The basic instructions given here apply to American box
turtles. Note that these instructions are basic, just to get
you started. You must research the species of box turtle
that you are keeping.
Note that while this care sheet includes indoor setup
instructions, it is best for box turtles to be kept in
an outdoor setup.
Asian box turtles, specifically the Chinese Box Turtle (Cuora
flavomarginata), the Malaysian Box Turtle (Cuora ambionensis), and
the Three Striped Box Turtle (Cuora trifascrate) have
different and special requirements.
Neither American nor Asian box turtles are recommended
Look for additional care information at:
Is a Box Turtle Right for You?
- Turtles are not Ninja Turtles. They will not perform tricks,
talk, or perform heroic deeds. They don't eat pizza either. In fact,
box turtles spend a lot of time buried in humid leaf litter, dirt, or
the cage substrate. While they can be handled, it is best to think
of them as animals to watch and interact with on their terms.
- Box Turtles live 40 and more years. Are you willing to take on a
long-term commitment? Some box turtles are claimed to be over
a 100 years old! Don't think you can find a home for the turtle
when you get tired of it. Adoption agencies and rescue groups
are being flooded with reptiles that were bought on a whim and
now they are not wanted anymore; museums, schools and zoos do
not want your unwanted reptiles.
- Do you have time to take proper care of your turtle? It takes
about 1 hour a week to thoroughly clean the enclosure, and about
10 minutes a day to feed and observe your animal.
Indoor enclosures need to be kept spotlessly clean, water bowls
need to be cleaned daily. Outdoor enclosures need "gardening"
care. Young box turtles need to be fed daily with a varied diet;
adults are fed about every two days. When you go on vacation,
someone needs to watch your turtle.
The turtle should be weighed and inspected regularly to avoid
- Are you willing to afford a turtle? Food will cost you
10-20 dollars a month, depending on what you are feeding. An
initial setup will cost you at least 30.-, but probably more,
if you build it yourself.
Budget about 1 dollar a day for one animal. This budget includes
food, housing, veterinary bills, and miscellaneous expenses.
A box turtle should at the least have a veterinary checkup
shortly after it has been acquired, including an exam, a
fecal exam, and some bloodwork. This will cost in the order
of 100 dollars (cost varies). A yearly checkup with a fecal
exam is recommended.
- Turtles are not cuddly.
While it is OK to handle them, most of them prefer to keep their
feet on the ground in their familiar enclosure. Some turtles love
to have their head petted or their shell scratched.
If treated properly, they can become very
tame and very attached to their owners, clearly distinguishing
him/her from other people. Your turtle may also find ways to make
known his needs to you.
* Even though most turtles are cheap to buy, when they get sick,
they can cost as much as a cat or dog to treat. Are you willing
to pay veterinary bills for the animal? Are you willing to give
the animal all the medical and personal care it needs, when it
gets sick ? Turtles feel pain, too, and if you are not willing
or able to spend the money, don't get one!!!
Before You Get a Box Turtle
Join or at least visit one of the herpetological societies in
your area. Many of them have websites that includes information
on their activities and on animal care.
Read about your potential pet, talk to people who keep turtles,
and get on rec.pets.herp or anoter herp group, if you have a computer.
* Take the Tortoise Trust Foundation Course offered by the tortoise
trust. You cannot do yourself and your turtle a better favor!
Prepare a comfortable setup for your animal and buy some food ahead
of time. If you animal was an impulse buy, make establishing a setup
your top priority.
The following book is not expensive and it is a great resource. It is
available from Amazon.com, some book retailers, and some pet stores:
"The Box Turtle Manual (The Herpetocultural Library. Series 300)"
by Philippe De Vosjoli, Roger Klingenberg
Basic Indoor Setup
- Note: It is best for box turtles to be kept outdoors at least some
of the time. If you are not able to provide an outdoor setup, a good
indoor setup can be made that meets the needs of the animal.
You can then use, for example, a kiddie pool type setup as a
temporary outdoor enclosure during warm days and at daytime only.
- A wood or plastic box, at least 2 by 3 feet (3 by 4 recommended)
and 1 1/2 feet high (box turtles climb well). Aquariums are not
recommended. One reason is that if the enclosure is going to be anywhere near a sunny
window. When the sun shines at an aquarium, it gets very hot inside,
and your turtle can die of heatstroke before you know it.
A cement mixing box would work well; or you can make your
own box from Formica, or regular wood that you coat with epoxy.
- An incandescent lamp or ceramic bulb that will heat an area of the
enclosure to 85-90F.
- A full spectrum light. Even if a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D3 is fed,
the full spectrum light is beneficial.
- A hide box. A wooden box, flower pot with a hole, or wood bark
are all excellent. Even a cardboard shoebox will do. It is
essential that a turtle has a place to hide. Stress can cause
disease and even death.
- A water dish large enough for the turtle to soak in and hang out.
About 1/2 inch of water. The turtle must be able to easily get in and
out of the dish. A flower pot saucer, shallow dog dish, or a paint
tray works well. American box turtles cannot swim! (Asian box
turtles love to wade and are able to swim for short distances.)
All turtles love to soak, especially on hot days, and all turtles
must have drinking water available at all times. (As a rule of
thumb for the depth of the water for American box turtles, the water
can cover the first circle of scutes of the carapace (top shell) when
the turtle is sitting in the water. For Asian box turtles, about an
inch or two of water are best; make it so the turtle can comfortably
stick its head out.)
READER COMMENT: Notes that American Box Turtles do know how to swim and
are seen doing it even in the wild on occasion.
- Substrate for the box. (There is some controversy on this
subject). If newspaper or grass carpet is used, you may want to
provide a box with peat-moss based potting soil for the turtle to
dig in. Box turtles love to burrow. Or you can use wood chips.
If you use newspaper, change it every couple of days. Grass carpet
needs to be cleaned thoroughly every few days (use weak bleach
solution and rinse well). Wood chips need to be replaced every
one to two weeks and must be kept dry to prevent growth of
bacteria. More cleaning is better! If you are lucky, your turtle
will defecate mostly in its water bowl, and you can leave the
substrate unchanged longer. Change the water bowl the moment you
notice fecal matter in it!
The dust from shavings seemed to cause some irritation leading to
prolapses in my turtles. I now use newspaper or grass carpet
An ideal substrate from the turtle's point of view is peat-moss
based potting soil mixed with orchid bark, slightly moistened. It
is messier and must be monitored for fungus growth, but the turtles
I have also used AlfaAlfa hay. The turtles love it. It needs to
be changed often, and it has a strong smell. I stopped using it, since
I didn't want my room to smell like a stable all the time.
A colleague swears by Bed-a-Beast, a ground up coconut
shell litter that you soak to expand. Retains moisture but is less likely to
get moldy than soil (even sterilized potting soil). Fluffy, doesn't compact,
so great for digging. Only drawback so far is with baby boxies--feces small,
harder to see & clean up because tend to get lost in the bedding. Still,
have had better results with this even with the babies. NOTE: Copycat
bedding by T-Rex is NOT as good (not just my experience), though I sure
couldn't say why.
- Do not use pine shavings. The pine oil is poisonous!
- Avoid coarse and soggy media.
- Corn cobs are not recommended.
- Always keep the water dish clean. Change the water at least once
a day, or better twice. Turtles drink the same water that they
soak and eliminate in. Change the water the moment you see fecal
matter in it.
- Keep the enclosure sparkling clean. It will keep your turtle
- Don't leave old food in the box. It attracts ants and other pests.
Use a food dish that you can remove and clean every time you feed.
You can leave fruit and veggies and dried food around all day.
- Not overfeeding will also keep the waste down. Feed small portions
- Give your turtle as much space as you can possibly afford. In
this case, larger is always better. More space for the turtle
also means less cleaning for you.
Basking lamp. If your apartment is always warm, one basking
lamp, with a 60W or 75 Watt bulb, suffices to heat the enclosure.
Temperature under the lamp should be around 85-90F. Use a timer to
turn the lamp off at night. Most people use clamp-on shop lamps.
Heating pads. They are less and less in favor with most reptile
keepers, mostly because the temperature is hard to control, even if
you use a thermostat. Also, heat from the bottom is not the usual way
turtles want to get their heat fix.
Putting heating pads under substrates--well, someone will dig down and
sit on it and get too hot.
Never put a heating pad directly under a burnable substrate. It's a
fire hazard. Also, if there is no air circulation, things get a lot
In addition, many turtles will go right for the white pad (if you use
a pad made for humans) and the wire (thinking it's a yummee maggot), and
if they bite through the plastic, the turtle gets electrocuted.
One option is to attach the heating pad to the
SIDE of the enclosure. This raises the ambient temperature of the cage.
There are a number of "reptile heating pads" on the market, and most of
them still get too hot. I don't like mentioning brand names, but I find
that ZooMed pads get too hot. One colleague swears by TropicZone pads.
Using a rheostat with any heating pad also allows you to control the heat.
These days, I still use heating pads for the snakes, but for healthy
turtles, I only use heat from the top and ambient heating.
Basic Outdoor Setup
Keeping the turtles outside at least in summer, mostly duplicates
their natural environment.
If you don't want to hibernate the animal, you have to take it
indoors as soon as it gets cooler and the turtle slows down and
does not eat as much. You must take Asian box turtles indoors--they
do not hibernate and will die outdoors if the temperature drops too
Pay attention to the following:
- Don't let turtles roam/eat in a yard that has had
pesticides applied to in the last few years.
- The enclosure must be escape-proof against burrowing.
- A screen top should be used to keep vermins out.
- A hide box in the shade must be provided.
- The turtle area must be free of poisonous plants.
- I use the following setup: An old kiddy pool filled with grass
clippings and leafs (only if you don't fertilize your grass, or
use any kinds of weed or other killers on it!), or with newspaper.
A flower pot for hiding. A board over some of the pool for shade.
A large flat bowl with water. Of course, from there you can take
it in many directions for a more beautiful and and fancier setup!
Many people build beautiful covered wooden outdoor pens for their
* Make sure the outdoor setup has at least partial shade during the
hottest part of the day.
- If you leave the turtles outside overnight, make a cover to keep out
opossums or racoons. Cats aren't usually interested in adult turtles.
You can use 1 by 2s and screen to make a cover.
The cover must be firmly connected to the base, otherwise a racoon
can lift it and still snatch the turtle. Racoons are smart!
- DO NOT FEED HAMBURGER. It is much to fatty!
- DO NOT FEED RAW CHICKEN! It often contains salmonella.
- Box turtles like a mixed diet. Experiment with a good mix of
food items and find out what your turtle likes best. Don't just
feed one kind of food. In the wild, turtles eat a very varied
- Good food: earthworms, nightcrawlers (make sure they are not
raised on manure), redworms, mealworms (treat only, very fatty),
whole feeder goldfish, snails, crickets,
butter lettuce (wash well) or kale, melon and other fruit
(find out what your turtle likes).
Also try a little boiled egg, tofu, cooked yam, corn on the
cob, tomatoes, chopped and steamed broccoli.
Lots of green leafy vegetables!
Turtles have varied tastes, and it may take a few weeks to find
out what your turtle likes. I offer one new or previously refused
food about once a week. My turtle does change its mind!
- Tubifex are not a turtle food.
- Snails: If you or your neighbors use pesticides, don't feed them.
- Lettuce (to most people, 'lettuce' still
means 'iceberg' which is a NO_NO. Use dandelion greens--very high in calcium
and vitamin A--and escarole & endive & ok, romaine--all good sources of
calcium, and none carrying iodine-binding substances like the cruciferous
vegies or calcium-binding substances like spinach.
- Feeder goldfish/guppies--there is some controversy there. I wouldn't
feed my box turtles fish, since that's not a natural food.
- We used to feed canned cat/dog food to turtles. With the availability
of decent dry foods, I can't recommend this anymore, except as a last
resort for an animal that won't eat, even after it has been declared
healthy by a veterinarian.
- ZooMed has canned box turtle food available. I like it better than
dry foods (it has less fat/protein), and it is vegetarian. My
turtles love it. Because it is vitaminized, do not feed daily.
Refrigerate or freeze after opening so it doesn't spoil.
- You can prepare a batch of mixed food in a food processor and
then freeze it for later use.
- Everything said about iguana food is true for box turtles, except
that box turtles take somewhat more meat.
- Dried food. There are several brands of dried foods available.
They contain vitamins, so don't feed extra vitamins if you are
using prepared foods. Some turtles will only eat the dry food if it
ZooMed, RepCal, and Pretty Bird have foods that are specially formulated for
box turtles. Reptomin is another commercial food that turtles usually
like. It is indeed practical to be able to feed dried food when one goes on vacation.
- Feed your turtle day. If it gets too skinny, feed more,
if it gets fat, feed less.
I feed dry food or meat/worms/etc. every other day, and veggies
or fruit on the off days.
- If you are feeding a perfect diet, no supplements are necessary.
In captivity, we can not easily reach perfection, therefore vitamin
supplies should be given.
Herptivite (by RepCal) is a recommended supplement.
Many turtles will chew on a cuttle fish bone, if provided.
If you are feeding dry food, and it
has added vitamins, then don't feed extra vitamins on top of that.
NOTE: OUTDOOR TURTLES SHOULD NOT BE SUPPLEMENTED WITH VITAMIN D3, as
they make plenty of their own.
- Mixing a favorite food (like banana) with a less desirable food is a
good way to trick a turtle into eating something that's good for it.
Note that banana is high in phosphorus and should not be fed too much,
though many turtles just gobble it down. (I use it as a carrier for
greens for my Asian box turtles.)
- Turtles need several hours of exposure to natural sunlight every
day. This helps them synthesize vitamin D3. If you keep your pet
outdoors, and there are sun and shade available in the enclosure,
you don't have to worry. If your turtle is indoors all the time,
you have to provide a source full-spectrum light.
Supposedly, 15 minutes of exposure to real sun is as good as
many hours under an artificial lamp. So, why not take your turtle
for a round of the yard at least every few days?
I don't use VitaLite for my turtles and instead feed them Vitamin
D3 when they are indoors. This is recommended by several sources
and works well. But, this is an issue still under research and discussion.
There are 3 bulbs on the market that produce significant
levels of UVB: Zoo-Med's ReptiSun 5.0, ESU's Desert Sun 7.0, and Reptile
D-light (usually available only by mail order). All must be replaced every
4-6 mos (timing depends on which research you think was most elegantly
designed, but they all agree on the brevity of the useful life) because a
coating builds up on the inside of the bulb which blocks the UVB. Also, they
must be no more than 12" (or 14", or 18", again depending on whose research
was best designed) from the animal in order to affect blood calcium levels.
- Leave the light on 12-14 hours a day.
- There are other brands of bulbs that claim to be full-spectrum.
Most of them do not supply enough UV, or the wrong kind. Plant
lights, and the like are not good enough. Black lights, on the other hand,
produce too much UV for your turtle to be exposed to continuously.
So do tanning lights.
- Some of my turtles enjoy a walk outdoors in summer. Watch your
turtle at all times, so he won't get hurt or lost. Turtles can get
lost very quickly if they want to. Watch your turtle. Some stress
out too much, if their environment changes. If your turtle does not
eat for several days after being out, he is the kind who does not
like change. He is better off without the walks. Or keep trying, and
he may get used to it after a while.
- Turtles need a basking light. The clmap-on shop lights from the
hardware store are great. Place one on a screen top or hang it
(high enough that the turtles cannot touch the bulb). I find that
a 60W to 75W bulb is about the right strength. Check by putting a
thermometer on the basing spot. Temperature should be around
- The lights should be on between 10 and 14 hours a day, depending
whether you use a yearly cycle, or not.
About 70-90F. There should be hotter and cooler areas within the
enclosure. Turtles, like all reptiles, thermoregulate.
Be sure the temperature is not too low, because it will put the
turtle into a state, where it is too warm for hibernation and too
cold to eat and move, and it will die. If you are not hibernating
your turtle, take it indoors when the temperature regularly goes
below 50F at night.
If you keep your turtles indoors and are not breeding, you do not
need to hibernate them.
If your turtles live outside in the summer, you can take them in
winter and need not hibernate them, unless you want to breed.
I do not hibernate my turtles, so, for details, check the
literature. Only hibernate a completely healthy
- Signs of good health are: clear eyes and skin, smooth shiny shell,
no visible damage. A healthy box turtle is strong and should walk,
run, and climb over obstacles easily. It will pay attention to its
surroundings and is more often than not curious.
* Nail and Beak Trimming
In captivity, turtles don't walk enough and eat enough rough foods
to keep their toe nails and beaks trimmed. When your turtle's toe
nails get long, or the beak gets too much of an overbite, have an
experienced turtle keeper or a veterinarian show you how to trim
them. Trimming beaks is rather tricky.
- Since this is a sheet for beginners, I do not want to go into
treatments. If your animal gets sick and either gets worse fast, or does
not better within a few days, SEE A VETERINARIAN.
- In general, see a good veterinarian that knows about reptiles.
Some are in the yellow pages, or ask your local animal hospital or
Humane Society for a reference to a herp veterinarian. Your local
herpetological society may also be able to help.
- If your turtle gets sick, make sure you are keeping it in a clean
enough environment, feed it the right foods, and keep it warm
enough. These are the primary reasons for turtles getting sick.
Fix the environment, or the turtle will not get better, even with
- The most common symptom is a turtle not eating. See next section.
- Swollen eyes
Most often the beginning of any kind of an infection.
Bacterial infections, caused by a combination of stress and physical damage
(rough substrate, dirty substrate in eyes, scratched by other turtles'claws).
Do not just use eye drops. If the infection is strictly in the eye,
Gentocin drops (from your veterinarian) often help.
They ease the symptoms, and the turtle will be happier, but you
need to treat the cause. Stay away from Vitamin A shots until you
have tried a change in diet and soaking and topical antibiotics.
Lack of vitamin A is only one possible cause, and not the most common.
It is difficult to determine the correct dose, and too much will
cause the turtle a slow and painful death.
Can be caused by wrong diet, lack of exercise, or ingestion of sand,
dirt, or gravel. If your turtle does not eliminate, or becomes hard
and impacted at the rear end, see a veterinarian. This is a serious
* Wounds in the skin and small rashes.
You can treat these by disinfecting them with Betadine or Nolvosan
solution (dilute with same amount of water) and keeping the turtle
warm and dry. If the condition does not improve, see a
veterinarian. Betadine is available at all drug stores. Nolvosan
can be bought at farm supply stores or from a veterinary.
- Sneezing and gaping (occasionally)
Like humans, reptiles occasionally sneeze or yawn. Turtles can get
water in their nose and need to sneeze it out. If the sneezing
happens only every once in a while, and if there is no mucus
discharge, there is nothing to worry about.
- Sneezing (often), coughing, gaping
Almost always a sign of respiratory infection, often pneumonia.
This needs the immediate attention of a skilled herp veterinarian.
The turtle will need antibiotics, X-rays, and a lot of care. Better
prevent by keeping your turtle warm enough and properly fed.
If Your Turtle Is Not Eating
Is the turtle kept warm enough ? If turtles get too cool, they
* Does the turtle like the food you offer ? Try out different foods.
Some turtles can be very finicky eaters, especially in the
beginning. And they have definite likes and dislikes. I find
that most turtles will eventually take small earthworms that are
wiggling in front of their nose.
* Is your turtle exposed to too much stress? This is often a cause
in new animals. Stress can be caused by handling, travelling, tank
* I your turtle healthy? Not eating can be a symptom of other
problems like respiratory infection, pneumonia, constipation.
* Don't panic! A turtle can go without food for weeks, even months,
and when it feels well again, it will eat again. See a
veterinarian if you think you are doing everything right, and the
animal does not eat for more than 2 weeks.
Male or Female?
These are not clean-cut rules, and not all work for all turtles,
but using a combination of them will usually help you determine
the gender of your turtle.
Males often have fatter, bigger tails than females.
Males have the vent (cloaca) about 2/3 from the shell towards
the tip of the tail. Females have it closer to the shell.
There are other methods, but the by-the-tail is by far the
easiest and most reliable.
This is an advanced feature and not covered here.
Prolapses (Intestinal and others)
A lot of turtles will at some point in time prolapse, i.e. turn
inside out and outside of their body) their intestine or for males
their penises (ovaries are possible, too, for females).
Occasional prolapses are common and more annoying than dangerous
if dealt with properly. To the best of my knowledge, there is little
pain involved for the turtle (but we know little about pain in
It is not known for sure, what causes prolapses. Diet, stress,
parasites and intestinal infections, general disease, obstructed
intestinal tract, weak cloacal muscles have all been suggested, but
there are no final conclusions. So, there are no known preventive
measures, either. Some substrates can irritate the turtle and cause
If your turtle seems otherwise healthy, an occasional prolapse is
nothing to worry about. If the prolapses happen frequently and
cause too much distress to you and your turtle, you might consider
asking a herp vet to apply a purse string suture.
If you catch your turtle in the act, watch and keep dirt away form
the exposed parts. If they don't go back in immediately, make sure,
they stay moist (water - you may even want to put the animal in a
pan with a little luke warm water) and massage the surrounding area
gently and make the turtle move.
Other turtles might try to bite the prolapsed body part which can
lead to heavy bleeding and ugly consequences. Land turtles may step
on their intestine, or tear it with their hind feet when trying to
remove the 'thing' extending from their body. The turtle is not
aware, that this is a body part. Observe the turtle, until the
prolapse has gone back inside.
Purse String Suture: The suture basically keeps the cloaca from
opening too wide, and so the intestine should stay in. The turtle
can still pass feces, of course.
If the intestine does dry off, usually, the vet will put a suture
around it and eventually remove the dead part completely. This is
done under anesthesia and can be more or less complicated,
depending on the size of the dead parts. This operation has a
Notes on Asian Box Turtles
- You can go with the same basic setup with the following changes:
- About 1/4 to 1/2 of the enclosure should be water deep enough for
the turtle to submerge halfway. A cat litter box is about the right size.
These turtles are semi-aquatic. Their natural habitat is rice
paddies and forest streams. Asian box turtles love to be in the water!
- The diet is more carnivorous. Vegetables are rarely taken, but
fruit are. You should still offer a variety of fruit and veggies.
I found that one of my Chinese box turtles likes peas, the other
one likes corn. Try banana as a magic food! They will also take egg,
tomatoes, melon, blueberries, strawberries...
- Coolest temperature should be around 75F. These turtles do
not hibernate and will not eat if too cool. Make sure some part
of the enclosure is always nice and warm.
- If your turtle is a finicky eater, try earthworms, pinkies, and
banana. They are favorite foods.
For more information,
please, get the care sheet No. 013 from the
San Diego Turtle and Tortoise Club listed in the references.
Sources of Information
- Encyclopedia of Turtles. Pritchard. Price varies from $40 to $80.
The comprehensive listing and description of turtle and tortoise
The General Care and Maintenance of Box Turtles, Including a
Section on Chinese and Malaysian Box Turtles. Advanced Vivarium
Systems, around $8. Comprehensive and up to date. All you need
to get started.
- Turtles and Tortoises of the World. David Alderton, ISBN: 0-8160-
1733-6, $22.95. This book discusses everything there is to know
about turtles and tortoises. It discusses anatomy, reproduction,
behavior, EVERYTHING!!! And it's written in such a way that you
don't need to be a scientist to understand everything. Along
with very nice pictures... this is the best book in my herp
- Turtles, Tortoises, and Terrapins. F.J. Obst, 1988, ISBN 0-312-
82362-2, priced around $20. A wonderful book which covers the
life of turtles. Emphasis on conservation issues; wonderful
photographs and excellent drawings; small section on husbandry.
More than worth the money. This book appeared originally in
TEAM: Turtle and Tortoise Education and Adoption Media. Monthly,
$10 per year. 3245 Military Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90034. Emphasis
on tortoises and tortoise conservation efforts in this country.
With your subscription you not only get an interesting newsletter,
but also support the case for the tortoise. If you have turtles,
you should be getting it. Articles range from general to very
There is a new magazine called "Reptile" available at the
newsstand. It is directed mostly at beginning herp keepers. My
first impression is favorable.