Thinking of getting a box turtle? They are very cute, but they also require specialist care to make sure they can be happy and healthy living in captivity.
In this guide we have collected lots of information about caring for Eastern box turtles so that they thrive in your care.
Here’s your essential guide to Eastern box turtle care:
Eastern Box Turtle Introduction
The Eastern box turtle has a shell that graduates up to a high dome and they usually have mixed markings of red, orange, brown, yellow and black. They also have bright orange eyes and black and yellow markings on their head as well as orange and black limbs.
The turtles can get to about 5 or six inches in size as adults and can live to around 50 years old if looked after well.
The box turtle is a reptile that comes from the terrapene genus and descends from Northern America. They look like tortoises but form part of the American pond turtle family.
They are commonly seen in the wild (although numbers are dwindling), but many are kept as pets with the Eastern box turtle – a subspecies of the box turtle – being the most common species found in captivity.
You’ll find these beautiful little shelled guys in all kinds of environments. From grassy fields to meadows, moist forests and shallow streams – they’re really adaptable within the Eastern American climate.
This adaptability is what makes them a good pet choice, although they do still require some special care to ensure they truly thrive.
Box Turtles As Pets
Box turtles are small and so they are easy to handle, which makes them great pets, although they don’t necessarily love to be handled. That being said, they can develop bonds with their owners and become a real asset to the family in that way.
Many reptile owners also appreciate that box turtles are quite hardy and less specialist in their needs than other turtles. Although, they are still more specialist than other types so they aren’t necessarily the ideal turtle for a beginner.
If you choose to buy a box turtle do consider adopting an unwanted pet. Responsible owners who can no longer care for their box turtle will give it to a veterinarian or suitable rescue centre. There, you can often adopt a turtle at a discounted rate and feel assured that it is healthy and ready for adoption. Be wary of taking on box turtles offered ‘free to a good home’ as you cannot be sure of their health or history.
If you do want to buy from a breeder take care to buy from a reputable seller. They should be happy to answer all your questions and they should ask you questions to check your suitability for box turtle ownership. If they ask you lots of questions, this is a good sign and shouldn’t be taken as them being nosy or intrusive. They want the best for the turtles they breed, which is what you want from a breeder.
Indoor Box Turtle Care
As box turtles are so little they don’t need a lot of space, although the bigger the enclosure the better because every pet animal deserves the most possible space to live in.
The minimum sized tank is around 20 gallons but realistically, more towards 40 or 50 is better.
In the tank the box turtle requires different products that it can hide under and investigate. Safe logs (without any sharp bits) are a good example of this, as well as clean leaves and twigs that you’d expect in their natural habitat in the wild.
The turtles also like a shallow pool for soaking. Unlike aquatic turtles, they don’t require water to swim in and many actually can’t swim. So, the pool has to be shallow and easy for them to get out of.
Lighting & Heating
*The lighting and heating advice in this section relates to the Eastern Box Turtle. If you are buying another type of box turtle it is important to check the specifics for that turtle type as they differ slightly.*
The overall lighting in the tank can be provided by a 75-100 watt bulb on for 12 hours of the day whilst the turtle gets the shady environment they need around and under the logs, plants and leaves you provide.
The lighting needs to be on for 14 hours for baby box turtles and unwell turtles. The lighting should also be on a little while before you feed your turtle so that its temperature adjusts. If this isn’t done you may find your turtle is not in the mood for breakfast.
This lighting can add warmth to the tank but most people use heating lamps as well. You may need extra warming lamps throughout if the room the tank is in gets cold.
The ambient temperature of the tank needs to be around 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit in the day and between 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit at night.
If the box turtle is not kept warm enough it will start to slow down and eat less, which can lead to it getting unwell and potentially catching disease through lowered immunity.
Some owners like to heat the tank up from the bottom rather than through overhead lighting. This can be problematic because the turtle then has no escape from the heat.
Overhead lighting/ heating tends to be preferable so the turtle can stay cool, especially if you not only provide logs and shelter, but you allow one end of the tank to stay shaded and less light-filled. Having separate heating also enables you to keep the tank at an ambient nighttime temperature without the light having to be on, ensuring that nighttime is properly replicated for normal sleeping/ behaviour patterns.
You’ll also need to make sure the humidity is about 60% for Eastern Box Turtles (higher for very young box turtles).
Basking is one of the most important elements of a box turtle’s care. Box turtles require sunlight for their mental and physical health, which makes UVA and UVB rays essential for keeping the animal healthy.
UVA rays keep your box turtle healthy, happy and active. UVB rays are the ray type box turtles need to create vitamin D which helps them absorb calcium from what it eats. Without this it may get shell malformation and general bone disease.
The important thing to know as a pet owner is that UVA and UVB won’t get into the turtle’s tank through daylight in your house. You need to provide the right lamps for your turtle to provide these rays. As well as the general lighting we mentioned above you will need to provide concentrated UVB and UVA lamps on a basking platform for your turtle.
You can usually get lamps that emit both types of UV, and those lamp manufacturers will list the distance the bulb needs to be from the basking platform to provide the right UV levels. The lamp has to be at exactly the right level as not to provide too little or too much heat and UVA/ UVB for your turtle.
Once you choose the bulb it is important to replace it as often as the manufacturer recommends so that the emitted UV rays do not decrease.
Some people also like to allow their box turtles to spend time outside foraging in a pen in summer. This boosts their natural UVA/ UVB levels.
I recommend these Heat Lamps here.
The light levels, UVB and UVA levels, humidity and warmth within the tank all need monitoring to make sure the turtle is getting the right care. Thermometers and other monitoring equipment don’t cost much and yet, they can be the difference between your turtle being sick or healthy, happy or very lacklustre so they are worth getting.
Feeding Your Eastern Box Turtle
It is important to make sure that your turtle is fed well. They are omnivores and a well balanced diet will help keep them active, happy and healthy for life.
Box turtles enjoy a diet of meat, fruit and veggies which spans across all kinds of sources in the wild. They can feast on anything from slugs, to mushrooms, worms and roots in the wild.
In captivity your turtle needs to be given around 50% protein, 20% fruit and 30% veggies. Some people also provide their box turtles with pellets, but they shouldn’t make up any more than a quarter of your turtle’s diet if you do use them.
Here are some suggestions for foods within each category:
Protein: Tuna, worms, snails (shell and all!), crickets, boiled eggs, shrimps
Fruits: Plums, watermelon, blueberries, grapes, kiwi, bananas
Veggies: Tomatoes, squash, dandelions, carrots
These items need to be varied every week so that your turtle gets a mixture of nutrients. The food given should also be clean and sourced from reputable sources (in the case of insects and meat) so that your turtle doesn’t get sick from the food you give them.
Extra Eastern Box Turtle Feeding Tips:
- Speak to your vet about supplements for your turtle. Some people supplement with calcium, but it’s not always necessary. An exotic reptile vet can advise on this to help you decide.
- Avoid processed food, white potatoes, any dairy, sweets, bread, refined grains, sugars or rhubarb as they will make your turtle sick.
- Remove uneaten food every day and clean the rocks you place the food on thoroughly every couple of days.
- If you have more than one turtle they should have their own feeding area to ensure they eat enough and don’t compete over food.
- Consider giving your turtle live insects (bred for food) as they enjoy the movement aspect of catching food, which stimulates their mind and keeps them active.
- Feed the turtles at dawn or dusk as that is when they naturally eat in the wild.
You’re Well On Your Way To Owning A Box Turtle!
Owning a pet like a box turtle can be challenging, but incredibly rewarding. By reading guides like this one, and consulting breeders, box turtle owners and exotic pet veterinarians, you can ensure that your new Eastern Box Turtle thrives in your care.
Be sure to check out My Turtle Shop Here for the essentials you need to help you set up.