Box Turtle Care

Species Overview

Scientific Name: Terrapene carolina

Box turtle is the common name for several species of turtle. It may refer to those of the genus Cuora or Pyxidea, which are the Asian box turtles, or more commonly to species of the genus Terrapene, the North American box turtles. They are largely characterized by having a shell shaped like a dome, which is hinged at the bottom, allowing the animal to close its shell tightly to escape predators. Furthermore, the two genera are very different in habitat, behavior and appearance, and are not even classified in the same family. Even though box turtles became very popular pets, their needs in captivity are complex and the capture of turtles can have serious detrimental effects on the wild population (Wikipedia).

North American box turtles have become common in the pet trade. They are easily available in pet stores and aren’t a hefty purchase. However, they aren’t suitable pets for new reptile owners, especially children. Box turtles need specific care in almost all aspects of life. It is saddening that many box turtles lose their lives due to the lack of knowledge of pet owners.

To prevent that and help you raise a healthy and happy box turtle, we’ve put together this comprehensive box turtle care guide. It has all the information you’ll need, from their size and weight to their housing and diet requirements.

box turtle care

Colors & Appearance

Box turtles have tough, domed-shaped shells. Their shells are made of bony plates covered in keratin. Box turtles exhibit sexual dimorphism, meaning that males and females have different physical features. Males have red or orange markings on their heads, reddish-orange irises, and thick tails. They are also larger than females. Another distinguishing factor, and one of the most reliable, is the plastron (lower shell). The plastron of a male box turtle is slightly concave, whereas the female’s is flat. The appearance of a box turtle heavily depends on the particular species.

Average Size & Weight

The size of a box turtle varies from species to species. Three-toed box turtles are on the smaller side, reaching a maximum length of around 5 inches. Eastern and ornate box turtles are larger, reaching up to 7 inches. As for the weight, it has more to do with the box turtle’s age and health. On average, young box turtles weigh about 0.5 to 1 lbs. Adult box turtles can touch 2 lbs. It is essential to keep track of your box turtle’s weight and make sure it doesn’t fluctuate drastically, as sudden weight changes can indicate underlying health issues.


Box turtles live super long lives, reaching over 100 years in the wild. As pets, they live between 40 and 80 years. Some can even outlive their owners. If you plan on bringing one home, know that this reptile is a long-term commitment. The type of box turtle you have will also determine how long it lives. Three-toed and eastern box turtles stick around for about 40 years as pets. On the other hand, Ornate box turtles can be by your side for 60 to 80 years. Of course, how long your box turtle survives as your pet majorly depends on the care you provide.

More About Box Turtles

Box turtles are native to North America. They are hardy reptiles that live long lives in the wild. Some can even cross a century. However, as pets, most don’t make it to 50 years.

If you’re interested in bringing a box turtle home, you must know everything about these terrestrial creatures. It’ll help you provide a comfortable home for your pet, feed it the right food, and know when to seek medical help.

caring for a box turtle

Box Turtle Habitat

Box turtles, belonging to various subspecies, inhabit regions across North America, including the eastern Gulf coast of Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula.

The eastern box turtles, however, come from the eastern United States, from Maine down to Florida. They also reach out west to the Great Lakes region and Texas.

Box turtles are land-dwellers who prefer shrubby grasslands, field forest edges, and marshy meadows. Areas that receive plenty of rainfall are among their favorite hangout spots. They are also big fans of areas near streams and ponds.

Types of Box Turtles

Three species of box turtles are common in the pet world. Each of them has their unique features and care requirements. Therefore, it’s essential to know which type of box turtle you have before creating a suitable habitat for them.

  • Eastern Box Turtle: They have a brown-colored high dome shell with bright yellow and red markings. Eastern box turtles are uniquely social. They can recognize your voice if they like you.

  • Three-Toed Box Turtle: These guys have three toes on their hind feet, hence the name. Their shell is olive-brown with some yellow markings. Three-toed box turtles aren’t big on handling.

  • Ornate Box Turtle: Their skin is dark grey, with a few yellow and white spots on their heads. Their domed upper shell is brown with a distinct starburst pattern. They are active and personable.

Box Turtle Life Stages

Box turtles go through three phases of life:

  • Hatchlings
  • Juvenile box turtles
  • Adult box turtles

According to the University of Florida, box turtles start maturing right after birth. They grow by half an inch each year for the first five years and continue to grow for another 15 years but at a much slower rate.

Most box turtles reach sexual maturity between the 10th and 13th year of their lives. Eastern box turtles have a bigger window, averaging between 10 and 20 years.

Box Turtle Predators

Box turtles come with an inbuilt armor, aka their shell. Since adults have tougher shells, they tuck themselves in and can protect themselves from predators.

However, young box turtles are not as lucky. They have soft shells, which is why box turtle hatchlings fall prey to various animals, including skunks, raccoons, coyotes, chipmunks, foxes, and owls.

predator of a box turtle

What Makes Box Turtles Great Pets?

  • Long Lives: Box turtles make great pets for people in it for the long haul. As mentioned, they can be around for decades, making them a fantastic companion.

  • Don’t Require Much Human Interaction: Box turtles are solitary reptiles, meaning they don’t crave human interaction as much as other pets. They’re happy living in their tanks or outdoor enclosures.

  • Easy to Feed: Box turtles are omnivores. They enjoy a variety of food, including insects, fruits, and vegetables. You can easily provide them with a well-balanced diet without much effort.

box turtles make great pets

Box Turtle Care Sheet

In this section, we’ll highlight the housing requirements of box turtles. You’ll also find details on their heating and humidity needs, as well as their preferred diet. This information will help you care for your turtle in the best possible way.

Environment and Housing

You can keep your box turtle indoors or outdoors, depending on your lifestyle. However, if turtles were to decide, they would go with an outdoor pen with tall walls. The pen should have 4 inches of substrate, hiding spots, shaded areas, and a few rocks to bask under the sun.

If you are afraid of risking your box turtles outside, you can keep them inside. Get at least a 40-gallon tank for adult box turtles. Hatchlings and young box turtles can live in a 20-gallon aquarium. We also recommend keeping your box turtle’s enclosure in a quiet room. These guys are shy, and they don’t like loud noises.

Since box turtles housed indoors miss out on natural sunlight, which helps them metabolize vitamin D, you’ll have to invest in UVB lighting. Read more on box turtle lighting and heat requirements here.

box turtle enclosure

Temperature and Humidity

Like all reptiles, box turtles prefer a temperature gradient in their enclosures. Here are the zones you should try to create:

  • The basking spot’s temperature should range from 85°F to 88°F.

  • The warm side of the enclosure should stay between 70°F and 80°F.

  • Night temperatures can drop down to 65°F but not lower.

Box turtles also require 12 hours of UVB lighting. It helps them absorb calcium.

You’ll need a heat lamp, ceramic heat emitter, or under-tank heater to meet the temperature requirements.

Humidity levels should stay at 80%. Mist their enclosure a few times a day to maintain the humidity levels. You can also use a moisture-retaining substrate like sphagnum moss.

Box Turtle Diet

Box turtles are omnivores. They enjoy a variety of food, including insects, fruits, and vegetables. A well-balanced diet for box turtles includes:

  • Insects: Gut-loaded crickets, mealworms, earthworms

  • Fresh Fruits: Apples, berries, grapes, papayas

  • Vegetables: Dark leafy greens (kale, collard greens), sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkins

While these foods are approved for turtles, VCA experts suggest that their diet consists of 80-90% vegetables and flowers, with fruit making up only 10-20%.

You can also occasionally offer low-fat cat food or pink mice to your box turtle. Always keep a shallow dish filled with clean water in your pet box turtle’s enclosure.

Juveniles need to eat daily. Adults can be fed on alternate days.

box turtle eating an earthworm

Behavior And Temperament​

Box turtles aren’t big fans of change. They want to be left alone in the same environment for as long as it’s healthy. Handling attempts and shifting of enclosures can stress them out. They can even lose their appetite.

Give your new pet turtle some days to adjust to its new environment. Once the shelled guy is comfortable, it’ll even respond to the sound of your voice.

These species of turtles are diurnal, meaning they sleep at night. During the day, they’ll forage for food, eat, and mate.

Hibernation is also a part of their behavior. In the wild, they hibernate in burrows to protect themselves from harsh winters. At home, you can provide your box turtle with a cooler area and reduce light hours to encourage hibernation. This should only be done for perfectly healthy turtles.

Once turtles come out of their hibernation cycle, they are ready to reproduce. This is the only time you’ll notice them getting aggressive toward each other. The male will circle the female, trying to get her attention. If she’s ready to mate, she’ll let the male bite at her carapace and get in position.

Health Issues​

A healthy box turtle will be alert and active. It will display no signs of infection on its shell and will habitually retract into its shell when disturbed.

However, there are a few ailments that can affect box turtles, including:

  • Respiratory Infections: These are a result of poor humidity and temperature conditions. A box turtle suffering from respiratory issues will have difficulty breathing. It’ll wheeze often, and you might spot a discharge from the nose and mouth.

  • Shell RotBacterial and fungal infections can cause a painful shell condition in your box turtle called shell rot. If your pet is suffering, its scutes will appear discolored, and its shell might have cracks and pits. Shell rot also causes the shell to stink. 

  • Metabolic Bone Disease: This results from calcium and Vitamin D deficiency or poor UVB lighting. Symptoms include soft, pliable shells, twitching limbs, and difficulty moving. It’s a severe condition that can also lead to death.

sick box turtle

Box Turtle Care Sorted!

As you can see, box turtles require a bit of effort to care for as pets. However, if you’re willing to put in the work, they make great companions. They are ideal pets for those looking for a long-term commitment without too much constant attention. Just remember to provide your pet with suitable habitat, proper nutrition, and regular veterinary check-ups to ensure a happy and healthy life for your box turtle.

If you’re looking for more information on setting up a box turtle’s tank, feeding guidelines, or tips on breeding, check out our articles. You’ll find your answers for sure.

Archive List

box turtle on rocks featured

How Big Do Box Turtles Get?

The average common box turtle measures 5 to 7 inches (13 to 18 cm).
Box turtles grow to slightly different sizes depending on their species and whether they are male or female.

how to breed box turtles

How To Breed Box Turtles

Are you a box turtle keeper looking to expand the family?  Are you interested in learning the best and safest