you’re wanting a small turtle and are set on having a map, the Texas map turtle is the smallest. Males grow 3-4 inches, females 5-8 inches.

You’ll need a 40 gallon tank for a male Texas map, or a minimum of 55 gallons for a female Texas map turtle.

If you end up with a large map turtle by mistake, a stock tank is a much cheaper alternative to a glass tank that offers plenty of space for your turtle.

2. Red Eared Slider

Red Eared Slider
Red Eared Slider
  • Scientific Name: Trachemys scripta elegans
  • Male Adult Size: 8-10 inches
  • Female Adult Size: 10-12 inches
  • Minimum Tank Size: 80 gallons
  • Care Level: Beginner
  • Lifespan: 30 years

Red-eared sliders are one of the most commonly kept pet turtles. 

What starts out being 4 inches and cute quickly becomes a dinner plate-sized beast!

Males can grow up to 10 inches, and females up to 12 inches. 

You’ll need a minimum of an 80-gallon tank for a fully grown RES.

3. Wood Turtle

Wood Turtle
Wood Turtle
  • Scientific Name: Glyptemys insculpta
  • Male Adult Size: 9 inches
  • Female Adult Size: 8 inches
  • Minimum Tank Size: 80 gallons
  • Care Level: Intermediate
  • Lifespan: 50 years +

Native to Canada and the northeastern USA, the wood turtle is another that is (at the time of writing) on the endangered species list.

If you are considering keeping a wood turtle, make sure you’ve checked your local laws on keeping an endangered species as a pet.

You’re going to need a tank of approx 80-100 gallons for a turtle this size.

Closing Thoughts On Pet Turtles That Stay Small…

Now you know the 6 best pet turtles that stay small and hopefully you won’t get caught out and have a 1 foot beast on your hands!

Check out my turtle’s section for in-depth product reviews and tips on keeping your pet turtles happy and healthy.

Should your turtle need to see a vet, you can find your local turtle vet here.