Many classrooms around the world like to have a classroom pet. For many of the students, this is their first and only experience with caring for a live animal since they don’t have pets at home. That’s why it’s important for teachers and other educators to choose a suitable classroom pet that can teach children how to care for animals while still maintaining the safety and health of the animal and the students.
So, are tortoises and turtles good classroom pets? Tortoises and turtles can make excellent classroom pets for certain kids. They require some specialized preparation, but once they are established in the classroom, they are fun to care for and can provide a wide variety of valuable lessons to children.
Knowing turtles and tortoises make good classroom pets is only the first part of the answer though. There are many things to consider before adding a reptile to your classroom, so be sure to read on. Below, we’ll tell teachers and educators all they need to know on keeping either tortoises or turtles in the classroom and how to help teach children how to respect, care for, and appreciate these special reptiles.
In this article, we’ll talk about tortoises and turtles as a whole, but there will be certain sections that will pertain to each one specifically. Carefully consider each point and decide which type would best fit your classroom, your students, and your available time.
Why do tortoises and turtles make good classroom pets?
It’s important to understand what makes a tortoise or turtle a good classroom pet before you decide to add one to your school. They’re not like hamsters or birds or other warm-blooded pets, so they will require some special care. But along with that special care comes an irreplaceable opportunity to teach children about the huge variety of life on our planet.
Tortoises are docile, sweet-natured, and calm animals. Turtles are also sweet-natured, but can be a little more active. They can both bring a slow and certain serenity to a sometimes-chaotic environment. By explaining to kids that tortoises and turtles can get upset by too many loud noises or too much activity, having a tortoise or turtle in the classroom can help kids stay calmer and more focused. Nobody wants to hurt their little friend, so most older kids will keep things calm and quiet for them.
One great way to do this is to have a “quiet corner” where the turtles or tortoise is located. This is the perfect spot to send kids for quiet reading, listening to soft music, doing art projects, or just spending a quiet moment alone with a really good listener. Yup! Tortoises and turtles will happily sit and listen to kids talk! It’s really quite therapeutic for both the animal and the child.
A Focus for Multiple Subjects
Tortoises and turtles also both add an element of the wild to a classroom. It’s a touch of wildlife in the room and a peek into the world that Mother Nature created. They’re an awesome way to introduce kids to reptiles and their special needs. Exploring what makes reptiles different from mammals is a creative way to discuss biology, environmental issues, geography, and a host of other important subjects, all in one.
We do not recommend turtles or tortoises for young children’s classrooms. However, older kids—middle school and over—can make great caretakers for tortoises and turtles if they are properly trained. Part of learning about caring for pets in general is the huge role responsibility plays. By teaching children how to care for a tortoise or turtle, providing it with food, water, proper lighting and heat, and enrichment, you teach children the importance of responsibility.
It may also help kids learn about schedules, planning, and time management. In some cases, you could even do a study on the cost of caring for a pet using your tortoise or turtle as a real life, tangible example.
We cannot stress this enough, however. The tortoise or turtle is ultimately the responsibility of the teacher or other educators. The kids will be learning at your side; they should never be expected to take on the full responsibility of the animal in question. Why? Because reptiles are delicate creatures that need very specific things to stay happy and healthy. Most kids, even older and more mature ones, simply cannot be left in charge of this.
What reasons are tortoises and turtles not good classroom pets?
We’re not about to tell you that turtles and tortoises are the best classroom pets ever. They have their good points and can be a valuable asset to the right classroom with the right set up. However, tortoises and turtles can also be terrible classroom pets. We’re going to tell you why so you can make an educated decision.
Tortoises and turtles are well-known carriers of salmonella. In fact, all reptiles have a high chance of carrying this potentially deadly disease. The problem with salmonella is that you can’t see it or smell it or detect it with your other senses. It’s a rapidly-spreading bacterium and can cause major gastric upset in children and could even send some people to the hospital.
Salmonella lives on turtle and tortoise shells, on their skin, and even inside their bodies. The salmonella inside is then excreted into the water or the enclosure and spread that way.
An infected tortoise or turtle will continue to spread salmonella on everything he touches, including your students’ hands and clothes. Then, when those kids touch anything else in the classroom, the bacterium is spread farther and farther until you’ve got a widespread infection situation.
Obviously, not having a tortoise or turtle in the classroom would be one way to avoid this. However, teaching children proper sanitation and animal care is another way. Older kids are more likely to follow procedure and not spread salmonella, but younger kids can’t really be trusted to do so.
Both turtles and tortoises require a massive amount of space. If your classroom is very small, even the tiniest tortoise or turtle won’t have enough space to live a healthy and happy life. The poor thing would be miserable and probably die from stress or illness and injury.
Turtles require a lot of water and some dry land. The tanks can be incredibly heavy and the water can create a moist and muggy mess in the air, especially if the school doesn’t have air conditioning.
Tortoises need a lot of room to roam, dig, and hide. They require opaque sides so they don’t get stressed trying to get out of the enclosure. This can become a huge mess and can become difficult to manage over time.
Lighting and Temperature
Lighting and temperature control can be a concern for classroom turtles and tortoises. They require specialized lights to give them the proper vitamin D they need for a healthy body. They both need adequate shade, too, so you can’t just stick them under a window. Both species need a specific temperature, and it should fluctuate between night and day temps to help the reptile regulate their body temperature and encourage a sleep and wake cycle.
Both lighting and temperature can be exceedingly difficult to fine-tune, even in the best conditions. This becomes even more difficult with a room full of kids and in a classroom setting.
When School is Out
One important factor that many educators forget to consider is what happens to the classroom turtle or tortoise when school is out. This can be an issue for extended breaks, such as summer or winter break. But it’s also a big concern for weekends.
While it’s possible to put heaters, lights, and tank pumps on timers, what happens if the power goes out at the school? A tortoise or turtle left in a dark and cold classroom for three days isn’t going to live long.
Is it feasible for the teacher to bring the animal home on weekends? Maybe, but you must keep in mind that tortoises and turtles do not like to be handled or moved around a lot. Even if the tortoise or turtle is the teacher’s personal pet and has grown up being handled by this person, they can still become so stressed out that they die.
Many people are shocked to learn that some species of tortoises hibernate, but not all. Turtles can hibernate, too. Each species has its own needs and requirements for safe and healthy hibernation, so it’s up to you to be sure you understand what those needs are. We really do not recommend hibernating species as classroom pets, however. Not unless you are already an expert at helping your reptiles hibernate. Even then, this can get tricky in a classroom environment.
What does a tortoise or turtle need as a classroom pet?
If you’ve read this far and understand the downsides and cautions of keeping a tortoise or turtle in your classroom and still want to try, it’s time to learn some of the details. We have a lot of great articles on the site that cover the specifics of what tortoises need, so we strongly encourage you to check those out. But here is a quick overview of the bare minimum you’d need to get a tortoise or turtle enclosure started.
Remember that your pet is going to grow and will need lots of enrichment, so don’t stop at this list. This is just to get you started on the right foot.
Tortoises and turtles have large space requirements. If you have been blessed with a spacious classroom, you may have room for a tortoise enclosure or turtle tank. We’ll focus on smaller breeds in this article since it’s not likely that any classrooms can house the big fellas.
At minimum, smaller tortoise breeds need at least an 8ft X 4ft enclosure. Bigger is always better, so add more space if at all possible. A tortoise will quickly get bored in an enclosure this small, but enrichment items and activities can certainly help. The sides should be opaque and at least 12 inches high, though higher is better as some tortoises can climb quite well.
Turtles need plenty of space for swimming. A small, 4 – 6-inch turtle will need a minimum tank of approximately 30 gallons. If you’re looking at a 6 – 8-inch turtle, up that tank to no less than 55 gallons.
Most species of tortoises love to dig. That means you’ll need to provide enough substrate that’s fun to dig in and will go deep enough to satisfy your classroom tortoise. This can be difficult in a schoolroom situation, so be sure you’ve considered this factor before committing.
Drinking water is important for all living things, turtles and tortoises included. Turtles often just drink the water they swim in, but that means you’ll need to keep that tank sparkling clean to avoid any toxic buildups in his body. For tortoises, you’ll need to provide fresh, clean water every day in a shallow dish that they won’t get stuck in.
Turtles have a much higher need for fresh water simply because they are aquatic animals. They drink it, sure, but they also live in it. They need to have a lot of swimming space, so don’t clutter the water with lots of decorations.
On the other end of the spectrum, tortoises will drown if you give them too much water. Please read this again: Tortoises will drown if you give them too much water. Tortoises cannot swim. At best, they can float and flail a little bit, but they are not aquatic animals and should never be left near any water that’s deep enough to drown in.
Basking Spots and UVB Lights
Both turtles and tortoises require a basking spot under a UVB light. Multiple spots are even better so your classroom buddy can choose where to spend time. Tortoises and turtles have different needs for basking locations, but generally speaking, they should be easy to climb onto, flat, and big enough to rest comfortably on. Turtles and tortoises will stretch out their necks and limbs to let as much of the UVB light reach their skin as possible.
Take care not to put the light too low. This could heat up the area too high and hurt your pet.
This is the part that a lot of classrooms skip, and the tortoises and turtles suffer for it. Yes, of course we want to watch classroom pets and interact with them, but they are living creatures with their own wants and needs. Sometimes, turtles and tortoises just want to have some peace and quiet.
Provide several hides, or safe, dark, and quiet hiding spots. They should be located in different parts of the enclosure so your classroom friend can pick where they wish to chill out.
Never remove a turtle or tortoise from its hiding spot. Never force a tortoise or turtle to leave the spot. And, most importantly, never take the hiding spots away. These are integral to the health and happiness of reptiles. Without adequate hiding locations, reptiles become stressed and could die.
All tortoises are turtles, but not all turtles are tortoises. You’ll see us repeat that phrase often on this site because it’s an important distinction. Because they are closely related, turtles and tortoises are often fed the same diets. This is a mistake. These two animals have very distinct feeding habits and nutritional needs.
Most notably, tortoises are almost always 100% vegetarians. They do not typically eat meat, fish, or insects of any kind in the wild and therefore should never be fed these things in captivity. There are some rare instances where tortoises have been seen nibbling on a carcass or eating a slug, but they are exceptions to the rule. It’s best to just feed tortoises a strictly vegetarian diet with proper supplements.
Turtles, on the other hand, can and should eat certain types of meat or fish. In fact, it’s actually really fun to watch turtles chasing feeder fish in their tanks!
But this is just a basic guide. You’ll need to look deeply into the species of your turtle or tortoise to see what their exact feeding needs are. We’ve covered tortoise diet in great detail in this section.
Tortoises and turtles can get bored. A bored animal will try to escape their enclosure and make a break for it. For tortoises and turtles, this can get dangerous and may result in falls and other injuries. To avoid this, make sure to include species-appropriate toys and enrichment objects and activities.
There is a wide variety of things you can do for tortoises and turtles to keep them busy. That said, you’ll need to pay attention to your pet’s personality. Not all torts like rocks to climb on, for example, and not all turtles want things to swim around in their tanks. Try one or two new things at a time to find out what your new friend likes best.
Obviously, the cleaning supplies won’t be items that your turtle or tortoise will use, but they are a necessity for keeping them happy and healthy.
You’ll need a way to keep a turtle’s water clean, so that means water tablets to set the right balance and keep pathogens at bay, plus you’ll need a filter, too. You might even need a heater, but check to be sure you know what temperature your turtle needs.
For tortoises, you’ll need to clean and sometimes replace the substrate to be sure you don’t leave yucky bits too long for bacteria to grow. All rocks, decorations, and enrichment items will need to be sanitized regularly, too.
Any cleaning supplies you use in a tank or enclosure need to be turtle- or tortoise-safe. Be sure to buy these supplies from a pet store, a veterinarian, a reptile breeder, or from a reputable source online. It should specify that it is safe for turtles and torts.
Also be sure to keep a supply of gloves near the enclosure. To help stop the spread of bacteria, such as salmonella, either keep all cleaning and handling responsibilities for yourself or teach older kids how to do it properly with gloves on.
Safe Tortoise and Turtle Handling in the Classroom
It is vital to inform children of how to properly handle tortoises and turtles. In fact, the most important thing to teach them is that most do not like to be handled at all.
While it may seem counterintuitive to keep a pet in the classroom that kids should not be handling, it’s actually a great way to teach kids to respect nature and to learn more about the specific needs of different species.
There will come a time when the turtle or tortoise does need to be handled. For instance, bathing time. Tortoises like to have a good, warm soak. They will need some help getting into the soak dish. You may also wish to have one or two students at a time help you do routine inspections of your tortoise or turtle for any injuries.
In all cases, you may wish to ask students to wear gloves. This is for their protection as well as the protection of your pet. You should also instruct students to wash their hands before and after handling the animal, the enclosure, or any of the items the tortoise or turtle has come in contact with. This is actually a great time to discuss how pathogens and bacteria are passed around and how people get sick.
We believe that tortoises and turtles can be great classroom pets if you understand their needs and can provide everything they require for a happy and healthy life. Space, food, heat, light, enrichment, and some alone time are all requirements. If your classroom situation can accommodate all of this, and if you’re willing and able to take care of the reptile when school is out, turtles and tortoises might be a really cool classroom pet for your school.
Once again, we feel it’s important to note that turtles and tortoises are not good classroom pets for young kids. Older kids can usually follow instructions and have the patience and empathy required for turtle and tortoise care. Even so, don’t assume that all older kids will always follow the rules.
It is ultimately the educator’s responsibility to keep the tortoise or turtle safe, healthy, and happy in the classroom.