There are numerous species of box turtles being kept as pets in the United States, the most common being the Eastern and the Three-toed. Two box turtles which are being imported into the U.S. and have slightly different requirements than do the native species are the Chinese and the Malayan Box turtles. Ornate box turtles are among the most sensitive and difficult species to maintain in captivity and are not recommended for beginners. Box turtles are only partially aquatic, spending the majority of their time burrowing in the mud or hiding beneath a rock. It is illegal for pet stores to sell turtles smaller than 4″ meaning at the time of purchase most turtles will already be 2-4 years of age. Adults range in size from 4½-8” in length, depending on species (the Chinese and the Malayan species tend to be slightly bigger). Males tend to be larger, more colorful, and have longer tails. Box turtles are known for their longevity, with proper care they have been known to live into their 50s and 60s.
Diet: These reptiles are omnivores requiring a varied diet based on their age. As juveniles they derive a higher portion of their diet from animal protein, while adults consume a proportionately larger portion of their diet from plant matter. Adults need to be fed every two to three days, while juveniles require daily feeding. The best time to feed turtles is late morning after they have had a chance to warm up and are active. A turtle not given the proper circumstances to feed will go on a hunger strike. Unlike warm-blooded animals, they aren’t forced by their metabolism to eat. They can just slow down their activity level, retreat in their shells and wait for better conditions. Unfortunately, if the turtles are kept in a tank or penned in an outdoor area, those better conditions will not come unless the owner makes an effort to supply them.
A majority (60-70%) of the adult’s diet should consist of a variety of fresh dark leafy greens such as collard, mustard, and dandelion greens. These should be mixed with other coarsely chopped vegetables (carrots, squash, green beans, broccoli, etc.) Avoid regularly feeding frozen vegetables as the freezing process breaks down vital nutrients. Since turtles are motivated by sight and smell, offer a varied, colorful diet.
Animal protein should make up the rest of the diet. This can be derived from such sources as mealworms, kingworms, earthworms, slugs/snails, small pinky mice, or crickets. Worms need to be purchased through a reputable supplier; the ones from your yard can contain bacteria, parasites, and toxins which can be detrimental to your pet. Fruits such as apples, cantaloupe, melon, and berries can be offered as an occasional treat, but should always be fed in moderation.
Calcium supplementation – Sprinkle or dust food with a calcium supplement just before feeding your turtle once weekly. Calcium supplements should have a minimum calcium: phosphorous ratio of 2:1. Try for calcium products using calcium oxalate or calcium succinate, avoid products containing Vitamin D as this can lead to toxicity. A separate vitamin supplement can also be used once to twice a week, avoid using vitamins with calcium as your calcium supplement source ? the calcium is not as bioavailable.
Unlike the other box turtles, Ornates are primarily insectivorous/carnivorous and should derive a higher percentage of their diet from these sources. Chinese box turtles can also be offered small fish (feeder goldfish) as a portion of their diet.
Handling and Restraint: Allow your turtle several days to get used to its new surroundings before handling it regularly. It may spend the first couple of days closed tight in its shell, or may quickly withdraw when it sees you looming overhead or approaching the enclosure. When picking up your turtle make sure to support its body with both hands. Turtles feel more secure when they can feel something beneath their feet; “swimming” in air is stressful to them. Never attempt to force your turtle out of its shell or pull out its head. Make sure to wash your hands before and after handling your turtle so as not to introduce anything into their water.
Housing: Setting up the proper habitat is one of the most important considerations in keeping your turtle healthy and happy. They are for the most part terrestrial animals, requiring both a large warm area of dry land for basking and burrowing, as well as a pool of water for soaking and swimming. Remember that as your turtle continues to grow its habitat size requirements will become larger as well. The several species of box turtles commonly kept as pets live in very different types of natural habitats. The more you know about the natural environment of the kind of box turtle you have, the better home you will be able to provide it. Box turtles do best in outdoor enclosures when possible.
Indoor enclosures must be at least 3 ft. x 3 ft. x 2 ft. or about the size of a shallow 40 gallon tank, though larger is better. Aquariums kept away from windows, plexiglass, or plastic enclosures work well. If building your own wooden habitat make sure to waterproof it and allow several weeks for it to cure before setting it up and introducing your turtle. A hiding/shelter area is also required. This can be provided by a wooden box, cork bark, or a cardboard box with a doorway cutout. Extra substrate should be placed inside.
Substrate ? You want to use a substrate (or bedding) that holds a small amount of moisture without molding as these turtles have a higher requirement for humidity. Daily misting is often required. A good quality plain sterile potting soil slightly moistened works well. Don’t use backyard or garden soil as they contain compounds and fertilizers that can be toxic to your turtle. Alternatively, plain fir or orchid bark, deep drifts of alfalfa, or a combination of soil and bark can be used. The substrate should be 2-3 inches deep allowing plenty of room for your turtle to burrow. Newspaper, butcher block paper, or reptile carpeting can be used if a box containing a digging and burrowing substrate is also provided (this will require a larger enclosure as a water area must also be provided). Avoid coarse substrates such as sand, gravel or rock as these can damage your turtle’s shell leaving them open to infection.
A water area can be provided using a flat dish or pan that is large enough for your turtle to lie in. American box turtle are not good swimmers so the enclosure must be easy to both climb in and out of. If a kitty litter pan is used, it must be recessed into the substrate, and the turtle provided with a ramp to get in and out. The water must be changed frequently to keep it scrupulously clean as your turtle soaks and eliminates in the same water it drinks.
Cleaning ? Your turtle’s habitat should be cleaned regularly to ensure its health and well-being. Soil and bark substrates should be replaced every two to three weeks to prevent bacterial and fungal build-up. Paper substrate needs to be changed every couple of days to weekly depending on how quickly it becomes soiled. If reptile carpeting is used, it is best to have 2-3 pieces cut to the correct dimensions. This way, replacements can be used while the soiled piece is cleaned and disinfected. The tank should be spot cleaned for feces daily. Water dishes should be cleaned daily (twice daily if quickly soiled). The entire habitat should undergo a thorough cleaning every 2-3 months (this includes all hide boxes, landscaping, and substrate tubs). Set aside a food storage bowl, feeding and water bowls, soaking bowl/tub, even sponges, to be used exclusively for your turtle.
The Malayan box turtle is more aquatic than the American box turtles. They require a large area of water (at least 50% of total enclosure). The water area in length needs to be 4-5 times your turtle’s length from neck end of the carapace (top shell) to the tail end with a width of 2-3 times your turtle’s carapace length. The depth of the water needs to be 1.5-2 times your turtle’s CL. Make sure there is a gap of a couple of inches between the top of the water and the top of the tank to prevent escapes. Regular water changes (every 1-2 weeks) are necessary to maintain the health and well being of your turtle as they are messy eaters and often defecate in their water. Daily skimming of the surface water with a fish net is often required, with full water changes every 1-2 weeks. If using a good filter and feeding in a separate habitat you may be able to do partial water changes every two weeks with monthly full water changes. Multiple types of filters exist for maintaining water quality between changes. Which you choose depends on the size and set-up of your habitat, choices include canister, undergravel, sponge, and power filters. Water temperature should be kept between 75-85 F. A submersible aquarium heater works well to maintain this. An aquarium thermometer should also be used to regularly monitor for temperature fluctuations. Chinese box turtles are also more aquatic, falling somewhere in between the needs of the Malayan and American turtles. A large kitty litter pan sunk into the ground is generally of an adequate size though the above mentioned set-up for Malayans can be used as well. With both Chinese and Malayan turtles make sure there is a ramp provided to allow them easy in/out water access.
Heat: Two heating sources should be used to provide the correct temperature gradient for your turtle ? an under the tank heating pad and an incandescent or spot light. Habitat gradients are different depending on species – U.S. box turtles: 85-88 F/day, 70-75 F/night;
Chinese boxes: 75-85 F; Malayans: water temperature 78-85 F and air temperature 85 F. Turtles also require a basking area with a temperature maintained between 90-94 F. Be very careful that there is no way for the light to fall into the water or habitat, or for the turtle to come into direct contact with the bulb. Buy at least two thermometers – one to use in the overall enclosure area, and the other in the basking area.
Lighting: Exposure to UVB light has been shown to be beneficial in different turtle species, helping with both healthy eating habits and attitude. Full-spectrum light is an essential part of the calcium metabolization process, and calcium deficiencies are very common in captive turtles. Using a timer is a good way to maintain the proper light exposure ratio as they need to be on 12-14 hours each day. Note that the UV waves cannot pass through glass, and 40% of the available waves are lost when the light passes through an aluminum screen; try to have the light shining directly on the animal. UVB light begins dropping off exponentially at about 6-8 months even when the bulb itself still works so regular bulb replacement is necessary. It is also advantageous to set up a secure outdoor enclosure for your turtle to sun and soak in, but be careful to also provide a shaded area for them to retreat to. Never place your turtle in a glass enclosure in the hot sun (even if only through a window) as these can heat rapidly and lead to fatal hyperthermia. Some companies are now producing bulbs that provide UVB and heat together. These Active UV Heat bulbs are a good way to meet some of your turtle’s needs without the clutter of numerous lights and cords.