box turtles box turtle

General Information

Box Turtles are native to most forested areas of the United States. Box Turtles make great pets for beginners. They are very easy-to-maintain, and are fairly inexpensive. Hatchlings are about 1/2 inch in diameter, and adults grow to around 8 inches. Box turtles will live for around 15 years if cared for properly. They are burrowers, and will spend a lot of time under their bedding or inside a burrow if outdoors. Box Turtles will hibernate if outdoors, so it's OK to leave them outside year-round in most areas provided they have eaten enough to last through winter. If indoors, they do not need to hibernate. Please use caution around children - all reptiles can carry bacteria such as salmonella. Use common sense and wash your hands after handling them, and make sure the kids don't put them in their mouths!

It is illegal to sell box turtles under 4 inches in length in the US, and it is illegal to sell them at all in some states. This is quite unfortunate, because they really are fun and entertaining pets that are harmless if handled properly.

Tank Set-Up & Housing

Box Turtle hatchlings can be kept in a minimum of a 10 gallon tank. Once they reach about 2 inches in diameter, they should be moved into a minimum of a 20 gallon long tank. At about 4 inches, they will require a minimum of a 40 gallon breeder tank or a 50 gallon long tank, or they can be kept outside. Box Turtles are land-dwelling turtles, but they do like to swim or soak in water. Place a large but shallow water dish at one end of the tank. 1/2 sized paint roller pans work well because your turtle can climb in and out the shallow end without flipping over, and he will still have a deeper end to swim in. They live in humid areas, and it is crucial that the humidity in their tank is maintained at 50% or greater or they will develop respiratory infections. To do this, a pegboard top should be placed on the tank, or if you are using a screen top, cover about 80% of it with plastic wrap. Place moist peat moss on 1/2 of the tank, and pine or orchid bark on the other 1/2. Mist the peat moss with a spray bottle as needed to maintain moisture. Leave the bark un-misted and place a 1/2 log hiding spot on this end of the tank. The water bowl should be placed on the mossy side of the tank. The heat light (described later) should also be placed on the mossy side. You should be able to see moisture on the sides of the glass. If not, it's too dry.

Note: You don't want the bedding to be soggy - this breeds bacteria and makes for a very unhappy turtle. It should be moist, but no water should seep out when you press on it. Live plants such as pothos or ferns can be placed in the tank, but use caution! Make sure you don't put in any poisonous plants or plastic plants. Your turtle will try to eat them.

I like to add vegetable seeds to the peat moss and let them grow. Carrot seeds and rye grass seeds work well. Your turtle can munch to his heart's content and he won't be killed by non-edible things.

Heating and Lighting

Two types of lighting will need to be turned on for 10-12 hours per day:

An incandescent light bulb should be placed on the top of the tank opposite the side with the hiding spot to provide your turtle with a warm basking spot. Depending on the size of your tank and the temp in the room, anywhere from a 15 watt to a 50 watt bulb can be used. Place a thermometer under the bulb on the ground where your turtle will bask and make sure the temperature reaches 85-90 degrees when the light is on. If not, adjust the wattage of the bulb accordingly. A second thermometer should be placed at the other (cool) end of tank to make sure that side is at least 5-10 degrees cooler than the basking side so you don't cook your new pet! This light should be turned off for the night. However, if your house gets colder than 72 degrees at night, a black or blue light should be used to bring the temperature up to 75-80 degrees so your turtle doesn't try to hibernate.

All day-moving reptiles, including Box Turtles, require a florescent UVA/UVB light. This light replicates the sun's rays which radiate vitamin D3, helping the animal to absorb calcium into their body. The light needs to be placed within 8-12 inches of the turtle's basking spot in order to be effective. The light should be replaced every 6-12 months. This light should be turned off for the night as well.

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I do not recommend using any type of heating pad, hot rock, or anything other than an over-head heat source. Some people have had problems with their turtles burning themselves on these types of heating elements. I am also a firm believer in replicating the natural environment as closely as possible. The heat from the sun comes from above, not from below. However, a flat piece of flagstone or other rock can be placed under the heat light if desired. It will warm in the light and provide a nice spot for your turtle to sprawl out. If your water bowl is placed under the heat light, it will help to keep moisture in the air, and the turtles seem to like basking in the water.

Box Turtle Diet

Box Turtles are omnivores - scavenging on plants, animals, and insects in the wild. The diet should consist mainly of calcium coated earthworms, crickets, superworms, other insects, pinky mice, dark leafy greens such as romaine, collard greens, kale, escarole, and red-leaf lettuce, and fruits & veggies like strawberries and beans. Some turtles will eat tuna, cooked chicken or Gerber 2nd step meat and veggie meals (These are great! The jars contain diced meats and veggies and are very easy to feed).  Iceberg lettuce should NEVER be fed to any reptile.

Rep-Cal also makes Box Turtle Pellets. Pellets should be used along with live and fresh foods, not as a sole source of nutrition. Calcium and multivitamin supplements should be used 2-3 times per week.

Their diet should be a pretty even 50/50 mix between the proteins (meats or insects) and the greens, fruits and veggies. Vitamin deficiencies are fairly common among box turtles (their eyes will become swollen and will often not open). Although this is also a sign of respiratory infection caused by lack of sufficient humidity, a lack of vitamin A in their diet will also cause this. Feed plenty of carrots (high in Vit. A) and make sure you use a multivitamin supplement to prevent this. If your turtle's eyes are already swollen, increase the heat and humidity in the tank and you can try some "Turtle Eye Clear" drops to help clear it up. Start supplementing with vitamins ASAP. If you don't see immediate improvement, see your vet.

General Care and Handling

You should condition your turtle's shell weekly with a shell conditioner available at most pet supply stores. This will keep the shell from getting dry and brittle and will prevent cracks. If you're worried about your turtle biting, hold him near the back of the shell and hold the shell firmly with both hands - their legs are very strong and they can easily push themselves out of your hands with their back claws if you're not prepared.

Always wash your hands after handling any reptile. Never lick your turtle, and don't put it in your mouth!

Estimated Set-Up Costs for a Turtle Hatchling

Tank: $50-$150 (this will need to be upgraded to a larger size after approx 1-2 years)

Lighting: $50-$75

Bedding: $10

Food & Water Bowls: $15

Hiding Logs: $15

Supplements/Shell Conditioner: $10

Turtle: In the Phoenix area, they typically sell for around $20-$40.

Before You Buy

Please consider the size these guys will grow to and make sure you have a plan in place for how you plan to house your turtle when he outgrows an aquarium. With some special housing, a shallow soaking pond and proper fencing in a large dog-free grassy area, they can be kept outdoors in the Phoenix area. Also keep in mind that box turtles have a long life, so make sure you're committed!

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