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Turtles - Box - Housing

By Rick Axelson, DVM

Care & Wellness, Pet Services

What type of cage does my box turtle require?

turtles-box-housing-1By far the most common species of pet turtle is the popular box turtle, which will be the subject of this discussion. Box turtles may be housed indoors or outside, depending upon environmental conditions and owner preference, in an escape-proof enclosure that ensures the safety of the animal (providing protection from predators or other animals). Discuss the pros and cons of each option 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 animal 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 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 accidentally eaten. Newspaper, butcher paper, towels, or preferably Astroturf (or other indoor/outdoor carpeting material) is recommended. Some people suggest using straw, peat moss or alfalfa pellets as box turtles like to burrow. If you are using Astroturf, buy two pieces and cut them both to fit the bottom of the cage. With two pieces, one is placed in the cage and one is kept as a spare that it is always clean and ready to use. When the Astroturf inside the cage becomes soiled, you can replace it with the clean, dry piece. Clean the soiled turf with ordinary soap and water, then disinfect with diluted bleach (1 part bleach to 10 parts water) Avoid harsher products unless your reptile veterinarian approves their use. After washing, thoroughly rinse it and hang it to dry until needed at the next cage cleaning.

"Cedar wood shavings are toxic to reptiles and should never be used."

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 can cause impaction if eaten by the turtle, either on purpose or accidentally (if the food becomes covered by these substrates). Cedar wood shavings are toxic to reptiles and should never be used!

What else do I need in the cage?

Natural branches are enjoyed by the turtle. Make sure they are secure and won't fall onto the turtle and injure it. Rocks easy enough to climb on or around in the cage also allow for a more interesting environment. A hiding place is appreciated by all reptiles. Artificial or real, non-toxic plants can be arranged to provide a hiding place, as can clay pots, cardboard boxes, pieces of bark, half-domed hollow logs and other containers that provide a secure area.

You will also want to provide a shallow dish or pan with a "ramp", in which the box turtle can easily climb in and out of for soaking and drinking. Watch this container closely as they sometimes defecate in it; keep it very clean. You can use a similar shallow clean dish for food.

"Supply a focal heat source using a 100-watt incandescent bulb with a reflector hood."

Turtles, like all reptiles, are ectotherms (also called cold-blooded, this means that they depend on external or environmental sources of heat to maintain their body heat). They need a range of temperatures within the cage to regulate their internal body temperature. Environmental temperature determines the activity of the box turtle. They slow down in cooler temperatures. A heat source is necessary for all reptiles. Ideally, the cage should be set up so that a heat gradient is established, with one area 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 feels necessary. Purchase two thermometers that cannot be damaged; place one at the cooler end of the cage and one at the warmer end, near the heat source. The cooler end of the cage should be approximately 70o-75 o F (21 o -24o C), while the warmer end should be 90 o -100 o F (32 o - 38 o C). An inexpensive way to do this is to supply a focal heat source using a 100-watt incandescent bulb with a reflector hood; alternatively, you can purchase other types of heat lamps or ceramic heating elements at a specialty pet store. Use these heat sources as directed. Your heat source should be placed OUTSIDE and above one end of the cage so that your turtle cannot directly contact it, thus preventing accidental burns. At night, when sleeping, extra heat and light are not necessary, as long as the temperature remains at 65 o - 70 o F (18 o -24 o C). You must provide your box turtle with a "night time". In the wild, the nighttime temperatures usually fall gradually.

"'Hot Rocks' or 'Sizzle Rocks' are dangerous, ineffective, and should be avoided."

A heating pad may be placed under one end of the cage for warmth; speak with your veterinarian to learn the correct way to use them so that you avoid burning your pet.

"Hot Rocks" or "Sizzle Rocks" are dangerous, ineffective, and should be avoided!

What about ultraviolet (UV) light?

A wild reptile may spend many hours a day basking in the sun, absorbing ultra-violet (UV) light. This spectrum of light is essential for the body to manufacture the vitamin D3 that the turtle needs for proper calcium absorption from the intestines. Vitamin D3 is manufactured in the skin. Failure to provide UV light can predispose your pet to nutritional metabolic bone disease. This is an overly common and completely preventable condition of pet reptiles is fatal if left untreated. The UV light should emit light in the UV-B range (290-320 nanometers). UV-A light (320 - 400nm), although important in terms of behavior, does not aid in the manufacture of vitamin D3. Most bulbs sold for use in reptiles provide both UV-A and UV-B. Examples of commercially available UV-B emitting lights are the RetisunTM, Iguana LightTM, Power SunTM (by Zoo Med) and Repti GloTM lamp by Exo Terra. 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, which means that you must make sure there is no glass or plastic between the pet and the light. The light should be within 6-12 inches from the animal in order for the pet to receive any benefit. These bulbs are expensive, but worth the extra cost and often mean the difference between a healthy reptile and a sick or dying reptile. Regular exposure to natural DIRECT sunlight outside (unfiltered through glass) is encouraged and recommended whenever possible. When outdoors care must be taken, provide a shaded area for the turtle to escape the sun if it chooses. Your pet turtle should always be supervised if taken outside to bask in the sun, to prevent escape or attack from other roaming animals in the neighborhood.

What about outdoor housing for my box turtle?

If you choose to house your turtle outdoors, it should be contained within an escape-proof enclosure. Make sure a shaded area is provided, as well as a hiding area. Turtles can dig out of enclosures, so bury the fencing 6-12 inches or put bricks or rocks under the area. The enclosure must provide safe and secure confinement or containment against predators and other animals as well as provide escape from hot sun and rain. Some owners find a children's wading pool to be a suitable container. You can use Astroturf for lining material, although grass, twigs, and other natural material will be fine if they are changed daily. Avoid cedar, as it is toxic to reptiles. Of course, food and fresh water must always be available. Bring the box turtle indoors if the temperature drops below 60oF (16 oC).

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

NEVER FORGET TO WASH YOUR HANDS THOROUGHLY after feeding, cleaning and handling a turtle.

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