GCTTS Box Turtle Diet & Care Sheet
This care sheet has information on the care of Eastern Box (Terrapene carolina carolina), Three Toed Box (Terrapene carolina triunguis), Gulf Coast Box (Terrapene carolina major), Florida Box (Terrapene carolina bauri), Ornate Box (Terrapene ornata ornata), and Desert Box (Terrapene ornata luteola) turtles.
Learn all that you can about box turtles before you obtain one. Seek out other box turtle enthusiasts. Talk with your vet. Join a group such as the Gulf Coast Turtle and Tortoise Society or the East Texas Herpetological Society.
Try to obtain captive-bred box turtles for pets. These will generally be healthier and better adapted to captivity than wild caught turtles. Wild populations are under tremendous pressure from the pet trade - don't add to this pressure.
Before deciding to acquire a box turtle, remember that turtles are very long lived animals and require specialized, sometimes expensive, care. They do not make good pets for young children unless there is adult supervision.
The only suitable habitat for box turtles is a large outdoor enclosure, bounded by bricks, landscape timbers, or cement blocks at least 18 inches high with an overhanging ledge to prevent climbing out. For multiple box turtles in communal pen, a minimum of 16 square feet (4' x 4') is required for each adult turtle. More space is needed if males are housed together and if sexes are mixed. Minimum pen size for one turtle is about 30 square feet (4' x 8'). Larger is always better with turtles.
Drainage must be built into the pen unless it is a hardware cloth (wire) type pen. If using hardware cloth, put a solid wall along the entire perimeter so that the turtles cannot see out. Turtles will continually try to get to the other side of the fence if they can see out.
Turtles are poikilothermic, regulating their temperature by behavior, and need to have a choice between sun and shade. The habitat should provide a variety of environments including sunny and shaded areas and places to hide. A pile of hay provides an ideal hiding/shady place.
Being outdoors provides a better diet since the turtle can supplement what you feed it with snails, slugs, earthworms, weeds, etc. If you keep your pet in your garden area, you will not need to worry about snails and slugs as pests (of course, you might find some strawberries missing!).
If box turtles are housed outdoors in their native range they will hibernate during the winter months. They prefer to burrow down 4 to 6 inches in the dirt if it is soft. You can also provide a large, well drained, pile of hay or leaves for hibernation.
During the summer heat they will often rest in a shallow "scrape" (a depression in the dirt) in order to cool off. Be sure to provide places where your turtle can escape the heat - under plantings, in hay or leaves, or under logs.
Box turtles are in the same family (Emydidae) as water turtles such as sliders, map turtles, and cooters, and although not fully aquatic, do enjoy an occasional swim. A shallow pond, perhaps half as deep as the turtle's carapace is high, should be sunk into the ground and kept filled with fresh water. In any case, fresh drinking water must be provided daily.
Most diseases are spread though fecal contamination. The best way to reduce this is to provide adequate space for each turtle, throughly rinse the drinking water containers each day, and provide a large enough water area. Box turtles usually use the toilet in their drinking water, so it must be large enough that another turtle does not drink the waste of another or take in a pathogen or parasite a sick turtle will put into the drinking water, should one of your turtles be sick or a healthy carrier and not yet showing obvious symptoms.
If an outdoor enclosure cannot be provided you should consider not keeping a box turtle. Temporary indoor housing can be used to overwinter a turtle that cannot be hibernated or during convalescence. Small aquariums are generally not satisfactory for box turtles, although a large 'breeder' aquarium (lower sides and consequently more usable surface area for the same gallon capacity) can be used if necessary. Concrete mixing containers (made from tough plastic and available at Home Depot and Builder's Square) make an inexpensive, fairly spacious habitat. A typical container is 2' X 3' X 10" deep.
If kept indoors, some type of light producing UVB rays is necessary. A good fluorescent-type light is ZooMed's Repti-Sun 5. This light cannot pass through glass or plastic, as these glazings will remove most of the beneficial UV rays. The light should be within 6" of the basking site. A clamp-on 60 - 75 Watt incandescent light fixture with a reflector should be used to provide a basking area that is warmer than the rest of the container. These clamp lights can be found at places like Home Depot. The ideal basking area temperature is 90 - 95F.
At this time, it is not known if any of the UVB-type lights are adequate for turtles. These types of fluorescent lights loose their ability to maintain UVB production and should be replaced yearly.
There is another alternative to the fluorescent UBV and incandescent basking light pairing. There is a type of bulb called a UV-B Heat Lamp or Self-Ballasted Mercury Vapor light. Several companies are now marketing these and they produce higher levels of UVB than the reptile fluorescent lights. These bulbs continue to produce significant levels of UVB much longer than any fluorescent bulb.
NOTE: EXTREME CAUTION must be used with these bulbs. They also produce heat and also take the place of the basking bulb. UV-B Heat Lamps or Self-Ballasted Mercury Vapor lights at this time usually come in 100W and 160W so they must be used in a reflector socket that can withstand higher heat. These bulbs need to be placed higher than other bulbs due to their heat output. These bulbs are not for small tanks! They produce too much heat! Follow the manufacturer instructions exactly or you may endanger your turtle! Use a thermometer in the tank or container so you KNOW that you are not overheating the turtle.
If you would like to read about lighting for turtles/tortoises, see this link: UNDERSTANDING REPTILE LIGHTING SYSTEMS Please read the conclusion carefully.
In spite of UVB bulb improvements NO artificial light is an equal substitute for unfiltered sunlight. We do not condone housing any turtle or tortoise indoors on a permanent basis. Any native species living in a climate like their native climate should be housed outside permanently. Some non-native species or turtles that have been ill may need housing inside during cool/cold months.
Lights should be on approximately 12 hours each day on a regular cycle.
Absorbent flooring material such as newspaper (not the colored sections), hay, or cypress mulch should be provided and changed regularly. Substrates that dry out or get powdery should be avoided. Cedar chips can be poisonous.
Box turtles can get dehydrated even if offered a water bowl to drink from. They really benefit from a full body soak (5). A shallow water dish, large enough for the turtle to get into and soak, is required, as is an area that the turtle can hide in for a sense of security. An overturned, large clay flower pot can serve as the hide. Daytime high temperature of 85F is ideal, a nighttime low of 70F is OK.
If mature females are confined indoors for any length of time a 6" deep container of moist (not wet) sterile potting soil should be provided in case they need to lay eggs. Where ever you keep your box turtles try to maintain a female to male ratio of at least two to one to prevent the females from being overly harassed by the males.
Adult box turtles do quite well when fed about 3 times a week, and every other day to hatchlings. But, in the periods just before and after hibernation, turtles should be fed more frequently. Overfeeding may cause serious organ damage. Vary the diet using the suggestions below and don't just feed them a few favorite foods. Healthy turtles should have good appetites but can become finicky eaters if overfed, making a balanced diet difficult.
Vitamin and mineral supplements are unnecessary if the diet is varied, and could be harmful. Too much calcium can mineralize vital organs and blood vessels and excesses of any one vitamin can cause a deficiency in others. The percentages in reptile vitamins sold may not be correct. Two drops of cod liver oil twice a week is a natural source of vitamin A and can be safely used to supplement diet at that dosage. Egg shells can provide additional calcium if needed.
Too much fruit can alter the gut flora as well as setting the turtle up for nutritional imbalances.
Turtles housed outdoors in garden type habitats will feed naturally on snails, earthworms, insects, animal droppings, plants, etc. and are likely to get a good diet. Soil contains minerals a turtle may need, so allowing the turtle to feed naturally on the ground is preferable to using a plate.
When keeping turtles in an outdoor enclosure, it is important to feed in the morning and then remove the food. Leftover food may attract ants, and after dark may attract rats, opossum, raccoons, and other dangerous predators.
Protein Based Foods:
(well over 50% of diet)
Dead, thawed, fuzzy or hopper mice (no pinkies), whole feeder fish (chopped), cooked egg (with shell), slugs, snails, tadpoles, earthworms, all insects, animal feces (animals must not be carrying internal parasites) NOTE: earthworms and insects including feeder crickets are usually low in calcium and should not be a major part of the protein based foods.
Fruits and Vegetables
(Fruit should be no more than 10% of diet)
Bell pepper, peas, squash, zucchini, prickly pear pads (no spines), carrots, kale, endive, dandelions, collard greens, okra, tomatoes, mushrooms, mulberries, persimmons, cherries*, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, other berries, peaches, figs, nectarines, mangoes, grapefruit, oranges, plum, cantelope*, other melons*, banana, pear*, apricots, grapes. apple*,
* - no seeds
Foods to be limited or avoided:
The following foods should not be fed due to a high phosphorus to calcium ratio or excessive vitamin D content:
Corn, chicken, dog/cat food, liver and organ meats, commercial turtle food, beef, monkey chow, trout chow.
Avoid pinkie mice. They are too high in fat and too low in calcium.
Insects are too low in calcium to be a major part of the diet.
Copyright (c) 2004 Gulf Coast Turtle and Tortoise Society
Permission is granted to copy for non-profit use with proper credit given. For any other use you must obtain permission.