Box Turtle Care

Box turtles 

Environment:  It is most beneficial for box turtles to live outside even if for only part of the year.  This outdoor time provides UV exposure, exercise, and psychological well-being.

Cage:   24×36” minimum. Needs hiding areas.   A mixture of peat moss and shredded paper (or compressed paper pellets) is my preferred substrate, as it is less likely to be consumed and less likely to harbor bacteria than other organic material.  It is best to soak box turtles 15 minutes a day, rather than letting them soak in their water bowl free choice.  This can be done in shallow luke-warm water (cleaned daily) in a separate enclosure.  Certain additional requirements must be met for Ornate, Malayan and Chinese Box Turtles, which are listed at the end of this sheet.

Temp/light:      A basking lamp can be used to provide a heat gradient (range) in the cage. In general, day time temperatures should range between 72-88 F. Night time temps should not be any lower than 60 F.  This temperature range is important to maintain, so that the turtle can get into a warmer area or the terrarium, or out of a warmer area as it wants.   Box turtles require a UV light bulb suspended no more than 18” above their head (changed every 6 months) or natural unfiltered sunlight (can’t be filtered by glass or plastic).

Some specifics on various sp. differences in temperature are listed below:

Ornate boxes: between 85-88 F/day, 70-75 F/night
Other U.S. box turtles: 85-88 F/day, 70-75 F/night
Chinese boxes: water 75-85 F, air 85 F

Malayans: water 78-85 F, air 85 F

Diet: Most species of box turtles are omnivores: The main staple is bugs and vegetables.  Bugs can include earthworms, crickets (which have been fed on tropical fish flakes and fresh fruit for at least 24 hours), beetles, freshly molted king mealworms, Zoophoba king worms, Tenebrio mealworms (the tough brown exoskeletons are not digestible), night crawlers (avoid bait shop worms – these are usually raised under rabbit hutches and are filthy with bacteria and protozoa), and slugs and snails (if caught in your garden, feed the snails and slugs for 4 days on dark leafy green vegetables – any that have been exposed to snail poisons will die in that time).  Vegetables should emphasize dark leafy greens including carrot tops, mustard greens, dandelion greens, collards, chard, endive, etc.  To a lesser extent offer carrots, orange squash, green beans, sweet peppers, and flowers including hibiscus, rose petals, geraniums, nasturtiums.  Fruit and dog food should be fed sparingly (<5% diet), and cat food should be avoided. Pinkies and goldfish can be offered 1 -2x per month.  Remember that young turtles eat more animal matter than do adults, so the amount of protein offered should decrease over time until it is no more than 10% of total food volume in an adult animal.  I recommend adding a calcium-only supplement (crushed Tums) every other day sprinkled over the food, and a multivitamin no more than once a week.  Offer food daily to youngsters and every other day to adults.

Routine maintenance: Box turtles will often require a nail and beak trim, especially if they are kept indoors.  This can be done professionally by your veterinarian.

Hibernation:    It is essential for adults (except southern box turtles), but turtles must be in good health prior to hibernating.  It helps them achieve normal life expectancy.  It-helps maintain normal hormonal activity and stimulate and synchronize reproductive cycles.  Often turtles are sluggish by September, and hibernate in October-February. Ask your vet or local turtle/tortoise club for a hibernation protocol and recommendations.

Resources:     The Box Turtle Manual by Philippe de Vosjoli

Common problems:

-Vitamin A deficiency: consider 1 drop of fresh cod liver oil per day as a preventative. If the diet is really well balanced, they probably won’t need it.

-Parasites: have your vet check at least three stool samples microscopically to rule out parasites.

-Abscesses (especially of the ear)

Specific facts for Ornate box turtles: The Ornate box turtles, Terrapene ornata are less hardy than the other American box turtles (T. carolina spp.). Their high death rate is compounded by the fact that adults are less able to adapt to conditions of captivity.  Despite this, it is the adults that are most often captured and sold in the pet trade.

This species requires a hollow log or bark slab under which to hide. The sterile potting soil substrate, into which sand has been added (25% of substrate) should be kept dry and allow for easy digging and drainage.  Ornates help meet their needs for constant temperatures and humidity by hiding under their log much of the day. A light misting on warm days (85-88 F), moderate nighttime temperatures (70-75 F), and a large shallow pan of fresh water should be available at all times.

Unlike the other box turtles, Ornates are primarily insectivorous and they may prefer to feed under water.  You can try offering their insects when they are soaking.  They are often reluctant to feed in captivity, so monitor them carefully. Live foods should be offered regularly; feed in the early mornings and late afternoons when the turtles are active.  Offer food daily to youngsters, every other day to adults.

Specifics on Malayan and Chinese Box Turtles:       For these more aquatic turtles, you will need to invest in a submersible water heater if you cannot get or keep the water consistently hot enough with the substrate and overhead heat sources. Buy a digital thermometer with a probe (Radio shack) to measure water temperature and cage temperature in the different areas of the habitat.

The Malayan, or Amboina, box turtle, Cuora amboinensis, is more aquatic than the Terrapene box turtles. They require a large area of water (at least 50% of total enclosure) which is at least as deep as the height of the turtle. Like the slider and painted turtles, the Malayans’ water must be kept scrupulously clean; a filter system should be used, and feeding them in a separate enclosure is recommended to prevent fouling of the water. (See temperature requirements above in the Heating section.)  Although the Malayan box turtles are considered to be hardy and relatively easy to care for, they are shipped under the typical export conditions and should be checked by a vet soon after purchase. Along with worms and protozoan infections, they may be actively infected with other diseases which are communicable to humans (i.e. Salmonella spp.).

The Chinese box turtles, Cuora flavomarginata, also need a large water area. A large kitty litter pan sunk into the ground is generally an adequate size; be sure the turtle has a way to climb in and out of it. They should be offered the same diet as the American box turtles, but small fish (feeder goldfish) can be offered as well.

While these are hardy turtles which tend to do well in captivity, they must be kept at appropriate temperatures.  Below 70 F is dangerous and can lead to immunosuppression and illness and even death (except during winter cooling, when temperatures normally can drop as low as 65 F).

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Veterinarian/Owner of Pismo Beach Veterinary Clinic

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