Box turtles are among the most popular, beautiful, and interesting of all turtles…and they have been on earth for thousands of years!

   Learn about your box turtle and make the most of your enjoyment by providing what it needs to be happy, healthy, and fun!

Cool Pets! Reptiles

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Reptiles make very cool pets!

Pick your favorite snake, lizard, or turtle and start an exciting adventure into the Animal World of Reptiles! Reptiles are quiet and undemanding but are very fun to watch. Many are quite small, so need very little space and are easy to feed. They are also clean, most with no odor at all, making them easy to care for.

What are Box Turtles?

   Box turtles, like all the turtles and tortoises, are reptiles described taxonomically as belonging in the order Chelonia. They have scales, lay eggs, and their body temperature is regulated by the environment. They are unique from other reptiles in that they have a hard shell that is actually a part of their body.
   Box turtles live primarily on land, though many are found in damp habitats such as mossy forests. They have high, domed shells and will quickly pull their feet, head and tails into their shell if they are frightened. Suggestive of being enclosed in a box, and they have been dubbed ‘box’ turtle.
   Belonging in the family Emydidae, which also includes some of the aquatic turtles, box turtles are uniquely identified in two two genera, Terrapene , found only in North America, and Cuora, which contains the Asian box turtles.
   There are four species and a dozen subspecies of the North American box turtle, Terrapene, ranging from Maine and Michigan south to Mexico. These box turtles are found in a wide range of colors and patterns. They are typically browns to blacks and many have wonderful radiating patterns on their shells.

Why box turtles make good pets

   Box turtles are some of the most desirable of all Chelonians to keep as pets. They are attractive, intelligent, and interesting. Because they are slow moving, calm, and quiet they do not instill the cautious concerns that some folks have when dealing with other types of reptiles.
   Box turtles can be quite hardy when provided with the right environment, and have fairly modest requirements. They do live a long time, so if you are considering a box turtle keep in mind that as adults they are large animals and will require an enclosure that gives them plenty of room to roam.
   North American box turtles are found in great variety. There is a range of sizes, shell patterns, and habitats from aquatic to arid. They are fairly small, typically reaching 6″ to 8″ (15 to 20 cm) as adults. This small, alert, and intelligent turtle has a passionate and diverse following of turtle keepers.

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Housing for different species

   Box turtles in the wild are found in very diverse types of environments. They live in habitats ranging from:

  • Aquatic – such as the Coahuila Box Turtle
  • Marsh / semi-aquatic – the Florida Box Turtle and Gulf Coast Box Turtle.
  • Forest – such as the Eastern Box Turtle and Three-toed Box Turtle.
  • Desert – such as the Ornate Box Turtle and Desert Box Turtle.

   Because of these diverse natural habitats, they require a variety of different captive environments. Deciding on which type of box turtle you want to keep, may be influenced by the type of environment you can most readily provide. See the housing descriptions below.

Indoor Housing

Marsh / Semi-aquatic Species & Forest-dwelling Species: Indoors
   This setup works well for these two types of species:

  • Temperate species: Eastern Box Turtle, T. c. carolina, Three-toed Box Turtle, T. c. triunguis
  • Tropical species: Florida Box Turtle, T. c. bauri, Gulf Coast Box Turtle, T. c. major.

   For an indoor environment, the more humidity-loving box turtles can be set up in large tubs (48″ w x 84″ l x 24″ deep). Provide a substrate consisting of a mixture of 1/2 dampened sand and 1/2 peat moss, but first add about 10″ of pea gravel to the bottom to allow some drainage in this damp system. Place a top layer of cypress mulch is over 75% of the environment to aid in holding in moisture.
   Put a plastic paint tray, large plant saucer, or shallow cat litter pan inside to create a water area. (The plastic paint tray is sloped and so provides a grade that even the smaller turtles can use to get out of the water.) The water in the tray or tub must be changed often as the box turtles will soak and defecate in it regularly.
   Shade-loving plants such as Pothos, English ivy, and Ficus can be added and leaves and palm fronds will add to the cover. You can use sheets of bark and large slabs of slate resting sturdily on bricks to act as cover for the more shy box turtles. Spray this enclosure heavily about once a week with warm water during the spring and summer and lightly spray it twice a month during the cooler, winter months. It is important that these turtles always have access to clean water.
   Provide a shop light fixture with UVB-emitting bulbs overhead. Also add heat by providing a clamp lamp fixture with a 100-watt T-Rex Active UVHeat® bulb. The hot spot below this lamp should be maintained at 90° to 95° F (32° to 35° C) throughout the spring and summer months.

Desert Species: Indoors
   This setup works well for the:

  • Arid Dwelling species: Ornate Box Turtle T. ornata, Desert Box Turtle T. o. luteola.

   The more arid-dwelling box turtles can be set up in large tubs (48″ w x 84″ l x 24″ deep). Provide a substrate consisting of a mixture of 3/4 dampened river or play sand and 1/4 peat moss for these enclosures. Also add about 10″ of pea gravel to the bottom to allow drainage during spring “rains”.
   Place a cat litter pan, paint tray, or plant saucer inside to create a water area. A shelter can be added in the form of a large piece of slate resting solidly on a stack of bricks. Spray water under this shelter once a week to keep this area humid. Even these desert-dwelling species have a microhabitat such as abandoned animal burrows, large piles of fallen cacti, etc. that is quite humid.
   Plants such as succulents and cacti can then be added. Spineless Opuntia cacti make especially good additions for cover and to provide some extra browse. As these plants survive fairly well indoors during cold months, they can provide good cover and some food throughout the year.
   Provide two UVB-emitting bulbs in a shop light fixture over these desert and sun-loving species. Heat can be provided via a clamp-type fixture with a 100-watt or 160-watt T-Rex Active UVHeat® bulb. Add additional heat lamps as needed and keep a hot spot for basking in the 95° to 98° F (35° to 37° C) range.
   Desert species such as T. ornata (southwestern range) will hibernate at a moderate temperature 50° F (10° C) for 30-45 days.

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Outdoor Housing

   These active and personable turtles do very well in outdoor enclosures even in areas with hot, dry weather during the summer as long as some of the following procedures are followed. This setup works well for these two types of species:

  • Temperate species: Eastern Box Turtle, T. c. carolina, Three-toed Box Turtle, T. c. triunguis
  • Tropical species: Florida Box Turtle, T. c. bauri, Gulf Coast Box Turtle, T. c. major.

   First obtain a large plastic tub. We have found that medium VISION Tubs® and Neodesha Tortoise Tubs® work very well for this outdoor project. Lay the tub on the ground and measure around it with chalk or string. Dig a hole just big enough for the tub to fit inside and with the top lip just a little below the ground’s surface. Then backfill around the tub with sand so that it is fairly level and ends up flush with the ground. Fill the tub with fresh, chlorine-free water, decorations, and piles of shale or stones which act as a bridge allowing the animals easy access into and out of the tub. Add a large number of aquatic plants to the tub including duckweed, water lettuce, water hyacinth, and watercress.
   You can also roll out sod inside the enclosure and plant seeds or ground cover around three sides of the tub. Strawberry, blackberry, squash, and cantaloupe make excellent additions to the enclosure. They provide shade, food, and attract insects which are an important addition to the turtles’ diet.
   At one end of the enclosure dig an area that is about 12″l x 24″w and about 12″ deep. Into this area place a mixture of 1/2 damp play sand and 1/2 peat moss and leaf compost. This area is the egg-laying site. We have found that if offered this area, the females will rarely lay their eggs anywhere else. The addition of peat and compost is beneficial to the successful hatching of the eggs. The acidity in this soil mixture mirrors the substrate in the natural areas in which these turtles lay their eggs. Shells of eggs incubated in this mixture have eroded in a natural way, allowing baby turtles to pip and emerge easily.
   Surround this entire area with a double stack of railroad ties or landscape timbers. The bottom tie is depressed into the soil several inches to keep turtles from digging out. With clean water, and lots of vegetation we rarely have an animal that “paces”, digs, or seems to want to leave the enclosure. Concrete blocks would be another method of forming a barrier, but railroad ties or landscape timbers are nice for their rustic appearance. A row of metal flashing or tin could be buried below the surface to prevent escapes and modified screen tops should be added in areas with lots of neighborhood raccoons, opossums, cats, and other turtle- and egg-eating predators.
   This setup is ideal for most temperate areas and will work year round in warmer climates. If your summers routinely reach 100° F (38° C) for most of July and August, take precautions to keep this Terrapene enclosure shaded by surrounding trees, shrubbery, ornamental grasses, and the plants already listed. This plant material within the enclosure seems to provide a sense of security for the turtles in addition to a humid rest area. In the hottest part of the day, you can run a water sprinkler into their enclosure for thirty minutes to an hour each afternoon. The turtles are very active during this wet time and most breeding is seen during these afternoons.

Desert Species: Outdoors
   This setup works well for the:

  • Arid Dwelling species: Ornate Box Turtle T. ornata, Desert Box Turtle T. o. luteola.

   The desert box turtle enclosure is physically similar to the one described above. Stacking two rows of railroad ties or landscape timbers forms the outside barrier. For the desert box turtles, sink a 10″ strip of metal flashing at the base of each railroad tie because they are active diggers.
   This box turtle enclosure is kept more arid. You can place it in a more sunny location and add lots of slate, spineless Opuntia cacti, and start one or two shallow burrows for the turtles to enlarge into more permanent residences. These burrows provide the necessary humid shelters for these turtles.

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   Box turtles are omnivores and feed on a huge variety of foods in the wild. In captivity, they are especially fond of live foods such as earthworms, redworms, wax worms, crickets, pink mice, and even goldfish.
   They will eat MAZURI® Tortoise Diet and high-quality canned cat food (beef, chicken, turkey, etc.), but this should only be a small part of their overall diet. Many keepers choose not to feed cat food as it is high in fat and protein which can lead to obesity and shell deformities.
   At the Turtle and Tortoise Preservation Group, the box turtles will eat earthworms, superworms, MAZURI® Tortoise Diet, soaked Zupreme Monkey Biscuits®, and chopped fruits in addition to the large variety of live foods listed above. Finely grated veggies with dark green lettuces, kale, and fruits such as melons, berries, cantaloupe, are also accepted (though not eagerly) once or twice a week.

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   As with all turtles, we suggest that keepers keep handling to a minimum. They can be handled when their enclosures are cleaned or when they are moved from indoor enclosures to outdoor enclosures, but they are definitely not hands-on pets. We do suggest, however, that a keeper pull their turtles out of their enclosures once a month to check for any signs of health-related problems.

Always wash your hands before and after handling!


   Once established in a secure and healthy environment, box turtles are typically very good breeders. They can be prolific and can produce multiple clutches of viable eggs each breeding season.
   Hibernation is the trigger for mating in most species of box turtles.

  • Most temperate species (T. carolina subspecies, some T. ornata) will require a period of hibernation in the 50° to 60° F (10° to 16°C) range. Most box turtle breeders cool the adults of these species for as few as 30 days to as much as 90 days during the cooler months.
  • The Eastern Box Turtle from southern habitats (T. c. carolina), the Florida Box Turtle (T. c. bauri), and the Gulf Coast Box Turtle (T. c. major) will require less of a cooling period, though some winter resting is recommended to trigger courtship and breeding in the spring.
  • These species can be comfortably taken down to 60° to 65° F (16° to 18° C) for three to six weeks. Rain, both natural and man-made, is an important trigger for courtship and breeding in these humidity-loving species.

   Captive box turtles can hibernate if healthy and cooled down under appropriate conditions. Young Box Turtles are extremely sensitive to incorrect environments and can go downhill very quickly if kept too dry, too wet or too cold. Most, even the desert-dwelling species require high humidity in at least part of their environment.

Hibernation in Box Turtles:
   Hibernating box turtles are typically placed in a secure garage or outdoor shed where a deep freeze is unlikely and where they can be monitored.  In warm or mild climates (or in areas where the particular species is found), box turtles can be hibernated very easily in outdoor enclosures. Prior to hibernation, box turtles need to be given access to water but not fed for 2-3 weeks to allow all waste to be expelled from their systems. 
   As with all turtles, they must have good weight and have an overall healthy appearance to be hibernated.  They are usually hibernated in a box or tub that is filled with slightly damp soil and with grass clippings or hay placed on top.  The turtles are given access to water, but are not fed during this time of dormancy.  Temperatures of 50° to 55° F seem to be sufficient to provide a winter rest and most breeders keep their box turtles in hibernation for anywhere from one to three months.
   After this hibernation period, the turtles are warmed gradually (over a two-week period) to a springtime temperature of 75° to 85° F (24° to 29° C) and fed a healthy and varied diet to prepare them for courtship, breeding, and egg-laying. 
   Soon after warming up, most males will begin showing signs of interest in breeding.  Mating occurs frequently and males are very eager to breed the females in their enclosure.  During this time, females should receive a sprinkle of calcium powder added to their food every few feedings in anticipation of the formation of eggs.

Hatchling Care:
   Hatchling box turtles are initially very delicate and sensitive to their captive environment.  Keep small box turtles in a 20-gallon long aquarium with a shallow (1″) depth of clean, chlorine-free water and live plants.  Add heat from below with a heating pad on the low setting and add a 40-watt or 60-watt incandescent bulb in a clamp-type fixture above a warmer basking area.
   Place UVB-emitting bulbs in an aquarium fixture or a shop light fixture above the enclosure.  Add several shelters such as plastic shelters, piles of leaves, and cork bark.  Soon after hatching the young begin to feed eagerly on live food such as redworms, blackworms, and small crickets.  We believe that baby box turtles grow well if fed small amounts of this variety of food each day.  Be sure to add calcium with D3 and vitamin powder to their meals every few feedings.

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Ailments – Health Issues

   Like many reptiles, box turtles can be susceptible to illness, disease, and injury. However many ailments are preventable simply from taking proper care of the animal. Be sure to provide your pet with the right type of environment for it’s needs, keep its enclosure clean and maintained, and provide it with a proper diet. Some ailments that can affect box turtles are describe here:
    Respiratory Infections: Box turtles from arid environments are susceptible to respiratory infections if kept too cool, and especially cool and humid. Mild cases can be corrected by changing the turtle’s environment to one that is warm (85° to 90° F) and dry (below 20% humidity).
   Care should be taken to correct the environment quite quickly, before the respiratory conditions worsen. More severe cases of respiratory problems (pneumonia) may require antibiotic treatment by a veterinarian.
     Eye-related Problems: Captive box turtles kept in incorrect conditions often exhibit eye-related problems. Usually, this is a sign of nutritional deficiencies such as a lack of vitamin A in their diets.
   This problem can be corrected by adding a good high-quality vitamin supplement to the box turtles’ food every 3-4 feedings. Use Rep-Cal Calcium with Vitamin D3® and Rep-Cal Herptivite® mixed in a 2 to 1 ratio. This mix can be dusted onto salads and even sprinkled on earthworms every few times they are offered. Also, offering box turtles a secure outside environment with plenty of direct sunlight helps immensely.
     Larvae of Parasitic Flies: Wild-caught box turtles are occasionally infected with the larvae of parasitic flies such as the bot fly. These larvae should be removed by a qualified veterinarian immediately.
     Injury and Stress: In addition to parasites, injury, and stress are often exhibited by wild-caught turtles. Searching out captive-hatched box turtles is your best bet. It shows support for a turtle breeder’s work and will provide you with a healthy well-acclimated pet.
     Shell Damage: Box turtles are appearing more often at rehabilitation centers and veterinarians’ offices with shell damage. Dogs (or wild predators) cause damage by chewing on the turtles’ shells. This damage is usually minor and will heal with some scarring. Much more severe damage is caused by cars. This damage is usually fatal, but lucky turtles with non-fatal injuries can be treated by a turtle rehabilitation center or experienced veterinarian.
   Mild to moderate shell damage can be corrected by wrapping the shell with a sterile, breathable gauze bandage and more extreme cases can be corrected with fiberglass “patches” or bone cement. Treatment in these more severe cases includes a course of antibiotics.

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   Box Turtles are becoming more commonly available as captive-hatched specimens. Though young box turtles are somewhat delicate and sensitive to husbandry errors, we feel it is very important for hobbyists to purchase captive-produced animals whenever possible.
   Typically, the many wild-caught box turtles that are available each year do poorly in captivity due to stress, dehydration, and internal parasite issues. Many, including most Eastern and Florida Box Turtles are actually sold illegally as they are protected across their range. Support turtle breeders by purchasing their healthy, captive bred offspring!

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Featured Image Credit: Suzanne Tucker, Shutterstock