Proper Housing and Care of Pet Box Turtles
A Box Turtle Is a Lifelong Commitment!
Box turtles are protected. When acquiring a box turtle, be sure to go to a responsible breeder who deals only in captive bred turtles. Do not collect wild turtles or buy from those who do. Never buy on an impulse. Think your purchase through. A box turtle can live 125 years! That said, a box turtle makes a lovely, lifelong pet when properly cared for. This information sheet is intended to give you the basics in box turtle care. There are many good books available at the library and at pet stores This sheet will get you started.
Outdoors is the best habitat for your box turtle (unless pesticides are used in or near your yard. If so you must keep it indoors.) A pen built of sturdy wire fencing under a tree is ideal. You should use wire fencing with openings no more that 1" x 2". It doesn't have to be very tall. Two feet high is more than enough. You can use wood or metal stakes to support it. Fasten the fence wire with zip ties to avoid sharp edges. The fence should be sunk at least 3" all the way around, (to prevent escapes) and it helps to brace the fence line inside and out with bricks, rocks or landscape timbers. The floor of the pen should be covered with soft topsoil and leaves at least 3" deep.
The pen MUST be secure. And you must never release your box turtle into the wild or into your (not secured) back yard! If a box turtle is not habituated to its surroundings, it will spend the rest of its life trying to get back to the place where it was born. Unfortunately, its life will most likely be cut short by predators or traffic if this happens. It takes three years for a box turtle to become habituated to its new home. (A box turtle can live to be 125 years old!)
If you are not able to build a pen, a child's wading pool with drainage holes punched or drilled in the bottom and a 3" layer of topsoil and leaves also makes a good outdoor pen. No matter which you choose, it is very important to provide shade all day long. The turtle should be able to sun if it wants to, but it should always be able to get out of the sun into deep shade provided by a bush or tree.
If you must keep your box turtle indoors, it is important to provide adequate space, ventilation, light, and a substrate with good drainage. A 10-gallon aquarium is not enough! A larger aquarium (one that provides 6 to 9 square feet of floor space) is alright; however, I have found that aquariums are difficult to keep clean. The best indoor habitat for a box turtle is the largest semi-transparent plastic tote available. These are inexpensive, sturdy, and easy to find at most stores. If you use the lid, be sure to cut or drill ventilation holes in it to avoid condensation. It is a good idea to have 2 totes on hand so that you can simply transfer the turtle from one to the other at cleaning time. This not absolutely necessary, but it is handy.
Outdoor substrate should be clean topsoil and leaves. In a large-enough pen, you will not need to worry about cleaning. If you have the right number of turtles for the size of your pen, and you don't overfeed, nature will do the cleaning. You will just need to supplement the leaves as they decompose, so that your turtle will always have something to dig and hide in and will be able to hibernate successfully through the winter.
In a wading pool, you will need to clean some and replace both topsoil and leaves as they become soiled. Your turtle will not be able to hibernate in a wading pool because it will not be able to dig down deep enough to keep from freezing. In this case, you will need to bring your pet indoors before the first freeze. Keep it in until all danger of frost has passed.
The BEST indoor substrate I have found is plain rabbit pellets. You can buy a big bag of this very inexpensively at a feed store. It is easy to keep this substrate clean by scooping out soiled areas with a kitty litter scooper and stirring the substrate daily to keep it aired. It should be changed about once a week or more often if soiled. Keep about 2" of pellets over the entire floor of the habitat.
You can use commercial substrates like wood chips or reptile substrate. Follow the package directions. Do not use pine or cedar chips or any other wood chip with a strong, resiny smell. This is very bad for turtle lungs. Also, avoid Bed-a-Beast. Reptiles have been known to eat it and die from bowel impaction.
Proper Lighting and Clean Water Are Essential
Light and Temperature
Contrary to popular belief, box turtles do NOT need to be hot and dry. If your box turtle is outside, the soil in its enclosure should be very slightly moist. Your turtle should always be able to get into deep shade to cool off.
If your box turtle is inside, and your home is a comfortable temperature, (70 - 80 degrees, that is!) your box turtle will be comfortable. If you keep your home colder than that, it is a good idea to give your box turtle a heat rock or a heat lamp to use optionally. The turtle should always be able to get away from the heat if it wants to.
Your box turtle needs sunlight for good energy, a strong shell, and healthy skin and scales. You can provide a UV lamp and/or you can place your turtle's enclosure near a window so that the turtle gets partial sun for 2-6 hours a day. Again, the turtle must be able to choose whether or not to be in the sun. You should never place the habitat in such a way that the whole enclosure is in direct sun. The turtle should always be able to get out of the sun if it needs to.
Your box turtle needs clean water at all times for drinking and soaking. Its water dish should be big enough for the whole turtle to get in and soak comfortably. It should be at least 2" deep. The more turtles you have, the bigger the dish should be. The dish should be heavy so the turtle(s) cannot tip it over. Some good dishes are: glass pie pans, glass or ceramic casserole dishes, clay plant saucers, or dishes specially made for this purpose. If you find that the dish is too slippery, and your turtle has trouble getting out, you can put a flat rock or terra cotta tile on the bottom of the dish to give it some traction.
The water should be changed at least once a day. It is a good idea to keep a jug filled with water and let it sit, open, so that the chemicals in the water evaporate and the water is room temperature when you fill the dish. You can also use dechlorinator for fish water, if you want. Never use water that is too hot or too cold.
Strawberries! A Box Turtle's Favorite Food!
Feeding and Handling Your Box Turtle
Box turtles are omnivores. They eat meat, fruits, and vegetables. You can feed your turtle a commercially prepared turtle food, but it is best not to limit its diet to ANY one food. Feed a variety. Here are some favorites:
- Bait worms (available at any bait store). Check them before you buy them. They should be lively and mold-free. Meal worms, crickets, wax worms (available at pet stores). Strawberries, bananas, peaches, pears, plums, almost any fruit; citrus does not seem to be a favorite.
- Canned fruit is okay, but it should be rinsed if it is packed in syrup.
- Canned dog or cat food, dry dog or cat food soaked in warm water (No more than twice a week.)
- Green, leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, Romaine lettuce, cabbage, chopped very small.
Do Not Feed Iceberg Lettuce
It has no nutrition, but turtles love it. They can become addicted to it, refuse to eat anything else, and starve to death eating it.
Feed a total of a heaping tablespoon or two of foods per turtle daily. One or two earthworms or other live foods count as meat. Amounts really depend on the size and appetite of the turtle. Use your best judgment, and consult books, the internet, your pet store, or me, if you need to.
Be sure to vary the diet. Feed one or two foods one day and one or two different foods the next. By doing this, you will be sure your turtle is getting a range of vitamins and minerals. You can also add a vitamin/mineral supplement (available at pet stores) sprinkled over the food.
Calcium is a very necessary nutrient for turtles. They need it for strong shells and bones. Oyster shell calcium can be bought inexpensively, by the pound, at most feed stores. You can also use grit that is made for caged birds and/or provide a cuttle bone for your turtle to chomp on. These also help keep the turtle's beak pruned. This is important as the turtle cannot eat properly if its beak overgrows. I use the oyster shell calcium. I just sprinkle it around the ground in the enclosures. It can also be put in a dish or sprinkled over the food.
A box turtle needs very little in the way of accessories, but they do appreciate a good hiding place! A broken flower pot makes a good hiding place, or a whole flower pot partially buried in the substrate. A hollow log is good if you have one handy! Use your imagination on this. Just bear in mind that whatever you use, it should be easy to clean, free of sharp edges, and easy for the turtle to crawl under. Do be sure to provide a hiding place. Your turtle will be much happier.
Food dishes are also important. A box turtle food dish should be as flat as possible. If it has any kind of lip at all, the turtle will tip it up when it tries to eat. Terra cotta tiles make good food dishes. They can be bought for a few cents at a home improvement store. Their rough surface helps keep the turtle's beak pruned. Buy two or three so you can just prepare the turtle's food on one and trade it easily with the one in use. This way you will always have a clean food dish available.
Box turtles don't like a lot of handling, but if you are always quiet and gentle around your turtle, it will learn to trust you. Feed at the same time, in the same place in the enclosure every day, and soon you will find your box turtle waiting for you at feeding time. Sometimes they like to take tidbits from your hand or a spoon; however, it is not a good idea to encourage this. Box turtle bites hurt! It is also better for the turtle to eat from its dish, than to become "spoon dependent". This makes feeding easier for you, too.
If you keep your turtle indoors, it will enjoy outings on nice days. Be sure to stay with your turtle, and keep your eye on it every single minute! Turtles are actually quite fast, and they can disappear in a flash! Keep your turtle away from areas where dogs or other animals may have soiled the ground.
As with all reptiles, be sure to wash your hands after you handle your turtle. Wash turtle dishes separately from human dishes. Even healthy turtles can carry germs that people don't want!
Building materials for a pen:
- Fence wire
- Stakes: Wood or metal. Stakes for an electric fence are fine.
- Zip ties.
- 2-3 bags of topsoil. If in doubt, tell the clerk at the garden center how big your pen is and that you want the topsoil to be at least 3" deep. S/he can help you decide how much to buy.
- Plastic wading pool (drill holes in the bottom).
- 2-3 bags of topsoil.
- Large plastic semi-transparent tote (holes drilled in top, if used).
- Rabbit pellets or commercial substrate.
- Kitty litter scoop.
Light, Heat, and Accessories
- Heat rock and/or UV light (optional).
- Food dishes or terra cotta tiles.
- Soaking dish.
Food and Supplements
- A variety of fruits and vegetables.*
- Live and non-live meat sources.
- Oyster shell calcium, grit or cuttlebone.
- Vitamin and mineral supplement.
Note: Baby food is very good for getting box turtles to eat if they lose their appetites. Pungent fruit flavors like banana and peach seem especially favored, but turtles like most fruit and veggie flavors and plain meat flavors. Do not give them baby food (or other food) with grain starches like pasta. Also, don't give them milk products. These are very unnatural foods for turtles.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.