The Eastern box turtle makes a great pet. They’re cute, interesting and live for so long you can make a really strong bond with them.
Compared to cats and dogs, the box turtle is a little more specialist in its care needs. The great news is, this guide has a ton of information to help you care for your new shelled pet really well.
Here’s a complete guide to owning a healthy, happy Eastern box turtle:
An Introduction To The Eastern Box Turtle
The Eastern box turtle is the most common species of box turtle found in captivity and comes from the North American terrapene genus. They are a type of pond turtle you can find in all kinds of environments, from meadows to shady forests and slow moving streams – they are really adaptable animals.
It is a beautiful species of turtle which commonly has a domed black shell and black skin, complete with yellow markings. They can also range in colour, with all different brown, orange and yellow shades making each individual stand out. These gorgeous shelled cuties also usually have amber or red eyes.
One of the reasons the Eastern Box Turtle is such a popular pet is because it tends to only grow to about six inches in adulthood. This means that you don’t need to accommodate it with a super-large enclosure as it ages. That being said, it does also age to up to 50 years, so it is a big time commitment and isn’t a pet purchase to take lightly.
What Are Box Turtles Like As Pets?
As we mentioned above, the Eastern Box Turtle only gets up to around six inches in adulthood. This makes them really easy to handle by the shell, although they don’t commonly like to be handled and are more of a ‘watch but don’t touch’ pet. If they need moving into transport for a vet visit, or examining it does help to know they aren’t too tricky to handle if necessary.
Unlike some turtles which can be very sassy and standoffish, Eastern box turtles are known to be truly individual in their personality and it is possible to have a true bond with them. This is helped, in part, by their 50 year lifespan. Most of us would have a bond with somebody who we saw everyday, especially if they bought us tasty food!
Compared to other turtles the box turtle is not a good turtle for beginners. Their needs are quite specialist and there are turtles that are much better for the beginner reptile owner.
- Unique personality
- Can develop a bond with owner
- Easy to handle if necessary due to their size
- Special care requirements
- Prefer not to be handled
- Lifespan is a big commitment
Of course for many people, the cons of the box turtle could be considered pros, depending on your outlook.
Getting An Eastern Box Turtle
Getting an Eastern box turtle is usually done by sourcing a great breeder who has been breeding these reptiles for a while. They should be happy to show you the conditions of their turtles, to be able to show you multiple turtles of different ages, and vet certification showing proof of checks. They should also be willing to answer your questions about the turtle, and ask you questions to check you’re a suitable turtle owner too.
As an alternative to purchasing from a breeder, you could source your turtle from a rescue centre or similar outfit. Many people sadly need to move their turtle on because they can no longer care for it. Whilst this is sad, it is more responsible for them to give it to a vet or a rescue centre (or rehome to a suitable new home) than it is to release them into the wild, which is bad for the pet and the local environment.
Regardless of where you get your Eastern box turtle from, always check the turtle over for:
- Any signs of infection like pus, crusts, blood or swelling
- Any soft or crusty patches on the shell
- Dipping between the shell and the body of the turtle
- A light feeling when you pick it up
- No fight or reaction when you pick it up
- Problems walking
- Coughing, wheezing or mouth breathing
You may also want to have the turtle checked at a veterinarian with turtle experience before purchasing if you want to be extra careful and sure of the transaction.
How To Care For An Eastern Box Turtle
Because box turtles are so little some people do offer them a 20 gallon tank when they are babies. This is the minimum for a pet like an Eastern box turtle, but realistically you should work towards 10 gallons in size for every inch of carapace. So a five inch turtle needs a 50 gallon tank at least.
You can’t really offer them too much space, but too little and they will feel stressed and unhappy.
The Eastern box turtle loves to investigate and forage around, so you need to provide it with lots of enrichment to act out these behaviours.
Turtle logs are a great option, as well as non-toxic plants, dead leaves, twigs and even some turtle suitable substrate that is too big for them to eat. Do make sure the items have not been treated with anything toxic like pesticides, and that they are not sharp, or likely to fall and trap the turtle. The items should also enable the turtle to get inside and out again without trapping them.
For hydration, Eastern box turtles like to soak themselves in shallow water. You can enable them to do so with a shallow water bowl. The bowl needs to be shallow enough for them not to get stuck in it (they can drown easily) but heavy enough for them not to tip it when using it.
Lighting & Heating
The Eastern Box Turtle needs 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark in their tank. The only exception is with baby box turtles who need 14 hours of light, in addition to unwell turtles.
You can use a 75-100 watt bulb for the tanks overall lighting, which should be like daylight and then some shaded areas provided by the enrichment mentioned above.
You will also need to ensure that the tank has 60% humidity and has an ambient temperature of 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit in the day and 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit at night. Whilst under-tank heating can help with this, in general it is better to provide heating from above so that the turtle can escape the heat if they want to.
As well as the general warmth of the tank the turtle needs concentrated light and heat for something called basking. Basking is something that Eastern box turtles need to do to be healthy and happy. UVA helps to warm the turtle and get it going, letting its internal processes know that it is time to eat and move. UVB is the type of light a turtle needs to create vitamin D, which in turn helps them to absorb calcium from their diet. If the UVB is lacking the turtle will suffer from issues with their shell.
Some people like to put their Eastern box turtle outside in summer to help it get the right heat and light levels. It is safe to do this if you live in areas native to the Eastern box turtle. Even so, supplementary basking light as below needs to be provided just to make sure they are getting their needs met. Most people simply keep their turtle in their enclosure all the time with the basking lamp on 12 hours of the day.
You can purchase basking lamps which provide heat, UVA and UVB and the manufacturer will let you know how far the bulb needs to be from the basking surface in order to provide the right amounts of light for the turtle. There are various thermometer and measuring tools you can use to check these levels, as well as always replacing the bulbs regularly so they never produce lower UVB, heat and UVA levels.
How To Feed An Eastern Box Turtle
Eastern box turtles have a healthy appetite, which is omnivorous and can be made up of all kinds of goodies in the wild. Fungi, crustaceans, snails (and shell), insects and roots are all common foods eaten by these shelled cuties.
This turtle type likes to eat at dawn and dusk naturally so you should try to replicate this as much as possible at home for them. They should also have their heating lamp put on by a timer a little while before feeding to stimulate their appetite.
In captivity you need to feed your box turtle friend either 25% turtle pellets, 25% fruit and veg and 50% protein, or 50% protein (some of which can be made up of protein based turtle pellets), 30% veggies and 20% fruit.
Their protein should be varied, as should their fruit and vegetable intake. This will help to keep their nutrients varied. Any insects, fruits, veggies and other food should be carefully vetted to make sure it is bacteria and chemical free.
Here are some suggestions for each category of food:
Protein: Hard boiled eggs, insects (bred for feeding), shrimp, worms, snails
Fruits: Watermelon, bananas, blueberries
Veggies: Dandelion leaves, squash, tomatoes
For extra enrichment it is a good idea to give your turtle live insects to catch for food. They love the movement and will find it interesting to have this kind of live food in their enclosure.
Eastern Box Turtle Ownership – You’re Nearly There!
With our guide above you are one step closer to caring for your very own Eastern box turtle. Remember to do your research, be vigilant about creating the right environment and sourcing from a reputable breeder or rescue and always consult your vet if you’re unsure. Soon enough your Eastern box turtle is going to be enjoying their life with you for many happy and healthy years to come!
Be sure to check out My Turtle Shop Here for the essentials you need to help you set up.