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Box turtle as a pet

Over the years keeping a box turtle as a pet has become a lot more popular. This is generally because these reptiles are gentle and low maintenance. Box turtles compared to aquatic turtle species require less care in terms of their setup, but still have some requirements in order for them to thrive.

So what are box turtles? Well, the term is used to refer to turtles that belong to the genus – Terrapene. These turtles are North American pond turtles.

Although they are pond turtles, they are commonly confused with tortoises which are down to the box turtles’ appearance and terrestrial nature. These turtles spend most of their time on land. However, they still need a lot of moisture and a shallow water dish (in which they waddle and rest).

Popular box turtles include Florida box turtle (Terrapene carolina bauri), three-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis), eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina), ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata), and desert box turtle (Terrapene ornata luteola).

Several other Asiatic turtles that belong to the genus Cuora are also referred to as box turtles, specifically Asian box turtles. These are a lot rarer on the pet trade. Those found on the exotic pet trade are wild-caught C. amboinensis specimens. The exotic pet trade is detrimental to the wild population since the C. amboinensis and other Cuora spp. are endangered.

Owning a box turtle

Ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata) in Illinois
Ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata) in Illinois

Box turtles may just be the most popular turtles kept in captivity, alongside the red-eared slider. These turtles are popular for a reason. With adequate care, they make great pets. In fact, they don’t require a lot of attention.

However, just because they don’t mind being left alone doesn’t mean they can be neglected. Many owners lack the know-how to care for chelonians properly. Nutrient deficiency and overfeeding are among some of the more common problems.

Before you acquire a pet box turtle, you need to know what you’re doing. Do your research and have the enclosure set up. Know what to feed them, how to supplement their diets, and how to keep their enclosure in the perfect condition (regarding temperature, humidity, and UVB exposure).

Luckily for us, box turtles aren’t huge reptiles (compared to tortoises). The largest box turtle is the Gulf Coast box turtle and this subspecies grows to 6-7 inches in length.  Expect your box turtle to reach lengths of 5 to 7 inches. This species reaches maturity/adulthood at around age 5. At this age, expect them to stop growing in size.

These turtles grow faster when they don’t hibernate/brumate. It isn’t required to let your turtles to hibernate. In fact, hibernation comes with its risks. Turtles aren’t guaranteed to survive hibernation. Incorrect temperature and conditions can lead to the turtle starving to death or freezing to death. If turtles have food within their system right before they hibernate, this can lead to infections.

Only let the turtle to hibernate if it’s absolutely necessary.

With good care, these turtles will grow to be 20 to 40 years or even older.

Picking a healthy box turtle

Eastern Box Turtle - (Terrapene carolina carolina), Woodbridge Virginia by Judy Gallagher
Eastern Box Turtle – (Terrapene carolina carolina), Woodbridge Virginia by Judy Gallagher

If you want to keep box turtles as pets, starting with healthy specimens is always best. Most novices don’t have the experience needed to successfully nurse a sick turtle back to health. Also, a sick turtle can cost you a lot in veterinarian bills.

Signs to watch out for include sunken eyes, closed eyes, lethargy, discharge from the mouth, eyes, or nostrils, dry skin, and abscesses. Sunken or swollen shut eyes are usually caused by malnutrition and emaciation.

Also, inspect the shell, make sure there isn’t any discoloration, moldy growth, missing scutes, or cracks. The shell should be hard and not spongy or soft. This is a sign of nutrient deficiency.

The turtle needs to be active especially when handled. It should quickly retract into its shell or try to get away from you.

Its mouth should also be free of any cloudy mucus or thick, cottage cheese-like substance. There should be just a small amount of saliva in the turtle’s mouth.

See the veterinarian after acquiring/adopting a box turtle

Gulf Coast Box Turtle on grass (Terrapene_carolina_major)
Gulf Coast Box Turtle on grass (Terrapene_carolina_major)

Regardless of how healthy the turtle is, you still have to see a reptile and amphibian veterinarian also referred to as a herp vet as soon as possible. I advise that this be within 2 days of acquiring the turtle.

The vet can further examine the reptile and offer an expert opinion on the health of the reptile. The vet will also weigh the turtle and measure the turtle. The vet will also check for internal parasites. Other tests include blood tests, oral cavity examinations, cultures, and even x-rays.

The vet can also teach you how to trim the turtle’s beak and claws.

I advise that you visit the vet once a year thereafter.

Should I be concerned about salmonella?

Three-toed box turtle (terrapene carolina triunguis) outdoors, against a rock and grass backdrop
Three-toed box turtle (terrapene carolina triunguis) outdoors, against a rock and grass backdrop

Salmonella is a genus of bacteria that is caused by Salmonellosis. This disease can be fatal in people with lowered immune systems, the elderly, and young children. In adults, it causes diarrhea and vomiting.

Salmonella is known to occur naturally on reptiles including turtles. To these reptiles, the bacteria have no negative effect on their health. However, the bacteria can be transmitted to other humans.

To avoid contracting salmonella from turtles, wash your hands thoroughly after handling the turtle. Soap and water are all it takes to prevent salmonella infection.

The danger usually comes with children, who may place their hands into their mouth or use their hands to handle food without washing them first after handling a turtle. Some may even put the turtle directly into their mouth or kiss the turtle.

This danger led to restrictions being placed on the sale of turtles smaller than 4 inches in length in the United States.

It’s not only small turtles that carry salmonella, even larger ones do as well. Wash your hands after handling the turtle, and objects within its enclosure.

Caring for a pet box turtle turtle

Common Box Turtle
Common Box Turtle on white background

Box turtles aren’t difficult animals to care for and are among the hardiest pets in the world. Setting up their enclosure is the most demanding part of their care. The upfront cost can be quite hefty as well. Once you have the enclosure up and running, everything else is a breeze.

The enclosure

You have to decide between an outdoor enclosure and an indoor enclosure. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. If you have space and live within the geographic range of the turtle, then an outdoor enclosure is the best.

The temperature, UV exposure, and humidity needs can be easily met as the turtle will be exposed to all this naturally. You can save on heating and lighting bills. Also, the turtle will be exposed to the best source of UVB/UVA – the sun.

Indoor enclosures are preferable if the temperatures aren’t conducive for the reptile. They are also safer. Outdoor enclosures need to be secure or the turtle can be prey to birds, and mammals such as raccoons.

When kept indoors, adult pet box turtles require 60 to 100-gallon tanks (aquarium or terrarium).

We go into more details into how to care for several species and subspecies of box turtles in other articles, so we won’t go into details here.

Substrate

Substrates such as aspen shaving, sphagnum moss, and eco earth are my recommended choices for the enclosure. Other suitable bedding materials include straw, paper towels, newspaper, peat moss, and even reptile carpet. Astroturf also works well.

Decorations

Objects such as rocks, hiding caves, plants, and hollow logs can be used to decorate the enclosure. These give a natural feel to the enclosure as well as provide the turtle with places to hide.

Water dish

While these box turtles are terrestrial, they still require a lot of moisture. Have a shallow water bowl large enough for the turtle to soak in. The water in this bowl needs to be changed regularly.

Temperature and lighting

The box turtle requires the right temperatures to be healthy and safe. They also require the right level of UV exposure.

The turtle’s enclosure requires a temperature gradient. This refers to creating an enclosure with varying temperatures. You do this by placing a heat source at one end of the enclosure. As such the areas closer to the heat source are warmer while areas further from the heat source are cooler.

The warm end of the enclosure should have temperatures between 85 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit and the cool end should have temperatures between 70 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

You can use an incandescent bulb to heat the enclosure. However, I recommend acquiring specialized reptile heat lamps such as ceramic heat lamps. These produce infrared heat and no visible light. This allows you to warm up the enclosure on cold nights and through the cold seasons without the bulb producing visible light.

As with most reptiles, the turtle requires 10 to 12 hours of darkness to live a healthy life. If the light is on throughout the day, the turtle will become stressed and may refuse to rest. This is detrimental to the turtle’s health.

The turtle also requires UV light to be healthy. These include UVA and UVB light. Both wavelengths are produced by the sun. However for turtles kept indoors, you can use reptile UV lamps such as Reptisun and Power Sun to provide the turtle with these essential rays.

For more on choosing lighting and heating, see our UVB Guide and heat lamp guide.

Feeding

Box turtles are omnivorous and accept a wide range of foods. They aren’t picky. You need to feed them the right foods so they don’t become overweight. For instance, feeding them a lot of meat. Similarly, not feeding them enough has detrimental effects.

The type of food you feed them is also important. Nutrient deficiencies can lead to serious shell and limb deformity (metabolic bone disease).

Some foods to feed them include duckweed, romaine lettuce, alfalfa hay, turnip greens, mustard, collard greens, and dandelions. Most leafy greens are good for these reptiles.

They also accept fruits such as blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, papaya, mulberries, apples, and strawberries. Fruits should make up a very tiny portion of their diet, about 10 percent, as fruits have high sugar content.

They also accept pinkie mice, snails, slugs, crustaceans, dubia roaches, earthworms, mealworms, wax worms, silkworms, and crickets.

Adults are more herbivorous while juveniles are more carnivorous.

Box Turtle as a pet for a child

Turtles as pets are growing in popularity. These reptiles are among the more preferred turtle species to keep as pets as they don’t require you to maintain an aquarium.

Most parents would like to know whether or not box turtles are good pets for children. With parental supervision, most kids can care for a box turtle. In fact, box turtles are low maintenance pets and as such do not require as much attention as other pets do.

Most adolescents should have no problem caring for box turtles. However, you need to consider the turtle as well. Unlike many other pets, turtles are generally solitary creatures that prefer to be left alone most of the time.

Solitary creatures

Of course, every turtle has a unique personality but do not expect a turtle to play with you or interact with you much outside feeding. Constant handling can be stressful for the reptile and can lead to other health issues so it is best to keep interactions to a minimum.

The child should be able to accept that, they cannot handle the turtle all the time.

The turtle will most likely close itself up in its shell when it is picked up. Or it may try to defend itself when not held properly. This includes flailing about. Its nails can end up scratching the kid. The turtle may even bite.

Long-term commitment

Young keeled box turtle close up
Young keeled box turtle close up

Turtles are known for their long lifespans and this is no exception here. Box turtles are known to live to be over 100 years. Wild individuals are known to easily surpass  100 years.

In captivity, these reptiles are known to live to about 40 years. This could be down to a lack of data. Since turtles as pets have grown in popularity, so have information on how to properly care for them.

When acquiring a turtle, expect it to live a very long time. Is the kid ready for a long-term commitment? would the child be bored of the turtle in a few months especially knowing box turtles are a solitary species? These are all important questions to ask.

Releasing a captive-bred into the wild is not advisable. These turtles aren’t used to fending for themselves and a large portion does not survive.

Captive turtles may also carry pathogens they may be immune which the wild populations aren’t. This can negatively impact the wild populations.

Also if the species isn’t endemic to your locale, the turtle can end up being an invasive species and negatively impact the local ecosystem.

Because of the harm pet animals can do to the wild populations of their species as well as the wild population of other species, it is illegal to release pet turtles into the wild in many states. See our turtle laws page for more on that.

If your child can no longer care for the turtle you would need to find another captive home for it. Similarly, if you wish to acquire a turtle, you can consider adoption first, and buying one second.

Some sites to check for adoption include – amphibianfoundation.org, reptilerescuecenter.org, and texastortoiserescue.com.

Salmonella

Naturally, turtles carry salmonella. Regardless of how clean the turtle and its habitat are, it can still carry salmonella asymptomatically. It doesn’t affect them. However, this bacteria can be passed onto humans who can become infected and sick.

The best way to avoid infection is to thoroughly wash your hands after handling the pet, its beddings, toys, and excrement.

In fact, due to Salmonella poisoning in the 70s, some locales have laws prohibiting the sale of turtles smaller than 4 inches. This is to prevent children from owning turtles they can easily put into their mouths.

These are the main concerns to consider before getting your child a box turtle. Additionally, you need to do your research on how to care for a box turtle. This includes diets, supplementations, maintaining a habitat with the right levels of UV light, humidity, and the right temperature ranges.

Once you get the enclosure right, the child should have no problem caring for the turtle. Older kids (teens) can easily care for a box turtle with very little supervision. Younger kids require more supervision.

FAQs

Keeled box turtle in sand
Keeled box turtle in sand
Can you keep a box turtle as a pet?

Box turtles are probably the most common turtles kept as pets. They are easy to care for and make interesting pets. You can keep box turtles as pets. However, due to their long lives, these turtles can be a lifelong commitment.

What makes box turtles great pets?

Box turtles are easy to care for and are very docile. They don’t bite and rarely ever lash out. This makes them excellent pets for anyone who wishes to have a turtle. Unlike other turtles, the box turtle doesn’t require you to maintain an aquarium as they aren’t aquatic.

Should I get a box turtle for my child?

With supervision, children can easily take care of a box turtle. As with all turtles, box turtles carry salmonella. When this gets into the body via the mouth, it can lead to salmonellosis.

Washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling the turtle or objects in its enclosure is all that is needed to prevent salmonella infection. However, this can prove difficult for very young children. This is the main concern when it comes to getting a turtle for your child.

If you are to get a box turtle for your child, you need to supervise the interaction between the chelonian and your child. Moreover, ensure the child thoroughly wash their hands after every interaction.

How much does a box turtle cost?

Box turtles may not be the most expensive turtles out there but they do carry hefty fees, depending on the subspecies as well as where you acquire them. Expect to pay $50 to $550 for a box turtle.

Some sites where you can check out box turtle prices and availability include tortoisetown.com, and cbreptile.com

Conclusion

Box turtles make excellent pets. This is because they are hardy and docile. It comes as no surprise that they are among the most popular turtles kept as pets. There are also many box turtle species and subspecies. Some such as the ornate box turtles and the spotted turtle are considered to be among the most beautiful chelonians in the world.

Due to the high demand for box turtles on the pet trade, these turtles can be quite expensive to acquire. While it may cost you just $50 to acquire a specimen, some species such as the three-toed box turtle can cost as much as $450.

These turtles carry salmonella, as such, it is always important to handle them with care.

If you have any questions or information on these turtles, kindly leave a comment.

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