Box turtles are lovely creatures and they can be good pets, but you need to think long and hard before you bring one home. While juvenile box turtles usually adjust to an indoor terrarium, most experts agree that the best housing for adults is outdoors. Unless you have the facilities to build a good-sized outdoor pen for your box turtle, you should think twice before getting a box turtle. If the turtle will be kept indoors, you will have to consider building a custom enclosure or invest in a very large terrarium. It will also need a basking heat source and an ultraviolet light.
Box turtles are not easy to care for or low-maintenance pets. If you can keep them healthy, they can be with you a long time and you might have to make provisions for someone to care for them if something happens to you. They typically live for 25-35 years but some have lived to over 100 years old. Unfortunately, many box turtles that find their way into the pet trade end up dying sooner, due to the misunderstanding of the care they require.
It is also important to realize that, in most states, it is illegal to take a box turtle from the wild and keep it in captivity. Wild populations are dwindling, so they are protected in most states. Also, wild-caught box turtles are more likely to become severely stressed by captive conditions and do not make great pets. If you decide a box turtle is right for you, make the effort to find a captive-bred box turtle.
There are several different species and subspecies of box turtles you might find in the pet trade. Most of them are fairly similar in their care, but there are some important differences. Before you take home a box turtle, be sure you know what your specific species will need.
The North American box turtles most commonly kept as pets include the following:
- Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina)
- Three-Toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis)
- Gulf Coast Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina major)
- Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata)
The following North American box turtles are less commonly kept as pets. They are typically found in limited geographical ranges and have more specialized needs:
- Florida Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina bauri)
- Mexican Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina mexicana)
- Yucatan Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina yucatana)
- Desert Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata luteola)
- Coahuila Box Turtle (Terrapene coahuila)
- Nayarit (Spotted) Box Turtle (Terrapene nelsoni nelsoni)
Asian box turtles need higher temperatures and humidity than their North American counterparts. Some of them require enough water for swimming as well. Species you might find in the pet trade include:
- Indochinese (Flowered) Box Turtle (Cuora galbinifrons)
- Chinese (Yellow-Marginated) Box Turtle (Cuora flavomarginata)
- Chinese Three-Striped Box Turtle (Cuora trifasciata)
- Malayan Box Turtle (Cuora amboinensis)
Box Turtle Care
Be sure to provide appropriate lighting, humidity, food, and substrate to your box turtle of choice. Veterinary care may also be necessary if your turtle gets sick or injured. Refer to the appropriate care sheets for your specific turtle.
If kept outdoors, they can graze on natural plants and insects that are found in their pen, in addition to the food you give them. They will be exposed to natural sunlight for their Vitamin D3 production. Provide a den or burrow they can go into to get out of the rain and to protect them at night. In the winter, they will burrow underground and hibernate until the springtime temperatures warm the ground.
Temperatures in their indoor habitat should range from 70–90 degrees Fahrenheit (21–32 degrees Celsius) to enable the turtle to regulate its temperature by moving between warmer and cooler areas. A 75–100-watt heat lamp or ceramic heat emitter is necessary to provide a basking area that is warmer than the rest of the container. They need an ultraviolet light to produce Vitamin D3 so they can absorb calcium from the diet.
Box turtles are omnivores, eating both plant and animal tissues. Feed them dark green leafy vegetables such as collard greens, mustard greens, parsley, endive/escarole, dandelion greens and flowers, beet tops, spinach, and kale. They can also eat small quantities of green beans, Romaine lettuce, and fruits such as mulberries, blackberries, raspberries, and sliced apples.
For the meaty meal, use crickets, mealworms, earthworms, slugs, or small amounts of low-fat canned dog food, Better still, there are prepared diets available in pet stores specifically for box turtles.
Box turtles enjoy soaking in water, so provide a water dish large enough for them to fit into but with low enough sides that they can easily climb into it. Change the water frequently to keep it clean.
"Eastern Box Turtle". Smithsonian's National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute, https://nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/eastern-box-turtle.