I have been writing online articles for more than 10 years and enjoy sharing my knowledge of 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 for 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 and 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. Mealworms, 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 cuttlebone 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. They 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 the 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.
© 2015 justmesuzanne
justmesuzanne (author) from Texas on March 24, 2020:
Thanks, Peggy! Yes, there are stories of pet box turtles handed down from one generation to another. :)
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 20, 2020:
I had no idea that box turtles could live that long! It sounds like you would have to make provisions for it in your will so that it gets good care after you die. I will never own one, but this is all useful information to know.
justmesuzanne (author) from Texas on August 02, 2019:
I have never had any problem with the pens that I build.
Big son on July 16, 2019:
This is a good article. The only thing i have found wrong with it is that you should never build you box turtle pin out of wire because they can easily climb fence, so if you do build one out of fence then make sure it has a dome top to it,
Shyron E Shenko from Texas on August 04, 2016:
Suzanne, this is an interesting and amazing hub. I would not begin to raise a box turtle unless it is already 120 years old.
I truly enjoyed reading this.
Blessings and hugs dear friend.
justmesuzanne (author) from Texas on May 19, 2015:
Thanks! I have a yard full of them, and I'm considering moving! I'm not sure what I'll do. :/
FlourishAnyway from USA on May 19, 2015:
125 years? OMG! Anything with a life span that long I know is off my list. This was such an interesting hub, Suzanne. I learned a lot. I will never have one of these as a pet, but I do value them as sweet creatures.
justmesuzanne (author) from Texas on May 18, 2015:
Thank you! Tortoises and box turtles are not the same, but quite a bit of the information can be generalized. Your friend should also get a good manual on tortoise care.
Akriti Mattu from Shimla, India on May 18, 2015:
Hey thanks for writing this hub.My friend just got a tortoise as a pet. Will make her read your informative hub :)
justmesuzanne (author) from Texas on May 15, 2015:
Thank you for your kind comments! This article isn't really even finished yet! I intend to add some photos, videos, products and so on. I just haven't had time. I have quite a bit of content that I need to post, and I just decided to start tossing it out there and then come back to it to finalize it. Glad you like it so far! :D
torrilynn on May 13, 2015:
I like turtles. I think that they are unique and kind of cool. thanks for this informative and useful hub on caring for turtles.
poetryman6969 on May 13, 2015:
Turtles eat worms? I missed the memo. I would have killed them by feeding them only lettuce. There is a belief amongst some that we crave what need but that is clearly not always the case in fact when I see what addiction does I wonder if it is ever the case?
Box turtles happen to be omnivores, so you can feed them a wide range of food. You can also feed them commercially prepared turtle food. However, it is best not to limit them to one specific diet. Feed them a variety of meat, fruits, and vegetables. Some of their favorites include bait worms, mealworms, crickets, and wax worms. Do not forget to check any live foods before buying them. They should be mold-free and lively. Box turtles also like to munch on strawberries, peaches, plums, bananas, plums, and almost any fruit. Avoid feeding citrus fruits.
You can also feed your box turtles green and leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, cabbage, and Romaine lettuce. However, do not feed them iceberg lettuce.
A great thing about box turtles as pets is that they all have a different personality. They also have different tastes in food. Some will love to munch on bananas while others won’t touch it. Others will prefer to live food and refuse anything else. It will be your challenge to make sure your box turtle gets a balanced diet. You can try creative feeding tricks like mixing live worms with chopped vegetables or serve meatballs with healthy blended ingredients.
Calcium is vital for box turtles as they need it for building strong shells and bones. Therefore, you can feed them oyster shell calcium, which is readily available at feed stores and is also quite inexpensive. You can also give them cuttlebones to munch on as they help in keeping the turtle’s beak pruned.
Physical Characteristics of a Box Turtle
- Hinged plastron (bottom shell)
- Dome like carapace (top shell)
- Maximum length of 5-8 inches (13-20cm)
- First central scute set at or above 50*
- Short low to the ground feet
- Tough scaly skin that resembles that of a tortoise
What is a Box Turtle?
Are box turtles actually turtles or are they tortoises? The answer to this question is not easy to answer but, yes and no they are both turtles and tortoises. In the United States, they are referred to as box turtles and in Europe they are called box tortoises. Within scientific classification, these turtles that have been grouped into the generic name box turtle/tortoise are actually Terrapenes and Cuora which fall into the Emydidae and Geoemydidae families respectively (The popular water turtle, the Red Eared Slider falls into the Emydidae family). These families fall into a super family called Testudioniodae which also include Testudinidae, tortoises. All of these then fall into the Testudines or what are called turtles. So to sum it up, sure, box turtles are both but more so turtles. Furthermore, does it really even matter, not really they are some really neat creatures and can make for great pets.
Natural Habitat of Wild Species
Box turtles come from a wide range of habitats all over the world. They habitats are typically located in and around humid wooded areas that have adequate sources of water like, streams, lakes or ponds. In the United States you can spot wild box turtle up and down the East Coast and as far over as the state of Texas. However, their natural habitat is shrinking as a result of encroaching human activities and development. Furthermore, due to the food and pet trade, some of these species of box turtles are becoming rare and have even been placed on the endangered species list. This is especially the case in Eastern Asia where these turtles are hunted and captured to be sold as food, non-traditional medicines or other rituals.
Captive Bred or Captured Pets
For the reasons above, if you come across a turtle or tortoise in the wild, don’t take it home and make it your pet (it’s illegal). Wild box turtles as a whole are not gong to be as healthy as those bred in captivity. When you take a turtle or tortoise out of its natural habitat, you might be taking one that has diseases or parasites. Additionally, you can get salmonella if you handle a wild box turtle. Be respectful of these little creatures enjoy them, photograph them and observe them but don’t take them with you.
If you have just done this and are here to find out what type of box turtle you have, we urge you to take it back to where you found it and if you really want a turtle, acquire one through the proper channels. Look for reputable breeders or pet stores that only sell box turtles that have been bred in captivity. Avoid what can be described as puppy mills for turtles. These are places that house a large amount of animals in cramped and uncomfortable living situations. Finally, if you really want a hard to come by box turtle, your only choice might be to get a captured one just make sure it was captured legally and that the species is not endangered.
Look at animal shelters to find your new pet. Many people find that they can’t care for these turtles or the simply don’t want them anymore and will drop them off in their local shelter.