How To Take Care Of A Box Turtle

How do you take care of a box turtle?

How do you make sure your pet turtle is happiest and healthiest?

You’re curious about pet turtles. 

You might be considering bringing one into your home. 

Of course, you want to do your research. 

What kind of habitat will it need? 

What do you feed it? 

What do you do when it’s sick?

We’ve got your back with this article and guide for this fun pet. 

how to take care of a box turtle

How To Take Care Of A Box Turtle

Box turtles have challenging care requirements, even for reptilian pets. Make sure you are able to commit to their requirements before buying or adopting a captive-bred box turtle.

If you choose to care for a turtle, you will need to commit to its enclosure’s weekly deep cleans. 

You will also need to keep in mind handling causes stress for them. 

Keep in mind if kept well and in good health, a turtle may live from 20 to 40 years in captivity. 

You will not only have to care for this pet for its lifespan, but you may also need to make provisions for it if your turtle outlives you. 

Turtles also thrive better in outdoor habitats, which may not be feasible for your situation and environment.

With these warnings, a turtle is still a wonderful and rewarding pet if you are willing to put the time and effort into their care.

Box Turtle Habitat Needs

You should prepare your turtle’s habitat before buying or adopting it and bringing it home. 

Box turtles have particular habitat needs, and you want to set them up for a long and healthy life with plenty of mental stimulation.

Location Needs

If possible, and if your outdoor temperatures stay above 50° degrees Fahrenheit (10° C) year-round, you may want to consider a custom-built outdoor enclosure for your box turtle. 

Outdoors, your best location is a flat area of ground facing east. 

The morning sunlight will hit the enclosure first, letting your turtle or turtles bask in it to start the day. 

This is what they would do in the wild. 

Putting your pen against an existing wall or structure is a great way to keep it stable and safe.

Though we recommend outdoor environments for box turtles, the truth is not many owners may have the proper climate for one. 

Therefore, if you have to house your turtle indoors, make sure they are in a quiet room in your home, without frequent disturbances from children or other pets. 

Loud and disruptive noises are stressful for box turtles, and any environmental change, large or small, provides a disruption, which may cause stress.

Avoid putting your turtle enclosure by any heating or cooling vents in your home. 

Reptiles cannot regulate their body temperatures, and you have to keep their ambient temperatures at consistent levels. 

Heating and cooling vents may interfere with enclosure temperatures. 

Consider using a warm-air humidifier in the room with your turtle enclosure, especially in dry home air conditions during winter.

Enclosure Type

A typical glass aquarium or plastic tank is not suitable for a box turtle. 

A larger enclosure is always better. 

We recommend not using clear plastic or glass, as a turtle which can see through its enclosure walls will experience more stress. 

You will want something easy to clean, as turtle enclosures need deep cleans every week.

We do not recommend putting any screening on the enclosure sides, as turtles may scrape themselves on it. 

However, if an enclosure lid is needed, screened tops provide more necessary ventilation than glass or plastic lids with ventilation holes.

Turtle owners have adapted many items to fit their enclosure needs, including large plastic storage tubs, bathtubs, and sandboxes. 

The recommended size is 40 gallons minimum. 

Bigger is always better, especially if you are housing multiple turtles.

An outdoor environment does not need to be expensive or difficult to build. 

You will want to make sure your turtles cannot escape or dig their way out. 

A PVC pipe frame with sides of vinyl siding makes a great weatherproof enclosure. 

Dig sod and place paving stones inside the border of the enclosure to discourage digging. 

Turtles are also notorious for attempting to escape their living spaces, and they have sharp nails and climbing skills to do so. 

Whatever enclosure you use, make sure the walls are 8-9″ inches (23 cm) taller than your level of the substrate.

Temperature and Humidity Needs

Temperature and humidity needs will differ across species of box turtle. 

Here is a table with different temperature needs listed for different turtle species:

SpeciesDaytime or Hot SideBasking SpotNighttime or Cool Side
Common70-80° degrees Fahrenheit (21-27° C)85-90° degrees Fahrenheit (29-32° C)65-75° degrees Fahrenheit (18-23° C)
Three-Toed80° degrees Fahrenheit (27° C)85° degrees Fahrenheit (29° C)70° degrees Fahrenheit (21° C)
Gulf Coast80-85° degrees Fahrenheit (27-29° C)90°degrees Fahrenheit (32°C)No cooler than 70° degrees Fahrenheit (21° C)
Florida70-90° degrees Fahrenheit (21-32° C)85-95° degrees Fahrenheit (29-35° C)70-75° degrees Fahrenheit (21-23° C)
Mexican75° degrees Fahrenheit and above (23° C+)65° degrees Fahrenheit (18° C)

Most turtles need humidity around 60%. 

Florida box turtles will need higher humidity, at 70 to 90%. 

Asian species of box turtles will also need higher humidity and temperatures in their environments.

If your turtle is inside, you need heating sources. 

Stick with heating lamps or ceramic heat emitters. 

We do not recommend commercially available heat rocks. 

Since turtles are diurnal and tolerate a slight drop in temperature at night, make sure to turn off the lights when it’s time for your turtle to sleep.

Ensure you have thermometers and hygrometers to monitor temperature and humidity and make environmental changes if necessary to meet appropriate levels.

Substrate

Your box turtle will need a loose substrate in its enclosure. 

A loose substrate will facilitate their digging behavior, necessary for mental stimulation, thermal regulation, and stress relief. 

A substrate which retains moisture will be crucial for retaining proper humidity levels. 

Without proper moisture levels, a turtle may develop chronic respiratory infections, swollen eyes, and dry skin.

You want a substrate which is nonabrasive and produces low to no dust.

Great substrates for turtles include:

  • Topsoil which has not been chemically treated
  • Loam
  • Very finely shredded hardwood mulch

Additions to your main substrate which will help keep humidity levels include hardwood leaf litter and sphagnum moss.

Under certain circumstances, say, for a sick or injured turtle, a few moistened layers of newspaper and shredded newspaper for burrowing makes a fine temporary substrate.

Substrates you should NEVER use for turtles include:

  • Anything made of cedar, which is highly toxic to reptiles
  • Mulch with large pieces, roughly milled
  • Anything made of pine or fir
  • Corncob litter
  • Processed walnut shells
  • Orchid bark
  • Play sand
  • Alfalfa pellets
  • Recycled newspaper pellets

Other Items

Your turtle will need hides to feel secure. 

In an outdoor enclosure, safe shade plants will also provide this. 

A hide should be big enough for your turtle to turn itself around, with a hole big enough for them to get in and out.

A spray mister may help with hydration and humidity.

Either spray water with a bottle or install an automated misting system.

All turtles need exposure to UVB light. 

If your turtle is living outdoors, they will get what they need from the sun. 

If your enclosure is indoors, you will have to purchase a UVB lamp. 

Without enough UVB exposure, turtles cannot absorb the calcium they need to survive. 

They may develop metabolic bone disease, or MBD.

Your turtle needs a water source. 

A shallow dish big enough to soak in without tipping over is ideal. 

You want the water level shallow to prevent drowning. 

Clean the water bowl or source regularly, as a turtle may defecate in it.

Box Turtle Diets

Box turtles are opportunistic omnivores. 

In the wild, they forage for insects and vegetation during the day. 

If your turtle is a baby, you should feed it every 24 hours. 

Adults may be fed every other day.

Feed your turtle a variety of vegetables, fruits, and protein. 

Whole, live prey is best. 

To prevent health issues like obesity and gout, make sure only to feed what your turtle can eat in 10 minutes per meal. 

This will also help cut down on leftover food in the enclosure.

Great vegetables and plants for turtles include:

  • Apples, no seeds
  • Clover
  • Wild Strawberry
  • Parsley
  • Leafy Greens (Kale, Collard Greens, Escarole)
  • Berries
  • Chinese Cabbage
  • Alfalfa
  • Hay
  • Non-pesticide treated grass

Great animal proteins for turtles include:

  • Crickets
  • Earthworms
  • Grasshoppers
  • Beetles
  • Caterpillars
  • Mealworms
  • Waxworms
  • Superworms
  • Red Worms
  • Snails
  • Slugs
  • The occasional pinky mouse
  • The occasional feeder minnow
  • Low-Fat Cooked Meats
  • Low-Fat High-Quality Dog Food with Added Moisture

Pet stores sell protein-rich foods specifically engineered for turtles to eat. 

If you use these, supplement with fresh, whole foods.

You want to check which foods have high amounts of phosphorous over calcium and high amounts of oxalic acid. 

These two compounds, in high amounts, may interfere with calcium absorption. 

Feed foods like tomatoes, sweet corn, bananas, beet greens, spinach, and swiss chard rarely, if at all.

Never feed your turtle any insects which produce their light, like glowworms or fireflies. 

These insects contain chemicals toxic to any reptile.

Common Health Issues With Box Turtles

There are many common health issues which affect box turtles. 

If you see any behavior or symptom which does not seem standard for your turtle, check with your veterinarian. 

As always, better safe than sorry with a pet.

Respiratory Infections

Respiratory infections are common in turtles not receiving adequate amounts of humidity. 

If they are recurring, it may be a sign of a vitamin A deficiency. 

Symptoms include mucus bubbles in the mouth and nose, lethargy, wheezing, nasal discharge, extending the neck to breathe, and open-mouthed breathing or gasping.

Treatment may require adjustments in your turtle’s environment to increase humidity. 

If your turtle has a vitamin A deficiency, your vet may administer oral or injection forms of vitamin A. 

Your vet may also want to run other tests to rule out any other possible causes of a respiratory infection.

Gastrointestinal Parasites

Turtles commonly develop parasitic infections, like with roundworms. 

The worms may cause diarrhea and loss of appetite. 

Your veterinarian will need a stool sample to determine what kind of parasite is present, then will prescribe the proper deworming medication.

Shell Rot

If your turtle’s carapace looks dry or cracked or gives off an odor, they may be suffering from shell rot. 

This usually happens when an injury to the shell gets infected.

Your vet will have to determine what is causing the rot through microscopic analysis. From there, your turtle will need its shell cleaned and repaired.

If needed, your vet will prescribe appropriate antibiotics or antifungal medications.

Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD)

MBD is the result of a severe calcium deficiency. 

This may happen if your turtle is not receiving any supplementary vitamin D3 through UVB lighting or natural sun. 

You also may need to give your turtle a powdered calcium supplement in its food.

If left untreated, metabolic bone disease is extremely painful and could cause paralysis and even death.

Symptoms include:

  • A soft and deformed shell, sometimes curving upwards at the edges
  • Difficulty walking
  • Splayed legs
  • Pyramiding, or raised scutes
  • The shell’s hinges no longer work, meaning the turtle cannot shut themselves completely inside their shells
  • Beak taking on the look of a duck’s bill
  • Nails curving outward

Contact your veterinarian immediately if you see any of these symptoms. 

The best care for MBD is preventative. 

Make sure your turtle is getting enough D3 and calcium from the start.

Handling

While frequent handling is not recommended, there may be times when you have to turn your turtle over because it’s flipped onto its back or to move it for cleaning. 

In these cases, grip the shell between the front and hind legs with both hands. 

Do not grab your turtle by its tail. If you need to flip the turtle, do it head over tail, not side over side. 

Put it down gently on its feet. 

Be gentle but firm: a turtle may attempt to escape your grip, which is why you should handle them with both hands.

Final Thoughts

Though a box turtle has challenging care needs, it is a rewarding and fascinating pet if you are willing to put in the care required.

If you set up a turtle’s habitat properly, feed it a varied diet, and pay attention to its behavior and potential health issues when they arise, you are well on your way to a long, happy relationship with your pet turtle.