Housing Box Turtles

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

What type of cage does my box turtle require?

By far the most common species of pet turtle is the popular box turtle. There are four subspecies of the common box turtle that are available to buy at pet stores: the eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina), the three-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis), the Gulf Coast box turtle (Terrapene carolina major), and the ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata).

Box turtles may be housed indoors or outdoors, depending on environmental conditions and owner preference, in an escape-proof enclosure that ensures the animal’s safety from predators or household pets and from other dangers inside. Talk to a veterinarian that has experience in treating reptiles about the advantages and disadvantages of various types of box turtle housing.

If you choose to house your box turtle indoors, which is safer, a 20-gallon aquarium is usually adequate to begin with, depending on the size of the turtle. As the turtle grows, you may need to provide it with a special room, part of a room, or a 60-gallon to 100-gallon aquarium to give the turtle ample floor space to walk around and explore. Bigger is better, but it is also more to manage. The cage should be well ventilated and does not necessarily need a protective top unless it is required to keep other animals out.

Does my box turtle need bedding in his cage?

Substrate, or bedding material, should be easy to clean and disinfect and must be non-toxic in case the box turtle eats it. Newspaper, butcher paper, paper towels, or paper-based pelleted bedding are all great substrates for the cage flooring.  Artificial grass made for reptiles (commonly called “reptile carpet”) or indoor/outdoor carpeting are also good flooring choices. Some people suggest using straw, hay, or alfalfa pellets, as box turtles like to burrow.

If you use reptile carpet, be sure to have a duplicate piece, so the carpet can be changed every 2–3 days. Clean the soiled reptile carpet with ordinary soap and water plus dilute bleach to disinfect it (1 part bleach to 10 parts water). After washing, thoroughly rinse the carpet and hang it to dry until needed at the next cage cleaning.

Alfalfa pellets can be used for bedding and are often eaten by the turtle, which is acceptable. Avoid sand, gravel, wood shavings, corn cob material, walnut shells, and cat litter, as these are difficult to clean and can also cause gastrointestinal tract impaction if the turtle eats them. A turtle may eat this bedding purposely or accidentally (if the food becomes covered by these substrates). Care must be taken with plant-based bedding like alfalfa pellets, hay, or corn cob bedding as these materials will grow mold in 2–3 days if they become wet. Cedar wood shavings should never be used as reptile bedding as they contain oils that are toxic to reptiles.

What else should be in the turtle's cage?

Box turtles enjoy chewing and climbing on natural branches. Make sure any branches used in the cage are secure and will not fall onto the turtle and injure it. Rocks that the turtle can climb on or around also make the environment more interesting. Artificial rocks and climbing structures are readily available at pet stores or online.

In general, all reptiles like to have a hiding place. Artificial or real, non-toxic plants can be arranged to provide a hiding place, as can clay pots (laid on their sides), cardboard boxes, pieces of bark, half-domed hollowed-out logs, and other containers that provide a safe area in which turtles can hide.

You should also provide a shallow dish or pan with a “ramp” next to it to help the box turtle easily climb in and out of the dish to soak and drink. Be sure to clean this dish daily, as turtles often defecate in it. A similar shallow, clean dish can be used to offer food.

Turtles, like all reptiles, are ectotherms, which means their body temperature is regulated by their environmental temperature. Environmental temperature affects a box turtle’s activity level. They tend to slow down in cooler temperatures. You will need a heat source in the tank to establish a temperature gradient, with one end of the tank warmer than the other end. In this way, the box turtle can move around its environment and warm or cool itself, as it needs to.

"Turtles, like all reptiles, are ectotherms, which means their body temperature is regulated by their environmental temperature."

The temperature of the tank should be monitored carefully either with a “point and shoot” type thermometer or two separate thermometers, with one placed at the cooler end of the tank and the other at the warmer end, near the heat source. The cooler end of the tank should be approximately 70°F-75°F (21°C-24°C), while the warmer end (the basking zone) should be 90°F-100°F (32°C-38°C).

Heat can be provided by a 100-watt incandescent bulb with a reflector hood or with a commercially available ceramic heat bulb meant for a reptile tank. Heat sources should be placed outside and above one end of the tank, so that the turtle cannot directly contact them and accidentally get burned. At night, when the turtle is sleeping, extra heat and light are not necessary if the temperature remains at 65°F-70°F (18°C-24°C).

A heating pad also may be placed under one end of the cage for extra warmth. Avoid hot rocks or sizzle rocks, as reptiles commonly sit on them and get burned. Speak with your veterinarian about the best way to heat your turtle’s tank to provide an adequate temperature gradient.

Does my turtle need ultraviolet (UV) light?

A wild reptile may spend many hours a day basking in the sun, absorbing ultraviolet (UV) light. This spectrum of light is essential for their bodies in manufacturing vitamin D3, which the turtle needs for proper calcium absorption from their intestines. Lack of UV light can predispose your pet to metabolic bone disease (MBD). This common and completely preventable condition occurs when reptiles do not absorb enough calcium from their diet, and instead they absorb it from their own bones, making the bones weak and likely to fracture. MBD is fatal if left untreated.

"Lack of UV light can predispose your pet to metabolic bone disease (MBD)."

The UV light provided to reptiles should be in the UVB range (290–320 nanometers) to ensure proper formation of vitamin D3. Not all UV bulbs provide light in this wavelength, so it is critical that you use a bulb made specifically for reptiles. The UV output of these lights decreases with age, so they should be replaced every 6 months or as directed by the manufacturer. For UV light to work, it must reach the pet in an unfiltered form, meaning there is no glass or plastic between the pet and the light. The light should be 12–18 inches (30 cm-45 cm) from the animal for the pet to receive maximal benefit.

Regular exposure to natural, direct sunlight outside (unfiltered through glass) is ideal and recommended whenever the climate permits. Outdoor temperatures above 80°F (27°C) are best for proper UV absorption. Be sure that when a turtle is outdoors, it is provided with a shaded area to escape from the sun if it chooses. Also, be sure to supervise your turtle outside to prevent escape or attack from wild animals.

What do I need for outdoor housing for my box turtle?

If you house your turtle outdoors, it should be contained within an escape-proof enclosure. Make sure a shaded area is provided to enable your turtle to cool off from the sun, as well as a hiding area to provide seclusion and escape from rain. Turtles can dig out of enclosures, so it is highly recommended to bury fencing 6–12 inches (15 cm–30 cm) deep around the perimeter or put bricks or rocks along the perimeter to prevent digging. The enclosure must be secure from predators and other animals.

For turtles that are too small to climb out, a children's wading pool can be used as an outdoor container. Wading pools can be lined with reptile carpet along with grass, twigs, and other natural materials. The outdoor flooring must be spot cleaned daily and changed often, as it will become soiled. Of course, food and fresh water must always be available. Bring the box turtle indoors if the temperature drops below 60°F (16°C).

Consult a veterinarian familiar with reptiles if you have any questions or concerns about proper lighting or housing of your pet box turtle.

Box turtles may be carriers of Salmonella bacteria, which is transmittable to people. Always wash your hands thoroughly after feeding, cleaning, and handling turtles.

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