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Choosing a Box Turtle

By: PetPlace Staff

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If you're thinking about getting a box turtle, here's what you need to know:

Why They Are Called Box Turtles

The name box turtle was given to these turtles because of their unique ability to withdraw their entire bodies within their shells or "box" themselves in. They range across eastern, central, southwestern United States and northern Mexico. In North America there are primarily four species of box turtles:

  • Eastern box turtle - Terrapene carolina carolina
  • Three-toed box turtle - Terrapene carolina truinguis
  • Gulf Coast box turtle - Terrapene carolina major
  • Ornate box turtle - Terrapene ornate

    Where to Get a Box Turtle

    Box turtles are listed as a vulnerable species and are not often available for pets. If you are interested in having a box turtle as a pet, try obtaining one from a breeder, local herpetological society, turtle and tortoise group or from a reptile rescue group.

    In the past, many of the turtles sold in pet stores were caught in the wild. Because of that, they are becoming endangered. Within the United States, many states have strict regulations regarding the collection and possession of these reptiles.

    It is also important to know that it is illegal for pet stores to sell turtles less than four inches long. That requirement is not so much to protect turtles as it is to prevent them from being swallowed by small children. Yes, it has happened.

    Box Turtle Facts

  • Female turtles are generally smaller than male turtles.
  • Box turtles will typically live between 30 to 40 years but some may live a lot longer.
  • Box turtles can grow to have a shell size between 4.5 and 8 inches depending on species and gender.
  • Box turtles are partially aquatic (water-lovers).

    Box Turtle Lingo

  • Carapace - the upper portion of the bony shell
  • Plastron - the lower portion of the bony shell
  • Scutes - Horny plates that make up the surface of the turtle's shell

    The Equipment You Need

    Box turtles should be kept in an enclosure that measures at least 36 inches by 12 inches by 15 inches. Thirty-gallon aquarium tanks or larger are adequate. An alternative is a concrete mixing container made out of plastic and sold in hardware stores.

    Within the shelter it is essential that there be a substrate for the turtle to dig and burrow, like potting soil (but without vermiculite or perlite), peat moss, orchid or fir bark or alfalfa hay/pellets or a combination of these. These substrates should be changed weekly to avoid bacterial contamination and buildup.

    The shelter floor may also be covered by newspaper, brown paper or artifical turf, but turtles still need an area to burrow. And the flooring materials should be changed and washed daily. If you use artificial turf, you'll need to rotate several pieces because each one takes 48 hours to dry completely after it is washed.

    Avoid kitty litter, sand, ground corncobs, walnut shell, wood chips (especially cedar, since it may be toxic), aquarium gravel or pea gravel.

    Although turtles carry their homes on their backs, they still need a hideaway. It can be as simple as a cardboard box with a doorway cut into it or pieces of hollowed wood, or as fancy as rounded cork bark.

    The Right Temperature

    A hot turtle is a happy turtle. In general, the daytime temperature should range between 85 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit while nighttime temperatures can range between 70 to 75 F. Invest in some good thermometers to ensure that your turtle is toasty.

    A variety of heating options are available including heat strips and pads, subtank heating units and overhead incandescent lights. Also, pick up a spotlight so turtles can bask in 90-degree-plus heat.

    Water Is Crucial

    Every turtle needs a swimming hole to call its own. As a general rule of thumb, the water depth should be no more than one-quarter to one-third of their shell height or approximately five centimeters. A large pie plate will do the trick. The water should be thermostatically controlled with a water heater to keep it warm. Lastly, a filtration system is ideal since turtles often use the pools as a toilet. The water needs to be changed regularly. Also disinfect the pan with a solution of diluted bleach.

    The Right Light

    Natural is best. But if that's not possible, set your lights up so they mimic the natural cycle. In the summer the light should be on for 14 hours with 10 hours of darkness. In the winter, the light should be on for about 10 hours and it should be dark for 14 hours. A timer will help to maintain the proper cycles.

    Ultraviolet light is essential for healthy turtles, providing them with vitamin D-3, which is needed for the absorption of calcium from the gastrointestinal tract.

    Some commercially available fluorescent bulbs, which provide the UV-B spectrum, are Dura-Test's Vita-Lite, Vita-Lite Plus, ZooMed's Iguana light and Active UVHeat. These bulbs should be within 12 inches of the turtle and no glass or Plexiglas should separate them. It is also important to replace the bulbs every six to 12 months even though the bulbs are still producing light.

    Turtle Treats

    The best time to feed your turtle is after it has warmed up a while in the morning. It is better to move the turtle to a different tank for feeding. This is to help keep the primary habitat clean.

    Young turtles should be fed daily while adult turtles can be fed every other day. The youngsters will eat almost anything. As they mature they get more picky and prefer to eat mostly plant material. Adult turtle diets should be comprised of less than 10 percent protein.

    The diet preferences of box turtles include:

  • Vegetables like carrots, orange squash and green beans

  • Fruit like strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, cherries, plums and melons with the rinds included

  • Flowers like hibiscus, rose petals, geraniums, nasturtiums - all pesticide free.

    Examples of appropriate protein sources are:

  • Crickets that have been fed on tropical fish flakes and fruit for at least one day.

  • Snails and slugs that have been fed on green leafy vegetables for 4 days.

  • Mealworms and earthworms, home-raised because bait shops tend to raise worms in unhealthy environments.

  • Fish, and, according to some experts, finely chopped and cooked chicken, high quality canned dog food or trout chow.

    It is important to keep the diet balanced with a combination of the the items above, especially when a turtle is young. Protein can be decreased as the turtle matures. A vitamin supplement such as Reptivite should be sprinkled on the food twice a week to help prevent many of the common deficiencies that occur in captive raised turtles. Any calcium supplement shouldn't contain phosphorous or Vitamin D.

    Turtles Need to Hibernate

    In the wild, during the winter months, healthy box turtles will hibernate for two to three months when the temperatures fall. In captivity, many turtles don't make it through the winter. So before winter comes, it is a good idea to visit your exotic animal veterinarian with your turtle and some of its feces for a checkup. This visit will ensure that the turtle does not have any pre-existing illnesses like respiratory infections, Vitamin A deficiencies, abscesses, shell rot or intestinal parasites.

    To prompt the turtle to hibernate, lower the temperature to somewhere between 36 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Or, you can carry the turtle down to the basement or relocate it to the garage. Again a thermometer is useful in determining the exact temperature. More of the burrowing substrate needs to be added to the habitat.

    Food does not need to be offered during these months but a water pan should be available at all times. After a couple of months, the turtle should be moved to its normal surroundings, warmed up and offered its favorite food.

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