How do you make a home your box turtle will enjoy?
You are ready to adopt or buy a box turtle.
You want to make sure their environment is to their liking and promotes the best health and well-being for your pet possible.
We agree: this should be your top priority.
Luckily, there are many creative ways to ensure your new pet’s home will suit them perfectly.
Table of Contents
What You Need For This Tutorial
- A sturdy box, tank, or tub with high sides
- A good, suitable substrate or substrates which will retain moisture
- A heat lamp, emitters, or thermostat heat mats
- Slate for basking
- A UVB lamp with a bulb
- Hygrometers and Thermometers to monitor temperature and humidity
- Water Mister
- Water bowl
- Optional: Climbing logs or rocks
- Optional: Safe Plants
Setting Up A Cheap DIY Box Turtle Habitat: Video
How To Set Up A Box Turtle Habitat, Step By Step
Step 1: Pick Your Box
There are many options, both suitable and unsuitable, for a box turtle home.
Any suitable option should have walls which are high enough to prevent escape and provide at least 3′ square feet (.9 sq. m) of floor space for every 8″ inches (20 cm) of a turtle’s length.
This is especially important if you are keeping multiple turtles in the same habitat.
Box turtle owners have adapted many containers for their box turtles’ habitat needs.
The video above shows a large plastic concrete masonry tub as a home for a juvenile turtle.
Others have used plastic childrens’ wading pools, bathtubs, and storage tubs.
If you are feeling handy, make a turtle table or a raised shallow rectangular wooden box.
These are also commercially available in kits.
Make sure the wood you use is not treated with any chemicals.
Waterproof seal the inside bottom and sides, since your turtle’s substrate should be kept moist.
We recommend walls 1.5′ feet (.45 m) high or more to prevent escape.
Though it works for other reptiles and amphibians, a glass aquarium or tank is not the best for a box turtle.
See-through walls tend to cause stress.
If a tank is what you’re working with, cover 3 of the 4 walls in cardboard or wallpaper to help them feel secure.
If you need a top to prevent escape or keep your box turtle safe from other pets or children, we recommend a screened top, not a solid one with ventilation holes.
We do not recommend screening on the sides of the enclosure, as a turtle could scratch itself.
Wire cages are not suitable homes for box turtles.
Step 2: Lay Down The Floor
Once you have picked your box or tub, it’s time to lay down about 3-4″ inches (10 cm) of substrate.
The best substrates for a box turtle facilitate their burrowing behavior and mimic the soil found in their natural habitats.
Some great substrate options include chemical-free topsoil and very finely shredded hardwood mulch.
Adding a layer of sphagnum moss or hardwood leaf litter is great for retaining moisture and humidity.
Never use a substrate made from cedar, pine, or fir, as these are extremely toxic to reptiles.
Pro Tip: If adding a basking spot, put down a slate tile, like the one above, over your substrate.
Not only will it retain heat and provide a great place to sit, but slate tile also does a great job of naturally trimming and sharpening your turtle’s nails.
Step 3: Turn On The Heat
Your box turtle will need cool and warm sides in its habitat to regulate its body temperature.
There are several options for heating the habitat, including lamps, ceramic heat emitters, and heat mats.
We do not recommend using heat rocks, as these could get hot enough to burn your turtle.
Heat mats are best used underneath a glass tank, making them unsuitable for plastic tubs.
If you are using a heat mat, make sure it is one with a thermostat.
Ceramic heat emitters heat the ambient temperature of the habitat through infrared heat.
They do not provide any light.
The bulbs are designed for use with special clamp lamps.
A heat lamp has the added benefit of providing light in a basking spot.
This is the best method for heating your box turtle’s home.
Whatever your method, keep checking with a thermometer to ensure the habitat is at the proper temperature for your species of box turtle.
It should not be too hot, as your turtle may get easily burned.
Pro Tip: Box turtles are diurnal, meaning they are most active during the day and sleep at night.
To mimic this natural cycle, give them 12-14 hours a day of heat and light and turn off their heating units and lights at night.
Put the lights on a timer if you need to.
Step 4: UVB Lamp
A UV light with a UVB bulb is necessary if your box turtle is living indoors.
It provides the necessary vitamin D3 a turtle would get from the sun outdoors.
Without enough D3, your box turtle may develop a calcium deficiency, which could lead to metabolic bone disease or MBD.
Plug it in and switch it on to make sure it is working.
UVB bulbs stop being as effective every 6 months or so.
Step 5: Place Other Necessities
A box turtle will need at least one hide to thermoregulate and feel secure.
Suitable hides are sold at many pet stores.
If you want the hide humid, put down sphagnum or orchid moss beneath it and mist it well regularly.
Make sure the hide is big enough for your turtle to turn around.
All box turtles need a regular source of clean, fresh drinking water.
A sturdy, large bowl which is unlikely to tip over is ideal. It should be shallow enough to prevent drowning.
Make sure your box turtle can stick its head above the water when soaking.
Clean the bowl frequently, especially if your turtle defecates in it.
Box turtles should not need a food bowl unless they are eating insects which can easily jump off a plate into their substrate.
You should be feeding them from a plate, which will help prevent them from eating substrate accidentally.
Box turtles also love climbing.
Any rocks or logs should not be placed too close to the sides of the habitat since a turtle could easily climb out this way.
Pro Tip: While not necessary, suitable and safe plants could provide shade and enrichment for your box turtle.
Make sure any plants you buy are safe for turtles to eat and pesticide-free.
There are several available lists online of safe plants for box turtles.
If you are unsure whether a plant has pesticides, wash it thoroughly or let it grow for a few months outside of the habitat before putting it in.
Depending on the substrate you use, plants may be planted directly in the habitat.
Pesticide-free large leaf litter, like magnolia leaves, provides extra hiding spaces too.
Step 6: Check Temperature And Humidity
After setup is done, mist everything in the enclosure with a water mister filled with distilled water.
A combination hygrometer and thermometer should allow you to monitor temperatures and humidity levels in the habitat.
Make sure these are at appropriate levels for your box turtle species before you put them in their new home.
Pro Tip: Most species, like the Eastern box turtle, need humidity levels at 60%.
Others, like the Florida or Gulf Coast box turtle, will need higher, about 70-90%.
If you see your turtle constantly burrowing, it means they are looking for moisture in their substrate, and the humidity needs to be higher.
Step 7: Put Your Box Turtle In Their New Home
Congratulations! You have successfully set up your turtle’s habitat.
Make sure you mist regularly with water to maintain humidity.
How Can I Tell If My Box Turtle Is Happy In Its Home?
While turtles are not thought to be the most expressive of animals, there are several signs to check to ensure their happiness and health.
Your turtle may hide for the first few weeks in its new habitat.
This is normal and part of an adjustment period.
Once they have gotten used to you, they should be out and about more, climbing, basking, and soaking.
They may even begin to recognize you and react positively to your presence.
If your turtle continues to hide, it is a sign of stress.
A turtle which is not eating or hunting is a depressed turtle.
Contact your veterinarian if your turtle is not regularly eating.
If your turtle is defecating and producing urates regularly, it is a sign they are at their best health.
Improper humidity levels may result in respiratory infections.
If chronic, these could also be the result of a vitamin A deficiency.
Signs of a respiratory infection include nasal and eye discharge, wheezing or gasping, and extending their necks to breathe.
As always, better safe than sorry with a pet.
If you observe abnormal behavior or symptoms, get in touch with your vet.
Setting up your reptile pet with a great habitat helps them with longevity, mental and physical health.
There are several inexpensive DIY options and tips to give your turtle the best chance at a long, healthy life.
Make sure your box turtle has space, their temperatures and humidity are in an appropriate range, and the sides of their habitat are tall enough to prevent escape.
Prevent as much stress as possible.