Basic Care: Box Turtles
Tortoises & Turtles
Box turtles belong to the genus Terrapene. These turtles are personable, hardy, and can live over 50 years. These turtles have a hinged shell, which they use as a defense mechanism to close up tightly when they feel threatened. If you choose to keep a box turtle as a pet, choose captive-bred individuals rather than encouraging continued collection by buying wild caught. Due to habitat destruction and over collection for the pet trade, some box turtle species may be protected in your particular area. Check your local and state laws regarding box turtles to ensure you can keep a particular species in your area.
A healthy box turtle should be active, alert, and responsive. They should also have a good weight to it, roughly about the same weight as an orange of the same size. It's always a good idea to quarantine new box turtles for at least 3 months (90 days) prior to introducing them to other animals. This helps prevent infection and disease spread to your healthy, established box turtles.
Most box turtles need to be about half-grown before it can be sexed while others, such as three-toed box turtles, may be difficult to sex until they are fully grown. Male box turtles usually have longer tails than females. Males may also have a concave plastron and red eyes, depending on the species. Males of some species may have a long hooked toenail on the hind legs to help with gripping the female during mating.
The best place to keep box turtles is outside. An outside enclosure must be secure enough to keep predators out and the box turtle in. Box turtles are excellent diggers and therefore the walls of the enclosure should be buried at least 6 inches below the ground. Box turtles also have incredible climbing skills and a lip should be created over the inside of the enclosure's wall to prevent them from escaping. If you have predators in your area such as raccoons, skunks, or dogs the enclosure should be covered to protect the box turtles. Box turtles are the most active during the warm summer months, especially in the morning and late afternoon. Placing your box turtle in a location that receives morning sunlight will provide your pet with a perfect place to bask. In Arizona it is important to provide deep shade during the hot afternoon hours of the late spring, summer, and early fall.
When box turtles are housed indoors they should be provided a large terrarium. Minimum recommended size would be 3’ long by 2’ wide. Glass aquariums or large storage bins can be used and are easily cleaned.
Provide hiding places for your box turtle and a water dish for them to soak in and drink from.
For outdoor enclosures, edible shrubs and plants placed within the enclosure will not only provide hiding places and shade for your box turtles but will also supply an alternate source of food. Leaf piles and logs will also provide additional hiding places and areas for hunting bugs and other invertebrates. Another essential component to a box turtle enclosure is a water dish. A dish with water deep enough for the box turtle to soak in should be present at all times. It is helpful to install a sprinkler system in one corner of the cage. Run the sprinkler for 15 minutes a day to keep the ground moist and refill the water pan.
Substrate can vary from newspaper, paper towels, vermiculite free potting soil, indoor/outdoor carpeting, or coconut bedding. Humidity within the terrarium can be maintained by daily misting.
Artificial UVB lighting is a must for box turtles housed indoors. A high quality full-spectrum light that provides both UVA and more importantly UVB should obtained. Zoomed Reptisun 5.0 or Powersun are good choices. It is also a good idea to take box turtles that are housed indoors outside whenever possible to get natural sunlight. A light cycle of 12 hours of light a day and 12 hours of darkness is recommended during spring and summer. The light cycle should be decreased to 8 hr light and 16 hr dark in the fall before hibernation. For more information on UVB lighting click here.
Box turtles housed indoors will also need a source of heat. A heat lamp should be placed at one end of the enclosure to create a temperature gradient for the box turtle. The temperature under the heat light should range between 88-95 degrees F. Never use heat rocks for box turtles, these can lead to thermal burns. The ambient temperature in the rest of the box turtle's enclosure can range between 70-75 degrees F. For more information on heating and temperature control for reptiles click here.
Box turtles are omnivores, which means they eat both plants and insects. Animal matter that can be offered to box turtles includes: crickets, snails, slugs, earth worms, meal worms, low fat cat food (such as Purina Kitten Chow), Rep-Cal Box Turtle Diet, or Repto-min. These items should be offered at least twice a week. Vegetables and fruits including, but not limited to dark leafy greens, dandelion greens, apples, strawberries, carrots, and squash should also be offered daily. All food should be dusted with a calcium supplement at least twice a week for adult box turtles. A multivitamin that contains vitamin A (not beta-carotene!) should be dusted onto food twice a week. For more information on supplements click here. Offering a variety of food items helps ensure your box turtles are receiving a balanced diet.
Baby box turtles often will eat earthworms and nothing else until they weigh about 90 gm (3 oz). Earthworms are a very good food but it is important to encourage the baby to try other foods. Offer the same food as you would an adult at least three times a week but you should chop the food into smaller particles. Mixing moving worms into the salad and pellets may encourage box turtles to try the new food. It is very important to provide calcium-supplements with each feeding and a weekly multivitamin supplement to young growing box turtles to prevent soft-shell and vitamin A deficiency.
Box turtles can become addicted to certain foods which are not nutritionally complete. If your box turtle is one of those turtles, you might try this gel food as a way to encourage eating new foods.
1) Use 1 packet of unflavored gelatin (Knox), enough to make 2 cups of gelatin
2) Blend into a fine paste: 1/2 cup of soaked turtle pellets (e.g. Reptomin or Rep-Cal box turtle) and 1/2 cup of its favorite food.
3) Stir in 1/4 cup grated dark leafy greens, shredded orange vegetables, and frozen mixed vegetables.
4) Squeeze out excess water
5) Add 1/2 teaspoon of Zoomed Calcium with D3, and 1/4 teaspoon Zoomed Reptivite.
6) Follow directions on the packet to make the hot gelatin. Add several drops of red dye to the paste so it results in a bright red gelatin. Some turtles prefer orange or yellow colors.
7) Instead of using cold water to thicken the gelatin, stir in the blended paste from Step 5
8) Spread this chunky gelatin paste into a glass pan in a thin layer, cover with a plastic wrap and refrigerate until solid
9) Cut this into thin strips, wrap individually in wax paper, and freeze
10) Thaw as needed for feeding. Roll the strip on <his> favorite foods to encourage eating.
Cleaning and Disinfection:
Keep the box turtle's enclosure clean by spot cleaning daily. Complete substrate changes should be performed every few weeks, if not sooner depending on how quick it becomes dirty. You should change the water in the water dish daily as well, since box turtles often defecate while soaking in their water dishes.
We recommend all healthy adult box turtles be hibernated. Between mid-September and mid-October when the weather begins to cool, box turtles will begin to eat less and be less active. Box turtles will often bury themselves under roots, leaves, or dirt to then reemerge in the Spring. Box turtles can be hibernated within a box in a garage that is kept cold during the winter. Hibernation is usually triggered when temperatures start getting below 65 degrees F, and is usually maintained between 45-50 degrees F. Checking on the box turtles and soaking them in a shallow dish of water every 4 weeks will help them maintain hydration during hibernation.
Juvenile box turtles do not need to be hibernated for their first few years to remain healthy and can be kept indoors during the winter in a terrarium. Only healthy box turtles with adequate body conditions should be allowed to hibernate. Ill turtles or those that are underweight may not survive hibernation. It is recommended that box turtles have yearly pre-hibernation examinations by a veterinarian to ensure they are healthy enough for hibernation. For more information on hibernation, click here.