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SIOUX CITY | Even though they look quite similar, turtles and tortoises have very different requirements when it comes to keeping them as pets.

Regardless if one is better than the other, one thing is for certain: any reptiles, shelled or otherwise, found in the wild should stay there, according to Randy Sather, animal care expert at Petco in Sioux City.

“Those painted turtles people find, they need to hibernate in the winter,” he said. “They might say they’ve had one a long time, but it’s probably not healthy or happy.”

There have been some safety issues for humans over the years, too. About 40 years ago, it was made illegal to sell small turtles due to a salmonella risk.

“Little kids were putting them in their mouths,” Sather said.

Ever since, turtles must be at least 4 inches across the shell before they can be sold in stores.

The biggest difference between tortoises and turtles is that tortoises are land animals while turtles spend a large amount of their time in the water.

“Your biggest investment in a turtle is the filtration,” Sather said.

This is because turtles require water at least as deep as their shell is wide so they can turn over in the water. Much like a fish tank, a strong filter is required to circulate the water to keep it clean and healthy for the turtle.

Tortoises live in a dry environment so no kind of filtration is needed.

Both turtles and tortoises require special lighting to keep their shells healthy and to aid in digestion. A platform above the water under a heat light that will reach 90 degrees is required for the turtle.

Sather recommends tortoises over turtles as they're easier to care for and have a milder temperament.

“Turtles tend to bite,” he said. “They are carnivores and they eat meat. Tortoises eat vegetables and don’t look at your finger as food so they don’t bite. So, if it’s something they want to hold, go with a tortoise. They are so much easier to take care of.”

Either way, reptiles are best left to the older kids and adults, Sather added.

“For kids that put their fingers in their mouth, that age group, I wouldn’t recommend a turtle or a tortoise because of salmonella,” he said.

Most pet supply stores carry turtle or tortoise starter kits complete with everything needed to get a proper tank started.

“They both need about a 40-gallon tank,” Sather said. “Turtles I would probably house alone -- the males might fight over food -- but tortoises can go in pairs. They aren’t going to fight over a piece of lettuce.”

Turtles and tortoises are both a long-term commitment, with turtles reaching 25 years old and tortoises reaching 50 to 75 years old.

“I tell people whose little boy wants a tortoise, his grandchildren will play with it someday because they live so long,” Sather said.

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