Box turtles are largely terrestrial turtles that can make attractive and fascinating pets – however they are a serious commitment given their lifespan (potentially 100 years!), special dietary and hibernation requirements and their need for an outdoors environment.
Think carefully before acquiring a pet which may outlive you and which may need a custom-built outdoor enclosure to thrive. Unless you have the facilities to accommodate such a set-up (or have the space and funds for a very large indoor terrarium with special humidity functions), it is better to choose a more low maintenance reptile pet, such as an aquatic turtle. Box turtles are much more complex and challenging than many other pet turtles and certainly not ideal choice for beginners.
Choosing a Box Turtle
The most common box turtles are North American in origin although certain Asian species are also available in the pet trade. The Three-Toed Box Turtle and the Ornate Box Turtle are popular choices. Always choose a captive-bred turtle as not only will you be protecting endangered wild populations, you will also get an animal which is less stressed, dehydrated and prone to disease. Ideally, get your new turtle in the spring or summer months, rather than in autumn or winter when it may be preparing to hibernate. Choose a solid turtle with a firm shell, and clear eyes and nostrils. Check that there are no swellings and if possible, have a vet check a stool sample for parasites. Remember that box turtles, like all reptiles, can harbour the Salmonella bacteria so careful hygiene after handling is essential.
Housing your Box Turtle
Although juveniles may adapt to an indoor terrarium, all adult box turtles need to be kept outdoors – at least for part of the year – in order to really thrive. It is incredibly difficult to create indoor conditions that are satisfactory and despite the greatest care taken with factors like temperature and humidity, the box turtles invariably end up with severe metabolic stress, resulting in conditions as severe as kidney failure. One mistake many people make is to assume that box turtles are tropical animals when in fact they come from temperate climates and cannot tolerate extreme heat or dryness in the atmosphere. Thus, in most of Britain, an appropriately-designed outdoor enclosure that has the correct substrate, humidity, access to water and protection from predators would be ideal. For the more northerly regions, installing a water-proof tubular heater will help with the lower temperatures.
The key to having a happy and healthy box turtle is correct humidity levels. Even if they only dry out for a very short time, box turtles can suffer serious health problems such as swollen eyes, ear abscesses and sore skin. Spraying the enclosure regularly with a mister can help in dry conditions or even just watering the ground, which also helps to encourage ‘natural prey’ such as earthworms and slugs. In addition, it is important to use a substrate that is specially designed for water-retention, such as sphagnum moss. It is also important to include a bathing area, with water deep enough for a proper swim. Such box turtles, such as the Three-Toed Box Turtle, enjoy the water and behave much more like an aquatic turtle. (Remember, the water in the pool must be kept scrupulously clean). Like all turtles, box turtles like to have cover which helps them to feel secure.
One thing to remember is that box turtles can be agile escape artists and are also determined diggers so spend extra time making sure that your enclosure is secure, such as burying some mesh wire at least 150mm deep into the sides of the enclosure. This has the added advantage of preventing foraging predators, such as foxes and badgers.
Unlike some other turtles, box turtles are gregarious and enjoy each others’ company so a group kept together as a colony may do better than a solitary pet, although care must be given not to overcrowd the turtles in the space available.
Hibernation and your Box Turtle
Care of box turtles must include a thorough understanding of their hibernation needs. In particular, only ever let a turtle in good health and condition hibernate as otherwise, it may kill the turtle. Most box turtles will become more inactive as winter approaches, eating less and often disappearing for days at a time, buried in deep holes under earth or plant roots. In many cases, if the climate and environment is suitable, the box turtle can be left alone to get on with it.
You may like to add an additional covering of old carpet, dry leaves or grass cuttings if temperatures drop. Otherwise, you may like to remove the turtle to a hibernation box; particularly if you want to make sure that an adequate level of humidity is maintained. Unlike most other tortoises, box turtles cannot hibernate simply in a dry box because they could die of dehydration. Thus, they need a bottom layer of damp leaf litter, moss and loose earth in their hibernation box, with ideal temperatures of 3-7 degrees C. Use a thermometer to check regularly and if temperatures fall below 2C, move the box to a warmer place.
When young, box turtles tend to be carnivorous and will feed on earthworms, slug’s crickets and insect larvae. However, as they mature, they become more omnivorous and extend their diet to vegetable and fruit matter such as strawberries, bananas, apples, mushrooms, pear and other green-leafed vegetables. Some people also recommend giving some supplementary foods such as low-fat tinned dog food once a week. Vitamin A deficiency is a common problem and something to watch out for, as well as calcium deficiencies so a vitamin and calcium supplements can be added to the diet to prevent these problems.
For the responsible enthusiast, box turtles can make wonderful, intelligent pets, providing many years of enjoyment and fascinating ownership.