Last Updated: 11/12/13
Behavior and Care
Cages, Lighting, and Heat
Box turtles are interesting, long-lived animals that take their time with life. As long as they have a nice sized home with places to hide, water, good food, proper lighting and heat, and good care, they do pretty well.
I am not sure what to write in this section actually! Any ideas? Most of the things I want to mention about box turtles can be found in other sections.
When disturbed, box turtles will pull their heads in while making a sort of gasping air sound. They can close themselves into their shell completely. Box turtles love to dig down and hide.
Box turtles breed in early spring but may have practice matings in the fall. Females lay 3 to 8 eggs in early summer which hatch in a few months. The newborns may overwinter in the nest. Males and females can often be told apart by their eye color. Males have red eyes, and females have yellow, brown, or marble eyes. This is not always the case though so it is better to determine the sex by examining the shell and tail. Males have a concave (it dents inward) shell (so they can mount the female, and her shell fits in that spot) and a thicker and longer tail.
For more on turtle breeding, see my turtle breeding page.
Baby box turtles may not have their plastron hinge until they are a year or two old.
Breeding Box Turtles
Incubating Box Turtle Eggs
Box turtles eat many small plants and animals, preferring berries, insects, and worms. Box turtles can even eat mushrooms that would poison us. They may soak in shallow water occasionally. They love earthworms, beetle larvae, and other bugs, especially when young. As adults, they eat more vegetation, especially loving most fruits and leafy plants.
In captivity, food should be offered every day or two. Many box turtle owners feed their turtles in a container separate from their main tank to reduce the mess.
In the wild, box turtles may not drink water very often but in captivity, they need to have water often. Either keep a container in the cage which they may use and/or soil or soak them in half an inch of warm water every day for about 20 minutes. During this time, the turtles often defecate. When they are done, they return to the main tank which remains cleaner.
Fruits and Vegetables:
The following fruits and vegetables can be given to box turtles: grated carrot and squash, cut apple and pear, corn (cooked kernels), peas, most tropical fruits (banana, papaya, mango, guava, etc.), most berries (strawberries, raspberries, etc.), most leafy greens (romaine lettuce, collard, kale, mustard, dandelion, etc.), most melons (cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon, etc.), peaches, and many others.
Some animals that many box turtles will eat:
Insects: Beetle larvae, crickets, grasshoppers, mealworms (land beetle larvae, not a species of worm), various bugs, etc.
Mollusks: Snails, clams, slugs (yuck, I mean yum!), etc.
Worms: Earthworms (their favorite!!)
Most aquarium stores sell crickets, earthworms, and mealworms (various beetle species of various sizes).
Contrary to what a man wrote in an article I read, box turtles will not normally eat fish. Only on rare occasions, do they eat fish, mostly in captivity when the fish are constrained to a small area where they cannot escape. Box turtles are poor swimmers but they can swim. They can drown if they cannot get out of the water simply due to exhaustion. Fish are fast. If a box turtle appears at a pond, there is no need to be upset or fear for the pond animals. Instead, rejoice that you even have a box turtle! They cannot really hurt your pond. I later read about one person's box turtle who is an adept swimmer and fish catcher but that is not the normal box turtle.
Box turtles can be fed raw or cooked lean ground beef, cooked chicken or turkey, and lean canned dog foods (organic/natural are much better). Organic/natural dry cat and dog foods can also be fed but should not be a main meal. Do NOT feed most commercial dry cat or dog foods as they are mostly corn covered in lard. These meats are not complete nutrition so other foods must be given. See under additives on how to make meatloaf for turtles. Never feed raw chicken because it may carry salmonella. Never feed pig products because they are too fatty. Kathleen's box turtles also eat tuna fish and roast beef.
There are a number of prepared foods for box turtles available. Most are like canned dog foods and not great as main foods. You can also buy dead crickets, mealworms, caterpillars, and grasshoppers which some box turtles may eat.
There are various additives that your turtle may need including calcium, vitamins, shell aids, and shed aids. Calcium, vitamin liquids, and medications can be added to water directly but only work if the turtle drinks it. Other medications are topical, and some may have to be force fed (be sure you know what you are doing). Dry vitamins, calcium powders, etc. can be dusted onto crickets and other insects. You can make turtle "meatloaf" to give them their vitamins by combining one pound of raw lean ground beef with 1 teaspoon of calcium carbonate and one tablespoon of reptile vitamins. I do not see why you could not add some finely chopped vegetables or other turtle foods to the mix too. Freeze and later thaw a small portion to use as needed.
A sick box turtle can be soaked in a half inch of warm water with Vitadrops (vitamins sold for birds and small animals). Even if the turtle does not drink any, there is a slight chance that some may be absorbed through the skin.
You can also provide calcium blocks and/or cuttlebone for the turtles. This allows the turtles to not only get calcium at their leisure but also to trim their beaks.
Also, see my turtle feeding page which is geared towards aquatic turtles but much of it can apply to box turtles. A lot of the text is redundant.
The best setup for a box turtle is outside in its native habitat. If the turtle is not native to the area then it may not be able to overwinter outside. Cages should be made so that the turtle cannot escape (unless that is the turtle's home) as turtles always want to get out and walk back to their home territory, no matter the distance or obstacles. Young, sick, rare, or inexperienced box turtles should have the top of their enclosure also caged to keep raccoons, birds of prey, and other predators from getting to them. Fencing should be at least a few feet high and buried half a foot into the ground as box turtles love to dig. Lots of places to hide and piles of leaves are appreciated in outdoor setups. American box turtles do best if allowed to hibernate naturally. They can be hibernated artificially indoors but this requires more experience. If deprived of hibernation, the turtle's lifespan may be decreased and breeding will be less likely to occur (if the opportunity arises).
Box turtles can be kept in large aquariums. A 40 gallon breeder would be great for one or a nice 120 gallon for a few of them. To save money, they can also be kept in large plastic storage containers or rubbermaid tubs, livestock tanks (sold to hold water for cattle), large kiddie pools (be sure they cannot get out!), or other non-toxic, large containers with a lip over a foot high. Box turtles can climb quite well so they will try to find a way out so a lid is not a bad idea, especially if you have other animals running around the house. They (cats, dogs) may not hurt the turtle but they could make a mess in his setup. The substrate can be a non-toxic fake carpeting sold for reptiles or reptile bark or other things (consult the sites to which I link).
Like all reptiles, box turtles need two kinds of lighting. First, they need a basking lamp which is simply an incandescent bulb or heat lamp. Make sure the turtle cannot contact it. Also, Eastern box turtles do not need as much heat as other reptiles so do not overheat them. The second kind of lighting is very important, ultraviolet light. Without UVB light from either the natural sun or from fluorescent lighting, a turtle cannot make the vitamins (B, perhaps D) needed to survive. Light is also needed for overall health and for many things not fully understood. An incandescent bulb or heat lamp does NOT provide any UV rays despite some that claim to do so. Keep lights on for about 12 hours a day but you can vary it to match the changing seasons of the box turtle's native habitat.
I have more on turtle health (geared towards aquatic turtles but often applicable for box turtles) on my turtle health page.
Box turtles are prone to many problems. At least the wild ones we have come across always seem to have one or more of these problems! If you have a pet turtle or come across a wild turtle with these problems or other problems, consult a vet or licensed turtle rehabilitator right away as the turtle can go downhill and die quickly. I am not an expert so do not rely solely on what I say. Please consult an expert.
Also, see this super excellent site on box turtle health.
Upper Respiratory Infection and Giving Baytril Injections:
This is very common for all box turtles. A turtle with an upper respiratory infection will usually have bubbles coming from his/her nose, be listless, not eat, and make strange lung noises. While common, this is also VERY deadly. Treatment is 10 days of injections of Baytril liquid into the front legs. To do this, you must consult a vet to get the antibiotic and the proper dosage. Do not guess on the dose.
We had to inject a wild box turtle for treatment. This is what we did. To do an injection, you need two people. One person uses their left hand to hold the turtle and their right hand to put a think piece of cardboard between the turtle's head and leg being shot. They tilt the turtle so it is at a 45 degree angle with its head down. Usually, the turtle will then stick its head out. The other person grabs the leg in question when it comes out, forcibly as the turtle will pull back hard. The turtle will also bite, hence the cardboard shield. The needle is inserted between the little plates on the leg, pulled out slightly once in to be sure there is no blood, and then the proper dosage is injected into the leg.
Tess e-mailed me the following on 10/20/03: "...I actually give shots by myself. It is less traumatic for the turtle. One person is the bad guy, not two :) I pin the front leg of the turtle against its bottom shell and give the shot quickly between the scales into the muscle. They cannot bite me because my hand is away from the head. I dilute the Baytril with Saline solution so there is less sting."
This is another VERY common problem. Usually, if the turtle has the above infection, they have this too. If a turtle's eyes are swollen, often shut, they either have an infection (conjunctivitis) or a Vitamin A deficiency. Either way, they again will require antibiotics to recover. It will NOT get better on its own. A turtle with swollen eyes will stop eating and become listless and eventually die without treatment. If the infection is severe, the eyes may have to be lanced, something ONLY a professional should ever do. The antibiotic of choice for our vet was triple antibiotic with neomycin, polymyxin B sulfates, and bacitracin zinc.
Botflies and Maggots:
Wild box turtles as well as captive ones that are outside often get botfly. These show up as large bumps, usually around the head and legs. If the bump is over the ear, it may be an infected ear drum which needs lancing. If the bumps are elsewhere, they are most likely botflies which are larvae of the botfly (a single maggot) under there. The area has to be lanced and packed with antibiotics by a vet or professional turtle rehabilitator. Turtles are also prone to regular fly maggots if they have an open wound. A female fly will lay eggs in any open wound. The eggs are like tiny grains of rice and should be flushed out if seen before hatching. Once hatched, the maggots will eat the live turtle's flesh and have to be flushed and picked out by hand, the wound being packed with antibiotics. While one or two botflies probably will not kill a box turtle, many of them or a single infestation of regular maggots (that is a mass of larvae) can easily kill even a healthy turtle.
Shell Rot and Fungus
Box turtles can get shell rot (bacterial) or shell fungus. A vet should look into it. Freddie had some slight shell fungus (was green around some torn scute covers) that was treated with 1% silver sulfadiazine.
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