Pet Care Resources Box Turtle History and Care Recommendations

Avian & Exotics

Box Turtle History and Care Recommendations

Natural History of Box Turtles

Box turtles are indigenous to North America. Free-ranging box turtles spend much of their time burrowing in the mud or hiding beneath rocks.  They are small to medium-sized turtles, attaining a maximum length of about 8 inches and having a highly domed carapace. A key characteristic of box turtles is their hinged plastron (bottom of the shell) which can be shut completely to exclude predators.

Box turtles in the United States are divided into two species, the eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina), and the western box turtle (Terrapene ornata).  The western box turtle is superficially similar to the eastern box turtle but is typically smaller and has a shell marked with radiating yellow lines.

Box turtles are some of the longest-lived and slowest reproducing species in the world. Little is known about the lives of young box turtles because they are so secretive and hard to find.  It is thought that these young turtles spend most of their time concealed in brush and leaf litter and feed primarily on insects. Box turtles generally grow slowly, reaching sexual maturity at between 7 and 10 years old and 5 or 6 inches in length. Once mature, a female box turtle will lay between 3 and 6 eggs each spring in a shallow nest. The eggs are left unguarded and hatch in the late summer or early fall when hatching occurs. Box turtles commonly reach 25-30 years of age and there are well-documented cases of them living to 40 or even 50 years. Although questionable, some sources even report box turtles topping 100 years of age.

Although box turtles are still fairly common over much of their range, their future is uncertain. Box turtles are slow growing, have few young, and have exhibited delayed sexual maturity. These qualities make them particularly susceptible to damage due to human activities.  Another concern is the capture of box turtles for the pet trade. The impact of taking turtles from the wild can be devastating to local populations.

Over the span of their lifetime, female turtles will lay hundreds of eggs, but only 2-3 of these offspring will survive to adulthood. These offspring will eventually replace their elderly parents, allowing the population to remain at a stable size. But, if box turtles are taken from the wild to become pets, or are killed by human activities, they are removed from the overall breeding population, the number of offspring drops, and the overall population declines. Additionally, box turtles have a homing instinct that causes them to try to return to the place of their birth if they are moved. As a result, when box turtles that have been taken as pets are returned to the wild, they will head straight for their natal grounds. This journey causes the turtles to encounter many dangers, such as roads, predators, and humans. For these reasons, if you are looking for a pet, you should try to find a captive-bred animal or consider a different pet.

 Enclosure and Substrate for Box Turtle

  • Box turtles may be kept in an enclosure with tall sides and no top. The minimum size enclosure adults can be housed in a 20-gallon (75-L) aquarium. Box turtles require a large area of dry land for basking and burrowing. The substrate should be at least 2-3 in (5-8 cm) deep.
  • The daytime temperature gradient should range from 75-85°F (24-29°C) with a basking spot that reaches 85-90 F (C). The nighttime temperature should decrease to 70-75°F (21-24°C).
  • Box turtles require a relative humidity of 60-80%. Liberally mist the enclosure once or twice daily with water. Offer water for soaking and swimming. Box turtles are not good swimmers so the makeshift pool must be easy to exit and enter. A flat dish or pan can serve well.
    • Soak your box turtle in shallow warm water for 15 minutes 1-2 times weekly to aid in hydration.
  • The safest substrates are cypress mulch, newspaper, indoor/outdoor carpets, and recycled newspaper products such as Carefresh.
  • Provide a full-spectrum (UVA/UVB) light source for optimal absorption of dietary calcium.
    • Make sure there is NO glass or plastic between this bulb and your box turtle as this filters out the useful rays.
    • Lights should be on for 12 hours daily, and UVB fluorescent bulbs need to be replaced every 6 months (even if they still work).
    • There are several incandescent bulbs that provide heat and UVB such as Active UVB bulbs and Zoomed’s halogen UVB bulb.
  • Box turtles also require a hiding area or shelter.

Diets for Box Turtles

  • Complete (Pelleted) Diets: About 30-40% of the diet should consist of a complete box turtle diet such as: Zoo-med, Fluker’s, or Rep-cal.
  • Dark leafy Greens and vegetables: If you have an Eastern or a Western/Ornate box turtle about 20-30% of the diet should consist of leafy greens and vegetables.
    • Appropriate greens include; Collard greens, mustard greens, dandelion greens, romaine, wheat grass, turnip greens, red leaf lettuce, endive, parsley, kale, and Swiss chard.
    • Appropriate vegetables include; Summer and winter squashes, peas in the pod, sweet potatoes, okra, grated carrots, green beans, wax beans,
      mushrooms of all types, corn on the cob, tomatoes, bean sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, beets, and cauliflower.
  • Fruits: Less than 10% of the diet should consist of fruits.  This is like dessert for your box turtle.  Good fruits include; Grapes, apples, fresh figs, blackberries, raspberries, mulberries, peaches, crabapples, strawberries, cantaloupe, kiwis, cherries and persimmons, bananas, and most other fruits.
  • Insects and worms: About 30-40% of the diet for Eastern and Western/Ornate box turtles should consist of earthworms, crickets, grubs, and mealworms. Always purchase these from a pet shop or a bait shop since insects caught outdoors could contain toxins. Always “gutload” the insects before feeding them to your turtle. This can be accomplished by feeding the insects healthy foods such as greens, crushed dog food, and commercial cricket food prior to giving them to your pet.

Sources and Additional Information for Box Turtles

  • Lafeber Vet:
  • Melissa Kaplan’s Herp Care:
  • Box Turtle Care and Conservation:
By MedVet |
December 3, 2016