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Box Turtle Care

December 8, 2009 by  
Filed under Reptiles

Box turtles are among the most popular reptiles kept as pets in the United States.  The ornate box turtle, the eastern box turtle, and the three-toed box turtle are commonly sold in the pet trade.  However, several subspecies exist and identification can be difficult.  Regardless of the species, proper care is essential to the long-term survival of these hearty reptiles.  Unfortunately, most health problems encountered are a result of poor husbandry and nutrition.

Housing Requirements

One to two female or one male North American box turtle can be successfully maintained in an enclosure with at least 12 square feet of floor space. A large bookcase, children’s sandbox, or preformed children’s pool work well if you don’t want to build a pen.  Cement mixing tubs and aquariums are too small for housing adult box turtles on a permanent basis.  Moreover, the high walls on most aquariums make it difficult to establish good ventilation and a proper thermal gradient.  The walls of a turtle pen should be high enough so the animal cannot reach up, grab the top and hoist itself up over the rim.  (Box turtles are remarkably good climbers!)  An 8- to 9-inch clearance above the substrate is adequate if the walls are smooth and there are no plants or other objects (including cage mates) on which a turtle can stand or use as a ladder.  For added security, add a 2-inch overhanging ledge around the inside perimeter of the pen.

Ideally, use smooth plastic or finished lumber (i.e., coated with exterior-grade varnish, polyurethane or an epoxy sealant) to make an enclosure.  Such material weathers well and can be easily cleaned.  If raw lumber is used, it must be lined with a plastic sheet to keep the wood from rotting and maintain sanitary conditions.  Do not use screening on the walls, since turtles may abrade themselves on it.  Also, avoid clear plastic or glass; turtles often pace along walls they can see through.  If there are pets or small children that could gain access to the enclosure, cover it with a screened lid.  Do not use a solid lid with small ventilation panels; it is unlikely to provide adequate ventilation.

Substrates

In the wild, box turtles spend a considerable amount of time partially or totally buried in the substrate to thermo- and hydro-regulate and to hide from potential predators.  In captivity, they may become highly stressed if deprived of the opportunity to burrow or hide and may suffer serious medical problems if the substrate is too dry.  The substrate should be loose for easy digging, nonabrasive, have a low dust content and be free of chemical additives.  Inexpensive substrates that work well include very finely shredded hardwood mulch (e.g., “ICBIN” mulch by Banff, Barrington, NJ) or high quality loam compost.  Add hardwood leaf litter and/or rehydrated sphagnum moss to increase moisture-holding capacity and to keep the substrate from packing.  Rehydrated processed coconut shell (e.g., “Coconut Bark” by T-Rex, Chila Vista, CA) may also be used as a substrate amendment.

Unacceptable substrates include roughly milled hardwood mulch containing wood shards; all pine, fir, and cedar mulches/shavings; corncob litter; processed walnut shells; orchid bark; play sand; alfalfa pellets; recycled paper pellets/litter; indoor/outdoor carpeting (except as a pool edge mat) and newspaper.  (If a box turtle is undergoing medical treatment that requires it to stay clean, the animal may be housed temporarily on several layers of moist newspaper and given a thick, fluffy layer of crumbled, wet, shredded newspaper as substrate.  The shredded paper will satisfy the turtle’s need to burrow and hide in a humid environment.

The moisture content of the substrate is very important to the health of a box turtle.  If it is too dry, the animal may develop swollen eyes, respiratory irritation, and dry, flaky skin.  If the eyes swell shut, the turtle will stop feeding and drinking and ultimately will die.

Eastern box turtles do well in very moist but well-drained substrate.  The relative humidity should be about 80% just above the surface of the substrate (head level) and close to saturation (about 98%) below.

Ornate box turtles do well in enclosures where most of the substrate is slightly moist with a surface relative humidity of about 80% and a subsurface value of 85%.  There also should be several very moist areas created by the addition of a humidity box (see our handout on Humidity Boxes).

Water Supply

Box turtles must have daily access to water for drinking, soaking and eliminating wastes.  Plastic plant saucers and plastic paint roller trays sunk into substrate are commonly used as pools.  However, since the water depth should not exceed 1-1½ inches (shallower for juveniles), even large saucers hold little water and become polluted quickly.  Moreover, most plant saucers are steep-sided and can be especially difficult for smaller turtles to negotiate.

Better options tan plant saucers and paint trays are large, shallow photograph development trays (available online from photographic supply companies and at some camera supply stores) and large, shallow cat litter pans.  Add a gently sloping access ramp on all sides that can be approached by the turtle.

Whatever the choice of pools, remember to sand the inside surface to make it less slippery.  Keep the pool scrupulously clean, and fill it with water at room temperature.

Lighting/Heating

Turtles living indoors should be maintained under full-spectrum fluorescent lights (e.g., 5.0 ReptiSun, ZooMed Laboratories, www.zoomed.com). Place the lights no more than 18 inches above the substrate, and replace them every 6-12 months to ensure that sufficient UVB radiation is reaching the turtles.  (This light is important for vitamin D synthesis, calcium metabolism and the prevenion of metabolic bone disease.)  Add a 50-watt spotlight to create a daytime basking spot at 85-88°F; do not use hot rocks.  The background temperature should be 72-75°F in the daytime, and several degrees cooler during the night.

Keep the animals under a diurnal cycle of 12-14 hours of light and 10-12 hours of darkness.  Use a separate timer for the basking light, so it turns on 15-20 minutes before and off 15-20 minutes after the overhead lights, to simulate dawn and dusk.

In the wild, North American box turtles hibernate during the winter, except in the extreme southern portions of their range. If these turtles are over-wintered indoors, they must be maintained under summer-like conditions or they will cease eating and possibly become ill.  Even if a summertime environment is provided, some individuals will attempt to hibernate, remaining buried and inactive much of the time with little or no appetite.  They are not in a true state of hibernation, however, and their physiologic need for food and water remain high.  The situation can become life-threatening if they “hold out” too long.

Location & other considerations

Box turtles are shy animals and may be stressed by excessive nearby noise and activity.  Place their pen in a quiet room.  Also, avoid placing the enclosure on the floor or near doors and heating/cooling vents where there may be rapid changes in temperature and undesirable drafts.  Pens may be placed near east-facing windows for natural light as long as care is taken to provide adequate cool shady retreats in warm weather.  Pens should not be placed near windows in cold weather.  Many homes commonly experience relative humidity of 30% or less in the winter.  This is much too low for box turtles.  Consider using a warm air humidifier in the room holding the box turtle pen to increase the ambient humidity to at least 50%.

Diet

In the wild, box turtles are omnivores, eating a large variety of plant and animal material.  Contrary to popular opinion, there is no evidence to suggest that there is any difference in diet between animals of different ages.  However, ornate box turtles appear to be more insectivorous/carnivorous than the eastern box turtles.  Diet in captivity should include a variety of raw leafy greens, vegetables, fruits, berries, and animal protein. When preparing your turtle’s food, we recommend using the following guidelines.

  • Feed adult box turtles every other day; feed hatchlings daily.
  • Offer all meals on a flat rock, tile, plastic butter tub lid or the like to facilitate eating and to prevent the animal from ingesting substrate with the meal.
  • Provide each animal with its own food dish.
  • Feed turtles in the morning, right after they have had time to warm up.
  • Remove leftovers within several hours to prevent access to spoiled food and to keep flies away.
  • If a turtle is reluctant to eat, try misting the enclosure just before feeding to simulate a light summer rain shower.  It also may help to feed the animal underneath foliage, where it feels secure.
MEAL 1 (per turtle) MEAL 2 (per turtle)
Ingredients: 

  • Rehydrate 1 Tbs of dry “Turtle Brittle” (www.enasco.com), a fish/meat/grain-based chow in 2 tsp of water. Alternatively, use a similar pelleted/formulated diet for turtles.
  • Add ½ Tbs of a hard squash from List A
  • Add ½ Tbs of a vegetable from List B
  • Add ½ Tbs of a leafy green from List C
  • Add ½ Tbs of a fruirt from List D
  • Several times a month, add 1 tsp of crumbled hard-boiled egg
  • Mix all of the above ingredients together well so the turtle is less likely to focus on a single food item.
  • Top with a few berries from List E
  • Top with 1-2 freshly killed crickets or mealworms
  • Dust the entire meal very lightly with calcium carbonate or finely crushed cuttlebone
Serve as every third meal for eastern box turtlesServe as every other meal for ornate box turtles 

Feed to satiation:

  • Pesticide-free slugs
  • Terrestrial snails
  • Grubs
  • Earthworms
  • Beetles
  • Sow bugs
  • Crickets (cultured crickets should be gut-loaded with high calcium cricket diet for at least 2 days before use)
  • Grasshoppers
  • Preying mantids (remove pincers)
  • Katydids

Feed occasionally:

  • Mealworms
  • Super mealworms
  • Pre-killed pinkie mice
List A List B List C List D List E
Grated and very finely diced 

  • Acorn squash
  • Butternut squash
  • Pumpkin
  • Winter squash
Very finely diced 

  • Sweet potatoes
  • Carrots
  • Red/orange bell peppers
  • Okra
  • Opuntia pad (no spines)
Very finely diced 

  • Clover and blossoms
  • Collard greens
  • Dandelions (all parts)
  • Endive
  • Escarole
  • Romaine
  • Watercress
Very finely diced 

  • Apples
  • Apricots
  • Figs
  • Grapes
  • Mango
  • Melon
  • Oranges
  • Papayas
  • Peaches
  • Tomatoes
  • Blackberries
  • Blueberries
  • Elderberries
  • Gooseberries
  • Raspberries
  • Wild strawberries

This list is far from complete, but represents a reasonable variety of commonly available foodstuffs that are palatable and nutritious.  Try to vary which items are used from each list.  Be sure that any field-collected foodstuff has not been exposed to harmful chemicals.

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