Box Turtles

Box turtle held by a hand
Box turtles can be enjoyable pets but require a good amount of commitment in caring for them. 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. With an average lifespan of 50 years, these turtles require a long term commitment and proper care. There are several different species of box turtle, and each has variations in their housing and dietary needs.


Picking a Healthy Box Turtle

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.

It is wise to get a stool sample checked by a veterinarian so that you can deal with any heavy parasite infestations after taking them home.

You will also want to monitor their appetite and take the turtle to a vet immediately if they are not eating shortly after arriving home. Anorexia can be a sign of dehydration and if soaking your turtle in a warm water bath doesn't help, they may need fluid injections.

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.

Feeding Box Turtles

Since they are omnivores, a varied diet must be provided to your box turtle. 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.

Box Turtle Hibernation

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 they are in good health prior to that time of year. If an unhealthy box turtle hibernates they 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.

Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT