Box Turtle Buying Guide: Everything You’ll Need

Did you spot some common box turtles at the pet store and consider bringing it home as a pet? 

Are you wondering what you’ll need to care for this pet?

Box turtles can make excellent pets if you are informed on how to care for one properly. 

As any good owner should, it’s time to research what they need for a healthy home. 

box turtle buying guide

Box Turtle Buying Guide

Taking care of pet box turtles is more than just putting them in a tank. A box turtle requires a complicated setup and a specific diet to ensure they remain healthy.

Before you decide to purchase a box turtle as a pet, it’s essential to review the guidelines for caring for one.

A box turtle can live for several decades, so you need to be ready for the responsibility of this long-term commitment.

Let’s dive deep into what goes into being a box turtle owner. 

Important Information Before You Buy Your Box Turtle

Pet stores or a reputable breeder are your best choices for purchasing a pet turtle. 

You should never get a turtle from the wild to keep as a pet. 

Wild turtles are more likely to carry parasites and other bacterial infections. 

It’s also not good pet etiquette to take a turtle out of the wild and put them in captivity. 

Also, since wild turtles are meant for captivity, they are more likely to die from stress if brought home as a pet. 

Avoid ordering a hatchling online. 

Without seeing the turtle in person, you won’t know if you are getting a healthy turtle or not. 

Turtles do not make the best pets for children. 

The risk of disease is too high to keep turtles around children. 

Since children may not wash their hands after handling a turtle, they are more susceptible to contracting salmonella.

You must be willing to make a considerable time commitment to preparing and caring for your turtle.

A turtle in captivity needs a lot of attention.

Proper Handling Of Box Turtles

Every turtle has the capability of carrying salmonella and can transfer the disease to humans. 

It’s essential to handle your turtle at all times properly.

Any time you clean their tank or hold the turtle, be sure to wash your hands afterward properly. 

Be sure to clean any surface thoroughly the turtle has touched. 

If you do not properly clean your hands after touching your turtle, you risk contracting salmonella. 

Salmonella can cause salmonellosis.

It is spread by coming into contact with feces infected with the bacteria. 

Unfortunately, your turtle will often show no signs of having salmonella, making you more likely to contract the illness. 

How Big Will Your Box Turtle Get?

Unlike tortoises, box turtles remain fairly small. 

An adult size turtle is usually about 5-7″ inches (17.8 cm) in diameter. 

A typical captive turtle will live about two decades, but a healthy box turtle can even live an extra decade or two if taken care of properly. 

Keep their longevity in mind when you go to purchase a turtle. 

Types Of Box Turtles

As you search for the perfect turtle for you, you likely will come across a variety of species. 

Eastern box turtles, a subspecies of the common box turtle, are the most popular type of pet turtle.

Eastern box turtles are distinguishable by their vibrant yellow and orange markings. 

Eastern box turtles are found in woodlands, swamps, and grasslands. 

All subspecies of box turtles are found along the Gulf Coast of Mexico, North America, and the Yucatan Peninsula. 

Here’s a look at some other popular species of turtles.

Three-Toed Box Turtle

Just like the name says, this species of turtle has three toes on each hindfoot. 

Another subspecies of the common box turtle, the three-toed box turtle, has an olive shell and yellow and orange spots on its head. 

Three-toed box turtles prefer not to be handled and can even begin to get stressed out if they are touched too much. 

Ideally, you should not own the turtle species if it’s your first pet turtle or if you have young children. 

The level of care with the species is more than other turtles, so it’s best not to have one unless you have experience with turtles. 

Not being prepared can cause your turtle to go into major distress. 

Ornate Box Turtle

A common species to keep as a pet is the ornate box turtle

As with all turtles, it’s important to provide them with appropriate housing and a healthy diet. 

While shy, the turtles can develop personalities more so than other turtles. 

If you live in a cold climate and plan on housing your turtle outdoors, be prepared for them to hibernate in the winter. 

They likely will begin burrowing to get ready for hibernation. 

Setting Up The Proper Box Turtle Habitat

Don’t merely buy a tank and put your turtle in it. 

There is a long list of supplies you will need to create your turtle’s right environment properly. 

You must first decide whether you plan on having an indoor enclosure or an outdoor enclosure. 

A turtle does best when they live outside, but they can do just fine inside with the proper setup. 

Before you bring your turtle home, make sure you have all the requirements to ensure you are properly set up. 

Be prepared to spend several hundreds of dollars just preparing to bring your turtle home. 

After this, consider the costs of food and maintaining their habitat. 

Whether they are kept inside or outside, they have several requirements to ensure their living environment is habitable. 

Picking the Right Enclosure for your Box Turtle

If you decide to house your turtle inside, use a large aquarium, preferably over 50 gallons in tank size. 

A kiddie pool or sandbox also makes a great home, pending you have space inside for it. 

The kiddie pool or sandbox will work quite well outside. 

There are outdoor enclosures available for purchase, or if you are creative, design and build your own! 

The walls of your outdoor cage must be high enough to ensure it is escape-proof. 

Water Bowl

Your pet turtle will need access to a body of water and clean water in their tanks. 

There are specific shallow water dishes for pet turtles, or use the saucer from a terra cotta planter. 

You want to be sure the dish is large enough to fit in since they also use it for bathing.  

Ensure you use a shallow dish to prevent the possibility of your pet turtle from drowning. 

A proper water level will reach about their chin. 

Freshwater should be given daily, especially since your turtle will also use its water supply to go to the bathroom. 

Misting your turtle with a spray bottle is another way to keep them hydrated. 

A dehydrated turtle may have flaky skin, sunken eyes, or loss of elasticity in their skin. 

Soaking your turtle for several hours will help with dehydration. 

Food Dish

Providing a simple food dish or a flat rock will suffice when it comes to feeding your turtle. 

A flat rock is beneficial in keeping its beak down. 

Turtles tend to be messy creatures, so be prepared to clean up after they are done eating. 

Logs and Rocks

Whether you house your turtle inside or out, you should be sure to purchase logs and rocks for them to climb on. 

When your turtle is in a tank inside, they need logs to climb to bask in the heat. 

While turtles need sun, they also require some shade for when the temperatures get too high outside. 

Position a climbing rock or half log to ensure your turtle can take a break from the heat. 

If your turtle is kept in the backyard, you need to keep them safe from predators. Providing them with half logs gives them a secure hiding spot. 

Heat Lamp

A heating lamp will help regulate your turtle’s body temperature since they cannot do it on their own. 

While not necessary in an outdoor cage, indoor tanks require one. 

Their heat lamp should be on for about 10-14 hours a day. 

When it’s warmer in the summer, 10 hours will suffice. 

If your turtle is sick or if you have a hatchling, keep the lamp on for 14 hours a day. 

Ceramic heat emitters are popular choices because they’re energy-efficient and easy to use. 

As you get to know your pet turtle better, you likely will figure out the best amount of heat for them. 

Temperatures in your pet turtle’s tank will vary from 70-90° degrees Fahrenheit (32° C), depending on the time of day.

It is okay to let the temperatures drop some at night, but don’t let it get lower than 60° degrees Fahrenheit (15° C). 

Turtles tend to prepare for hibernation once temperatures hit 50° degrees Fahrenheit (10° C). 

UVB Light

Turtles kept inside cannot receive direct sunlight and, therefore, need a UVB light in their habitat. 

Without it, they do not get the proper amount of Vitamin D3. 

Keep the UVB lamp no more than 12 inches from your turtle to ensure they receive the proper amount of UV light.  

Make a point to change your light bulbs every 7-9 months. 

Otherwise, they may not provide the necessary amount of UVB light. 

Water Filter

If you are keeping your turtle in an aquarium, you will want to invest in a quality water filter

The filter will help keep their home clean and reduce the number of times you need to clean it each week. 

A turtle’s tank can get messy quickly with the amount they go to the bathroom. 

If left too long, bacteria can start to grow and cause illness in your pet. 

Make sure the filter is always running while your turtle is in it. 

While costly, a canister filter is a popular choice. 

It is installed under your tank to prevent taking up too much space in your tank. 


Providing the proper substrate or bedding is an integral part of their habitat. 

Turtles like to dig, and having a layer of bedding allows for burrowing. 

Be sure the bedding is at least 4 inches deep. 

Misting your substrate will help keep the humidity level at a tolerable rate for your pet turtle. A proper humidity level should be at 80%. 

Since your turtle may want to snack on it, avoid anything containing chemicals. 

Also, avoid small pieces of gravel. Ideal choices for bedding are peat moss, reptile carpet, or sphagnum moss. 

What Yo Feed Your Box Turtle

It is imperative to provide a proper box turtle diet. 

Turtles are omnivores and have a diet consisting of plants/vegetables, insects, and fruits. 

A proper diet mimics the one they would have in their natural environment. 

It’s important to ensure all food offered to your turtle is free of pesticides. 

This is especially important if you decide to offer your pet any foods found in the wild. 

Baby turtles eat every day, while adults will often eat every other day. 

Feel free to offer your turtle a small snack on the days they aren’t getting a full meal. 

If you do not provide your turtle with a varied diet, you run the risk of them only wanting a specific type of food. 

Your reptile may go on a hunger strike if they get bored with the same type of food. 


Box turtles require about half their diet to come from protein-filled insects. 

Babies and juveniles are more carnivorous and will eat more insects than an adult box turtle, so it’s crucial to alter their diet as they get older.

Here are some examples of what you should offer your box turtle:

  • Crickets
  • Moths
  • Mealworms
  • Slugs
  • Earthworms
  • Waxworms
  • Silkworms


Your pet turtle should have a healthy array of vegetables and other greens in its diet. 

The more color to the vegetable, the better. 

Avoid giving vegetables like iceberg lettuce and celery, as they provide a small number of nutrients. 

  • Carrots
  • Mushrooms (As an interesting note, your turtle can even eat poisonous mushrooms without being harmed.)
  • Sweet Potato
  • Collard Greens
  • Beet Greens
  • Swiss Chard
  • Parsley
  • Cilantro


Fruit should not be the main source of nutrients in your pet’s diet. 

They tend to favor the flavor of fruits and may start turning their nose up to veggies if you give it too frequently. 

  • Strawberries
  • Bananas (with the peel left on)
  • Apples
  • Grapes
  • Mango
  • Apricots
  • Kiwi
  • Pears
  • Peaches
  • Figs

Other Foods to Serve your Reptile

While your pet turtle’s diet should consist of the food discussed above, they can eat some additional foods. 

While commercial diets are an okay food for your turtle, be sure to always supplement with fresh foods. 

You should never give raw meat to your turtle because there is a chance it will contain parasites. 

  • Commercial reptile pellets
  • Dog food 
  • Bird pellets
  • Chicken 
  • Baby Mice
  • Eggs
  • Feeder fish

Foods to Avoid Feeding Your Box Turtle

While your pet turtle can eat various foods, some you should never give to your reptile. 

These foods can cause serious illness in your pet or even death. 

  • Potato leaves
  • Tobacco leaves
  • Poison ivy
  • Avocado seeds, leaves, and peel
  • Rhubarb leaves
  • Dairy
  • Processed foods
  • Chocolate and candy

Vitamin and Mineral Supplements

Your turtle needs an appropriate balance of vitamins and minerals. 

If you feel your turtle is not getting the appropriate nutrients through their food, lightly sprinkle a supplement on top of what they are eating a few times a week. 

It is possible to give too much of a supplement, so be sure to check the bottle for serving size. 

It’s always a safe bet to check with your reptile vet before giving any supplements. 

What to Do if Your Turtle Stops Eating?

As mentioned, a turtle can go on a hunger strike if they get bored with the same type of food. 

Your turtle may also stop eating if their environment is not healthy. 

If the temperature is not right in their tank, they are more likely to stop eating. 

There are several things you should do to get your turtle to eat again. 

They do better when they are fed first thing in the morning since this is when they eat in the wild. 

Although you shouldn’t give treats regularly, offer them one of their favorite fruits, like strawberries, to entice them to eat. 

Should You Have More Than One Box Turtle?

If you’ve decided to purchase more than one turtle, there are some important guidelines to follow. 

You need to give them space to be away from one another. 

Turtles like their privacy. 

You should avoid putting two males together since they can become aggressive towards one another. 

Be mindful of putting a male and female together since they have the potential to mate. 

Typically, all females do just fine together. 

Each turtle should have access to its logs and hiding spots. 

The enclosure should be large enough to house both turtles. 

Illness In Your Box Turtle

As a pet turtle owner, you should be aware of any changes in your pet’s health and address concerns immediately. 

If your turtle is showing any signs of illness, it’s advisable to make a vet visit. 

Common signs of illness are lethargy and lack of appetite. 

You may also notice a nasal discharge from their nostrils or swollen eyes. 

Metabolic Bone Disease

If your pet turtle is not getting enough calcium in their diet, they are at risk for metabolic bone disease (MBD). 

MBD can affect your turtle’s shell, beak, nails, and bones. 

Unfortunately, it also can affect their internal organs, which means symptoms won’t always be visible. 

Be aware of the following symptoms to diagnose the illness as soon as possible:

  • Your turtle is having trouble walking.
  • Their shell is soft.
  • Their beak may begin to grow and closely resemble a duck’s bill.
  • They no longer can bring their full-body into their shell. 

MBD is often seen in young turtles who are still growing at a fast rate. 

To avoid MBD in your pet, ensure they are getting a sufficient amount of calcium and vitamin D. Vitamin D is necessary to help your turtle absorb calcium. 

Vitamin A Deficiency

If your turtle is not getting enough vitamin A in its diet, you may notice several symptoms arise. 

You may notice your turtle develops a respiratory infection, lethargy, or nasal discharge. 

Wheezing is also possible if the condition continues. 

Turtles are more prone to vitamin A deficiency if they are fed a large amount of iceberg lettuce, a poor commercial diet, or too much meat. 

To ensure your turtle is getting enough vitamin A, be sure to provide the following foods:

  • Sweet potato
  • Squash
  • Parsnips
  • Red Peppers

Infections in Your Turtle 

No person wants their pets to go through sickness, so you need to watch for these common infections. 

Some of these show up in the wild population as well. 

If it appears your turtle has a respiratory infection, but you do not suspect a vitamin A deficiency is a cause, it may be due to some sort of infection. 

Shell rot is an illness affecting turtles and can cause a bacterial infection. The infection can go through a turtle’s shell leading to ulcers. 

If your turtle’s living environment is not sanitary, they are more prone to develop a fungal infection. 

Respiratory infections may happen if the humidity is too high or the water is unclean.

Parasitic infections are also common in turtles and usually provide no symptoms at first.

The parasites may end up causing weight loss or diarrhea. 

Worms are a common issue caught from unclean water or substrate. 

As always, if you’re worried about your pet, a trip to the veterinarian is in order. 

They’ll be able to tell you exactly which type of infection your captive-bred turtles have. 

Final Thoughts

There is a lot of work with having a box turtle as a pet. 

They make great pets if taken care of properly. 

They can develop their personalities and, over time, will begin to respond to their keepers. 

Just make sure you get one from the store; wild-caught turtles are untamable. 

Before you decide to welcome the reptile into your home, be sure you are ready for the commitment it brings. 

Box turtles are not cheap pets to home, and you should consider the money needed to have one as a pet. 

However, they are one adorable and fun pet to own for their long lives. 

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