The name box turtle rises from their unique and often frustrating ability to withdraw their entire bodies within their shells, or “box” themselves in. Their natural range includes eastern, central, southwestern United States and northern Mexico. In the past, many of the turtles sold in pet stores were wild caught, and because of this fact, they have been classified as CITES III-vulnerable. This classification requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to start to monitor the numbers of these turtles that are being exported for the pet industry and food.
Within the United States, certain 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 4 inches (carapace length) due to the health problems associated with small children putting small turtles in their mouths. So the take home message is, that if possible, do not buy box turtles from your local pet store but rather try obtaining one from a breeder, local herpetological society, turtle and tortoise group or, in some places, reptile rescue groups.
In North America there are primarily four species of box turtles:
Basic Turtle Terminology
Box turtle care includes having an enclosure that measures at least 36 inches by 12 inches by 15 inches if built or bought. Thirty-gallon aquarium tanks or larger are adequate as long as husbandry is properly maintained.
Another alternative is concrete mixing containers that are made out of plastic and sold in hardware stores. It is essential that there be a substrate within the shelter for the turtle to dig and burrow, namely potting soil without vermiculite or perlite, peat moss, orchid or fir bark, or alfalfa hay/pellets, or a combination of the above. These substrates should be changed weekly to avoid bacterial contamination and buildup.
Newspaper or brown paper is also acceptable due to ease of cleaning and economy, but a burrowing area still needs to be provided. Artificial turf or Astroturf is another viable option, but it needs to be changed daily with a new piece since it takes 48 hours to completely dry after cleaning. Unacceptable substrates include kitty litter, sand, ground corncobs, walnut shell, wood chips (especially cedar, since it may be toxic), aquarium gravel, or pea gravel – basically anything that may be ingested and cause an gastrointestinal obstruction.
A hiding area should also be provided; this can be as simple as a cardboard box with a doorway cut into it, pieces of hollowed-out wood, or as fancy as rounded cork bark available from reptile dealers.
Heat is an essential component for keeping the turtle happy, healthy and eating. In general, the daytime temperature should range between 85 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit, with a basking area being five degrees warmer. The nighttime temperatures can range between 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
All environmental temperatures should be monitored with the aid of one to two thermometers properly placed in the various zones. Methods of heating the enclosures include heat strips or heating pads under the habitat, subtank heating units, and an overhead incandescent light or spotlight over the basking area or hot zone.
Light cycles should follow the normal photoperiod found in the wild. Therefore, 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.
Full spectrum lighting is also of paramount importance to maintain a healthy box turtle. Natural, unfiltered sunlight is the best but for those who live in areas of infrequent sunlight, an artificial source of ultraviolet light (UV-B) is essential for both behavioral and psychological benefits as well as the activation of vitamin D-3. Vitamin D-3 is needed for the absorption of calcium from the gastrointestinal tract and is vital to sustaining life.
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 6-12 months even though the bulbs are still producing light because the UV-B production diminishes with time, and this phenomenon is not observable with the naked eye.
Since box turtles are semi-aquatic and spend a considerable amount of time wallowing in water, a water “hole” needs to be provided. As a general rule of thumb, the water depth should be no more than 1/4 to 1/3 of their shell height or approximately 5 cm. Their pool area can be in the form of a large pie plate, a buried kitty litter pan, or a ceramic dog bowl with a ramp to facilitate exiting.
The water should be thermostatically controlled with a water heater to keep the temperature in an optimum range. Lastly, a filtration system is ideal since often turtles use the pools as a toilet, and bacterial contamination is harmful to these reptiles. In all instances, the water needs to be changed completely and frequently, and the pan must be cleaned and disinfected with a dilute bleach solution regularly.
The best time to feed your turtle is after he 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 cleaner and less contaminated bacterially.
Young turtles should be fed daily while adult turtles can be fed every other day. It is important to note that when box turtles are young, they are more omnivorous, meaning they will eat almost anything. As they mature they become more herbivorous, meaning they prefer to eat mostly plant material.
Adult turtle diets should be comprised of less than 10 percent protein calories. Although the diet preferences of box turtles lean towards sweet and colorful fruits and vegetables such as carrots, orange squash, green beans, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, cherries, plums, and melons with the rinds, including flowers, it is important for them to eat plenty (i.e. over 60 percent) of dark leafy greens such as collard or mustard greens, parsley, romaine lettuce and carrot tops.
If your turtle picks out the sweets, you will need to finely chop all the produce and mix it together so that when he takes a bite of food, he gets a little of everything. This technique works most of the time, but if your turtle is still insistent on picking out the sweets, many box turtles can be tricked into eating their greens by food processing the greens with a bit of tuna fish or dog food. The strong flavor of the protein overwhelms the flavor of the greens. If you use this technique, it is important to reduce the percent protein over two to three months to 10 percent of the mixture. Long term, high protein diets can damage box turtle kidneys.
A vitamin supplement such as Nekton-rep® or Reptivite® should be sprinkled on the food twice a week to help prevent many of the common deficiencies that occur in captive raised turtles. The calcium supplement should not contain phosphorous or Vitamin D and should be used daily in growing turtles and once or twice a week in adults.
Although high protein diets are a problem, box turtles do require some protein in their diets. Examples of appropriate protein sources are crickets or mealworms, which have been fed on tropical fish flakes/ cricket food and fruit for at least one day; snails and slugs, which have been fed on green leafy vegetables for four days; earthworms, home raised, since bait shops tend to raise worms in unhealthy environments; or whole fish. Some experts recommend finely chopped and cooked chicken, high quality canned dog food, or trout chow as an alternative protein source. It is important to keep the diet balanced with a combination of the above listed items especially when the turtle is young, and to decrease the protein as the turtle matures.
Remember that the concentration of calories is much higher in protein foods than it is in vegetables. Therefore, a little bit will go a long way. One to two teaspoons of protein food daily is adequate for most young turtles, and a tablespoon a few times per week is plenty for adult turtles.
Petals from edible flowers (hibiscus, roses, geraniums, nasturtiums) and edible cactus (Optunia) can be used to add variety to your turtle’s diet. Make sure that all produce and flowers are pesticide free. Edible flowers and Optunia are available in many high end grocery stores.
If you watch your pet closely, and if you do not use pesticides or herbicides in your yard, your box turtle may enjoy taking a stroll and browsing in gardens or on lawns.
In the wild, during the winter months, healthy box turtles will hibernate for 2 to 3 months when the temperatures fall. In captivity, many turtles are not in good enough condition to live through a hibernation period.
Therefore, before winter comes, it is a good idea to visit your exotic animal veterinarian with your turtle and some of his feces to better ascertain the type of winter care that will be best for your turtle.
This visit will ensure that the turtle does not have any pre-existing illnesses. The illnesses in question would be respiratory infections, vitamin A deficiencies, abscesses, shell rot or intestinal parasites. It is also fun to see how much weight your turtle has gained and how much longer and wider he has become since last year’s visit.
If hibernation is an option for your turtle then your present habitat can be altered to fit this lifestyle change. You will need to make the cage rodent proof and add bedding material such as dried leaves. The bedding material needs to be dry and free of pests.
The temperature also needs to be changed to somewhere between 36-50 degrees Fahrenheit. Often, you can move your turtle down to the basement or garage and turn off the heating sources to make this temperature change. Monitor the temperature with a thermometer.
Turtles are likely to suffer frost bite or die if they freeze. Also, if the temperatures are too warm (i.e. high 50s to low 60s), the turtles will be too cool to be active, but warm enough that their metabolism will be too high. The result is that they will burn off their fat stores too quickly and will starve before they wake up from hibernation.
Again, a thermometer is useful in determining the exact temperature. Because it cannot be properly digested at cooler temperatures, food should not be offered during these months, but a water pan should be available at all times. After a couple of months have passed (consult with your reptile veterinarian to determine the appropriate length for your turtle), the turtle should be moved to its normal surroundings, warmed up and offered his favorite food.
A successful hibernation will ensure the longevity and mental well being of your box turtle for years to come.