Box Turtles


11401 NE 195th St. Bothell, WA  98011

(425) 486-9000 PHONE  (425) 486-9002 fax


Natural History

American box turtles (Terrapene sp.) have become popular pets because of their congenial attitudes and moderate size. They are characterized by having a domed shell which is hinged at the bottom, allowing the animal to close its shell tightly to escape predators. American Box turtles spend most of their time on dry land, but require access to shallow fresh water; as a result, they are categorized as semi-terrestrial. Commonly kept American box turtles are the Eastern box turtles, three-toed box turtles, and ornate box turtles.


Housing: The size of a box turtle’s cage should be large enough to offer appropriate space needed for daily exercise. Hatchlings can start out in 10- or20-gallon aquariums, while adults will require much larger habitations, 40 gallons or more. Custom enclosures and manufactured “turtle tables” are often better choices than aquariums, as they allow adequate ventilation and provide more floor space than standard glass tanks. Box turtles need access to a large water dish/pool in their enclosure that is easy for them enter and exit, and big enough to allow soaking. They are not great swimmers, so this is more of a wading pool. Appropriate substrates for box turtles range from newspaper, paper towels, reptile carpet, timothy hay, and alfalfa pellets. Naturalistic bedding such as orchid bark, cypress mulch, and peat moss/additive-free top soil mixtures work great, but need to be changed frequently to prevent bacterial build up and fungal growth. Substrates to be avoided include sand, gravel, and wood chips.

Heating: During the daytime, box turtles should have a basking spot of around 90F and an ambient temperature range of 75-80F. At night, the lights should be turned off, and temperatures can safely drop to 70F. Appropriate heating elements are ceramic heat emitters, various heat bulbs (provided that any light-emitting heat bulbs are turned off at night), or under tank heaters attached to thermostats. It is important to purchase a temperature gun, or digital thermometers that possess probes, for accurate temperature readings. Plastic dial thermometers, or any thermometer with a fixed placement, are unreliable, and do not adequately gauge thermal gradients inside entire enclosures.

Lighting: UV lighting is necessary for the health of all turtles, and it comes in two equally necessary forms. UVA rays are radiation waves that are needed to promote natural behaviors and stimulate appetite. UVB rays are the other type of radiation waves, necessary for the metabolism of calcium and bone health. A good way to tell the two UV rays apart is “A for appetite, B for bones.” UVB is only provided in 2 different kinds of lights: florescent lights specifically designed for UVB output in reptiles, and mercury vapor bulbs. Some bulbs sold in pet stores are labeled as being “full spectrum,” and packaging may erroneously lead you to believe that a bulb that produces UVA only is enough for a turtle, but unless the box specifically states that it offers UVB lighting, it will not be what your pet needs. All UVB bulbs will provide UVA, but not all UVA bulbs will provide UVB. 

Florescent bulbs for reptiles come in a few different styles, the most common being the coil variety, and the tubular strip variety. Coil fluorescents have the shortest lifespan of all UVB bulbs, and even though they may continue to produce visible light for years, the UVB they provide will only last about 3-4 months. Strip fluorescents are similar, but can last 4-6 months. Mercury vapor bulbs are among the longest lasting UVB sources on the market (with the potential to produce UVB for up to a year); these bulbs also produce heat. All bulbs should be replaced every 4-6 months, unless their output is being routinely measured with a UVB meter to ensure that they are producing adequate spectrum of lighting.

It is important to allow the turtle to get within 12 inches of any UVB light source you do provide, as the distance of the light can greatly affect the amount of UVB absorbed. Regardless of what artificial light you provide, nothing beats the power of the sun. Supervised outdoor time during warm, summer days will benefit your turtle tremendously.

Humidity: Box turtles do well in 40-50% humidity. Occasional misting of the cage may be necessary. In cages that do not have naturalistic bedding, a “dig box” of additive-free dirt or orchid bark can be offered and used to maintain a higher humidity area. This allows the box turtle to regulate its own requirements by retiring to the box whenever it feels it necessary. The dig box simulates the burrows that box turtles inhabit in the wild. These boxes can be as simple as an appropriately sized Tupperware container that the turtle can crawl into, with enough soil, sphagnum, or peat moss for the turtle to burrow into.

Box turtles are true omnivores, requiring both animal proteins and vegetation in order to survive. Their enthusiasm to devour higher protein foods makes it easy for keepers to feed them too much of it, but an imbalance of protein in the diet can cause abnormally rapid growth, pyramiding shells, and liver or kidney damage. Younger box turtles in the wild eat more insects/animal protein compared to adult box turtles, which eat primarily vegetation.

Juveniles should be fed daily, while adults can be fed on an every other day schedule. Box turtles are naturally attracted to red, orange, and yellow foods, and this trait can be used to encourage them to eat a varied diet by blending food items together.

  • Vegetables: This should make up approximately 40% of the diet. Utilize as wide a variety as possible when making food for your pet. Collard greens, mustard greens, dandelion greens, watercress, broccoli, escarole, Swiss chard, parsley, kale, spinach, romaine, bell peppers, carrots, peas, parsnips, cooked sweet potatoes, and squash are all excellent choices. Avoid pale greens such as iceberg lettuce or celery tops. Hibiscus flowers, rose blossoms, dandelion leaves/flowers, and other non-toxic plant leaves/flowers can also be offered. Always check with a reputable source before feeding any new plants to your tortoise, as many ornamental plants and weeds are toxic.
  • Fruit: This should make up no more than 10% of the diet. Apples, melons, bananas, berries, grapes, plums, peaches, and tomatoes are all acceptable.
  • Animal protein: This should make up no more than 30% of the diet. Mealworms, crickets, roaches, waxworms, bloodworms, earthworms, finely chopped cooked lean beef or beef heart, cooked chicken, and cooked salmon are all acceptable choices. Insects should be “gut-loaded” for at least 24-48 hours prior to feeding to improve their nutritional content (for more information, see our “You Are What You Eat” handout). Vary the items used.
  • Pellets/manufactured foods: This should make up no more than 30% of the diet. Mazuri, Zupreem, and other companies make diets for box turtles. These are not yet considered complete diets, but can help round out the nutrition of your pet. They can be fed either dry or soaked, and can also be blended with fresh foods to encourage your pet to eat them.
  • Calcium: Captive box turtles require additional calcium supplementation. Calcium powder is manufactured by many different brands on the market (Fluker’s, Exo-Terra, Rep-Cal, etc); whatever brand you choose, select a product that does not contain phosphorous or vitamin D3. It should be sprinkled onto the food once daily for turtles less than 1 year old, and 2-3 times weekly for adults.
  • Multivitamin: Vitamins are also important to promote healthy body function. There are many brands that make multivitamins appropriate for reptiles (Herptivite, Reptivite, Vionate, etc). Vitamins (especially fat soluble vitamins such as A and D) are easy to overdose, and too much vitamin supplementation can actually be harmful. As a general rule, a reptile multivitamin supplement should be sprinkled on the food only once every one to two weeks.

You should always wash your hands before and after any kind of physical contact with your turtle. Although most box turtles don’t seem to mind being picked up and handled, in general they should be handled for no more than 15-20 minutes per day. Box turtles rarely bite, but they may scratch you with their claws if they are trying to escape. The hinged portion of the box turtle’s shell can be closed tightly when they are afraid or upset – be careful your fingers do not get trapped!

Common Medical Issues

Vitamin A Deficiency: This deficiency is a common problem in pet turtles, and it is caused by inadequate vitamin intake. The body requires vitamin A to form healthy skin and mucous membranes, and to support normal organ function and immune health. When vitamin A is insufficient in the body, it disrupts the normal function of skin or organs, manifesting itself in symptoms such as swollen eyes, swollen ears, or mouth infection. Turtles experiencing these symptoms should be seen by a reptile veterinarian, and husbandry changes will need to be made.

Beak Abnormalities: Beak problems can be associated with sinusitis or trauma, but it is most often associated with malnutrition. Once beak overgrowth has reached a certain stage, a normal beak surface can never be achieved again, and the turtle will need to undergo beak trims throughout its entire life to manage the issue.

Respiratory Infection: This is a common and deadly illness that affects many captive turtles. It can be contagious to other turtles, and requires medical attention. Improper basking, water quality, or ambient temperatures greatly increases the chances of contracting a respiratory infection, but respiratory problems can also be a symptom of vitamin A deficiency or other underlying issues. Most obvious symptoms of respiratory infection arelisting (swimming unusually), sneezing, coughing, exhibiting nasal or oral discharge, and open mouthed breathing. Should you notice these behaviors in your turtle, a qualified reptile veterinarian should be consulted immediately.

Parasites: Internal parasites in the gastrointestinal tract can be present in any turtle and can exacerbate an already ill animal’s problems. The best way to prevent this from being an issue is to have yearly fecal exams with your veterinarian while maintaining excellent husbandry at home. Turtles can get these parasites from their food, their environment, and from each other. An excess of parasites should treated by a qualified reptile veterinarian to prevent declines in health.

Metabolic Bone Disease: Also known as MBD, this is a term used to describe a number of disorders related to the weakening of bones or impaired system function caused by an imbalance of calcium, phosphorus, or vitamin D3. It is one of the most commonly seen health problems in reptiles, and is often the result of inadequate levels of calcium in the diet, or improper UVB lighting which is essential for calcium absorption. Symptoms of MBD range from the mild (lethargy, lack of appetite) to the severe (soft shell, abnormal shell growth, tremors and twitching of the extremities). Veterinary care is a must for any turtle with suspected MBD.

March 30, 2015

Content of this Care Sheet Courtesy of:

The Center for Bird and Exotic Animal Medicine 

11401 NE 195th St. Bothell, WA  98011

(425) 486-9000 PHONE  (425) 486-9002 fax



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