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American Box Turtles as Pets – Care and Natural History

Male Eastern Box TurtleThe beautifully-patterned American Box Turtles (Terrapene spp.) are very popular among reptile enthusiasts worldwide. They are extremely responsive, intelligent, calm, and may live for 60-100 years…what more could a turtle fan want!  Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions concerning their care.  The following information will enable you to meet their needs…please post any specific questions you may have.

Note: Box Turtle populations have declined drastically. In addition to habitat loss and road-kill, many were exported to foreign pet markets when European tortoises were protected by law.  Please purchase only captive-bred animals.

Natural History

Four Box Turtle species the Eastern, Spotted, Ornate and Coahuilan – range from southern Canada through most of the USA and into Mexico.  Ten uniquely-colored subspecies, including the Florida, Gulf Coast and Yucatan Box Turtles, are also recognized.

Box Turtles frequent woodlands, marshes, fields, agricultural land, and many other habitats.  Some, such as the Eastern Box Turtle (T. carolina), are largely terrestrial, while Three-Toed Box Turtles (T. carolina triunguis) and others split their time between land and shallow water.  The Coahuilan Box Turtle (T. coahuila), the group’s only truly aquatic member, is found only in Mexico’s Cuatro Cienegas Basin.  Several of my colleagues at the Bronx Zoo studied this species in the wild, and I had the good fortune to work with a breeding group for many years; please look for my future article on this most unique turtle.

Although certain other turtles posses shell hinges that allow the plastron (lower shell) to be drawn up (“like a box”), in no group is this ability so well developed as the American Box Turtles (please see photo).


When properly accommodated, Box Turtles take very well to captivity and quickly learn to “beg’ for food. They seem to exhibit a degree of curiosity and problem-solving abilities not evident in others. That being said, there are exceptions…

The World’s most Aggressive Box Turtle

image titleYears ago a co-worker of mine found an adult Eastern Box Turtle abandoned at the back door of the Bronx Zoo’s Reptile House as he left for the day.  Needing to leave right away, he secured the turtle in a storage locker.  Next day, the typical hectic life of a zookeeper kicked in, and the turtle was forgotten for several days.

My co-worker then liberated the turtle and placed it on a table for examination.  When he lowered his head to table level to get a better look, it ran over and clamped down on his nose, leaving a long-lasting scar.  Our vets checked the animal and found him none-the-worse (physically!) for his experience.  But thereafter, he attacked whoever came near, even going so far as to follow people, clamber onto their shoes, and bite down on pants or legs!  Eventually he found a home at a small zoo where he proved more amenable to female turtle company and sired quite a few offspring!


Setting up the Terrarium

Box Turtles are quite active and need spacious enclosures.  Glass aquariums are unsuitable, except, perhaps, for hatchlings.

Adults do best in enclosures that have been constructed with their needs in mind; outdoor maintenance is ideal when weather permits.  The Table Top Cage described on the Tortoise Trust website is very useful.   Plastic-bottomed rabbit cages and cattle troughs can also be modified as turtle homes.

Shelters are important to the well-being of pet turtles.  Suitable hiding spots include deep substrates and “turtle huts”

Box Turtles need a water bowl large enough for soaking.  


The ideal substrate is a mix of slightly-moist cypress or other wood chips and sphagnum moss.  I like to include fallen leaves as well. The substrate should be of a depth that allows the turtle to bury itself, as this is their typical means of hiding in the wild.
Box Turtles need daily exposure to UVB light.  Natural sunlight is best, but be aware that UVB rays do not penetrate glass or plastic, and that fatal overheating can occur quickly.

Your turtle should be able to bask within 6-12 inches of a high-output UVB florescent bulb, such as the Zoo Med 10.0.   Mercury vapor and halogen bulbs broadcast UVB over greater distances, and emit beneficial UVA radiation as well.  Be sure to provide shaded areas as well
Temperatures should range from 70-80 F, with a basking site of 85-88 F.  Incandescent bulbs may be used by day; ceramic heaters or red/black reptile “night bulbs” are useful after dark.

Coahuilan Box TurtleProvide your turtle with the largest home possible, so that a thermal gradient (areas of different temperatures) can be established.  Thermal gradients, critical to good health, allow turtles to regulate their body temperature by moving between hot and cool areas.  In glass aquariums and other small or poorly-ventilated enclosures, the entire area soon takes on the basking site temperature.
Box Turtles, even those native dry habitats, require access to humid substrates.  Low humidity has been linked to eye and ear infections and kidney disease.  The substrate should be misted at least twice daily; a dry basking area must also be available.


Females and youngsters often co-exist, but must be watched as dominant individuals may prevent others from feeding.  Males fight viciously, and usually harass females with near-constant mating attempts.


Note: Certain species have unique dietary preferences; Coahuilan Box Turtles, for example, are more carnivorous than most.  Please post questions concerning those you keep.

Animal Foods

Young Box Turtles are largely carnivorous.  As they mature, increasing amounts of plant material is added to the diet.  Youngsters should be fed a diet comprised largely of whole animals. Earthworms, snails and slugs, which can be collected from pesticide-free areas, are important food items.  Tossing a handful of leaf litter into the terrarium will elicit hunting behaviors and keep your lets well-occupied. Food market and canned snails are excellent alternatives.

Other nutritious foods include pre-killed pink mice, super mealworms, roaches, sow bugs, waxworms, grasshoppers, grubs, crickets and canned invertebrates marketed for pet reptiles.

Low fat dog food, canned box turtle diets or moistened Reptomin Food Sticks should be mixed into most meals. Try some of the foods mentioned below as well.

Plant Foods

Approximately 50% of the diet for adults should be as described above. The balance should be comprised of salads containing chopped various berries, kale, dandelion, yams, apples, pears, squash, mushrooms, carrots and other produce.


CuttleboneThe calcium requirements of Box Turtles are quite high.  All food should be powdered with Tetra ReptoCal, Zoo Med ReptiCalcium or a similar product; a cuttlebone may also be left in the cage.  Vitamin/mineral supplements (i.e. Reptivite with D3) should be used 2-3 times weekly.

Feeding Tips

Adults can be fed 5-7 times weekly, juveniles daily. Box Turtles often become “spoiled”, and consume 1-2 food items to the exclusion of others. Strawberry jelly can be used to entice your turtles to accept a wider variety of foods.  Please see this article for further information and tips.

What’s Next, and What Can I Do?

Box Turtles can be quite hardy pets, but only if their exacting requirements are met. Please post any questions you may have below and I’ll be sure to respond quickly.

If you are concerned about turtle conservation, please consider joining a turtle interest group. The NY Turtle and Tortoise Society is my favorite.



Further Reading

Eastern Box Turtle Natural History

Feeding American Box Turtles

Box Turtle Conservation at Davidson College

Information on all Box Turtle Species

Coahuilan Box Turtle image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Postdlf


  1. avatar

    I do not understand why people keep turtles as pets, as they usually live longer than their owners? For me, having a pet is about caring for an animal throughout it’s life cycle, basically from the day you get it to the day you see it pass away… Why would someone take the burden of caring for one pet which really would outlive it’s owner? Why do people want that burden of the same pet for the rest of their life?

    • avatar


      Thanks for your interest. Keeping a long-lived animal does require planning, but well-informed people interested in turtles, parrots, etc are aware of these considerations; those who are not are a problem, of course. A long life does allow private keepers to learn a good deal about there charges, and in some cases to breed them as well. many highly endangered SE Asian turtles, for example, are now being captive -bred by concerned private keepers; many also come from families that share their interests (as with me). Joining local turtle interest groups is a great way to make friends who can assist with long term planning and care, these operate in all US states, and worldwide.

      The burden aspect is, in my experience, relative. I’ve worked with well-financed private keepers who have – quite literally – thousands of turtles. They think nothing of providing live snails and other hard to get items for specialist feeders, figuring out the needs of species rarely kept in captivity, providing specific ranges of UVB/UVA light and so on, yet the thought of walking and cleaning up after a dog is inconceivable to them! But, that’s what makes life interesting, takes all kinds as they say…

      Best, Frank

  2. avatar

    Hi Frank.
    Hope all is well. Have some questions.
    I know you mentioned a few things that are good as substrate for the box turtle. I was wondering
    if top soil would be ok to use for the turtles that stay outside. I thought I would mix it with leaves
    or put them on top. I have always used just the soil that is already in my yard and then pile high the leaves for the winter. Since the turtles aren’t moving about, it stays high. I was thinking to add some softer dirt to help with borrowing. Also, My male box keeps staying in the water for long periods of time.
    I came home early last night around 7:30 and he was still there from some time much earlier. I decided to leave him and when I checked later at 10 or so, he was still in the water. He’s been soaking in the water quite a bit. Is this normal? He seems fine otherwise. (This is the one with the pink tint on the
    bottom) I don’t recall him ever doing that before.

    • avatar

      Hi Shirley,

      All good here, thanks, I hope you are well.

      Top soil is a good choice, mixed with leaves…avoid any with added plant food, aeration spacers, etc. They are pretty good at regulating soaking needs, I wouldn’t worry.

      If you have a moment – I’m writing on preparing ponds etc for winter…where are you located, and how deep under leaves do your turtles stay?…info would be useful to compare to other parts of the country, thanks, Frank

  3. avatar

    Thanks. I’m in NJ. We have a big rectangle wooden (secured) box area that has another section
    on the short end boxed off, which is 2′ x 5′ and 1′ deep. I pretty much fill it up to the top with
    leaves. The dirt under the leaves is just the soil that’s there. We just turn over the dirt to make
    it softer for digging. I want to make it better. I was just wondering if it was be better to moisten the leaves or keep them dry as I have done all along. Oh, which reminds me. Recently, every time I opened the lid with the roofing, there would be big black crickets all over.
    It is dark in there. Would the turtle be aware of them and would it be able to catch them to eat?
    So, this is basically it. I hope at some point to go even bigger. I just want my turtles to be secure and healthy. The muskie goes outside in a prefab pond, but she comes in at night in summer and is in
    for the winter too.

    • avatar

      Thanks…do they burrow into the ground, or just remain below leaves?

      I wouldn’t change anything…hibernation is tricky, and you’ve had great success.

      They will hunt crickets, but in general they are too quick, and nocturnal. As temps cool both will slow down, but appetite will decline. Field crickets have strong jaws and can be a problem to weak, ill or injured animals, but otherwise are not a concern…good scavengers, and turtles likely get some from time to time, best, Frank

  4. avatar

    Oh. Also. I see the box turtle is out in the water again for hours and into the night. Does it have anythong to do with getting ready for hibernation? Thanks.

  5. avatar

    Well, that’s a good question. I’m not sure. I think they just burrow somewhat.
    The top of the shell is above the dirt I believe. Shirley

    • avatar

      Thanks…same with mine, years ago, in NYC….shell would be visible above earth, just covered by leaves. I didn’t know about their natural “anti-freeze” back then, and couldn’t imagine how they survived – still amazing! Best, Frank

  6. avatar

    Hi Frank.
    That is amazing. Last winter was terrible all over the country from what I remember.
    I was kind of concerned about my turtles. I wondered just how cold they could handle.
    They did take longer to come out then usual, but I was so happy when they did. I think
    my little guys probably come out later than others because of the roofed lid. It takes
    a little longer for it to warm up in there. I hope I never see another winter like that one!

  7. avatar

    Hi- my Desert Box Turtle has had white areas on his shell for a very long time, and I take great care of him (he’s really spoiled and pampered) but i’m worried about this- do you know what it is and what I should do to treat it? He’s otherwise very healthy and happy. https://www.youtube.com/edit?video_id=pgGbHD6Tc20&feature=em-upload_owner
    Thank you,

    • avatar

      Hi Lisa,

      I wasn’t able to view the video, but it’s difficult to ID a problem visually in any event. Bleached areas on the shell are generally harmless..old injuries, etc. Problems arise if fungus is involved – fuzzy texture, spreading etc. Please let me know if you need more info, best, Frank

  8. avatar

    Dear Frank,

    We have two baby eastern box turtles. Could you please tell me what you think would be the best solution for heating at night? Do you recommend the ceramic infrared heat emitter? If so, what wattage? Or do you think there is a better solution? Right now we are trying an infrared red light bulb. It’s aiming underneath their table frame so heating from below, so as not to shine the light into the top for nighttime.
    Thank you,

    • avatar

      Hi there,

      For night heating I usually recommend using a red colored bulb, or a ceramic heat emitter suspended above the tank/table. The red coloration doesn’t effect their sleep as much as a bright light would, while ceramic heat emitters provide no light. A ceramic heat emitter is a great way to go, but if you decide on that option, you want to make sure that you have a good digital thermometer to keep track of of your temps. Ceramic heat emitters rarely break or “burn out” but when they do, you cant tell by looking at them like you can with a bulb.


  9. avatar

    I have another concern too. One of the baby box turtles has a little bit of moisture bubbles from the nose occasionally. The eyes are clear and look good. The turtle eats well and is active. No other symptoms are noticeable. Is this always a sign of respiratory infection, or is a tiny bit sometimes normal? We are trying to get the turtles some extra heat and humidity. That turtle soaks and plays in the water more than the other turtle. I give them vitamin supplements in small amounts, and that turtle has eaten sweat potato and other foods with vitamin A, so I don’t think it is in need of additional vitamin A.
    Thank you for your help! You have helped me in the past with our toads! They are still doing well!

    • avatar

      Hi there,

      Bubbling through the nose is usually a sign of the beginnings of an upper respiratory infection. It might be a little too humid and/or a little too cool in your enclosure. I would definitely keep the heat up to hep dry everything out for a few days. Usually if their caught early respiratory infections can be treated easily just by keeping the temps a little higher. If the symptoms seem to worsen, I would contact a good reptile vet.


      • avatar

        Thank you for the info. Could you tell me the ideal humidity level for an eastern box turtle baby?
        I thought maybe our humidity was too low, but from your reply, I am wondering if we actually had it too high. We had it too cool, so we are improving that.

        • avatar

          The humidity levels for an eastern box turtle can fluctuate between 50-80 percent. Eastern Box turtles are native to the American Northeast, so if you are living along the East coast a light daily misting should be enough to keep a box turtle’s enclosure within the proper humidity range.

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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