Eastern box turtles are found in the wild across the eastern United States, though their numbers are dwindling. They live in a wide variety of habitats, from damp forests to dry grassy fields, and will often venture into shallow water and hibernate when it gets cold. These turtles have a high-domed shell that's brown with bright yellow, orange, and red markings. As pets, their adaptability when it comes to environment makes them fairly easy to house, though they do still require some specialized care.
Common Names: Eastern box turtle, land turtle
Scientific Name: Terrapene carolina carolina
Adult Size: 5 to 7 inches long
Life Expectancy: 30 to 40 years in captivity with good care (and up to 100 years in the wild)
Eastern Box Turtle Behavior and Temperament
Eastern box turtles are typically active during the day, which they naturally spend roaming around foraging for food. Pet box turtles don’t usually prefer frequent handling, as this can cause them stress. A common sign of stress is when the turtle completely retreats into its shell. Still, it’s important to have regular interactions with them, including gentle handling, to get them comfortable with your presence. This also helps to minimize their stress when they need to be moved for cage cleanings and veterinary care.
Many owners say their Eastern box turtles have distinct personalities and are quite social in their own way. They even seem to recognize the voice and appearance of their favorite humans and will beg for food when they see their owner approaching. And some are known to play with toys, such as a small ball.
Housing the Eastern Box Turtle
Most aquariums are too small for this turtle, though a tank that’s at least 20 gallons can do for hatchlings and juveniles. If you plan to keep your turtle indoors, an enclosure that’s at least 4 square feet with sides that are at least 18 inches tall is adequate, as long as you can meet the turtle's lighting and heat needs.
However, if your climate is similar to the turtle’s natural environment, an outdoor enclosure is ideal to mimic how it would live in the wild. If you’re creating an outdoor pen, make sure it has sunny and shaded areas and is protected from predators and harsh weather. Also, ensure that all plants and other materials (including lawn chemicals) in the space are turtle-safe.
Both indoors and outdoors, the turtle should have easy access to a shallow pan of water at all times. And you should provide hiding spots and loose litter for burrowing. Refresh the water at least once a day, and remove dirty litter at least weekly.
Eastern box turtles generally prefer a sunny area in their pen where they can bask in temperatures around 85 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit, as well as a shaded area that’s around 75 degrees Fahrenheit. The nighttime temperature should not drop below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. If your outdoor environment can’t meet this, you must bring them inside and outfit their pen with a heat lamp.
The natural outdoor sunlight is best for the turtle’s vitamin D production. But if you keep your turtle indoors, you can replicate this with a UVB-emitting reptile light. These lightbulbs should be on for 10 to 12 hours per day, and they typically must be changed every six to nine months, as their UV output diminishes. Follow the instructions on your particular light for best results.
The Eastern box turtle prefers a humid environment that mimics a moist forest floor. Maintain at least 70% humidity with daily misting. Placing the shallow pool of water in the turtle’s habitat also helps with humidity.
Use substrate, or bedding for the bottom of their pen, that mirrors their natural environment. Mulch, pelleted, or moss-type substrates are all suitable, especially because they help to retain moisture and increase the habitat’s humidity. Ensure that the substrate is deep enough for burrowing in the shady area of the enclosure.
Food and Water
Eastern box turtles are omnivores and eat a variety of foods in the wild. Their diet in captivity should come as close to their natural one as possible. Approximately half of their daily diet should be vegetables, some fruit, and hay or grasses. They tend to like brightly colored produce, such as tomatoes, carrots, and red bell peppers.
The remainder of their daily diet should come from low-fat protein sources. Whole live foods are ideal (e.g., earthworms, slugs, snails, mealworms, crickets, and grasshoppers), but cooked lean meats and low-fat dog food can be added as a supplement. Young turtles typically need more protein than adults for growth.
A shallow pan of fresh water should be provided at all times. Although they’re not aquatic turtles, they do have a tendency to wade in their water dish. So it’s important to watch out for droppings in the water, and refresh it as needed throughout the day.
Common Health and Behavior Problems
Eastern box turtles are a long-term commitment, and routine veterinary care is key to ensuring they live as long as possible in captivity. Even if your turtle appears healthy, visit an exotic animal veterinarian at least once a year for a wellness check. It’s often recommended to have an annual fecal exam for parasites, especially if your turtle lives outside. Gastrointestinal parasites are a common health issue these animals face, with symptoms including poor appetite and abnormal feces.
Respiratory infections also are frequently seen in Eastern box turtles. Symptoms include labored breathing and mucus around the eyes and nose. An environment that is too cold or dry often is the culprit of these infections.
Furthermore, some box turtles develop problems with their shells, such as shell rot or ulcers. Symptoms include abnormal-looking or foul-smelling patches on the shell. This is often due to a poor diet or unsanitary habitat.
In terms of behavior, Eastern box turtles are generally more shy than aggressive until they’re comfortable in their environment. Be gentle with them, and they will learn to trust you and even seem to enjoy your company.
Choosing Your Eastern Box Turtle
Many states have laws against collecting box turtles from the wild for the pet trade, but there still are many pet stores that sell wild-caught turtles. These wild-caught turtles typically don’t adjust well to captivity, and many die from the stress. So it’s best to get a pet box turtle bred in captivity from a reputable breeder, or visit a rescue group. In fact, rescue groups often have many to choose from because owners were not able to keep the animal for its full lifespan. The average price for an Eastern box turtle ranges from around $50 to $300, depending on its age.
When selecting a turtle, make sure it is active and alert, and note whether it’s eating normally. Its shell should be hard with no abnormalities, and its eyes should be clear and bright. Some red flags include discharge around the eyes, nose, or mouth; lethargy; or abnormal feces.
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