This care-sheet is a general guide to the captive care of North American box turtles in the genus Terrapene. Box turtles are generally hardy animals that can thrive in captivity when properly cared for. They often have distinctive personalities and can learn to respond to their keepers. They are also very long-lived animals. It is possible for you and your box turtle to have a long and happy relationship together if you provide a suitable environment and proper care.
Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) dining on snails.
Photo by Michael J. Connor
Box turtles have a hinged plastron (under-shell) which allows them to close up tightly inside their shells. A healthy box turtle will have a good weight, and will react when picked up either by struggling to escape or by hastily withdrawing into its shell. A newly acquired box turtle should be closely monitored for signs of illness and given time to adjust to its new surroundings. This is especially true of box turtles obtained from pet stores. These are often ill and may suffer from heavy infestations with internal parasites. To prevent the outbreak and spread of infections, newly acquired box turtles should be quarantined for at least 3 months before being introduced to others.
Ideally, box turtles should be kept outdoors in a backyard or in a purpose-built enclosure. Fencing around the yard or enclosure must be secure enough to protect the turtle from dogs and other potential predators. Box turtles can dig under or climb over fences. Adding a lip along the top of the fence and trimming plants and vegetation growing alongside will reduce the risk of your turtle climbing up the fence and escaping. If raccoons and skunks occur in the neighborhood the enclosures must be covered. Plant the enclosure with small shrubs to provide shade, and with edible plants such as strawberries. Provide moist leaf piles, compost heaps and rotten logs for the turtle to hide, sleep and hunt in. During the summer, box turtles are most active in the early morning and late afternoon, and after rain. In dry areas the enclosure should be sprinkled with water daily to maintain adequate humidity. A dish of water large enough for the turtle to soak in must be available AT ALL TIMES.
If kept indoors, a warm (75° F, 24° C), moist, roomy terrarium should be provided. It must be furnished with a dish of water for drinking and soaking and a hide box or shelter. Potting soil (screened for glass, plastic and other contaminants), newspaper or indoor/outdoor carpeting can be used for the terrarium floor, but it must be kept clean. Corncob bedding and wood shavings are dangerous and should be avoided. The terrarium should be misted daily to maintain the humidity. Box turtles will often defecate in water and so their water bowl should be cleaned daily. Box turtles housed indoors should be allowed outside in natural sunlight when possible and allowed to exercise frequently. To augment natural sunlight indoors, a full-spectrum fluorescent lamp such as a Vitalite®, Sylvania 50 or Chroma 50 light should be placed over the terrarium.
Box turtles tend to like early morning feedings. They are omnivorous in the wild, and eat a substantial amount of insects and other invertebrates as well as fruit and some vegetable matter. They should be offered animal matter (night crawlers, snails, slugs, worms, crickets, Purina trout chow or low fat cat food) at least twice a week. They enjoy fruits such as tomatoes, apples, cantaloupe, strawberries, and blackberries. Some box turtles will take greens, leafy weeds, grape leaves and mixed vegetables. Sprinkle the food with a calcium source such as calcium carbonate or calcium lactate once a week, and with a vitamin preparation such as Superpreen® or Reptovite® once a month. Snails are a particularly nutritious food favored by most box turtles. However, you must not offer snails that may have come from an area where snail bait has been spread. If in doubt, purge the snails by maintaining them for one week on a diet of romaine lettuce or weeds from your yard before feeding them to your turtle. NEVER use snail bait or other pesticides in or near areas where box turtles are kept.