Box turtles are protected in many states and are now not allowed to be collected or sold. Please check with your local Game and Wildlife Department for more information.
There are four subspecies of the common box turtle that are available to buy at pet stores. They are the Eastern box turtle (Terrapene Carolina carolina), the Three-toed box turtle (T .c. triunguis), the Gulf Coast box turtle (T. c. major), and the Ornate box turtle (T. ornata).
Box turtles, no matter the subspecies, are cute little creatures. A box turtle’s adult shell size and growth rate is affected by its diet, enclosure temperature, and hibernation schedule.
Depending on the turtle’s species and the aforementioned living conditions it will grow from the hatchling size of about a quarter [coin] to its adult size in roughly five to six years. Here’s the average adult size of the four types of box turtle available in pet stores:
Eastern box turtles grow to an adult size between 4.5 and 6 inches. The largest recorded Eastern box turtle measured an impressive 7 13/16 inches.
Three-toed box turtles reach an adult size between 4.5 and 6 inches as well, with the record for largest three-toed box turtle being 6.5 inches in size.
Gulf Coast box turtles grow to between 5 and 7 inches, with the largest recorded Gulf Coast box turtle being 8 ½ inches.
Ornate box turtles are smaller than the other three varieties, with hatchlings measuring an inch and growing to just 4 or 5 inches. Female ornate box turtles typically grow to be larger than their male counterparts.
Commercially bred and owned common box turtles can have a plethora of medical issues to deal with, but species depending—under the right conditions and with proper care—box turtles can live for decades.
The record lifespan for a captive-born Florida box turtle was more than twenty-two years. For the captive-raised eastern box turtle the record lifespan is more than twenty-six years, and for the captive-raised three-toed box turtle the record lifespan exceeds twenty-six years. Ornate box turtles, however, rarely live for more than seven years.
Generally speaking, a captive-bred and raised common box turtle can have a potential lifespan between 30-40 years. There have even been a few reports of individual specimens living to be older than 100, but these reports are not confirmed.
Box turtles got their nicknames for their ability to pull their head, legs, and arms completely inside their shells, giving them a boxy appearance.
Box turtles have three parts: the carapace (upper part of the shell), the plastron (lower part of the shell), and the scutes (the horny plates making up the surface of a turtle’s shell). Their shells are domed and hinged at the bottom, which allows them to hide and seal out predators.
Box turtles have hooked upper jaws and their colorings and patterns vary depending on where they come from. They are extremely varied in appearance. The shell of the box turtle can take on brilliant oranges, reds, and yellows, patterns that spread to the animal’s body, as well.
Box turtles are quite popular, but they are also one of the most misunderstood pets. In order for box turtles to live happy lives in captivity, they need to be maintained properly. Much of the problems with captive box turtles arise in the way they are collected and in the way they are kept before being shipped to pet stores. In order for a box turtle to fare well in captivity, it requires more care than many other turtle species, making it a pet that is suitable for intermediate reptile/amphibian owners.
Box turtles should be fed every other day, as long as they aren’t hibernating. They like to be nice and warm before they eat, so make sure your vivarium or enclosure’s lights have been turned on for at least a couple of hours before offering your turtle food.
Box turtles recognize food by sight and smell, so you’ll need to stimulate both senses to entice them to eat. Feed your pet box turtle two types of food during each feeding. These can be 1) meat products or live foods, and 2) plant matter.
Acceptable types of meat products that box turtles eat are low fat canned dog food, finely cut cooked chicken, and finely cut pieces of beef heart. Dog food should only make up 20 percent of your box turtle’s diet, maximum.
As for live food, you can feed your turtle live crickets, mealworms and superworms, earthworms, pink mice, and small slugs or snails. In addition to meat/live food, your box turtle will need plant matter. Plants supply valuable minerals and vitamins. Acceptable plant matter includes berries and red fruit (turtles seem to like the red and pink fruits best), vegetables and greens (like thawed frozen broccoli, tomatoes, cauliflower, mixed veggies, etc.), and small quantities of other fruits like cantaloupe, peaches, apricots, and apples.
Always make sure your box turtle’s food is cut nice and small. If your box turtle is a picky eater don’t worry, they like variety and sometimes all you need to do is change up the menu. In the wild, box turtles will hibernate and fast during the warmer summer months. So if your turtle still refuses to eat, even after you’ve offered a variety of foods, they may be entering a hibernation period. This fasting period can last a few weeks, so as long as your turtle remains an adequate weight you’ve got no reason to worry.
In theory, if you feed your box turtle a proper diet, you shouldn’t have to supplement it with vitamins and minerals. That being said, it’s a wise idea to give your pet box turtle powdered reptile calcium from time to time. Simply coat its food with the powder—throw some crickets in a bag, sprinkle with calcium powder and shake—before offering to the turtle.
Box turtles are susceptible to a number of diseases, parasites, and other medical conditions. Here are two of the most common conditions.
Dehydration is one of the most common problems when it comes to box turtles. Many come home from the pet store in a dehydrated state; their skin won’t have elasticity and it will retract deep within its shell. The quickest way to help a dehydrated turtle is to let it soak for several hours in a shallow bowl of tepid water. Then, over the next few days, let it soak for reduced periods, limiting the soaks to fifteen and twenty minutes two to three times per day. It’s amazing how this soaking can help turtles rehydrate, some box turtles may even double in weight after the first soak.
Box turtles are susceptible to parasites, nematode parasites being the most common type. Parasitic flies are also a concern. Just remember that even if you don’t see parasites in your turtle’s stool, they still could be present microscopically.
Parasitic flies will lay eggs on box turtle shells or at the site of wounds, even small scratches. These eggs will hatch and the resulting larvae will feed on the turtle’s tissue. This is called myiasis and it occurs in just two forms. One form occurs when many flies lay eggs at the site of a wound and when they hatch, the maggots feed on the turtle’s surface tissue. In this case, you must rinse or pluck off the maggots and clean the wound thoroughly with peroxide or Betadine and then apply antibiotic ointment, repeating the process each day.
The second form of myiasis is more severe and is caused by botflies. Botflies do not require an existing wound to lay their eggs; they’ll create one themselves with a small bite. Then, once their eggs hatch, the larvae burrow beneath the turtle’s skin; they look like lumpy masses upon closer inspection. If your pet turtle is infected with botflies you’ll need to either take it to the vet or drain the pocket yourself.
Even if you begin treatment at home, with any parasite or larval infection, you should seek the care of a qualified exotics veterinarian.
For turtles that are kept outside, even part-time, there is a risk of ticks. If you find a tick on your turtle it will need to be removed right away. To remove a tick, firmly pull on its head until it releases. Make sure to pull straight up and not at an angle or there is a risk of leaving the tick’s mouth part behind.
Box turtles aren’t the most affectionate of pets, but if you keep them in groups you’ll be able to observe a variety of social behaviors as they interact with each other. They do show some level of intelligence, and some pet box turtles will even go to their owners and eat out of the palm of their hand.
Box turtles don’t like being handled. They do best with limited to no contact, at best learning to come to their owners when presented with food. Box turtles make great display animals, though, and with patience, they may learn to eat from their owner’s hand.
As with other reptiles, box turtles carry salmonella, so they should never be allowed to roam freely. To avoid being infected with the salmonella bacteria, proper hand washing should be practiced at all times. Although anyone is at risk for salmonella infection, this is especially important in homes with children, elderly, or for people who have compromised immune systems (e.g., those undergoing cancer treatment). It is a good rule to always clean your hands after touching your turtle, its environment, or any of the furnishings you keep for your turtle, such as feeding dishes or shelters for hiding.
Depending on what part of the country you live in, you can keep your pet box turtle indoors or outside.
Basic outdoor setups need to have a constant temperature between 70 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and no cooler than 50 degrees Fahrenheit at night. If you plan to keep your turtle outside, even part-time, and temperatures fall below 50 degrees for part of the year, wait until the temperatures outdoors warm up some before letting your turtle stay outside.
Basic outdoor setups need to measure at least 4 feet by 2 feet for two turtles. The placement of your outdoor enclosure should have a shaded area; if it doesn’t, it’s up to you to provide the shade. In addition, always make sure your turtles are protected from predators. Use a wire mesh cover or cover the setup with a wood frame if you can.
Indoor box turtle setups are preferred by many box turtle owners. For a single box turtle, use an enclosure that’s a minimum of 36 inches long and 12 inches wide. For two to three pet turtles, the enclosure needs to be at least 48 inches long and 15 inches tall. If you’re using a wood enclosure make sure it’s waterproof, even if it is indoors, since turtles need a relative amount of humidity in their environment. You can do this yourself with a few coats of epoxy paint, or you can just buy one that’s been pre-sealed.
For the substrate, or bedding, use a nice 2- to 3-inch layer of peat-based potting soil mixed with fine orchid bark. Make sure the potting soil does not include perlite in its mix.
The ideal box turtle substrate should hold moisture to increase the relative humidity of the enclosure, should allow for burrowing, and should have a rapidly drying surface. Small-grade fir bark, orchid bark, or pea gravel works well for retaining moisture. Stay away from soggy materials like silica sand or aquarium gravel. These materials can wear down the turtle’s shell and lead to infections.
Box turtles need a place to hide away sometimes. Make sure to include a log or other hiding area for your turtle to go and seek shelter—something big enough for the turtle to fit itself within. Box turtles are easy to please, they don’t require any fancy furniture or accessories for their cages; a simple hiding place will suffice. Opt for something simple like a wooden half-log or cork hiding place that your turtle can escape to. Leaving this detail out of your turtle’s enclosure may lead to a stressed, unhappy turtle.
The most important factor in your box turtle’s survival is proper heating. Many of the problems that new box turtle-owners encounter can be solved with adequate heating. Indoor box turtle habitats can be heated using either of these methods:
Box turtles need to have ultraviolet (UV) light if they are kept indoors. The light must have UVA and UVB and will need to be placed about 18 inches away from the turtle. Remember, no glass, plexi-glass, or plastic can be under the light as those materials filter out the useful sun rays.
Maintaining a relative humidity between 60 and 80 percent is crucial to the survival of captive box turtles. Daily misting helps maintain humidity, as can keeping your turtles on a layer of medium-grade pea gravel that you add water to.
One sign that your turtle’s enclosure isn’t humid enough is excessive burrowing. Box turtles will burrow to seek out moisture, and if they can’t find it they will become stressed and sick.
Box turtles need to have access to clean water, both for drinking and for soaking in. Even if you give your turtle weekly baths, your turtle will be at its happiest if it has free access to its own water “pond.” The water bowl should be big enough for the turtle to fit its body into, but still shallow enough that the turtle’s head is above the water at all times. Box turtles are usually good swimmers, but they can still drown. You can buy a decorative bowl from a pet store, but that will be more for your own benefit since turtles don’t care what their water dishes look like. Many turtle owners use flower pot dishes or shallow ceramic bowls in their turtle habitats.
Keep in mind that you’ll need to clean your turtle’s water bowl frequently since they do tend to defecate (poop) in their water.
If you are keeping your box turtle in an outdoor habitat, you might consider creating a real miniature pond inside the enclosure. Pond liners can be found in many pet supply stores and online, and you can decorate the pond with real or fake plants, stones, and even real fish—which also make for a wonderful fresh food supply for your turtle. Again, make sure the pond is somewhat shallow and that your turtle can easily climb in and out of it. Also, locate the pond in a shaded spot to prevent the water getting too hot, and clean the water daily, either with a water vacuum or filter pump.
North American box turtles, of which the common box turtle is a member, are extremely widespread and can be found in Mexico and across the eastern, central, and southwestern United States. Box turtles weren’t considered common pets twenty and thirty years ago, but today, commercial trappers catch and sell box turtles by the thousands. Depending on the captive turtles’ maintenance, many that are sold in pet stores are stressed, diseased, and dehydrated. Many turtle fanciers fear that if things continue the way they are going, box turtles may achieve a protected status and will no longer be available in the pet trade.
This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Adam Denish, VMD.