Box Turtles

These turtles are long-lived and have specific care needs

Box turtle held by a hand
Getty Images/© Nadège Torrentgeneros

North American box turtles are mainly terrestrial turtles but compared to aquatic turtles, such as red-eared sliders, they can be more challenging to care for and may not be the best choice for beginners. Since they grow quite old, these turtles require long term commitment and proper care. 

There are several different 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 than others, some like to bask, and one variety even prefers brackish water to fresh.

Consult with an exotics veterinarian or a reputable breeder to make sure you're providing your box turtle with the best environment for its breed.

Most box turtles are long-lived and hearty and can live more than 50 years in captivity with proper care. 

Breed Overview

Scientific Name: Terrapene Carolina

Common Name: North American box turtle 

Adult Size: Up to 5 inches long

Life Expectancy: Over 50 years

box turtles as pets care information
Illustration: J. R. Bee. © The Spruce, 2018

North American Box Turtle Behavior and Temperament 

These turtles aren't considered suitable pets for small children, or for new pet owners. It's important to understand how much stress can affect a turtle's health. It's stressful for box turtles to be handled by people, so you should avoid it whenever possible.

It's also stressful to turtles when their surroundings are changed; they get very disoriented. These are not low-maintenance pets, so be sure you're ready to make the commitment before getting a box turtle.

Housing Box Turtles

A well designed outdoor pen, appropriate bedding, humidity, access to water, and protection from predators will work well in climates that your box turtle is native to. In fact, most box turtles will only thrive if kept outdoors, for at least part of the year.

If kept indoors, the utmost care must be taken to provide an appropriately sized enclosure with provisions for heat, humidity, and lighting. An indoor set up will require considerable space, good landscaping to include areas of water for your turtle to walk into, a heat source, a basking light, somewhere to hide, and a UVA/UVB lamp.

A large aquarium or plastic storage container with dirt bedding is typically used to house box turtles indoors. A large water dish and hide box should be appropriate for the size of your box turtle and lighting should be provided to maintain appropriate temperatures for your species of box turtle.

North American box turtles 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 may not wake up.

Since bodily functions slow during hibernation, box turtles that are sick will potentially be unable to fight off a disease or heavy parasite burden while in their deep sleep.

Food and Water

Since they are omnivores, provide your box turtle with a varied diet. Be sure to find out what species of box turtle you have though since different species tend to have dietary preferences.

Some turtles need more animal protein while others need more vegetation, depending on the species and age of the turtle. Foods including fresh vegetables, fruits, insects, low-fat meats, pinky mice, and other foods may be offered to your box turtle.

Common Health Problems

The most serious ailment among many turtles, including box turtles, is metabolic bone disease, which is caused by insufficient UVB exposure This painful condition can lead to weakened bones and death.

Respiratory infections, usually caused by insufficient humidity are also common among box turtles and other turtle species. Symptoms include wheezing and mucus around the mouth and nasal passages, general lethargy and insufficient appetite.

Note that if your turtle suffers from frequent respiratory infections, it could be a sign of vitamin A deficiency, usually caused by a nutrient-poor diet. Try to avoid feeding iceberg lettuce to a turtle with a respiratory infection. The animals love it, but it has almost no nutritional value. 

Box turtles, like other breeds, also are prone to parasitic infections (captive-bred varieties are at much lower risk for this). This type of infection doesn't always show obvious signs but can be diagnosed in an exam by a veterinarian who specializes in reptiles.

In addition, box turtles can contract a painful condition known as shell rot, caused by a bacterial or fungal infection. The shell will appear cracked or dry and may emit an unpleasant odor. 

All of these ailments should receive treatment by a veterinarian.

Choosing Your Box Turtle

Around the world, all varieties of box turtle populations are declining. Many states protect box turtle populations and have laws against keeping wild box turtles as pets. The population decline is just one reason to get a pet box turtle bred in captivity from a reputable breeder. Another good reason: You'll know about any health issues or problems the turtle may have. 

In addition, wild-caught box turtles generally do not adjust well to captivity and may 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 may indicate a turtle with health problems.

Captive bred turtles are typically healthier than wild caught ones so they are your best options when looking for a pet box turtle. Wild box turtles tend to be stressed, dehydrated, and prone to disease as a result of their capture and transport. In addition, support of the wild catch/pet trade in box turtles may further threaten their numbers in the wild (and taking in native turtles is illegal in many states).

It is best to avoid purchasing a box turtle during the fall or winter when it should be hibernating so you should ideally pick one out in the late spring or summer months. Make sure the turtle feels "solid" (i.e. not like an empty shell), has clear eyes and nostrils, no swellings on the legs, neck or head, and a firm, solid shell.

Different Species of Box Turtle

If you’re interested different varieties of box turtle, you may want to check out these breeds: