There are several species of box turtle, and each has variations in its housing and dietary needs. Some prefer more humid enclosures than others; some need higher temperatures; some like to bask, and one variety even prefers brackish (slightly salty) water to fresh.
Native to North America, the common box turtle has a high-domed upper shell that's primarily brown patterned with yellow or orange. It features a rather small head with a hooked upper jaw and tends to be an interesting pet with a distinctive personality.
Common Name: Common box turtle
Scientific Name: Terrapene Carolina
Adult Size: 4 to 7 inches
Life Expectancy: 20 to 40 years (or longer)
Common Box Turtle Behavior and Temperament
Box turtles aren't considered suitable pets for young children or for new pet owners. This is due to their complex care requirements, as well as their susceptibility to stress, which can greatly affect a turtle's health. Expect to spend your time cleaning and maintaining their enclosure at least weekly, as well as feeding them every day or two.
Box turtles like consistency in their surroundings, and most prefer not to be handled by people. They don't typically bite, but anxiety from overhandling can lead some to nip a person. Moreover, they can carry salmonella, so it's important to thoroughly wash your hands if you do handle your turtle or anything in its environment. Once they’re comfortable in their environment, most box turtles will learn to recognize their keepers, even following a person’s movements from inside their enclosure or begging for food.
Housing the Common Box Turtle
Box turtles do best in a turtle-safe outdoor pen that mimics their natural environment, as long as temperatures don’t fall below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The pen should have walls that are at least 18 inches tall with an overhang to prevent the turtle from climbing out. It should include sunny and shady areas, places to hide, and access to a shallow water dish. Plus, it should be protected from predators.
If you can’t keep your turtle outdoors year-round in your climate, try to do so for at least part of the year. It’s difficult for indoor box turtles to thrive. If kept indoors, use a terrarium that’s at least 40 gallons. Many owners also turn plastic children’s pools, sandboxes, and other large tubs into indoor turtle housing. An indoor setup will require considerable space and effort to create the appropriate environment for a box turtle. Plan to equip the enclosure with a heat source, UV lighting, places to hide, a shallow water dish
Box turtles might hibernate if their enclosure is allowed to drop in temperature or they are housed outdoors. But before you allow your box turtle to hibernate, you must ensure it is in good health. If an unhealthy box turtle hibernates, it might not wake up. That's because bodily functions slow during hibernation, so box turtles that are sick will potentially be unable to fight the illness while in their deep sleep.
Common box turtles require daytime temperatures of around 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit with a basking spot that’s around 85 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. At night, the temperature can drop to between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Opt for a basking lamp, as well as ceramic heat emitters or other heat sources, to help regulate the temperature.
UVB lighting is essential for box turtles to metabolize the calcium in their diets. Without it, they can develop metabolic bone disease and even die. Box turtles need around 12 hours of UVB lighting per day either via natural sunlight or a UVB lamp. When indoors, be sure to turn off the lamp at night to mimic a natural day-night cycle.
Box turtles prefer a humidity level of around 60%. You can maintain this through daily misting, as well as by using a substrate that retains some moisture.
Substrate is the material that lines the bottom of your box turtle’s enclosure. It helps to maintain humidity and satisfy the turtle’s desire to burrow. Plus, it can make the enclosure look and feel more natural. Thus, aim to use a substrate that mimics the turtle’s natural environment. Many owners opt for chemical-free topsoil, leaves, and moss. Layer it at least 4 inches deep to allow your turtle to burrow.
Food and Water
Because box turtles are omnivores, they need a varied diet. Keeping them outside allows them to supplement what you feed them with what’s in the environment. Fresh vegetables, fruits, insects, low-fat meats, and pinky mice are some foods that can be offered. There are also commercial diets available for box turtles, though you should supplement those with fresh foods.
Place the food on a plate, paver, or other surface to prevent the turtle from ingesting its substrate. Most young turtles need feeding every 24 hours while some adults might eat every other day. Consult your vet on the correct proportions for your individual turtle. Clean water in a shallow dish should be provided at all times.
Common Health and Behavior Problems
The most serious ailment among many turtles is metabolic bone disease due to insufficient UVB exposure. This painful condition can lead to weakened bones and death.
Respiratory infections, usually from insufficient humidity, are also common among box turtles. Symptoms include wheezing, mucus around the mouth and nose, lethargy, and a lack of appetite. If your turtle experiences frequent respiratory infections, it could be a sign of vitamin A deficiency. Avoid feeding iceberg lettuce to a turtle with a respiratory infection. The animals love it, but it has almost no nutritional value.
Box turtles also are prone to parasitic infections. (Captive-bred varieties are at a much lower risk.) This type of infection doesn't always show obvious signs but can be diagnosed by a veterinarian who specializes in reptiles.
In addition, box turtles can contract a painful condition known as shell rot, which is caused by a bacterial or fungal infection. The shell will appear cracked or dry, and it might emit an unpleasant odor.
All of these ailments should receive treatment by a veterinarian.
Choosing Your Common Box Turtle
Around the world, box turtle populations are declining. Because of this, many states have laws against keeping wild box turtles as pets. The population decline is just one reason to get a captive-bred pet box turtle from a reputable breeder or rescue organization. Another good reason is you'll be able to learn about the turtle's history and any health issues. Plus, wild-caught turtles generally don't adjust well to captivity and often die from stress.
Know what to look for to ensure you're adopting a healthy turtle. Any bumps or redness on the shell, mucus in the nasal area or mouth, or cloudy eyes can indicate a turtle with health problems. Plus, make sure the turtle has a firm shell and no swelling on its body. It's also best to avoid purchasing a box turtle during the fall or winter when it should be hibernating. A new environment at this time can cause extra stress.
Different Species of Box Turtles
If you're interested in box turtles, check out:
Otherwise, check out other types of reptiles and amphibians that can be your new pet.
Pet Turtles: Cute But Commonly Contaminated with Salmonella. U.S. Food & Drug Administration
Disorders and Diseases of Reptiles. Merck Veterinary Manual, 2020
Disorders and Diseases of Reptiles. Merck Veterinary Manual, 2020
Hallinger, Malek J et al. Occurrence of health-compromising protozoan and helminth infections in tortoises kept as pet animals in Germany. Parasites & vectors vol. 11,1 352. 18 Jun. 2018, doi:10.1186/s13071-018-2936-z
Selecting a Reptile. Merck Veterinary Manual