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Feeding American Box Turtles – Formulating the Best Diet for Your Pet

Florida Box TurtleThree of the 4 species in the genus Terrapene – the Eastern, Three-Toed and Ornate Box Turtles – as well as several of the 10 subspecies, have long been popular in the pet trade.  However, they should not be classified as “beginner’s turtles”…in fact, their dietary and other requirements are quite strict, and most captives die long before their time. Today I’ll discuss feeding, and will focus on other aspects of their care in future articles.

Note: Box Turtle populations everywhere have declined drastically due to habitat loss and over-collection, and they are now legally protected in most states. Please be sure to determine that box turtles offered for sale have been captive bred, and are legal to keep in your state.

General Considerations

The first step in providing a proper diet is to accurately identify the species and subspecies that you are dealing with (please see article below).  The following recommendations will prove useful for most of the commonly-kept types, but please write in for specific info, as certain subspecies have unique requirements (this applies to temperature and other care aspects as well).

Box Turtles often eagerly consume 1-2 food items to the exclusion of others; adults, at least, may survive on these limited diets for years.  However, individuals that are not fed properly-balanced diets invariably expire well short of their potentially 100+ year life-spans.

Hatchling and juvenile Box Turtles are largely carnivorous.  As they mature, they add increasing amounts of plant material and mushrooms to the diet.  Certain species and populations vary in this regard – for example, the highly aquatic Coahuilan Box Turtle, Terrapene coahuila (a rare species not usually seen in private collections), remains a confirmed meat-eater into adulthood.

Vitamin and Mineral Supplements

Youngsters and, it appears, adults, have high Calcium and Vitamin A requirements.  I powder most meals with supplements, alternating among Reptivite with D3, ReptiCalcium and ReptoCal.  Please write in for age-specific details.

Hatchlings and Juveniles

Eastern Box TurtleYoung Box Turtles should be fed a diet comprised largely of whole animals.  I use earthworms for at least 50% of this part of the diet.  Snails and slugs, which can be collected from pesticide-free areas, are an important food source in most wild populations.  Food market land snails and canned snails are excellent alternatives.

Other nutritious additions to the diet include pre-killed pink mice, super mealworms, sow bugs, waxworms, grasshoppers, mealworm pupae, grubs and crickets.  Commercially-reared insects should themselves be fed a nutritious diet before being used as food for your turtles.  Cicadas may be an impotent food item during the fall; certainly turtles in my collection relish these (please see article below).

Low fat canned dog food (preferable to higher-fat cat foods) can also be tried.  Recently I’ve replaced this with pelleted and canned Box Turtle Diets, and have always added moistened Reptomin Food Sticks to most meals.

Adult Diet

Three-toed Box TurtleApproximately 50% of the diet for adult Box Turtles should be as described above.  The balance should be comprised of salads containing chopped berries, kale, dandelion and other seasonally available greens, yams, apple, mushrooms, carrots and other produce.  Berries of all kinds are a great favorite, so take care that your turtle does not consume these to the exclusion of other foods.  All-fruit strawberry jelly can be used to entice your turtle to consume foods that are not favored.

Drinking water, humidity, UVB radiation and a host of other factors also greatly affect Box Turtle nutrition.  Please write in for further information.

 

 

Further Reading

Bow Turtle Natural History (all species and subspecies)

Feeding Cicadas to Turtles and other Pets

Rearing Earthworms

Threats to Wild Box Turtles

Florida Box Turtle image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Jonathan Zander
Eastern Box Turtle image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Matt Reinbold
Three-toed Box Turtle image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Carnopod

22 comments

  1. avatar

    I have a CB Florida box turtle. Is there anything specific I should be giving him/her? It gets crickets and turtle pellets. I have tried some fruit and veggies, but they do go ignored.

    • avatar

      Hello Kurt

      Nice to hear from you again. Florida Box Turtles tend to take less plant based foods than others, even as adults (youngsters rarely take any). They probably gorge on berries in the wild at certain times, but captives seem to do fine on a meat-based diet. Pellets are a good way of introducing alfalfa and other vegetation, so keep up with them and perhaps add some new types. Definitely increase animal variety – earthworms, pinks, sowbugs (all good calcium sources’ earthworms can also be fed calcium powdered fish flakes) and others mentioned; and use supplements…calcium on most meals, at least for first 2-3 years, more if hi cal foods are limited; vitamin/minerals app. 3 x weekly.

      Keep humidity high in general, with moist hiding spots, damp leaf litter, etc.; dry conditions have been linked to ear/eye problems; most commonly in Eastern Box Turtles, but likely holds for yours as well.

      Berries mashed over yams, carrots, apple may encourage the turtle to try.

      Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  2. avatar

    Thanks for the info. I do keep him/her on leaf litter on ground coconut and mist him/her daily. So far the turtle is doing great. I am a little nervous about feeding him veggies at this point as the tank door houses mantellas. If their dinner escapes I could have an infestation of them in his/her tank.

    Just for the record I have –
    1 Heterometrus spinifer
    1 Pandinus cf militaris
    1 Ambystoma maculatum
    1 Paramesotriton chinensis*
    1 Triturus marmoratus*
    2 Tylototriton kweichowensis
    2 Tylototriton shanjing
    3 Bombina orientalis
    4 Melanophryniscus klappenbachi
    1 Rhinella schneideri
    3 Epipedobates anthonyi “Pasaje-Sarajunga”*
    1 Hyla cinerea
    1 Dendropsophus ebraccatus*
    2 Litoria carulea*
    2 Agalychnis callidryas*
    2 Mantella pulchra
    3 Dyscophus guineti*
    2 Phrynomantis bifasciatus
    1 Phrynomantis microps
    2 Rhacophorus reinwardtii
    1 Terrapene carolina bauri*
    1 Apalone ferox*
    1 Antaresia maculosa*
    1 Xenopeltis unicolor*
    1 Lampropeltis getula californiae (striped)*
    1 Lampropeltis triangulum nelsoni (albino)*
    1 Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum
    *captive bred

    • avatar

      Hello Kurt,

      Thanks for the feedback…great collection, quite a few of my favorites. Do you know the sex of your Fla Softshell? It didn’t get much notice, but 10-12 yrs ago a 96 pound female was taken by a commercial turtle trapper in central Fla; blew away size record by far, can’t imagine age. There was some talk of it going to a small zoo there, but it died soon after capture. They are still common in food markets in some NYC neighborhoods; I documented high mercury levels some years back; info went to FDA and stalled there.

      A great way to control cricket/roach infestations where pesticides cannot be used is to set out jars partially filed with molasses; they can’t resist. I don’t care for glue traps, and they are harder to keep away from exhibit animals.

      Good luck with all, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    I have no idea what the genders are of either turtle. To tell you the truth I never looked. I know my red-eye and blue-web pairs are male & female. The tomatoes are 1.2.0. The shanjing are 1.1.0. I believe the kwechowensis are the same gender. The ebraccatus is male.

  4. avatar
    JOANNE SCHOTTHOEFER

    My daughter recently adopted a gold coast box turtle. We believe it is a female and is a bout 4 inches long. She has read up on what to feed her and what enviroment to keep her in. Lately the turtle is not eating very much food and we are concerned about the nutrients she is getting. Could you tell me how often do turtles eat? Daily, several times a week? The turtle seems to like chicken the most but will eat some fruit if offered, however for the last several weeks she has been eating very little. She always has access to fresh water and has a light and heat source 12 hours each day. Could you advise us as to what we might give her to tempt her to eat? Thank you for your advise.
    Joanne

    • avatar

      Hello Joanne,

      Thanks for your interest. Box Turtles sometimes go off feed during the winter, even if kept warm; especially common in wild caught individuals. Usually this not a concern…but unfortunately it’s hard to tell if the slowdown is due to the seasonal change or an underlying health problem without a vet visit. Please see this article for further info and write me again with any further info you may have.

      Some chicken is fine as treat, but the basic diet should be as described in the article…lots of whole organisms (live and/or canned), turtle pellets etc…earthworms are a favorite, and a good source of nutrition. Young turtles (as is yours, judging from size) tend not to take much vegetation, but continue to try.

      Please write back with details as to temperature, and also re your UVB source…both will affect appetite.

      Average food intake varies, depending on temp, season, age and other factors, but I’ll provide some guidelines after I receive your info.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  5. avatar

    We have a new wild hatchling aprox. 3 days old. Believed to be an eastern box turtle.
    The question is: How long before they get an appetite?
    We haven’t seen it eat and were growing concerned.
    We have given it sow bugs.earth worms. small grass hoppers (Live) and fruit and vegetables chopped into very small pieces.
    Any guidance would be appreciated.

    Newbie turtle parents.

    • avatar

      Hello Brian,

      They usually take 4-7 days to begin feeding. However, wild caught animals are often “primed” (internal clock) to hibernate now and may not feed well even if kept warm in winter. This can be difficult to manage where hatchlings are concerned, as they have no food reserves. Hibernating captives is difficult w/o a good deal of experience. Most states protect box turtles and prohibit collection, so plese look into that aspect.

      Hatchlings need lots of cover (slightly damp leaves, sphagnum moss, a small cave in order to feel secure enough to eat. They will not survive long w/o adequate UVB exposure (please see “Light” section of this article. Please post info as to your set-up (size, cover, water, substrate, UVB exposure) and the average and basking site temperatures and I’ll provide some specifics. Hatchling box turtles are not an ideal choice as a first turtle..if you wish, I can provide some ideas as to how to proceed from here.

      Best, Frank

  6. avatar

    HELP!!! I am adopting 2 box turtles and their stuff n home! They should be arriving next wednesday. Can you please direct me to a turtle group to help me to properly care for these guys? unless of course you have an already prepared awesome care sheet 😉

    Also these guys (1 male, 1 female) are currently housed together, will it hurt them to split them up?? This way each of my boys can have a turtle. I think they are currently using a wood chip type bedding, is this the best type of bedding? My husband is concerned about the potential smell. He is ok with the turtles as long as I can keep the smell issue under control. Is a 40 gallon long tank appropriate to house a turtle in? I know you stated an aquarium is not the best but it is what I have right now. I will be looking for a bigger home setup I think but have limited space. During warm months is it ok to take the turtles out in the yard? We don’t use pesticides in our yard. I do have a bearded dragon and we used to have a leopard gecko so I am not completely ignorant of reptile care but turtles are a new adventure.

    • avatar

      Hi Jean,

      It’s fine to split them..in fact males sometimes need to be removed due to constant mating attempts. But they do need quite large enclosures..a 40 gallon aquarium is not adequate long-term. Please see this article for details on housing, UVB light requirements, substrate, humidity needs, etc., and please write back with further questions.

      Provide a large water bowl..they generally will defecate there, which will simplify cleaning.

      Outdoor housing is ideal, and the best way to provide UVb. Be aware however, that they can both dig and climb. Also, despite their shells, they are vulnerable to rat and raccoon predation, which can be a concern if they are housed outdoors at night.

      All reptiles likely carry Salmonella of one type or another. Please see this article, and be especially careful where children are involved; be sure to contact your doctor with any concerns. Best, Frank

  7. avatar

    A friend saved a box turtle in NJ, last fall, on a heavily trafficked highway. He did not know where to safely release it, as the area was built up and busy.
    He didn’t know what to do and eventually brought it to me as he knew I have fostered box turtles.
    The turtle is a beauty, I wintered him over indoors, and now wonder, is it best to keep him in captivity or release him? He is healthy, eats well.
    IF I release him, where can I do this safely, and happily for the turtle?

    • avatar

      Hello Frances,

      Tricky situation… they never fare well near highways, so re-location to a protected nature reserve within the same general area is best. Ideally, one should contact the NJDEP when any reptile seems to need assistance, as all are protected and illegal to keep w/o the appropriate license. I’m not sure if you’ll run into trouble if you contact the NJDEP for advice at this point, and are not a licensed rehabilitator. I should be able to locate a licensed rehabber in your area if that would be helpful.

      best regards, Frank

  8. avatar

    Yes, please. can you help me find someone in NJ, near Atlantic City?

  9. avatar

    Good afternoon.

    Have a question concerning this time of year.
    I have read that it is important to slow down or stop feeding a turtle
    at a certain time so they will be ready for hibernating.
    I never knew this until more recently and would offer food until
    the turtle stopped eating. Is the information completely right, or does the turtle have
    natural instincts that lets it know it’s time to slow down on eating?
    Ty.

    • avatar

      Hello,

      Much depends on whether turtle was wild caught or captive born and especially, the temperatures at which it will be over-wintered. If kept at room temps, most US natives will slow down on their own; for strict hibernation outdoors, same applies. Indoors, if turtles are to be kept dormant (basement, frig, etc) they should be put into cold temps after 7 or so days of fasting, best, Frank

  10. avatar

    Hello Frank
    Hope all is well and you had a very pleasant holiday.
    I have someone on this end that has a baby boxie and wanted to know what kind of UVB light would be best. She did purchase one that is 13W and 100UVB. Is this OK? Thanks.

    • avatar

      Hello Shirley,

      Thanks..a happy healthy Thanksgiving to you and yours also.

      I’m not sure about the bulb from that description…send along product name if you wish. For florescent UVB’s, the bulb should be within 6-12 inches of the animal; high output UVB’s broadcast over longer distances. Please also see this article on general care, best , Frank

  11. avatar

    Hi. EXO TERRA is the name on the box.

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.

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