Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Caring for Box Turtles

I own two box turtles, Fred and Ethel, and I’ve had them for almost 20 years. In the past I’ve also owned California desert tortoises and African Sulcata tortoises. I also care for red-eared sliders and Greek tortoises that belong to pet sitting clients.

All turtles and tortoises are reptiles, but their care varies greatly by species. Box Turtles are small, about 5 inches in diameter, and protect themselves by closing up their shells so you can’t get to their feet, tail or head. The bottom of the shell is hinged, as you can see in the photo at right. In the top photo, one turtle has the back of her shell closed to protect her legs.


They need to be confined in a small pen because they will dig under a patio deck or bury themselves in the mud and you’ll never see them again. In cold climates they will hibernate unless you provide heat lamps. I keep mine in a large 60 gallon fish tank (with sterile reptile bark from Petco in the bottom) with a heat lamp set to 85 degrees on a thermostat at one end.

Because reptiles cannot regulate their body temperature, they need a place to get away from the heat. They will self-regulate by moving close to or away from the heat source. You could use this same heat lamp set-up outdoors as long as the turtles are protected from predators (more on that later). They also like to dig under piles of hay or grass.

Food and water

Box turtles will eat protein (meat) and plants. Live mealworms, crickets or night crawlers and canned dog food are great sources of protein. Fruits and vegetables for box turtles include: bananas, melon, berries, peas, corn, lima beans, and cooked carrots (soft enough to bite easily). Nothing with seeds! I keep frozen mixed veggies on hand, and just defrost a handful now and then to give the turtles. I keep the live worms in the refrigerator. Some people squirm at the thought!

They are turtles, but they are not swimmers. Box turtles need fresh water to drink and soak in, but it shouldn’t be more than 1 1/2” deep or they will drown. A ceramic saucer designed to go under a flower pot works well.

Their beaks and toenails grow continuously. Those long toenails on the back feet are meant for digging. A cuddle bone (like you give to birds) may help them wear down the beak. If not trimmed, it may interfere with their ability to eat, and cause malnutrition. I take my turtles to the vet about once a year for a beak and toenail trim. 


A box turtle that does not get enough warmth will get sick. When I lived in Seattle, I didn’t know this, and one of my box turtles got a cold – Yes, a runny snotty nose just like a little kid! I took him to the vet and he propped open Ethel’s shell with a pencil so she couldn’t close it. He smeared her runny nose against a slide and looked at it under a microscope. An antibiotic shot and powdered antibiotics on her food for a few days and Ethel was as good as new. The vet helped me set up the heat bulbs and thermostat system described above. My turtles have been healthy ever since, and do not hibernate.

Box turtles can get worms, and can also transfer salmonella to people, so wash your hands thoroughly after handling. An infestation of worms can be treated by your vet.


Dogs love turtles: they dig them up, carry them around in their mouths, and unfortunately, crush the shells and eat them. The only way to guarantee your reptile’s safety is to keep predators out. A pen made out of concrete blocks and covered with hardware cloth is fine if the dog can’t figure out how to open it. My box turtles are safe in their terrarium, though an occasional dog will stand in front of it and bark at them.

Raccoons, coyotes and bobcats are other predators that threaten your turtles’ safety.

Learn more

As a pet sitter, this is the basic information you need to know, but of course, there is tons more you can learn. Your clients will give you a feeding and care schedule. Maybe you will educate them! I recommend Liz Palika's book, Turtles and Tortoises for Dummies, available on Amazon. She is a reptile expert and owns many species and breeds of reptiles.

1 comment:

barrie said...

My family has had an abiding love of Eastern box turtles my entire life :-) We had a St. Bernard when I was a child, XTC and we had her out in the woods off leash at a lake house we had and she ran off and came back carrying a turtle and my mother said, "good girl!" and the dog promptly ran off and brought back a second turtle! I had one from a pet store as a child, Spooks (I was a kid, I got him on Halloween and he would duck back into his shell when he was frightened) and he seemed quite happy to let XTC carry him around the house. She was always VERY gentle and careful carrying turtles. My mother found one on our street when we were older that had been hit by a car and she brought him home and my brother got to name him, Archimedes and he rehabbed at our house that winter then we put him out in an ex-pen in the yard in the spring and of course he got out into the yard (it is not joke, that digging!) but my brother and I would scour the yard every time Daddy had to mow and we would bring Archimedes in. One fall we couldn't find him and we all assumed he was either gone or had died. The next spring when mother was working in a flower bed, there he was. He had hibernated in the yard and we went right back to our routine with him and he kept up hibernating in the yard in the winters for several years until one spring Mother just found his shell :-(