Box Turtle: Complete Care Guide and Breed Info

The Box Turtle is one of the most popular pet turtles around.

These peaceful reptiles are native to the wetlands and grasslands of North America. They are semi-aquatic, but spend most of their time on land rather than in water. They are known for their long lifespans and box-like shells decorated with beautiful colors and patterns.

There are many different species, but the Eastern and Western varieties are the ones most commonly kept as pets.

These can be very fun and rewarding pets, however they are a lot of work.

Do you think you are up to the task?

Keep reading to learn how to house them, feed them, and so much more…

Category Rating
Care Level: Advanced
Temperament: Peaceful
Color Form: Black or brown with yellow, red, or orange markings
Lifespan: 30-40 years
Size: 4-6 inches
Diet: Omnivore
Family: Emydidae
Minimum Tank Size: 60 gallons
Tank Set-Up: Indoor paludarium or outdoor enclosure
Compatibility: Single species only

Overview

Box Turtle

These turtles belong to the family Emydidae, which includes all North American pond turtles and terrapins.

There are four different species and several subspecies within this genus.

  • The Eastern and Western Box Turtles are the two that you are most likely to find.
  • The Spotted and Caohulian Box Turtles are very rare species endemic to Mexico, and the Caohuilan is completely aquatic.

They are named for their shells that allow them to completely ‘box’ themselves in. They are also the state reptile for both North Carolina and Kansas.

You should expect your turtle to live for 30-40 years, but in rare cases they can live up to 100!

In many areas, there are regulations placed on their sale and trade. You should always check your area’s local regulations before you buy.

You can find them in pet shops and also at reptile shows and from specialized breeders. On average, you should pay between $20-30.

Typical Behavior

You can expect these turtles to be active, so they need lots of space to move and roam around. They are most active before dawn and after dusk, and they enjoy the damp weather that comes after a heavy rainfall.

During the daylight hours they are very peaceful and will spend most of the time hiding in burrows and under cover.

They like to keep to themselves and will not interact with others of their kind except when mating and breeding.

The Western variety especially enjoys burrowing underground, so it may be difficult to catch a glimpse of one during the day.

Like other turtles, they will retreat into their shells whenever they feel scared and do not like to be disturbed.

Appearance

Pictures of Box Turtles

The appearance of a Box Turtle differs depending on the species.

However, in general they are 4-6 inches long with a 6-8 inch shell height.

They have dome shaped shells with hinged, lobed plastrons (these allow them to withdraw completely into their shells).

Their shells are sloped at one end and rounded at the other.

You will notice their toes are slightly webbed for swimming, and their feet are clawed for digging in soil – males will have longer claws than females.

Females are typically smaller and have flatter bodies than the males. Their eyes are brown, while males are red or yellow.

Their bodies are black or varying shades of brown, with bright speckles across their shells. But some species can be solid brown with no speckles at all.

Box Turtle Species

The Common or Eastern Box Turtle is the type to keep as a pet. They have dark brown or black bodies and large, sloping shells that are rounded towards the back.

Their shells feature yellow, orange or red speckles. These colors also scattered across their faces and their legs.

The Western or Ornate Box Turtle is the second most popular kept species.

They are slightly smaller than the Eastern variety and are lighter brown in color. Their shells have yellow stripes, and their faces and legs are speckled with yellow and brown.

Box Turtle Shell Types

The Eastern variety have a dome shaped shell with a sloping ridge down the middle.

Their shell may curve in a downward slope towards the front, and curve upwards and round off at the back – it can be up to 8 inches high.

The Western variety has a similar rounded shell with a more uniform oval shape. Their shells do not have ridges or slopes and it has a speckled pattern that often extends to their plastrons.

Desert subspecies have more yellow stripes across the shell (10-16 stripes rather than the typical 6-9).

Habitat and Tank Conditions

Turtle Pond Setup

These animals are native to forests and freshwater wetlands with moist, acidic soil. They can also be found in prairies, grasslands and deserts. The Western variety prefers grasslands to wetlands.

They spend most of their time on land, but will take shelter in streams and ponds to cool off on hot days.

However they do not like direct sun exposure and prefer the early morning hours just before sunrise. During the day they hide in moist shaded spots or underground burrows.

To regulate their body temperature, they will bask on rocks and logs in sunny spots.

Let’s look at how to create these conditions for them…

Box Turtle Tank Setup

An outdoor enclosure or backyard pond will always be the best home for your turtle.

You can build an outdoor enclosure using a fence or a stack of bricks/cinderblock. You can include a plastic or concrete garden pond to make a great environment for them.

If you are keeping them inside, you need at least a 60 gallon paludarium.

The temperature should be 75-80°F for the Eastern variety and 80-85°F for the Western. The soil pH should fall between 6.0-7.0.

Your tank should have a pool of water deep enough for the turtle to submerge itself in (4-6 inches is ideal), and the tank must be sprayed with water each day to keep it moist.

You can fill the tank with moist soil deep enough to create small burrows. Add some wet leaf litter to your soil for a little extra cover.

Westerns will need much thicker soil so they can hide underground, aim for at least 10 inches deep.

You will need a canister filter and a full spectrum lamp that mimics natural sunlight. You will want to place some logs or stones near your lamp for the turtle to rest on. Reptiles are very sensitive to cold, so a heater will be necessary to keep your tank warm enough for them.

Ferns such as Bracken are very common in swamps and wetlands, so you could consider adding these.

Spaghnum Moss and Pincushion Moss are excellent carpet choices – Spaghnum retains water especially well and will add some extra moisture to your substrate.

In outdoor enclosures, low-lying berry shrubs are great for both food and shelter. Strawberries and Blackberries are a great choice.

Eastern Box Turtle

What Size Enclosure Do They Need?

An indoor paludarium must be at least 60 gallons.

Whereas outdoor enclosures should be at least 15 inches high, with base dimensions of 3 by 2 feet.

Garden ponds should be at least 16 to 31 inches deep.

For each fully grown adult Box Turtle allow 60 gallons of space.

Tank Mates

In the wild these turtles can be found with other species and subspecies of Box Turtles. It’s common to find several different subspecies living in the same area.

They share their habitats with other species of turtles, including Painted Turtles.

You will find them with many different kinds of frogs including Bullfrogs and Leopard Frogs. Salamanders and freshwater Minnows can also be found in their swampy home.

In captivity, Box Turtles should only ever be kept with their own species. Their big appetite means that they are likely to prey on any fish or invertebrates you keep with them.

Keeping them with frogs will expose them to disease, and if kept with Turtles of other species, they may spread bacterial infections to each other.

There are too many risks associated with allowing your turtle to have tank or pond mates. A single species habitat is the best choice for them and for your other animals.

Keeping Box Turtle Together

You can keep Box Turtles together in groups of up to 5, just make sure the groups are mostly, or, entirely female.

They will not interact with each another outside of mating and breeding.

Some states do not allow you to keep more than one or two, so always check your area’s regulations beforehand.

Box Turtle Care

Western Box Turtle

What To Feed Box Turtles

In the wild these turtles will come out after a rainy day to eat up all the worms, snails and slugs that they can find.

They will eat fish, frogs, salamanders and even small mammals.

Outside of live prey, they eat wild fruits and vegetables and other wild plants. The Western variety is particularly fond of dandelion shoots and the prickly pear cactus.

In outdoor ponds and gardens these guys make wonderful pest control. They will eat caterpillars, roaches, and other pests.

You can feed them snails and worms that you catch in your backyard, so long as they come from an area that has not been exposed to pesticides or other chemicals. They will accept worms and insects purchased from a reptile supplier. Crickets and mealworms are among an Eastern’s favorite foods.

Both varieties love fruits and vegetables. They will appreciate a garden full of lettuce, berries, and cucumbers grown right beside their outdoor habitat.

The Western variety is more carnivorous and prefers live prey to plants. They may prefer wild weeds and dandelion shoots over garden veggies.

Calcium is very important for the health of their shells. You can give them calcium supplements or feed them crushed egg and insect shells alongside their regular food.

You should feed them at least 3 times a week in the early morning (between 4 and 7am).

Care and Diseases

Box Turtle Care

Box Turtles are among the many reptiles that carry salmonella.

To prevent salmonella, always wash your hands thoroughly after handling your turtle or cleaning its habitat. Clean and disinfect any surfaces that your turtle has walked across.

This bacterial infection can be spread to humans without affecting the carrier.

Salmonella behaves similarly to stomach flu, symptoms include: stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea.

Other bacterial infections can spread when different species are kept together. Symptoms include: lethargy, decreased appetite, weight loss and red eyes. You will need to find an exotic vet that specializes in reptiles to care for your sick turtle.

In the winter you may want to let your turtle hibernate.

You can use a plastic container or an old 75 gallon tank as a hibernaculum, and fill it with wet potting soil 4-8 inches deep.

During hibernation, you should check on your turtles once or twice a month to make sure they are not losing too much weight or showing any other symptoms of illness.

To prepare them for hibernation, lower your tank’s temperature to match outdoor fall or winter conditions and withhold food for about 2 to 3 weeks as they begin to adjust to the new conditions.

Turtles that display any signs of illness should not be hibernated until they have seen a veterinarian.

Interesting Facts

Box Turtle on a Rock

  • Box Turtles have a homing instinct that is linked to Earth’s geomagnetic field. It allows them to find their way home even from miles and miles away.
  • They can get into some real trouble when their homing instinct takes them across a busy road. Road mortality is their biggest threat, and hundreds are killed by cars every year.
  • The Coahuilan Box Turtle is one of the rarest species in North America. It is endemic to only one area of Mexico (the Cuatro Cinegas basin).
  • They are listed as endangered in many states, so each state has its own conservation and management program to help protect them.
  • Asian turtles in the genus Cuora are often labeled as Box Turtles. They have very similar shells to the North American species, but they are from completely different families.

FAQs about Box Turtles

How Far Do Box Turtles Roam?

These are extremely active turtles that can travel long distances while hunting or searching.

The Eastern variety has been known to roam at least 55 yards a day. The Western’s range is even longer – they can travel over 75 yards in one day.

Most of their activity occurs in the pre-dawn and post-dusk hours of the day.

Their roaming distance depends on the location and seasonal patterns, as well as their ability to safely return to their home range.

How Long Do Box Turtles Live?

In the wild, Eastern Box Turtles typically live for anywhere between 20 and 30 years. In captivity, they can live up to 40 in the hands of a good keeper.

There have been reports of Easterns living for over 100 years.

Westerns have a slightly shorter lifespan. They may reach their early 30s in captivity and their mid 20s in the wild.

How Long Does It Take For Box Turtle Eggs To Hatch?

It will take about 2 to 3 months for their eggs to hatch.

Seasonal patterns and weather can shorten or lengthen an incubation period. Eggs laid in cooler weather may take longer to hatch.

How To Tell the Age of a Box Turtle?

There are several ways to tell the age of your turtle.

The easiest is to count the rings, or annuli on its shell. The number of rings matches up to the age in a way similar to the rings on a tree.

Summary

While Box Turtles may be a lot of work, their popularity shows that they are well worth it.

They are unique pets that make a very colorful addition to an indoor or outdoor habitat.

Keep them warm, clean and well fed, and they will do very well for themselves. They might even reward you by eating up your garden pests.

Keeping a Box Turtle is a big decision. If you think you are ready to take one on, bear in mind that it will be around for a long time!

Would you rather keep an Eastern or a Western Box Turtle? Let us know in the comments section below…

Robert Woods Portrait
Robert Woods is the creator of FishKeeping World, a third generation fish keeper and a graduate in animal welfare and behavior. He is also a proud member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Marine Aquarium Societies of North America and the Nature Conservancy.

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