Box Turtle Care Sheet (Asian & North American)

eastern and north american box turtle care sheet

Box turtles are commonly kept pet turtles. Box turtles are actually a large group of turtles that can be divided into two general categories: Asian box turtles and North American box turtles. For the most part, all of the species have pretty similar care needs. Box turtles make such great pets because of their size and low maintenance requirements.  They’re also semi-aquatic, which can make their enclosure especially fun to set up.

I’ve worked with box turtles in a professional setting as a vet tech and it’s easy to see why you might want one of them around. In this article, we’ll give you a general overview of what a box turtle is and how to take care of them. We’ll also go over housing requirements so that if you already have one you can be sure you’re giving them the best!

Box Turtle History and Facts

At first glance, box turtles look a lot like small tortoises.  They spend some time on land and have some of the same habits that tortoises do.

North American box turtles are part of the pond turtle family.  Currently, there are 6 species of North American box turtles with a total of 12 taxa within those species.  Some of the more popular North American box turtles that are kept as pets are the common box turtle, the three-toed box turtle, and the eastern box turtle.  North American box turtles have beautiful patterns on their shells and are small to medium in size.  The status of many North American box turtles is nearing threatened or endangered.  If you decide to get one of these species as a pet, we highly recommend either a captive-bred individual or adoption!

Asian box turtles are the other large group of box turtles.  Asian turtles are mainly distinct from North American turtles due to their distribution and appearance.  Additionally, Asian box turtles spend much more time in the water than North American box turtles do.  Sadly, Asian box turtles are the number one most heavily trafficked turtle in the world.  Asian box turtles are captured and sold as food in China and sold as pets in the U.S.  While Asian box turtles were more popular in the past, they’re rare now in the pet trade.  We recommend avoiding these species if you see one available for purchase.

Box Turtle Lifespan

Like other turtles and tortoises, box turtles have long lifespans.

These turtles regularly live to be twenty years old and often reach the age of 50.  Some individuals have been recorded reaching ages of up to 100 years old with one specifically box turtle reportedly living past the ripe old age of 150 years! That means that box turtle was around during the American Civil War!

But what does this mean for you?

As a pet owner, getting a long-lived animal is a big responsibility.  If you get a box turtle as a young hatchling, it might be around for your entire life.  It’s another good reason why adoption might be preferable for this species!

How Big Do Box Turtles Get?

As we mentioned above, box turtles are solidly medium-sized pets.  They won’t grow continuously throughout their lives and reach a maximum length of about 4 -6 inches.

Adults can weigh anywhere between 0.5 and 2 pounds in total.  Young box turtles grow slowly but start off very small.  The eggs are only about 2 cm long and babies aren’t much bigger!

Box Turtle Appearance and Anatomy

The anatomy of both North American and Asian box turtles is very similar.

One of the most remarkable things about box turtles’ anatomies is their skeletal system.  Most turtles have similar anatomy and it does a great job of protecting them and allowing them to live incredibly long lives.  Box turtle shells are made up of two distant parts.

The top part of the shell is called the carapace.  The carapace is essentially the modified version of the ribs and backbone that have fused together to become one tough shell.

The plastron is the lower part of the shell.  The plastron covers a turtle’s belly and connects to the carapace with a hinge that allows the turtle to open and close their entire shell as needed.

Inside, box turtles are a little bit different from mammals.  These cold-blooded animals have a heart with only three chambers instead of four.  This three-chambered heart works a little differently but doesn’t change much in terms of care.  Box turtles have good senses of sight and smell and rely on them heavily for foraging and survival.  Box turtles who have lost their sight or smell may not eat on their own for this reason.

Both North American and Asian box turtles are similar in appearance with large variations in colors and patterns.  Most box turtles have dark green, brown, black, or orange bodies.  They can have patterns on their shells that look like brightly colored dashes and dots.  Some box turtles have stripes running along their heads and necks and have brightly colored eyes.  Box turtles have tails and feet with claws made for digging through the mud and swimming.

Just so you can get an idea, here are the amazing color variations you might see in just one species, the eastern box turtle.

Health Concerns With Box Turtles

When box turtles live in captivity, there are a few things that can go wrong with their health.  Many of these issues can be avoided or fixed with proper husbandry and care.  However, even if you do everything perfectly, your box turtle could still get sick.  Keep reading to learn what to watch out for.

Vitamin A Deficiency

According to VCA hospitals, vitamin A deficiency is common in semi-aquatic turtles.  Vitamin A deficiency symptoms arise from a lack of vitamin A in your pet’s diet.  This can be caused by feeding a bad commercial diet or by feeding too many nutrient-poor foods, like iceberg lettuce.  Vitamin A deficiency can cause changes in the skin and membranes and often leads to respiratory infections,

Shell Rot

Since a turtle’s shell is alive, it’s prone to infections.  A small cut can become infected if your turtle is immunocompromised or if their enclosure is dirty.  Shell rot looks like the shell is deteriorating and can smell pretty bad.

Abscesses

Abscesses are a common side effect of Vitamin A deficiency in box turtles.  Abscesses can form anywhere on the skin of a turtle and can become filled with pus.  You’ll usually find them around a turtle’s ears and eyes.

Parasites

The last thing that may plague a pet box turtle is parasites.  Parasites are common in pet turtles and can be obtained through contact with other turtles or time spent outside  Parasites can be hard to diagnose but are often easy to cure once you know what’s going on and your veterinarian can help!

Behavior and Temperament of Box Turtles

Box turtles are diurnal which means that they’re awake and active during the day (just like these 14 other pet reptiles!)  In the wild, box turtles can be observed spending time in shady locations and keeping cool throughout the day.  Box turtles are almost always found near a source of water and are most active at dawn and dusk.

As pets, box turtles can be shy.  After some time, your box turtle should get used to your presence and won’t just hide away in their shell every time you enter the room.  Since they’re diurnal animals, you’ll eventually be able to watch them go bout their day.

Do Box Turtles Like To Be Handled?

Unfortunately, box turtles aren’t fond of handling.

Turtles aren’t the most handleable reptiles in general, especially compared to other herps.  It’s also hard to know if they enjoy it.  Despite their feelings, there are a few other things that might prevent you from handling these reptiles.  Box turtles may bite defensively.  Even though they’re small, their beaks are sharp and can break the skin.  Another reason you should be careful when handling your turtle is that they might be carrying salmonella.

Salmonella is present in many reptiles.  It’s a bacteria that can make humans very sick.  Salmonella is contracted through fecal material and unfortunately, there’s no way to make sure your turtle is sanitized before you pick hem up.  In this case, there’s really no reason to hold or kiss your pet!

Housing and Habitat

Housing and habitat for box turtles can be so much fun!  These pets need both land and a little bit of water in their enclosures and you have the opportunity to give them a magical environment!

Natural Habitat

A box turtle’s natural habitat is pretty self-explanatory.  These reptiles are usually found near a source of fresh water.  They might live near a stream, lake, or river.  Though box turtles aren’t the best swimmers, they will swim in a pinch.  One thing is sure, they love to be in the mud and can be found digging into the river banks.  It’s worth mentioning that even though box turtles like to walk around, they all need safe and secure places to hide.  You can find small huts at the pet store that your box turtle will love.

Housing and Tank

The ideal housing for a box turtle is a long vertical tank or vivarium.  You can choose the material of your enclosure based on how much water access you’d like to give them.  If you choose a wooden vivarium be warned the water spillage might ruin your turtle’s enclosure!

Average-sized box turtles can live in 30-gallon tanks.  But, like many of the other reptiles that you might keep in a 30-gallon tank, they would benefit from more space to roam.  Box turtles are slow but active and like to have space to walk around and dig.  They’re not afraid of open spaces and the more room they have, the better.  Always make sure that your box turtle’s tank is at least 5 times as long as they are.  At a minimum, you’ll need the tank’s width to be 3 times the length of their body so that they can easily turn around.

Substrate

Box turtles love to dig and burrow.  While they don’t spend as much time underground as ball pythons do, they still need a substrate that they can nestle into.

Ideally, the dry part of your box turtles habitat will be made of something like wood chips or coconut husks.  You can buy both of these substrates at pet stores and they’re great because they don’t have any risk of causing impactions for your pet if ingested.  Wood chips, eco earth, and coco husks are great ways to keep the humidity up in an enclosure.  On top of your substrate choice, you can place some leaf litter to better imitate your turtle’s natural habitat.

For the wet part, you can put tap water into a shallow disk on one end of the enclosure.  This will give your turtle the option to get into the dish if they’d like to, without spilling it.  If you have a species of box turtle that is more water-oriented, like one of the Asian species, you’ll need to get a more extensive water feature that your pet can actually swim in.

Heat

Box turtles don’t like to be too cold or too hot.  Like all reptiles, box turtles need a gradient of temperatures available inside their enclosure.

Since box turtles are ectothermic, they rely on outside resources to maintain their internal body temperature.  Having a cold side and a hot side in your pet’s enclosure is ideal.  For box turtles, the cold side should never drop below 70F while the hot side can be as warm as 90F.  This can be achieved with a basking light that is turned on during the day.

Light

Since box turtles are diurnal, it’s essential that they get UVA and UVB rays.  These rays will help them to synthesize essential vitamins and minerals.  Your box turtle enclosure should be equipped with a UVA/UVB lamp that stays on for about 12 hours during the day.  Even the best lights still might not be a substitute for the sun.  If you have a backyard, you can try letting your box turtle bask outside to get a little sun.  Make sure it’s not too cold for your turtle outside and that they’re safe from predators.  Don’t leave them unattended and keep them contained.

In addition to a UVA/UVB lamp, you’ll need to have a heat lamp.  You have a few options here.  You can use a ceramic heating bulb or a bulb that emits both heat and light.  If you choose a bulb that emits light, you’ll need to turn it off at night so your scaly friend can sleep.  You’ll also have to make sure that your pet’s enclosure stays warm enough all night long.

Humidity

Box turtles don’t need an incredibly humid environment, but it’s still something you’ll want to keep an eye on.

Buy a hygrometer to measure the relative humidity in your pet’s tank.  Make sure that the humidity is somewhere between 60%-80% for your box turtle.  If your enclosure gets too humid, you might deal with issues like mold and respiratory infection.  Read our article here if you’re not sure how to keep humidity levels low.

What Do Box Turtles Eat?

In the wild, box turtles are omnivores.  This means they eat a variety of both plants and animals.  Box turtles will often eat small invertebrates and plants found near and in bodies of water.

In captivity, a box turtle’s diet looks a little different.   Every meal you offer to your box turtle should be made up of about 60% – 80% vegetables, 10% – 20% fruits, and 10%-20% insects or invertebrates.  Box turtles need nutritious vegetables like dark leafy greens, carrots, broccoli, and more.  Fruits like berries are great and full of vitamins.  You can offer your turtle any sort of commercially available bugs to go with their meal.  Some box turtles might prefer snails, slugs, or live worms!

Box turtles can drink water and so you should make sure to change theirs once daily, so they always have access to fresh water.

How Much Do Box Turtles Eat?

Box turtles may eat a small dish of food once a day when they’re adults.  As they get older, you might even start offering them a smaller portion of food only every other day.  Just like dogs and cats, turtles can become overweight.  So, try to keep yourself from feeding your turtle too many treats.

So, How Difficult Is It To Keep A Box Turtle?

From a husbandry angle, box turtles are not difficult to keep.  They don’t have any outrageous humidity or temperature requirements.  They’re hardy and tough and can be kept outdoors in the right climates.  Their food needs to be bought fresh, and that can be a challenge.

But, the hardest thing about keeping a box turtle is how long their lifespans are.  When you get a box turtle, you’re making a 50-year minimum commitment.  For that reason alone, we’re going to say that these reptiles are not easy to keep!

How Much Do Box Turtles Cost?

Box turtles aren’t expensive but their price depends on availability in your area.

If you choose to adopt, the fee will probably run you anywhere from 25$ – 50$.  A pet store might sell an average box turtle for around 50$ – 80$.  From there the price goes up for more desirable species and morphs.  Ornate box turtles for example are especially beautiful and can be bought for multiple hundreds of dollars.

The true cost of a box turtle can’t be estimated.  Remember that you’ll be funding your pet’s life for at least 50 long years and that includes things like vet bills and food.

Frequently Asked Questions

We’ve covered the big picture box turtle topics now let’s dig into some more specific questions.

How To Take Care of a Box Turtle?

The best way to take good care of your box turtle is to follow care guidelines for your species as we’ve outlined above.  All box turtles have similar requirements, but it’s important to do your research.  We always recommend taking your new pet to a veterinarian for an initial exam and then continuing with annual exams for the rest of your pet’s life.

What Do I Need For A Box Turtle?

To get a box turtle you need quite a few supplies.  For their habitat, you need a tank, water dish, substrate, a hiding hut, and lighting.  You’ll need to purchase a thermometer and a hygrometer.  You’ll also need to buy them food like fruits, vegetables, and bugs.

Do Box Turtles Need To Be Wet?

Box turtles don’t need to be wet, but they do need access to water in their enclosures.  If you have a more aquatic species (like Asian box turtles), they’ll even need enough water to swim in!

Do Box Turtles Need Sand?

Sand is not recommended for box turtles or most reptiles.  Unfortunately, sand can cause major medical issues for reptiles.  Small particles of sand can get stuck onto food and cause gastrointestinal issues such as impaction.  You should definitely avoid filling a box turtle’s tank with sand!

How Often Do Box Turtles Need To Soak In Water?

If your box turtle’s enclosure is humid and they have access to water, you may not need to soak them at all.  However, if you notice their skin is looking wrinkly and dehydrated, you can try giving them a warm water soak every other day until they’re looking normal again.  Always make sure the water isn’t too deep or too hot.  Try to figure out why your turtle looks dehydrated and make the necessary adjustments as soon as possible.

Closing Thoughts

Box turtles are so commonly kept and relatively easy to keep alive and well.  They’re active during the day and can have beautiful patterns on their shells.  However, these turtles have suffered from the effects of the pet trade.  Plus, these turtles are incredibly long-lived and are a huge commitment.

Hopefully, if you’re thinking about getting a box turtle, this care sheet, just like our other tortoise care sheets, has helped to give you an overall idea about what it would be like to own one.