According to a Hindu myth, the Earth is not a round ball that orbits the sun -- it's a flat plate that rests on the back of a giant tortoise. While the weight of the world might not rest on your pet turtle, the pressure of caring for your chelonian does fall squarely on you. Turtles demand special care. An adorable little reptile that fits in the palm of your hand at the pet store could -- depending on the species -- grow to be 18 inches long and 100 pounds. And unlike many pets, a turtle can live anywhere from 20 to 30 years, with some of them surviving for twice as long. "Turtles are a major commitment," says Sandy Barnett, a senior herpetologist at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. "They can be more work than a dog or a cat." But they also can make great companions, if you know how to handle one.
1 Study up. There are close to 300 species, and each has different care and feeding requirements. Tortoises, for example, spend most of their time on land and have legs like an elephant's, while aquatic turtles live in water and have webbed feet. To learn more about the different breeds -- including what they eat and any possible legal issues -- check out www.tortoisetrust.com, www.chelonia.org, or www.anapsid.org. And keep in mind that it's illegal to purchase a turtle less than four inches in length.
2 Shop around. While it may be tempting to make that turtle in your yard a pet, you should never adopt one out of the wild because it could be endangered, says Meredith Davis, a veterinarian at Eastern Exotic Veterinary Center in Fairfax. Your best option is to find a turtle breeder. Turtle Forum (www.turtleforum.com) has classifieds as well as message boards filled with advice from chelonian keepers. And plenty of turtles need to be adopted. Check out the Mid-Atlantic Turtle and Tortoise Society Web site (www.matts-turtles.org) for details. If you decide to buy from a store, make sure your new pet comes with a warranty, says Davis. That way you can return your turtle if you take it to the vet and it has health problems.
3 Find a good vet. Turtles need to see "herp" vets, doctors who have additional training in reptiles. To find one near you, try the Association of Amphibian and Reptile Veterinarians (www.arav.org). Taking your turtle to the vet every 4 to 6 months during its first year is critical, says veterinarian Scott Stahl of Stahl Exotic Animal Veterinary Services in Vienna. "Their carapace [top shell] and plastron [bottom shell] are made of bone, and if they're not getting enough calcium and ultraviolet light or sunlight, they can develop permanent deformities," he says.
4 Give 'em space. Turtles and tortoises need a good amount of room to move around. Stahl recommends an enclosure that's at least three times the width and five times the length of the animal. (So you might need to upgrade your own habitat first.) Since the local climate makes it hard to keep turtles outside, turtles and tortoises require a UVB lamp, which helps them absorb calcium, and a heat lamp, which helps regulate body temperature. Also, don't put more than one mature turtle or tortoise in a cage. "When they're young, it can be hard to tell their sex. And if you get two males, they'll fight," Stahl says. "A male and a female, and the male is constantly trying to breed."
5 Keep it clean. To help keep your turtle or tortoise healthy, soak it in shallow warm water for 15-20 minutes at least once a week (or, Stahl says, daily for the first three months of a turtle's life). Turtles can harbor bacteria, including salmonella, so don't wet them down in your bathtub. Buy a small tub or basin instead, and remember to thoroughly wash your hands after handling them, says Liz Palika, author of "Turtles & Tortoises for Dummies." The need to keep clean might make you think twice about getting a turtle if you have small children. And remember that reptiles aren't cuddly like dogs and cats; they don't like to be constantly touched or held. But, "they have great personalities," says Stahl. "They'll look at you and make eye contact. They really like people."