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Care of Box Turtles

Box turtles (genus Terrapene) are relatively small, land-dwelling reptiles with a unique, hinged shell design enabling them to completely withdraw their head and limbs and totally close their shell (like a closed box). This design affords total protection to their soft tissues when threatened by predators.

Box turtles are very popular as pets in the United States. Most of the box turtles kept as pets are collected in the United States, but 4 species are also found in Mexico. The Eastern or Common Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) and the Three-Toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis) seem to be the hardiest in captive situations.

Natural History
The range of the box turtle varies from the open woodlands of the Eastern Box Turtle, the swampy environment of the Florida species (Terrapene carolina bauri), the marshy habitat of the Gulf Coast Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina major), to the harsh desert environment of the Desert Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata luteola). Box turtles are terrestrial but occasionally enter water for soaking and/or drinking. They are generally regarded as poor swimmers.

Box turtles appear to be long-lived. One Three-Toed Box Turtle apparently lived 130 years at an Eastern zoo. Another was found in 1931 with a nearly worn-away date of 1809 carved into its shell!

Box turtles are omnivorous. They enjoy both live, whole animal food (earthworms, slugs, snails and other invertebrates), as well as fruits and berries.

Mating season occurs after the turtles emerge from hibernation. Courtship may be prolonged, involving the male's biting of the shell and limbs of the female. During copulation, the male is locked onto the rear margin of the female's shell by his hind feet and leans over backwards. During mating season, the male may exhibit increased activity and "penis fanning." The penis resembles a purple flower that may be mistaken for a prolapse by those unfamiliar with the turtle's normal anatomy.

Egg-laying usually occurs in June and July, in the late afternoon or early evening. Between 2 and 7 (usually 4 or 5) eggs are laid, measuring 3/4 of an inch by 1 1/4 inch. Females can retain semen for long periods after copulation. One such documented case involved a captive box turtle laying 5 fertile eggs 4 years after any possible contact with a male.


The most suitable environment to satisfy the roaming habits of box turtles is a large, fenced enclosure or yard. Box turtles are escape artists and good climbers, so fences should be intact and secure. Use of chicken wire to reinforce fences in poor repair is recommended. The habitat should contain low bushes to provide protection and privacy for the turtles. Shade and a shallow source of water are essential. Some fanciers advocate use of dry leaves to enable the box turtles to burrow.

Indoor enclosures are not nearly as desirable unless they can be spaciously constructed. A mature box turtle should not be housed in a small terrarium as is common practice. Terrariums can be used as temporary housing at night for box turtles allowed outside in the daytime. An indoor enclosure can be constructed with high wooden sides, indoor-outdoor carpeting on its floor for ease in cleaning, and a large terra cotta or ceramic saucer to hold drinking water. A focal heat source (hot rock, lamp, heater) that allows the turtle to voluntarily warm itself should be provided in an indoor habitat. Visual security is an often overlooked aspect of captive reptile husbandry. Many box turtles will not feed in the presence of people and require a hiding area for this purpose and for additional security.

Artificial sunlight is a necessity if a box turtle is housed for long periods indoors. The Vita-Lite (Duro-Lite Lamps, Duro-Test Corp, Lyndhurst, NJ 07071) is an acceptable substitute for incidental sunlight. It provides the ultraviolet spectrum needed by vertebrates for vitamin D metabolism and calcium utilization. Incandescent light bulbs, filtered sunlight (through window glass) and plant lights are not acceptable alternatives.


As with most captive reptiles, most medical conditions for which box turtles are presented to veterinarians result from malnutrition, either directly or indirectly. As stated above, box turtles are omnivorous. They will eat whole animals, such as meal worms, snails, slugs, earthworms and other invertebrates that may live in the humus and leaf litter in which box turtles normally hunt for food in their natural habitat. Box turtles also readily accept fruits, berries and certain vegetables.

Box turtles can be successfully raised by feeding a diet of whole animal substitutes, such as Reptile-Fare (Reliable Protein Products, Los Angeles, CA 90048), low-fat, soft dog food (Cycle
4, Gaines Foods, St Anne, IL 60964), or semi-moist dog food (Gainesburgers, Gaines Foods, St Anne, IL 60964). Fruit (berries of all types, bananas, pears, peaches, papayas, guavas), vegetables (chopped, thawed, frozen mixed vegetables, squash, yams) and edible mushrooms should be provided as well. The fruits and vegetables provide additional vitamins, minerals and moisture, as well as necessary roughage. Many hobbyists believe a ratio of 1/2 to 2/3 whole animals and/or whole animal substitutes to 1/3 to 1/2 fruit and vegetable matter offers the best results. Fruit-loving box turtles can be persuaded to eat a wider variety of foods by mixing soft dog food with pureed or chopped fruit. Other foods can be judiciously added to the aforementioned items, including cottage cheese, chopped hard-boiled or scrambled egg, grated cheese and yogurt.

A completely natural diet (one that a wild box turtle would select for itself) can never be exactly duplicated under conditions of captivity. For this reason, and because the exact nutritional requirements of box turtles are unknown, vitamin-mineral supplementation is advised. Powdered supplements intended for reptiles (Reptical and Vita-Life, Terra-Fauna Products, Mountain View, CA 94042; Reptovite, Verners Pet Products, Long Beach, CA 90807) should be sprinkled each day over food moist enough to ensure adherence of the product. We prefer the powdered vitamin-mineral-amino acid supplement, Nekton-Rep (Nekton Products, W. Germany) and believe it to be superior to the similar products listed above.


Environmental Temperature and Frequency of Feeding
Box turtles can be fed daily, though many hobbyists feed them every other day or 2-3 times weekly. They will not eat at low environmental temperatures and likewise cannot digest food well at low temperatures. Consistently warm environmental temperatures must be maintained, especially at night, for box turtles kept in colder climates, or for those not allowed to hibernate.


Any box turtle that has recently been ill should not be allowed to hibernate. Hibernation results in a general decrease in overall resistance of the turtle. Consequently, latent or chronic illness in a hibernating turtle can then create more serious and even life-threatening disease. Hibernation is not necessary for the health and well-being of box turtles. Unlike regular sleep, hibernation involves a more prolonged period of inactivity, accompanied by a substantial decrease in metabolic activity, both of which enable the animal to survive periods during which environmental conditions are relatively harsh.

Newly acquired box turtles should not be allowed to hibernate until their health status has been accurately determined. Hatchling box turtles should not be allowed to hibernate until after their third year of life. Box turtles can be kept from hibernating by maintaining their winter environmental temperature 5-10 degrees higher than their summer temperature. Under these conditions, box turtles usually appear sluggish. If they refuse to eat, periodic forced-feedings are recommended.


Hibernating Indoors
Box turtles can be placed in a protected box (wooden or cardboard) partially filled with clean dirt (potting soil is recommended). The soil should be kept slightly damp. A layer of dead leaves or crumpled newspaper should cover the dirt. A shallow dish of water should also be provided. The box can be placed in a cool area (such as a garage) and should be maintained rodent-free. The hibernating turtle should be checked periodically. During warm spells, the turtle may temporarily come out of hibernation; food should be offered at these times.


Hibernating Outdoors
The hibernation period begins with inappetence in October or November in southern California and ends in March or April, depending on environmental conditions in the spring. Box turtles may be allowed to hibernate in the corner of a dog house or other similar shelter if they are allowed to burrow under some loose cover. Dead leaves or crumpled newspapers can be provided for this purpose. An alternative arrangement involves providing a protected area with loose dirt and a covering layer of dead leaves or dried lawn clippings that cannot be flooded by winter rains.

Box turtles may emerge during warm spells, during which time they may feed. Food should be provided at these times as well as a shallow dish of water for soaking, if the turtle chooses to do so. Box turtles hibernating outdoors should be protected from flies, ants and predatory marauders, such as dogs, cats, rats, skunks and opossums.


Diseases and Medical Problems
Most box turtles sold as pets in the United States have been captured by turtle hunters in their wild habitats. Captured turtles are then congregated in boxes and later sold to pet stores. Those caring for the newly captive turtles attempt to feed them but have little knowledge of individual needs. The turtles are often confused and intent on escape and may not eat or drink for weeks or even months. The stress of capture, combined with the circumstances of crowding and malnourishment, often result in disease and swift disease transmission.

A recently captured turtle purchased in the spring is much more likely to be healthy than one sold much later in the year or during the winter. The latter specimens are much more likely to be seriously ill.


Typical Signs of Illness
A sick box turtle may not eat and may lose weight. Swollen and/or runny eyes, nasal discharge, swollen ears, lumps or swellings, wounds to the shell, increased water consumption, diarrhea, extreme lethargy, weakness and coma are other signs of illness. Subtle changes in behavior and the turtle's routine often signal the onset of illness. It is at this stage in the course of an illness that a box turtle should be presented to a veterinarian. A thorough physical exam and a laboratory work-up (blood and/or bacteriology tests) can be performed to diagnose and properly treat the problem.


Conditions Requiring Veterinary Attention

Disease Resulting from Malnourishment and Vitamin Deficiencies
Most diseases afflicting captive box turtles are, at least in part, the result of malnutrition. Box turtles that do not receive all of the nutrients vital to sustain optimum health do not remain healthy, and become ill from a variety of causes. Hatchlings are the most prone to disease resulting from dietary deficiencies because their nutritional requirements exceed those of adult turtles and because their rate of growth is so rapid. Hatchling turtles often exhibit soft shells, associated with protein and mineral deficiencies, and swollen eyes, which accompany vitamin A deficiency. Adult box turtles, by contrast, are unlikely to exhibit soft shell problems but may show signs of anemia, weight loss, mouth rot, internal infection, or abscessation with chronic malnourishment.


Respiratory Disease
Respiratory disease is common in box turtles. Epidemics may occur in populations of wild box turtles, characterized by runny noses and pneumonia. It may be bacterial or viral and can be highly contagious. The Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata) seems to be especially sensitive to respiratory disease in captivity, and the respiratory signs seem to be particularly devastating in this species.


Ear Abscesses
A common sequel to an upper respiratory infection in a box turtle is abscessation of the ears. A swelling appears on one or both sides of the head, beneath the external ear openings. Cheese-like pus can usually be removed by the veterinarian, and antibiotic therapy by injection is usually rewarding.


Abscesses (Other than Ear)
Bacterial abscesses are common from puncture wounds, bite wounds and other injuries. Injectable antibiotics must be used under these circumstances to prevent formation of internal abscesses or septicemia (blood poisoning).


Internal Infections
A wide variety of bacterial infections can occur. Often, multiple organ systems are involved. Liver and/or kidney disease is common because of the septic nature of turtle diseases and the filtering action of these 2 organs. Chronic hepatitis and chronic kidney disease (the latter resulting in gout from elevations of uric acid in the blood) are routinely seen. Infections of the heart are also common. Blood tests are useful for diagnosis of these and other problems.<MI>


Organ Failure
Older box turtles are subject to organ failure, most often resulting from chronic infection or other long-standing disease involving one or more organs. Diseases that usually accompany advancing age in other animals also affect elderly box turtles (for example, arteriosclerosis). Blood chemistry analysis is necessary to diagnose these cases.


Bot Fly Infestation
Box turtles are commonly subject to the ravages of migrating "bot fly" larvae. These large parasites are different from the much smaller maggots (larvae of other flies). The adult flies deposit their eggs on the skin and/or mucous membranes and the newly hatched larvae, penetrate into the body and form large, visible lumps where they come to rest, resembling abscesses. These grubs may cause substantial tissue damage and mechanical interference for the turtle. Some turtles die as a result of this infestation.


Maggot Infestation
"Fly strike"and maggot infestations are extremely common, especially among wounded or sick box turtles. These turtles are virtually defenseless and flies can easily take advantage of their weakened condition. Traumatized or diseased box turtles should be kept indoors or within a screened enclosure during their convalescence.


Shell Disorders
Shell rot occurs when either the upper shell (carapace), lower shell (plastron) or both develop erosions. This condition usually results from injury or chronic exposure to a filthy environmental. Malnutrition and infection are frequent predisposing factors.

Serious injuries to the shell are often inflicted by dogs, lawn mowers and automobiles.


Overgrown Upper Jaw
The upper jaw of some captive box turtles may occasionally overgrow. Abnormal wear patterns resulting from prior injury or a steady diet of soft food may be involved. Periodic trimming of the upper mandible by an experienced veterinarian or technician is necessary in these cases.


Foreign Body Ingestion
The intestinal impactions occasionally seen in desert tortoises are rarely a problem in box turtles. However, eating snail shells occasionally causes intestinal tract damage in box turtles. Certain individuals seem to be plagued by this problem and should not be fed whole snails. Most box turtles can safely eat snails and snail shells.


Blood Parasites
Various blood parasites have been found in box turtles. Blood parasites can overwhelm an already weakened and/or sick turtle and should be treated with the appropriate medication. A blood test is necessary to detect these parasites.


Intestinal Parasites
A variety of roundworm and strongyle-type worms can parasitize captive box turtles. Reinfection results when pet turtles are permitted to feed in an environment in which feces are allowed to accumulate and contaminate food. Numerous deaths of box turtles occur every year from intestinal rupture and peritonitis resulting from heavy intestinal parasitism.

Few box turtles are parasite-free; therefore, yearly fecal exams and/or routine dewormings are recommended. Strict attention to hygiene, frequent soil changes and periodic rotation of habitats to reduce exposure to these parasites are also recommended.


Intestinal Protozoa
These one-celled parasites can cause disease and are occasionally found in captive box turtles. Diagnosis of Giardia and Trichomonas infections requires direct microscopic examination of the feces by an experienced laboratory technician or veterinarian. The feces must first be placed in a preservative solution and then a special staining procedure is used to prepare them for examination.


Reproductive Problems
Egg-binding is a fairly common problem among female box turtles. This condition results when a pregnant female cannot pass an egg by herself. She typically strains excessively against the obstruction. The egg may be oversized or there may be metabolic or other reasons for her inability to pass the egg without assistance. Radiographs (x-rays) are usually made to confirm that the female is, in fact, fertile with eggs. Then, hormone injections and sometimes aspiration of the egg's contents are necessary to expel the stubborn egg.

Several other conditions are seen in reproductively active female box turtles. Metritis (infection of the uterus) and egg-yolk peritonitis (ruptured egg-yolk or yolks within the body cavity) are the most common.


Erections in Males
During the mating season, male box turtles periodically protrude and rhythmically fan their penis. This copulatory organ is flower-shaped and purple, and may appear unusual or abnormal to those unfamiliar with box turtles. It is most often mistaken for a prolapsed organ and may be treated as such by those unfamiliar with box turtle anatomy and mating habits.


Prolapses of the uterus, intestine, urinary bladder or penis (paraphimosis) may occur. The last condition occurs if the engorged penis cannot be returned inside the body cavity due to small vent size or previous trauma to the enlarged organ. An anesthetic and skillful manipulation by an experienced reptile veterinarian are usually necessary to replace a prolapsed organ. Clumsy attempts by novices may permanently damage the involved organs.


Eye Disorders
Various disorders involving the eyes of box turtles are noted from time to time. These include cataracts, corneal ulcers, puncture wounds and other traumatic injuries, infections, maggot infestation, conjunctivitis and dry eye (keratitis sicca).


Further Information About Box Turtles
A wealth of information may be obtained by joining one or more of the turtle and tortoise clubs. Club newsletters provide information on box turtle care and other related matters.

Clubs and Organizations
Below are the names and addresses of clubs and organizations dedicated to box turtle care.

American Federation of Herpetoculturists
P.O. Box 1131
Lakeside, CA 92040
(A.F.H. Publication:The Vivarium)

Arizona Herpetological Association
1433 W. Huntington Dr
Tempe, AZ 85282

California Turtle and Tortoise Club
Westchester Chapter
P.O. Box 90252
Los Angeles, CA 90009

Orange County Chapter
P.O. Box 11124
Santa Ana, CA 92711

Foothill Chapter
P.O. Box 194
Montrose, CA 91020

San Bernardino Chapter
P.O. Box 2371
San Bernardino, CA 92405

Valley Chapter
P.O. Box 44152
Panorama City, CA 91402

Officials of the California Turtle and Tortoise Club

Walter Allen (714) 962-0612

Martha Young-Wheeler (213) 408-2583

Cathy Debs (213) 257-0057

David Kavanaugh (213) 433-2112

Chicago Herpetological Society
2001 North Clark St
Chicago, IL 60614

San Diego Turtle and Tortoise Society
13963 Lyons Valley Rd
Jamul, CA 92035-9607
Virn Kirchman, Editor of newsletter
(Excellent care sheets available)

Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles (SSAR)
Douglas H. Taylor, Publications Secretary
Dept. of Zoology
Miami University
Oxford, OH 45056

Southwestern Herpetologist's Society
Inland Empire Branch
San Bernardino County Museum
2024 Orange Tree Lane
Redlands, CA 92373

T.E.A.M. (Tortoise Education and Adoption Media)
3245 Military Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90034
Roy Lewis, Publisher
(An excellent scientific newsletter for the layman)