Box turtle care can often seem like it's a no-brainer, but while these reptiles are durable and long-lived in nature, they are often neglected when they are kept as pets because most people just don't know the proper ways to care for them. Knowing how to care for a box turtle is essential to its well-being and longevity, as these turtles can live up to 60 years.
Sizing the Box Turtle's Home
If you have a box turtle as a pet, it wants and needs some space to move. While it doesn't seem like a turtle moves around a lot, this animal does need room to exercise. If you don't provide it, the turtle will start to suffer. A 20-gallon aquarium should be the minimum size home for a single box turtle, but in truth, the larger the home, the better. The best enclosure for a box turtle is one that is large and built outside, weather permitting, and sandboxes, mixing tubs, kiddie pools or heavy-duty plastic storage boxes are better alternatives than a glass tank.
Choose the Right Habitat Substrate for Your Box Turtle
The substrate you put on the floor of your box turtle's habitat is equally important. The best bedding is a humid substrate material or bedding like medium to large orchid bark mixed with a moist component like peat moss. A mixture of sand and soil also works well for box turtles, but it should not be fully dry. A dry substrate will cause the turtle's skin to crack, and this will affect its health and well-being. For optimum care, health and comfort, the habitat's substrate should be cleaned out on a weekly basis.
Habitat Temperature Is Essential for a Healthy Box Turtle
Like most reptiles, box turtles like to bask in the sun when they feel like it, so it is a good idea to set up a dual-temperature zone in its habitat. Ideally, one side of the habitat should include a 75 to 100-watt incandescent light with reflector rim for basking. This side of the habitat should be kept between 80 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The other side of the habitat should be kept slightly cooler, between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and no cooler than 60 degrees Fahrenheit at night.
Turn off Lights at Night
All lights should be turned off at night so an alternative source of heat may need to be used to keep the habitat warm if the temperature dips below 60 degrees at night. Heat pads or heat tape work well for box turtles, but heat rocks should never be used since they can burn the turtle's feet and underbelly.
Food and Water for Your Turtle
When kept as pets, box turtles commonly suffer from malnutrition because their nutritional needs are rarely met. In order to prevent your box turtle from developing a chronic nutritional problem, it should be fed a well-balanced diet that offers a lot of variety. A good rule of thumb for the dietary care of box turtles is as follows:
The bulk of the box turtle's diet should be vegetables. These reptiles like green, leafy vegetables like:
- Romaine lettuce
- Broccoli rabe
- Dandelions (stem, leaves and flower)
They also enjoy:
- Bok choy
- Sweet potatoes
- Pak choi
- Carrots (shaved, not chopped)
Animal or high-protein foods that would normally be in the turtle's natural world should also be included in its diet. This includes earthworms, grasshoppers, crickets, snails, and slugs. They can also be fed very small baby mice or whole-skinned chopped mice. It's okay to feed dry, vitamin-fortified chow, but it should only make up about five percent of the turtle's diet. Avoid feeding cat food since it is too high in fat and protein for the turtle. When feeding dry turtle food, soak it in water for 30 minutes to soften it before you feed the turtle.
Box turtles love eating fruit, but unfortunately, fruits don't provide necessary minerals to the turtle. So while it's okay to feed fruit, they should only make up a small portion of the diet. Favorite fruits for box turtles include:
- Melons (with seeds removed)
The best food ratio for a box turtle's diet is 75 percent vegetables and 25 percent equal portions of protein and fruits. Adult box turtles should be fed in the morning, three times a week or more, while young turtles need to be fed on a daily basis. If your turtle is showing a lack of appetite, try spraying the habitat with water since box turtles naturally increase their activity during rainstorms. This may stimulate its appetite.
Water is a critical aspect to a box turtle's health. The habitat should include a shallow water dish large enough for the turtle to occupy. The depth of the bowl should be no deeper than the turtle's chin when its head is partially retracted. If the water is too deep, the turtle will drown. The water also needs to be changed frequently since box turtles have a habit of defecating while resting in their watering dish.
Caring for Baby Box Turtles
Caring for a baby box turtle is not too different from caring from an adult with a few exceptions:
- Baby box turtles should be kept exclusively indoors so if you're planning on having an outdoor enclosure, you will need to wait until your turtle is an adult.
- Baby box turtles require more regular feedings than an adult. A baby box turtle should be fed once a day whereas an adolescent box turtle can eat two to three times per week.
- Baby box turtles require slightly more protein in their diet than an adult turtle. Babies should have a ratio of 50% protein to 50% fruits and vegetation in their diet.
- Baby box turtles should be kept separately for the first six months and then can be kept together in one tank, provided there is ample room. However, males will have to be housed separately when they reach adulthood.
- While this is a concern for owners of adult turtles, baby box turtle owners should be even more acutely aware of the risk of salmonella. Because owners tend to want to handle baby turtles more often than adults, this increases the risk, so be sure to wash your hands frequently and take other safety precautions to avoid transmission of salmonella.
Additional Tips for Care of Box Turtles
Consider the following for your box turtle:
- Box turtles, like most reptiles, like to hide from time to time, so keep a hide box inside your pet's habitat so it can relax in privacy.
- Sprinkle calcium carbonate, citrate, lactate or gluconate lightly over the box turtle's food every other feeding. If vitamin-fortified dry chow is being ignored by your turtle, dust the food that the turtle is eating with multivitamins about every four weeks. Be careful not to overuse the multivitamins as too much vitamin supplementation is not healthy for the turtle.
- Some box turtles can be frightened easily by movement in the room when they are housed in a glass aquarium. So in some cases, a habitat made out of plywood or plastic may be a better choice.
Health Care for Box Turtles
Box turtles can live a long time with proper food and care so it's important to establish a relationship from the start with a veterinarian with experience working with reptiles. Your turtle should get a check-up at least once a year to examine him for health problems and any parasitic infections. Typical medical problems you will see as a box turtle owner include:
- Parasites such as roundworm, pinworm and amebiasis.
- Respiratory disorders including difficulty breathing and mucus discharge which will require antibiotics to treat.
- Hypovitaminosis A is a deficiency in vitamin A in the turtle's diet which can lead to lethargy, abscesses, swollen eyes and ears, poor appetite and respiratory problems.
- Metabolic bone disease causes the shell to grow irregularly as well as overgrown beaks and nails.
- Shell rot and mouth rot which are caused by fungal or bacterial infections.
Observe Your Box Turtle Every Day
Get to know your turtle by spending time observing it each day, and this will help you quickly spot any changes that might signal a decline in its health. This way you can make immediate changes in the care you provide and give your pet a better habitat and a healthier diet. This will help your turtle live a longer and more contented life.