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Housing Box Turtles

By Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Care & Wellness, Pet Services

What type of cage does my box turtle require?turtles-box-housing-1

By far the most common species of pet turtle is the popular box turtle. Box turtles may be housed indoors or outside, depending upon 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. Discuss the pros and cons of various types of box turtle housing with your veterinarian.

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 60-100-gallon aquarium, or a special room or part of a room, in order to give the turtle ample floor space to walk around and explore. Bigger is better, but 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 be non-toxic to the box turtle if it is accidentally eaten. Newspaper, butcher paper, paper towels, or commercially available paper-based pelleted bedding or artificial grass made for reptiles (commonly called “reptile carpet”) is recommended. Some people suggest using straw, hay, or alfalfa pellets, as box turtles like to burrow. If you are using reptile carpet, be sure to have enough to change the carpet daily, so that soiled carpet can be cleaned. Clean the soiled reptile carpet with ordinary soap and water plus dilute bleach (1part bleach to 10 parts of water) to disinfect it. After washing, thoroughly rinse the carpet, and hang it to dry until needed at the next cage cleaning.

"Cedar wood shavings contain oils that are toxic to reptiles
and should never be used as reptile bedding."

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 not only difficult to clean, but also can cause gastrointestinal tract impaction if eaten by the turtle, either purposely or accidentally (if the food becomes covered by these substrates). Cedar wood shavings contain oils that are toxic to reptiles and should never be used as reptile bedding.

 

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. 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, meaning their body temperature is regulated by their environmental temperature. Environmental temperature affects box turtles’ activity level. They tend to slow down in cooler temperatures. A heat source in the tank is necessary to establish a temperature gradient within the tank, 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. The temperature of the tank should be monitored carefully either with a “point and shoot” type of 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 70-75°F (21-24°C), while the warmer end (the basking zone) should be 90-100°F (32-38°C). Heat can be provided either with 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, as long as the temperature remains at 65-70°F (18-24°C).

"Hot rocks or sizzle rocks are dangerous, as reptiles commonly sit on them and get burned; therefore, they should be avoided."

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

What about 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 that the turtle needs for proper calcium absorption from their intestines. Failure to provide UV light can predispose your pet to developing metabolic bone disease. 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. This condition is fatal if left untreated. The UV light provided to reptiles should be in the UV-B range (290-320 nanometers) to ensure proper formation of vitamin D3. Not all UV bulbs provide light in this wavelength; therefore, it is critical that a bulb made specifically for reptiles be used. The UV output of these lights decreases with age, so they should be replaced every six 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 within 12-18 inches (30-45 cm) from the animal in order 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. 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 about 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 bury fencing 6-12 inches (15-30 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, as long as this material is spot cleaned daily and changed often as it becomes 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 regarding proper lighting or housing of your pet box turtle.

Since box turtles can carry Salmonella bacteria that is transmittable to people, always wash your hands thoroughly after feeding, cleaning, and handling turtles.

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