Box turtles have become popular as pets in recent years as they are very rewarding animals to keep with bags of character.
The needs of box turtles in captivity are difficult to meet if you are not educated on their exact requirements, so it is vital to do your research properly before obtaining one.
Box turtles do not tend to be great pets for young children. This is mainly because they are prone to stress from excessive handling and any kind of rough treatment, and they prefer to live a calm and relaxed life.
Box turtles can bite, but it is not very common. They only do this when they are very stressed or, if you feed them with your hands as some people like to do, they can start to associate your fingers with food and try to bite you. Other than that they are fantastic pets and having box turtles can be a very rewarding experience.
As long as you are the type of person who likes to primarily watch your pets instead of interacting with them regularly and playing with them, owning a box turtle is likely to be ideal for you.
Natural Habitat Of Box Turtles
Box turtles are part of the “Terrapene” genus and are members of the American pond turtle family or “Emydidae”.
They are native to North America and Mexico and can be found in a wide variety of habitats in all of these regions. This means that there is no strict habitat that is ideal for box turtles. It depends on the exact species.
However, the most common habitat for box turtles is a type of mesic woodland environment. This basically means a humid forest environment, rich in humidity. There are a couple of other types of box turtles that live in much drier and more arid areas, such as grasslands and near-desert regions.
There are even some very specific species like Coahuilan that live in a relatively small area of marshland. This means that you will have to find out the type of habitat that best suits the type of box turtle you want to keep, before setting up the enclosure.
Box turtles can fully retract within their shell and hermetically seal the gap between their shell (upper layer) and the plastron (lower body), making them highly armored and prepared to fend off predators.
The lifespan of a box turtle in captivity is generally around 50 years, making it one of the longest-lived pets on the market. This means that you should carefully consider the option of obtaining one, as you will be responsible for these animals for a long time if they reach this age.
Some box turtles can even live up to 100 years if properly maintained and cared for throughout their lives. So a box turtle could well be a lifetime commitment.
In addition to their ability to completely enclose themselves within their shell, box turtles have two other ways to defend themselves against predators.
The most obvious way is to just hide. Box turtles like to be able to hide if they feel stressed or threatened, so this is something that should always be an option for them within their enclosure. The other main form of self-defense is biting.
In the wild, the main predators of box turtles are animals such as raccoons, dogs, skunks, and rodents. They are also prey for some birds and even snakes.
What Do They Eat
Box turtles and omnivores are not too picky about what they actually eat. their natural diet would include slugs, snails, insects, berries, fungi, worms, roots, flowers, fish, frogs, eggs, and more.
When they are young (under 6 years old) they will tend to eat insects, since they are rich in protein and therefore provide them with the nutrients they need to grow and develop.
The types of insects that eat in the wild will vary greatly depending on what they find, it could be from a worm one day to a millipede the next day.
As box turtles reach adulthood, they will begin to eat more vegetables and fruits as the need for protein for growth decreases. As adults, box turtles can consume an almost completely vegetarian diet and be perfectly healthy.
Keeping Box Turtle As Pet
Some box turtles are very stressed out of their homes and moved to a new area. Three-toed box turtles don’t seem to care so much about this movement and relocation, so we highly recommend taking a look at them when deciding which strain to keep as a pet, especially for beginners.
Always check where the turtles you are buying come from. We only recommend buying captive-bred box turtles.
This is not only much more humane, as taking a wild turtle out of your home and putting it in a cage is not really very ethical, but it will also help prevent wild populations from declining. This is a real problem.
It is estimated that the numbers of the hundreds of thousands of wild turtles are taken from the wild each year and sold in the pet trade. Many are kept in dire condition until they are resold, and up to half die before reaching stores.
Even then, these wild-caught turtles you are buying are likely to be suffering from malnutrition and high levels of stress. Really do your research on the person or store you are buying from before making your purchase to ensure you get a healthy turtle and help eradicate this cruel trade.
Many pet stores will almost exclusively purchase wild-caught box turtles, so we suggest that you stay away from them entirely. Instead, check with your local turtle rescue group or reptile society, as they will generally have plenty of animals that need a good home.
If this option is not available to you, you can always search online for a reputable breeder who is selling their own turtle hatchlings.
How Many Should You Keep?
Box turtles are undoubtedly an animal that enjoys the company.
In our experience, they are much happier and more likely to succeed when kept in a small group. Overpopulation and overcrowding, as with all animals in captivity, will always be a problem, but if you keep your turtles in an outdoor enclosure as we recommend, you should have plenty of space to keep a good number of turtles together.
To give you a rough guideline, a 6ft x 6ft outdoor enclosure can comfortably accommodate around 4 adult box turtles.
Housing For Your Box Turtle
In this section, we will discuss indoor and outdoor box turtle maintenance and the importance of this. We will also discuss the vivarium, or enclosure, that you will use to keep your turtles.
If you haven’t heard of a vivarium before, it’s just a word used to describe a closed area that’s used to simulate a natural habitat.
Even an aquarium could be described as a vivarium, for example, but of course, in this case, we will try to simulate the habitat of the box turtle.
Indoor Or Outdoor?
Box turtles need an outdoor enclosure to be as healthy as possible, we would say this is a must. They can be kept indoors at night and run outdoors every day, but this is not ideal as it will cause unnecessary stress. Box turtles like to live in one place and not move.
They also need to be exposed to the sun every day. Therefore, it is very important that they are allowed to be outdoors. If you have no other option and you have to keep your box turtles inside
Then you can still do it, although we don’t recommend it. The best option is a permanent outdoor space with plenty of room for turtles to explore and roam.
Choosing the size of your enclosure is very important. Many people will start small and choose to upgrade at a later date.
In our opinion, it should start with an enclosure large enough to hold the box turtle with enough space to explore throughout its life.
Choosing an enclosure large enough to start with minimizes stress and makes your turtle feel uprooted from your home when you decide to move to a new enclosure.
So get it right the first time and don’t be tempted to rush in and get the easiest or cheapest option available.
After all, setting up the compound and getting everything ready is one of the most fun parts of getting a new pet. So take your time, have everything perfect and ready for your turtle to settle and enjoy immediately. So to get started, you’ll need to select your vivarium design and size.
One of the best things about outdoor enclosures is that they are much easier to install and maintain than indoor vivarium. You don’t need artificial lighting or heating, and your turtles will be much happier and healthier in a more natural, outdoor setting.
Your turtles will also be able to hunt insects that will inevitably venture inside, which they do with great enthusiasm! First, you must choose your location.
A shady spot is ideal as you don’t want your turtles to be overexposed to excessive heat at any time as this can lead to health issues. That said, turtles like to bask in the sun and need sunlight to maintain optimal health.
They also need sunlight, especially on cold days, to raise their body temperatures. So if you can find an area that gets a couple of hours of direct sunlight in the morning this would be a perfect place to set up your outdoor enclosure.
As for size, we recommend a 6 foot run as a great size for box turtles. You could go a little bit smaller if you house only a couple of turtles and of course if you want to grow bigger this will only give your turtles even more room to roam and explore what will add to their quality of life and make them even happier.
The bigger the better actually.
Obviously, if you are planning to own or breed enough turtles then it is a good idea to have a very large enclosure.
The main concern for anyone who has turtles in an outdoor enclosure should be safety. This is because you obviously don’t want your precious turtles to escape, but more importantly, you don’t want predators to come in and try to kill them.
This may surprise some of you, but box turtles are fantastic diggers, which makes them good enough to escape the confines of your enclosure. Even if they weren’t, you don’t want any animals to get inside.
The easiest way to help prevent this from happening is to dig a ditch where the edges of the enclosure will be and insert a layer of wire mesh underground.
Then when you put the enclosure on top you can fix the underground cable to the frame and refill the trench. This mesh should be at least 12 inches deep underground for things to be reasonably safe, though the deeper the better.
The last thing to consider is to have an area to keep them warm in the colder months. We recommend covering the cabinet primarily with mesh, but also having some type of internal enclosed area or having one end of the cabinet lined with wood or plastic to prevent wind and help retain heat.
There may be circumstances when you need to keep your box turtle indoors. For example, if you have a weak, underweight, or sick turtle, you should bring it inside in the cooler months, as it may not survive hibernation. Or maybe you live in a region where the weather is simply not adequate to keep turtles out.
So even if you intend to keep your box turtles out, for the most part, it’s a good idea to have an indoor terrarium set up and ready to go if the need arises.
For a single box turtle, you must target a minimum 30-gallon tank.
It is important to have a good level of humidity in the vivarium or in the enclosure when keeping box turtles.
A general humidity level of approximately 80% on the substrate surface is recommended. To maintain the humidity levels of an indoor vivarium, you will need a spray bottle.
We strongly recommend obtaining a new, unused spray bottle rather than washing one and reusing it. This is because, while it may look clean and have been completely washed, it may still contain traces of chemicals that you do not want to come into contact with your turtles.
For outdoor enclosures, rain and dew should do a good job of maintaining humidity. However, if it is very hot where it is, or if the rain is not as strong as usual, you can simply water the soil in the enclosure along with the rest of your garden.
For outdoor enclosures, this is fairly easy. Only the soil, grass, weeds and leaf litter are absolutely fine and will simulate a natural habitat very well.
For Indoor vivarium, you may have some commercial opt that makes a great choice.
You will need to have two hides in your enclosure. This will give them a place to hide, sleep, stay away from the heat, and relax. Furless, their turtles can feel very exposed and stressed making them extremely unhappy pets. It is important to consider how large box turtles will grow when choosing a hide.
It is a great idea to have some real, natural plants in your vivarium to provide that natural habitat for your turtles. Nothing is better than the real thing and your turtles will love the authentic smells and rustle of the leaves as they move around in them.
The plants will also provide additional coverage and some interesting places to explore, making them a very welcome addition to the vivarium and increasing the overall happiness of the turtles.
Turtles really like to have a good bath. They are turtles after all! Therefore, it is very important to have a large bowl of water that is at least an inch deep so that you can submerge at least half if you wish.
This is a minimum and we recommend a sloping bathing area if possible with enough water to fully submerge if you wish.
If you are raising your box turtles or if you are buying a small one, you should be very careful with its water level. Turtles can drown if they become trapped in the bowl and the water level is too deep.
So if this is the case, you may want to start with something shallow and easy to remove for little ones.
You can really use any type of shallow bowl for this task. Most specialized reptile bowls are not large enough for turtles to really have a good soak, as they are primarily intended for drinking.
Just try to find one with edges that facilitate the entry and exit of your turtles, as they are not the most agile, to say the least.
The other option is to use something with vertical sides or something that is deeper and harder to pull out but to counter this, add some rocks or wood to the sides so they can easily get in and out.
This is a great way to get the water deep enough that they can swim well, but also make sure they can safely return to the mainland anytime they want.
The other option, if you keep your turtles outside as we recommend, is to dig them in a mini turtle pond. All you need is a small section of pond liner and some sand. Simply dig a hole that is the correct size, shape, and depth, then cover it with sand, lay the pond liner over the top, and fill it with water.
You can tidy up the edges with some rocks and add a log or connected section of sticks to make getting out of the water as easy as possible.
Lighting And Heating
If you keep your turtles outdoors, then the sun should do all the lighting for you, making your life that much easier. This is the ideal option and what we would definitely recommend.
In some colder regions and in the colder months, it is a good idea to offer your turtles some form of artificial heating outside.
A heat lamp in the windproof area that we discussed above would be ideal for use in colder climates. If you have to keep your turtles indoors for some reason, then you don’t want to overdo it in the heat. Here is a temperature guide for an indoor vivarium:
- Daytime temperature: 72F
- Basking point – 85F
- Night temperature: 65F
A vivarium temperature of around 72F (22C) is ideal. You should also provide a rest area with a low-intensity heat source if you want to get a little warm.
If you keep your box turtles indoors, you’ll need to provide some sort of artificial sunlight, as they won’t get much, if any. Without sunlight, your turtles will not be able to process calcium. Calcium deficiency is a big problem in captive box turtles, so this really needs to be addressed.
If they cannot process calcium properly, they will be highly susceptible to Metabolic Bone Disease, abnormal shell growth, and deformities.
UVB lighting is the best way to provide artificial sunlight for your box turtles. This lighting should be available for at least 10 hours a day and turned off every night. To automate this, you can simply get a timer switch and set the on and off times.
UVB lamps like the PowerSun are great because they offer UVB lighting and a heat source for your resting place in a convenient package.
Combine with the reptile lamp holder and deep dome lamp fixture and you get a fantastic source of heat and light.
Let your turtles have access to the natural sun whenever possible, and always remember to provide a shady area where they can retreat from the heat if needed.
Feeding Your Box Turtle
If you have a young box turtle, or if you are raising box turtles, you will definitely want to try them with an available supply of bugs to eat.
As I mentioned earlier in this article, young box turtles will mainly eat insects when they are growing due to the protein needed to develop.
However, unlike many other reptiles that should eat a primarily herbivorous diet, box turtles can eat insects throughout their lives without any real problems arising.
The best and easiest insects to feed your box turtle are snails, slugs, grasshoppers, earthworms, crickets, wax worms, cicadas, sowbugs, and mealworms. Box turtles love mealworms, so you should have no problem getting them to start feeding on mealworms right away.
Sometimes box turtles take a while to settle into their new environment and feel comfortable, so sometimes they don’t eat right away. If this happens, just give it a little time and keep trying every day and in a week you should have some success.
Vegetable And Fruits
As with most reptiles, you can feed box turtles with a wide variety of greens and vegetables. However, you should definitely avoid feeding them with broccoli and spinach, as both foods will block calcium absorption.
We recommend feeding on strawberries, apples, bananas, mushrooms, peas and green leafy vegetables.
Most box turtles will eat the salad and vegetables voluntarily, however, some are slightly more demanding. They may not be willing to break their early eating habits and will just want to eat insects.
A good tip for your box turtles to eat vegetables is to trick them into thinking they are eating a mealworm.
Turtles are not the brightest animals in the world, so it is actually quite easy to do this. All you need to do is cut some vegetables into mealworm-sized strips (this works particularly well with the apple).
Then, hold a mealworm in your hand and show it to your turtle. When the mealworm begins to wriggle in front of it, the turtle should open its mouth ready to eat, at this point, simply hold the mealworm-shaped apple strip in the other hand and bring it to the mouth.
They will bite without thinking twice, and they will usually eat the entire strip right away. Sometimes, when the turtle realizes that it is not moving, it stops eating.
This is when you need to re-engage sneaky tactics and move them around with your fingers. As soon as they see it moving, they should have another bite.
Try changing things and using different vegetables. If you keep doing this, in a short time your turtle will be used to eating vegetables and will eat them voluntarily without having to go through the trickery process each time.
How Much Should You Feed?
A quick and easy rule to know how much to feed your turtle is that you should feed the same amount of food as the size of its head.
So try to imagine how much food would fit in their head if it were hollow! That is approximately what they should eat each day. This is due to fairly simple logic.
A turtle head is about the same size as its stomach, so there you have it!