Box turtles are one of the most common reptile pets in the United States. With proper care they are long-lived, with life spans of 30 to 40 years and perhaps much longer. Unfortunately, they are among the most neglected reptiles in captivity because most people do not know how to care for them properly.
Housing. Twenty-gallon aquariums are the minimum size for box turtles. Consider larger aquariums, make larger cases out of plywood, or use concrete mixing containers available at most hardware stores. The bigger the enclosure, the better. The bottom of the cage should be filled with a humid substrate (bedding material), such as medium to large wood chips mixed with peat moss or a sand and soil mixture. Drier substrates promote skin cracking and poor health. Substrates need to be scooped out on a weekly basis. A hide box that the turtle can get under and out of sight is important. Many turtles prefer to keep in them. Loose leaf litter can be spread in the cage as well.
Temperature. The indoor care should get no colder than 15 degrees Celsius (60 degrees Farenheit) at night and gradually warm to 21 to 27 degrees Celsius (70 to 80 degrees Farenheit) during the day. A 75- to 100-watt incandescent bulb with reflector can provide a warm basking area at one end of the cage between 28 and 32 degrees Celsius (80 and 90 degrees Farenheit). Lights should be turned off during the night, so supplemental heat from heat tape or heating pads also should be provided under one-half of the cage if temperatures drop below 15 degrees Celsius (60 degrees Farenheit). Hot rocks do not work well for turtles.
Water. An easy-to-clean, shallow water dish, big enough for the turtle to get into, should always be available. Water should be no deeper than the turtle’s chin when its head is partially retracted. Turtles prefer to defecate in their water bowl, so it should be cleaned several times per week. Juvenile box turtles are often much more aquatic than adults. Box turtles drown in deep water, such as a swimming pool.
Feeding. In captivity, chronic nutritional problems are typical for most box turtles. Nutritional diseases can be avoided by feeding a well-balanced diet that is continually varied. The following is one recommended diet; items listed in bold print are box turtle favorites and often entice finicky turtles to eat. Keep in mind that different species have different dietary preferences.
50 percent animal or high-protein foods Examples include: earthworms, crickets, grasshoppers, cicadas, slugs, snails, whole-skinned chopped mice, baby mice (pinkies). Other protein options include vitamin fortified chows, but they should be limited to less than five percent of the total diet because of the high vitamin, fat, and protein content. All dry chows should be soaked in water for 30 minutes to soften them. Avoid cat food, however, because it is too high in fat and protein for reptiles. Do not add multivitamins to foods that are already vitamin fortified. Feed a wide variety of animal and high-protein foods, not just a few of these items. Insects are calcium deficient and should be fed enriched diets dusted with powdered calcium carbonate, lactate, citrate, or gluconate just before offering them to the turtle.
50 percent plants: 25 percent fruits and 75 percent vegetables 25 percent fruits. Fruits are tasty but mineral deficient, so they must be limited. Turtles are fond of tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries, apples, grapes, cherries, peaches, pears, plumbs, oranges, nectarines, figs, melons (remove seeds), bananas, mangoes, and grapefruit.
75 percent vegetables Varied vegetables include dark leafy greens, kale, cabbage, spinach, red leaf or romaine lettuce, dandelions (leaves, stems, and flowers), bok choy, pak choi, broccoli rabe, squashes, sweet potatoes, carrots (shaved not chopped), mushrooms.
Wash fruits and vegetables and chop or shave all items into bite-sized pieces. Some species, such as ornate and Gulf Coast box turtles, are not fond of vegetables. Mixing vegetables well with other foods will often encourage consumption.
Box turtles have a continuous need for foods rich in vitamin A. Liver (in whole mice) is an excellent source of vitamin A, as well as rich yellow or dark orange vegetables and dark leafy greens. Steaming (not boiling) hard squashes makes them much more palatable and easier to chop.
Adults should be fed three or more times per week in the morning and juveniles daily. Every feeding to every other feeding, lightly dust food with calcium carbonate, lactate, citrate, or gluconate. Every two to four weeks, dust food lightly with multivitamins if vitamin-fortified foods are not eaten. Oversupplication with multivitamins is not healthy. Feed as much variety as possible to ensure a healthy balanced diet.
For finicky eaters, try some of their favorite foods and keep in mind that box turtles are particularly attracted to red, yellow, and orange foods. Live, moving food will often stimulate feeding as well.
Box turtles are most active in the early morning or late afternoon, when it is not too hot, so these are good times to try to feed them. Rainstorms often increase activity; thus spraying the cage with water can stimulate appetite.
When you find something they really like, mix it heavily into the salad and then gradually decrease it over a period of weeks. Bad dietary habits can be difficult to overcome and often require months to correct. Continue to offer foods even if they are not eaten initially. As the turtle adjusts to a varied salad, it will gradually increase dietary diversity.
(Excerpted from Essentials of Reptiles: A Guide for Practitioners by Dr. Thomas Huntington Boyer, 1998 AAHA Press.)