North American box turtles are hardy, long-lived reptiles that thrive in captivity when properly cared for. They often have distinctive personalities and learn to respond to their keepers. It is possible for you and your box turtle to have a long and happy relationship together if you provide a suitable environment and proper care. What follows are very general guidelines. Readers are strongly encouraged to seek more detailed information on the particular type of box turtle they own.
- Box turtles of the genus Terrapene; species commonly seen as pets include:
- Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina)
- Gulf Coast Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina major)
- Three-toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis)
- Western Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata)
- Long lived: 30 to 60 years is typical
- Male box turtles generally have bright red eyes, a slightly concave plastron (lower-shell), sharply-hooked rear toenails, and their vent lies closer to the end of the tail, beyond the caudal margin of the carapace (upper-shell).
- Female box turtles generally have brown eyes, a flat plastron, gently-curved rear toenails, and their vent lies near the base of the tail, within the caudal margin of the carapace.
- Females lay 3-5 eggs, which incubate 70-90 days before hatching.
- Box turtles are omnivores. Diet in the wild includes insects, grubs, worms, snails, slugs, crustaceans, eggs, carrion, mushrooms, flowers, fruit and other plant material.
- Captive box turtles may be fed a diet that is 50% mixed fresh vegetables with some fruit, and 50% low fat protein like canned low-fat dog food. Ideally the protein should be whole live foods like earthworms, mealworms, beetles, grubs, crickets, slugs and snails.
- Are attracted to brightly colored fruits and vegetables: tomato, squash, carrots, red bell peppers, strawberries, cantaloupe.
- Dark, leafy greens such as romaine, kale, collards, dandelion, mustard greens, and broccoli are preferred over iceberg lettuce.
- Variety is the key to a healthy appetite and good health.
- Supplement the diet with a weekly dusting of a phosphorus-free calcium powder such as RepCal or ground cuttlebone.
- To prevent ingestion of cage substrate/bedding, all food should be placed on a plate, flat rock or brick paver.
- Fresh food and water should be provided daily.
- North American box turtles are listed as a threatened species. Only those turtles that have been raised in captivity should be kept as pets.
- Enclosures should mimic the natural environment of your box turtle. Adjust the type of enclosure to best fit the type of box turtle you have.
- The best habitat for box turtles is a large outdoor enclosure, bounded by siding, wood, bricks or cement blocks at least 18 inches high with an over hanging ledge to prevent climbing out. The pen must provide a variety of environments including sunny and shaded areas and places to hide. Turtles regulate their core body temperature by behavior and need to have a choice between sun and shade.
- If an outdoor enclosure cannot be provided, a large indoor enclosure can serve as housing. Box turtles generally do not thrive in a glass tank. Plastic children pools, sandboxes or concrete mixing tubs can make inexpensive habitats. Temperatures should range from 70-90°F (21-32°C) to enable the turtle to regulate its temperature. A 75–100 watt heat lamp or ceramic heat emitter is necessary to provide a basking area that is warmer than the rest of the container. Ideal basking area temperature is 85-90°F (29–32°C).
- Absorbent flooring material such as clean top soil, leaves, moss or cypress mulch should be provided and changed regularly. Substrates that dry out or get powdery should be avoided. Cedar and pine chips are irritating and should not be utilized.
- A shallow water dish large enough for the turtle to soak in is required, as is an area that the turtle can hide in for a sense of security.
- Box turtles require natural, unfiltered sunlight for their health and wellbeing.
- Indoor turtles need at least 5% UVA/UVB lighting. Light bulbs should be changed every 6-9 months, as the UV output will decrease long before the light bulb burns out.
- Box turtles may hibernate in the winter depending on local conditions. Only healthy turtles should be hibernated. Information on this phenomenon should be sought in other literature.
- Supervise any other pets when around your turtle.
- Routine physical examination every 6 to 12 months
- Consult a veterinarian with experience treating exotic pets if you have any questions or concerns about your box turtle’s health.
- Annual fecal examination for parasites
- Blood tests as recommended by your veterinarian
Common Medical Conditions
- Swollen eyes
- Ear abscesses
- Skin problems
- Retained eggs
- Trauma (vehicle, predator)