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5. American Box Turtles


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 for beginners. Look for additional care information at: http://www.tortoisetrust.org 

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 health problems. 

  •  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! http://www.tortoisetrust.org 
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. (See below.) 
  •  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 exclusively indoors. 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 love it. 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. 

 Hygiene

  •  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 healthy. 
  •  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 more often.
  • 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. 

 Heating

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 hotter. 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 low. 

 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 box turtles. * 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! 

 Food Requirements

  • 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 diet.
  • 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 is presoaked. 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.) 

 Light

  • 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 85-90F.
  • The lights should be on between 10 and 14 hours a day, depending whether you use a yearly cycle, or not. 

 Temperature

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.

 Hibernation

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 turtle! 

Health Issues 

  •  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 expensive medication.
  • 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. * Constipation 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 condition. * 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 stop eating. * 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 mates. * 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. 

Breeding

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 reptiles). 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 prolapses. 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 guarded prognosis. 

 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 species
  • . 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 library. 
  •  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 Germany. 
  •  Recommended. 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 technical. There is a new magazine called "Reptile" available at the newsstand. It is directed mostly at beginning herp keepers. My first impression is favorable.
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