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While box turtles are definitely “land” turtles, in the sense that in many ways, their habits and environments more closely resemble that of tortoises or terrapins than of true aquatic turtles, they also love to swim.
Some box turtles will swim several times a day, taking time between swims to dry off and warm up again before going in for another dip.
If the water is warm and sufficiently shallow to allow for resting in place while in the pool, a box turtle might spend quite a bit of time swimming during the warm season!
Of course, since box turtles are “land” turtles, no box turtle will do well in a water-based habitat, and too much moisture exposure can lead to shell rot and illness.
But if you offer your box turtle a sufficiently roomy pool with easy entry/exit that isn’t too deep (water that comes up only as high as mid-shell or lower), it will likely get lots of use!
The most important thing to remember here is that box turtles, like all other reptiles, can’t self-regulate their body temperature. So pool-side safety is a must.
Whether the proffered body of water is a small local stream, a water dish, a kiddie pool or a bathtub, make sure the water is tepid to warmish, and never leave your boxie unsupervised in a water-only environment.
Also, chlorinated pools should always be off limits. Chlorine can be very toxic to box turtles (along with most other beings).
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Published by Shannon Cutts
Animal sensitive and intuitive with Animal Love Languages. Parrot, tortoise and box turtle mama. Dachshund auntie. www.animallovelanguages.com View more posts
The common box turtle is not so common these days. Fresh water and safe corridors for wild turtles to travel safely through have grown increasingly scarce. They require loose, non-compacted earth to live and breed in which is becoming harder to find. Another issue they face is that land fragmentation has made it difficult for them to breed as they become isolated and trapped in areas. Box turtles are also often stolen from the wild to be kept as pets which has decreased their numbers and chances of diverse breeding. Since they aren’t prolific breeders, box turtles have a difficult time recovering from these impacts. They are now listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List which is one step away from endangered.
If you would like to create a box turtle friendly habitat and Turtle Safe Zone in your backyard, here are a few tips:
Leaf Litter Leaf Litter Leaf Litter!!
Leave as much area as you can natural. Don’t rake your fall leaves but instead spread them out over a ‘turtle safe zone’. Leave small logs and decaying wood, too. Box turtles excavate in leaves to overwinter, they hunt and forage in leaves and dig tunnels under leaves to move around. It’s where they eat, sleep and breed. They won’t used dyed mulch or bark, it’s leaves they are after.
Low Growing Plants
Create low growing, shady spots in the leaf litter so they may safely move around and have places to rest. Box turtles will travel under foliage coverage and plants such as native ferns, wild ginger, black cohosh and other ground level growers are ideal. Consider how they will get from one area of your property to another and plant paths of coverage for them. Please see our article on Hedgerows for more on wildlife friendly passages.
Box turtles are omnivores and they will eat just about anything. They love slugs which makes them welcomed in any garden. Box turtles eat insects, seeds, earthworms, wild fleshy fruit such as blackberries, elderberries, wild strawberry, American persimmon, wild grapes, pokeweed, the list goes on. Another treat for them is mushrooms so allow mushrooms grow in your garden. For food you only need to let nature do its thing and the box turtles will find something to munch on. The rule here would be to not over weed your habitat but first consider if a plant is is beneficial to box turtles before pulling up.
Ground Level Water
Water is mandatory and the most difficult thing for any wildlife to find. Provide ground level water for box turtles and make sure that they have a low growing path of coverage to travel under to access it. Water can be in the form of a creek, pond or water feature. Shallow bog gardens and man made streams are also ideal.
If you don’t have naturally occurring water source and don’t want a water feature, a simple trick would be to build a ground level wildlife puddle. Place your wildlife puddle in an area under trees since wildlife typically does not like to bathe in the open. Locating it out of the hot Georgia sun will also help keep the evaporation rate down.
You can build a wildlife puddle by digging a shallow area out, around 6×6′. You only need to a dig 4″ depth. Keep it shallow because you are trying to mimic a puddle, not a pond. Lay a thick pond liner over your dug out area and line the edges with flat, decorative rocks to make it attractive. Fill with water. Now you have a the perfect wading pool for box turtles.
Occasionally you can clean the puddle out with a broom and change the water. It’s easy maintenance and will attract birds like crazy, too.
Use Common Sense & Care When Mowing
It goes without saying but we are saying it anyway, don’t spray pesticides or herbicides. You will kill the turtles and their food.
If you have lawn, check the lawn before you mow! Many box turtles are killed or injured due to being hit by lawnmower blades. It’s very common and often seen in wildlife rehab centers. Remember, box turtles are short! You might not see them in the grass.
We Can Help
If you are in north Georgia and need help creating a Turtle Safe Zone, Art of Stone Gardening can help. We have experience creating wildlife gardens and extensive native plant knowledge. We can also build small, low maintenance bog gardens or backyard streams to assist with backyard habitat and wildlife garden water needs. Please contact us at: Art of Stone Gardening.
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Are you considering a box turtle as a pet but unsure what needs to go in their habitat?
Pets like this are overwhelming for many new owners, but this is precisely why we started this site:
To help people get into the joy of owning oddly cute pets!
Let’s get into what you’re going to need.
What Do You Need For A Box Turtle Habitat?
Box turtles need a large enclosure with the correct supplies, mimicking their natural habitat to provide a healthy living environment. Box turtles do best in environments with higher humidity and plenty of light to help regulate their body temperature.
Having a Box Turtle as a Pet
Box turtles make wonderful pets, but it’s essential to understand the proper way to care for one.
It’s also not advisable to get box turtles for children.
Box turtles can carry diseases, like salmonella, and children are more susceptible to getting sick since they don’t wash their hands.
It’s essential to thoroughly wash not only your hands but any surfaces your box turtle may have touched.
As with any pet, you should plan to visit your veterinarian at least once a year to check for any parasites or other health conditions.
As an important note, wild box turtles should never make pets.
Taking a box turtle out of its natural habitat is illegal in most states and is unfair to the animal.
When turtles are taken from their environment, they are more prone to stress and early death.
Box Turtle Housing Needs
Whether you plan on having an indoor turtle or an outside one, you need to consider what type of enclosure you will put them in.
While keeping your box turtle outside is ideal, indoor enclosures are acceptable, pending you provide with them a sufficient amount of space.
Remember, the best type of enclosure is one mimicking their natural environment.
An indoor box turtle can live in a reptile aquarium.
However, all glass sides aren’t ideal for private reptiles.
If you decide to go the aquarium route, a 20-gallon tank should be the minimum size you get.
However, something larger, like 55 gallons, is more suitable for a box turtle enclosure.
In addition, you likely have seen plastic reptile cages at your local pet store.
While these are suitable for turtles, they will end up being too small once your turtle is grown.
Build Your Own
Box turtle pens ideally should be at least 4’x4′ feet (1.2 m).
While this is hard to achieve inside, it should be the guideline for outdoor box turtles.
If you are handy, just get some plywood and easily build your turtle table.
Make sure to waterproof the insides if you do build an enclosure from wood.
To ensure your turtle doesn’t escape, make sure the sides are at least 16″ inches (40 cm) tall.
If you have more than one box turtle, you likely want to make it around 20″ inches (51 cm) tall.
One turtle will have no problem climbing on the other to escape.
For outside turtles, make sure you have a cover over your enclosure to prevent predators from coming in.
Wild animals like raccoons will gladly feast on your turtle.
Ants are a threat as well, especially to a baby box turtle.
If DIY projects aren’t your thing, there are several high-quality enclosures on the market providing a right amount of space for your box turtle.
I recommend the Aivituvin Wooden Tortoise House.
- ★ The bottom is all Surrounded, so dirt will not fall through now. Upgrade with Waterproof & Easy Clean plastic bottom to...
- ★ The only supplier to use 100% SOLID WOOD other than cheap plywood that is easy to rot from the moist soil and the turtles...
- ★ Unique design acrylic viewing on two sides make it easier both for you to look in your pets and they get to look out on...
It is made from 100% solid wood and has a screen cover for protection.
In addition, one side is covered for your box turtle’s privacy.
Other Ideas for Enclosures
Box turtles don’t need anything fancy; they just need a place to live with the proper supplies.
A kiddie pool or large plastic container will work as well.
As a note, if you purchase anything second-hand, make sure to thoroughly sterilize it before setting it up for your box turtle.
Sometimes you are able to get a good deal on Craigslist or at a yard sale.
It’s a great money saver, but it’s also essential to make sure the enclosure is clean before putting your box turtle in it.
What Goes Inside My Box Turtle Habitat?
You have your box turtle enclosure ready, but what now?
It’s important to stock it with all the appropriate supplies to achieve an ideal box turtle habitat.
The proper living environment is critical in having healthy turtles.
As a pet owner, it’s your job to make your box turtle happy!
Box turtle substrate, or bedding, helps retain moisture and heat in your enclosure. Ideal humidity levels are between 80-85%.
Investing in a humidity gauge will help you keep an eye on the level of humidity in your turtle’s enclosure.
Box turtles need to dig to help both their physical and mental health.
I recommend the Zoo Med Eco Earth.
To ensure turtles have no problem digging, mix it with some organic soil as well.
The substrate should be about 3-4″ inches (10 cm) deep.
Other suitable substrates include sphagnum moss and peat-based potting soil. Be sure all soil is free of pesticides and other chemicals.
Avoid sand, walnut shells, gravel, and wood shavings.
They are difficult to clean and can cause GI issues if your turtle decides to snack on them or if they are accidentally ingested.
Finally, plan on cleaning out the substrate weekly.
If your box turtle is living in an outdoor enclosure, make sure to put their pen in a partially sunny spot in the yard.
The reptiles will move back and forth between the shade and sun to regulate their body temperature.
An indoor box turtle requires a heat lamp to help regulate their body temperatures.
A low body temperature can cause them to go into hibernation.
In addition, turtles will stop eating and become lethargic.
Heat sources in turtle habitats should be on for roughly 10-14 hours a day.
During the summer, 10 hours is usually plenty.
Keep in mind; you may adjust those times based on the needs of your turtle.
Their basking spot should be between 85 and 90° degrees Fahrenheit (32° C).
Daytime temperatures should be between 70-80° degrees (27° C).
At night, temperatures can drop to between 65-75° degrees Fahrenheit (24° C).
I don’t recommend using a heat rock to keep your turtle warm because it can quickly burn the underside of your pet.
In addition, heating pads which go under the tank don’t mimic the natural habitat for box turtles, so they shouldn’t be your top choice.
An indoor box turtle doesn’t have access to sunlight and requires a UV lamp.
Sunlight emits both UVA and UVB rays, which your turtle will not get inside your home.
UVB rays provide them with the much-needed Vitamin D3, which will aid in calcium absorption.
Calcium is needed for shell development.
Without the necessary mineral, your turtle can suffer from illness, including metabolic bone disease (MBD).
MBD can cause bone fractures and damage to their overall skeletal structure.
You may also notice bowed legs, limping, and hard lumps along their legs.
In addition, UVA rays keep up the appetite in your turtle and their desire to mate.
Even if you keep your enclosure by a window in your house, it will not provide sufficient light.
If you require both a heat lamp and UV lamp, I recommend the Zoo Med lighting kit, as it includes both lights.
Bulbs should be changed every 6 months or so, even if they have not burned out.
The UVA/UVB output decreases over time.
Water and Food Dishes
Turtles require clean water daily.
Their water dish should be big enough for your pet to fit in but shallow enough, so he doesn’t drown.
It’s essential to provide fresh water because turtles enjoy bathing in their water dish.
I like the Exo Terra Water Dish.
It is stable and comes in multiples sizes, so you are able to pick the one fitting your turtle’s needs.
You don’t want water bowls to tip over while your turtle is getting in and out.
A flat rock is an excellent choice to hold their food.
The rock has the bonus of trimming your turtle’s beak.
The only downside to the rock is the mess turtles make with it.
They aren’t the neatest of eaters, and since there are no sides, they likely will get food in other areas.
Once you have your basics, it’s time to add some decor.
The decor is a vital part of keeping turtles mentally and physically healthy.
Turtles like their privacy, so it’s crucial to provide them with hiding spots.
A rock cave is a great option because it allows them a place to be covered and not feel like they are out in the open.
If you have some branches or rocks from your yard, you are able to add those to give your pet a place to climb.
Climbing is a good exercise for turtles and also provides mental stimulation.
Food for Box Turtles
Now your enclosure is set up, and it’s time to understand what a box turtle should and shouldn’t eat.
Box turtles are omnivores and require a diet consisting of both insects and a variety of vegetables, with some fruits mixed in.
A box turtle in the wild will feast on snails, slugs, worms, and other insects.
In captivity, you should also be feeding your turtle protein-rich insects, like crickets and earthworms.
In addition, plant materials, like kale and mustard greens, should be offered.
Turtles like brightly colored vegetables, such as bell peppers, squash, tomatoes, and carrots.
While fruits shouldn’t be offered as often, turtles do enjoy strawberries, bananas, and peaches.
Babies and adults have different dietary needs, so it’s important to adjust their diet as they grow.
Baby box turtles will eat daily, but adults will only need to eat a few times a week.
Vitamin supplements are available to ensure your turtle is receiving the proper amount of calcium in its diet.
Simply sprinkle it over their food a couple of times a week.
I recommend the Rep-Cal supplement.
It is a phosphorus-free calcium carbonate containing the much need vitamin D3.
Should My Box Turtle Live Inside or Outside?
Box turtles do better in an outside enclosure because it is easier to mimic their natural habitat.
However, in some instances, an outside enclosure is not possible.
As long as you have the proper setup, your box turtle can live a healthy, happy life inside.
You are able to take your indoor box turtle outside on occasion.
It gives them the opportunity to reap the benefits of natural sunlight.
Finally, hatchlings should be kept indoors for at least the first 6 months, and then you are able to move them outside.
They are much more prone to predators, so it’s important to keep them safe.
Can I House More Than One Turtle?
If you’ve considered adding additional turtles to your home, there are several things to consider.
First, you will need a bigger enclosure, ideally at least 12′ square feet (3.7 sq m).
Turtles are solitary animals in the wild, so it’s essential to give them adequate space.
I do not recommend keeping two males together.
Males tend to be more aggressive when put together.
Any aggressive turtle should be separated for its own protection.
Two females typically have no problem living together.
If you house a male and female, just know they could end up mating.
Finally, turtles shouldn’t have to share their food and water dishes, hiding spots,
What Do I Do With My Outdoor Turtles in the Winter?
If you live in a place where it gets frigid in the winter, you need to prepare your box turtle for the frigid temperatures.
They will need to be able to dig below the freeze line.
In the wild, some box turtles have been known to dig 2′ feet (.61 m) underground in order to hibernate.
For turtles in captivity, it may be a good idea to build a hibernation den to ensure they keep safe.
I hope all this information has helped you understand what you need for a box turtle habitat.
When given the proper habitats, box turtles can hang around for a long time.
How to Set Up an Outdoor Turtle Pool
Marie is a lover of everything about and inside of aquariums. Among other friendly creatures, she has a turtle that she adores.
I am going to talk about two things in this article: sufficient outdoor setups for pet turtles and the reasons why you should and should not do it. The latter seems contradicting, but I do not want people to attempt this if they are not going to follow all the rules. The end result will be tragic if there is any neglect.
Benefits of an Outdoor Pool or Pond for Your Turtle
- Sun: The main reason you would want your turtle to spend a little time outdoors is to soak up natural sun. Although you are technically fulfilling his UVB needs through UVB bulbs, I strongly believe nature is always better, no matter how sufficient our artificial substitutes can be.
- Fresh Air: Another reason is fresh air, putting him or her closer to the wild than what the enclosed, damp, dust-inhabiting, air-conditioned space we call our homes can provide.
- Space: Maybe his or her current aquarium home is a bit on the small side, and letting your turtle into wide space on occasion helps relieve that claustrophobia.
- Enrichment: Maybe it is to keep things interesting for your turtle by providing him a new world to explore from time to time.
- Fun: Maybe you want an outdoor setup just for the fun of it.
- Maintenance: Keeping your turtle outdoors requires the same amount of time and maintenance as an indoor aquarium, if not more.
- Danger: You are also exposing your turtle to danger he or she would not be facing indoors, such as weather, animals, spontaneous temperature fluctuations, and humans.
This last possible threat (humans) is why I encourage these setups to take place on your property in an enclosed fence so no person can come by and mess with your turtle.
Recommended Setup: Plastic Kiddie Pool
I have found that the cheapest and most practical setup for a turtle is a kiddie pool. I am only regarding solid plastic pools, not inflatable ones. There are certainly other means of creating another setup—anywhere from a horse trough to a koi pond—but be practical when making a decision. An in-ground pond should have excellent filtration and cannot be cleaned with dangerous chemicals, including anti-algae (if you expect a turtle to stay in there). Horse troughs are excellent for turtles who love deep water, as long as you provide something for him to climb out of to dry off and rest.
With my softshell turtle, I found the kiddie pool to be perfect because softshells tend to like shallow water more so than deep water. Of course, kiddie pools can get larger than the example I have, and I imagine a regular hard-shell turtle could get as much enjoyment out of it. The real key here is providing natural sunlight for your turtle.
Dealing With the Heat
The area where you place the pool should be in a great deal of sun; otherwise, you are missing the most important aspect of letting your turtle outside. With that said, there are rules when it comes to sunlight.
The number one cause of death by placing your turtle in one of these little pools is heat. I once read a person's question about why her turtle died. She explained it was perfect 90-degree weather, and a few hours later, her turtle was dead in the water. Although she did not specify, I am certain she did not provide any shade for that animal, or not enough. 90-degree weather might be perfect for a lake or any other large body of water, but a little shallow kiddie pool is not deep enough; it heats up under that summer sun.
That is why it is so important to provide shade over the pool. The perfect source for shade is a light obstruction like a plastic table that you can move as the sun moves. Do not place anything on top of the pool like a board; it will just trap heat and make it hotter. Regularly check the temperature of your kiddie pool:
- In 90-degree weather, I strongly suggest only providing a little area of sun for your turtle.
- In 100-degree weather, forget it.
- In 60-degree, it's just too cold, no matter how sunny.
Dealing With the Wind
I always place a cement block in the pool, because you never know when a gust of wind will come out of nowhere and knock your pool over, dumping your turtle out. I would know—it happened to me.
It was a slightly windy but not terribly gusty day, and after placing my turtle in his pool, I went inside the house. Thirty seconds later, I stepped back out to find the pool empty; on one side was drenched grass, sand, and my turtle sitting there in a daze. Ever since then, I have always placed something heavy in there. If I hadn't gone back out there until an hour later as I had planned, I would have never seen my turtle again.
Dealing With Other Animals
The cement block also helps create an accessory for the turtle to explore. It is important not to leave your turtle pool bland; turtles hate being out in the open with nowhere to go. They need places to hide for a sense of security, and it might serve well as security if an animal comes by the pool. Even in a closed-off yard, there is always the possibility of a wild animal or a neighbor's dog coming up for a drink of water. You want your turtle to hide under something.
Even a hawk could swoop down and take an easy meal because the turtle is the only thing in the pool (this is another good reason to have a light table to cover some of the pool from an aerial view). Now, the odds of a bird of prey attacking your turtle are so slim, but it's better to be safe and think of all possible threats, according to where you live. So make sure to throw in some fake plants, a cave or two, and a basking area for your turtle.
Also, be wary of letting your turtle stay outdoors once it hits late evening. That is when nocturnal animals come out, and if you have raccoons in your area, there is nothing stopping them from snatching up your turtle.
How Do You Clean the Pool?
Cleaning the pool can be easier than cleaning an aquarium.
- Just take out all things in the water (sand is the exception) and simply lift one side and dump the water out. If you have sand, just be careful not to dump any of it while pouring out the water.
- When water is depleted, take a hose and wash out any algae, waste, and anything else nasty that will ultimately build up within a day or so. Also, spray down all objects in the pool and wash out the sand thoroughly.
- Then fill up the water, add dechlorinated formula (or let water sit for 24 hours), make sure the temperature is right, and you can throw everything back in.
Without the use of a filter, you will have to do this every day or two. The water should never stink and absolutely no algae. A person could put in a lightweight waterfall filter to the side, and that will delay dumping water out for a week, but I think the former method is more convenient.
What Other Maintenance Is Necessary for an Outdoor Pool?
I said in the beginning the outdoor setup requires the same amount of time and maintenance as an aquarium, yet I make the cleaning process sound easy. That is because of the frequency of cleaning as well as constantly having to check on your turtle due to all the dangers I've mentioned.
Monitoring the Temperature
It takes a lot of time because, once your turtle is placed outdoors, you or someone who knows everything you know has to hourly check on the turtle and the temperature (not just look, but feel the water and all that). One hour it's sunny and warm, and in the next, it is storming. As hours go by, you will have to change positions of your shadow in order to keep the water cool.
Basically, you cannot throw your turtle in the pool and then go to work. Even a few hours is risking it; one check every hour is the minimum. Shoot, one time it was only thirty seconds for me, and something went terribly wrong, and only out of luck did it not turn tragic.
Watching Your Turtle's Behavior
Also, make sure to study your turtle's behavior while he is in the pool. Closing his or her eyes a lot indicates something is wrong with the water; perhaps there is still too much chlorine in it. Your turtle does stand a higher chance of getting sick outside than he does inside, but as long as you check on him frequently and watch his behavior, the risk is small. If he ever does start acting funny, then simply take him out and put him back in his indoor habitat.
Outdoor Pools Are Only Recommended If You Have Enough Time for Them
An outdoor setup is a lot of work, and I suggest no one do this if they don't have the time. As long as your indoor aquarium has adequate space, UVB lighting, and everything else that is required, then an outdoor setup is not necessary. It is just doing something extra for your turtle during the warm seasons. I do recommend this to those who have the time and extra accessories.
Pools Are Temporary Enclosures
I am only recommending this as a temporary setting for the turtle when it is appropriate outside (never when it is storming, night, or the temperature is extreme). This particular setup should not be the turtle's actual home because of all the dangers I've mentioned before (although you could build an indoor pool setup like this with a filter).
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2011 mariekbloch
Riley on July 11, 2016:
Riley just did one of those but not in a pool. I got the info from here
Andrew on May 15, 2013:
Thanks for the advive.
mariekbloch (author) on September 05, 2011:
That's a good idea. But remember, racoons are not only great climbers, but they are good problem solvers. If those black tubs are deep and you have things for them to hind under, I'm sure your turtles will be fine.
Kevin J Timothy from Tampa, FL on September 05, 2011:
I'm planning on doing a set up with one of those black pond tubs from Lowe's. I've already dug a hole and have submerged it. You make a great point about raccoons as they are prevalent here in Florida. I think I'll make a chicken wire perimeter. That way they turtles can exit the pond and bask around it.
mariekbloch (author) on May 20, 2011:
Thank you, you're my first comment and my first follower since I joined Hubpages. I'm glad you found this article useful.
Eiddwen from Wales on May 20, 2011:
Thank you for this hub.
I have never owned one of these turtles but I llove anything to do with animals/nature etc.
You have a well presented hub and full of useful information.
I vote up/useful for this one.
Box turtle habitat kiddie pool
Building an Outdoor Pen for Pet Box Turtles
Depending on where you live and the species of box turtle you are keeping, an outdoor pen might be a year-round home, a home for part of the year, or just a place for your turtle to enjoy warm afternoons. No matter which, most experts agree that spending at least some time outdoors is very beneficial to box turtles kept in captivity. The aim is to make the outdoor pen match their natural habitat as closely as possible. The following advice applies primarily to North American Box Turtles, with a few modifications noted for ornate box turtles.
Some experts recommend a minimum of 4 feet by 8 feet for a box turtle pen, especially if you have multiple turtles or it is a full-time home. If space is an issue and you only have one or two turtle, a smaller pen will suffice, but try to keep it at least 4 feet by 4 feet. In the wild, box turtles tend to roam over fairly large distances and will be stressed if cramped.
You will want to place your turtle pen in a sunny location—preferably where there is some sun most of the day, especially morning and early afternoon sun. Don't place it in a heavily shaded location. One of the benefits of your turtle being outdoors is that it can get ultraviolet light from the sun, which it requires for Vitamin D synthesis. Don't forget to provide some areas of shade within the pen, however, so it doesn't become overheated.
Solid sides are preferred by many owners, as some turtles will vigorously try to get through a wire fence, whereas if they cannot see beyond the walls they won't spend as much time trying to get out. Untreated wood or cement blocks are good choices. A heavy gauge wire has also been used by some owners, but keep in mind that turtles may be able to climb a wire fence, so you will need an overhang into the enclosure or even a cover to prevent escapes.
Preventing Escape by Digging
Box turtles are good diggers, so the sides of the cage should be sunk into the ground. In addition, concrete paving stones placed around the inside perimeter of the enclosure flush with the ground will help discourage digging. Wire mesh can be also be laid flat a few inches under the soil extending from the walls well into the enclosure. Use a fairly heavy wire for this to prevent turtles from cutting themselves on the wire mesh if they do dig.
The height of a turtle pen should be at least twice the length of your longest turtle. For box turtles, 18-24 inches should be high enough. Surprisingly, box turtles are good climbers.
Covering the Pen
A cover can be made of a wooden frame with wire mesh. A cover will help keep climbing turtles in, and more importantly, predators out. Keep in mind that wandering pets and wildlife can pose a threat to your turtles.
Furnishing the Pen
- Hides: Half logs, plant pots on their side (dug into the dirt a bit), or wooden boxes (even small plastic igloo-type dog houses) work well for hide-houses. Have at least one hide per turtle, possibly more.
- Water: A shallow pan of water (e.g., a saucer from a large plant pot) can be sunk into the ground. If you sink it into a gravel area it won't get muddy as fast. It must be easy for the box turtles to get in and out of the water pan. The water dish must be large enough for the turtles to completely sit inside of the dish.
- Burrowing Spot: Dig up an area and mix the soil with leaf litter, grass clippings (pesticide-free!), shredded bark, or bark chunks to make a nice loose mix that turtles can easily burrow into. They will burrow to keep cool when it is warm or to hibernate when it is cold.
- Plants: Plant the pen with non-toxic plants. Try food items like collard greens, kale, parsley, strawberries, raspberries, clover, alfalfa, etc. Box turtles are omnivores that will nibble on leaves and flowers, as well as eat insects and worms.
- Other Items: Sticks, small logs, and flat stones give the turtles something to explore.
If possible, installing a sprinkler system is an ideal way to give the turtles a misting regularly. If not, remember to put a water sprinkler in your turtle pen daily.
If you can't build an outdoor pen you should still strive to give your turtle time outdoors. A large plastic tub or even a kid's wading pool can make a good outdoor playpen. Use cypress bark and soil in the bottom and add some hides and a shallow pan of water. Use potted plants for shade (and snacking).
Ornate Box Turtle Modifications
Ornate box turtles come from more arid areas and have a strong instinct to dig. They need lots of loose, deep soil for digging (and good safeguards against escape). Their pens should be planted with items such as prairie grasses, wildflowers, sagebrush, and scrub oak.
How to Properly House and Care for Pet Box Turtles
I have been writing online articles for more than 10 years and enjoy sharing my knowledge of box turtles.
A Box Turtle Is a Lifelong Commitment!
Box turtles are protected. When acquiring a box turtle, be sure to go to a responsible breeder who deals only in captive-bred turtles. Do not collect wild turtles or buy from those who do. Never buy on an impulse. Think your purchase through. A box turtle can live for 125 years!
That said, a box turtle makes a lovely, lifelong pet when properly cared for. This article is intended to introduce you to the basics of box turtle care. There are many good books available at the library and at pet stores that you should also check out, but this article will get you started.
Outdoors is the best habitat for your box turtle, unless pesticides are used in or near your yard. If so, you must keep it indoors.
How to Create a Pen for Your Turtle
A pen built of sturdy wire fencing under a tree is ideal. You should use wire fencing with openings no more that 1" x 2". It doesn't have to be very tall. Two feet high is more than enough. You can use wood or metal stakes to support it. Fasten the fence wire with zip ties to avoid sharp edges. The fence should be sunk at least 3" all the way around, (to prevent escapes), and it helps to brace the fence line inside and out with bricks, rocks, or landscape timbers. The floor of the pen should be covered with soft topsoil and leaves at least 3" deep.
The pen MUST be secure. And you must never release your box turtle into the wild or into your (not secured) backyard! If a box turtle is not habituated to its surroundings, it will spend the rest of its life trying to get back to the place where it was born. Unfortunately, its life will most likely be cut short by predators or traffic if this happens. It takes three years for a box turtle to become habituated to its new home. (Remember, a box turtle can live to be 125 years old!)
Alternative: Wading Pool
If you are not able to build a pen, a child's wading pool with drainage holes punched or drilled in the bottom and a 3" layer of topsoil and leaves also makes a good outdoor pen.
Shade Is Essential
No matter which you choose, it is very important to provide shade all day long. The turtle should be able to sun if it wants to, but it should always be able to get out of the sun and into deep shade provided by a bush or tree.
Requirements for an Indoor Enclosure
If you must keep your box turtle indoors, it is important to provide adequate space, ventilation, light, and a substrate with good drainage. A 10-gallon aquarium is not enough! A larger aquarium (one that provides 6 to 9 square feet of floor space) is alright; however, I have found that aquariums are difficult to keep clean.
The best indoor habitat for a box turtle is the largest semi-transparent plastic tote available. These are inexpensive, sturdy, and easy to find at most stores. If you use the lid, be sure to cut or drill ventilation holes in it to avoid condensation. It is a good idea to have two totes on hand so that you can simply transfer the turtle from one to the other at cleaning time. This not absolutely necessary, but it is handy.
Outdoor substrate should be clean topsoil and leaves.
For a Pen
In a large-enough pen, you will not need to worry about cleaning. If you have the right number of turtles for the size of your pen, and you don't overfeed, nature will do the cleaning. You will just need to supplement the leaves as they decompose, so that your turtle will always have something to dig and hide in and will be able to hibernate successfully through the winter.
For a Wading Pool
In a wading pool, you will need to clean and replace both topsoil and leaves as they become soiled. Your turtle will not be able to hibernate in a wading pool because it will not be able to dig down deep enough to keep from freezing. In this case, you will need to bring your pet indoors before the first freeze. Keep it in until all danger of frost has passed.
The BEST indoor substrate I have found is plain rabbit pellets. You can buy a big bag of this very inexpensively at a feed store. It is easy to keep this substrate clean by scooping out soiled areas with a kitty litter scooper and stirring the substrate daily to keep it aired. It should be changed about once a week or more often if soiled. Keep about 2" of pellets over the entire floor of the habitat.
You can use commercial substrates like wood chips or reptile substrate. Follow the package directions. Do not use pine or cedar chips or any other wood chip with a strong, resiny smell. This is very bad for turtle lungs. Also, avoid Bed-a-Beast. Reptiles have been known to eat it and die from bowel impaction.
Contrary to popular belief, box turtles do NOT need to be hot and dry. If your box turtle is outside, the soil in its enclosure should be very slightly moist. Your turtle should always be able to get into deep shade to cool off.
If your box turtle is inside, and your home is a comfortable temperature, (70–80 degrees, that is!) your box turtle will be comfortable. If you keep your home colder than that, it is a good idea to give your box turtle a heat rock or a heat lamp to use optionally. The turtle should always be able to get away from the heat if it wants to.
Your box turtle needs sunlight for good energy, a strong shell, and healthy skin and scales. You can provide a UV lamp and/or you can place your turtle's enclosure near a window so that the turtle gets partial sun for 2–6 hours a day.
Again, the turtle must be able to choose whether or not to be in the sun. You should never place the habitat in such a way that the whole enclosure is in direct sun. The turtle should always be able to get out of the sun if it needs to.
Your box turtle needs clean water at all times for drinking and soaking. Its water dish should be big enough for the whole turtle to get in and soak comfortably. It should be at least 2" deep. The more turtles you have, the bigger the dish should be. The dish should be heavy, so the turtle(s) cannot tip it over. Some good dishes include:
- glass pie pans
- glass or ceramic casserole dishes
- clay plant saucers
- dishes specially made for this purpose
If you find that the dish is too slippery, and your turtle has trouble getting out, you can put a flat rock or terra cotta tile on the bottom of the dish to give it some traction.
The water should be changed at least once a day. It is a good idea to keep a jug filled with water and let it sit, open, so that the chemicals in the water evaporate and the water is room temperature when you fill the dish. You can also use dechlorinator for fish water, if you want. Never use water that is too hot or too cold.
Feeding: What Do Box Turtles Eat?
Box turtles are omnivores. They eat meat, fruits, and vegetables. You can feed your turtle a commercially prepared turtle food, but it is best not to limit its diet to ANY one food. Feed a variety. Here are some favorites:
- Bait worms (available at any bait store). Check them before you buy them. They should be lively and mold-free. Mealworms, crickets, wax worms (available at pet stores). Strawberries, bananas, peaches, pears, plums, almost any fruit; citrus does not seem to be a favorite.
- Canned fruit is okay, but it should be rinsed if it is packed in syrup.
- Canned dog or cat food, dry dog, or cat food soaked in warm water (No more than twice a week.)
- Green, leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, Romaine lettuce, cabbage, chopped very small.
Do Not Feed Iceberg Lettuce
Iceberg lettuce has no nutrition, but turtles love it. They can become addicted to it, refuse to eat anything else, and starve to death eating it.
How Much Should I Feed My Turtle?
Feed a total of a heaping tablespoon or two of foods per turtle daily. One or two earthworms or other live foods count as meat. Amounts really depend on the size and appetite of the turtle. Use your best judgment, and consult books, the internet, your pet store, or me, if you need to.
Be sure to vary the diet: Feed one or two foods one day and one or two different foods the next. By doing this, you will be sure your turtle is getting a range of vitamins and minerals. You can also add a vitamin/mineral supplement (available at pet stores) sprinkled over the food.
The Importance of Calcium
Calcium is a very necessary nutrient for turtles. They need it for strong shells and bones. Oyster shell calcium can be bought inexpensively, by the pound, at most feed stores. You can also use grit that is made for caged birds and/or provide a cuttlebone for your turtle to chomp on. These also help keep the turtle's beak pruned. This is important as the turtle cannot eat properly if its beak overgrows. I use the oyster shell calcium. I just sprinkle it around the ground in the enclosures. It can also be put in a dish or sprinkled over the food.
A box turtle needs very little in the way of accessories, but the following things are good to have.
Box turtles appreciate a good hiding place! A broken flower pot makes a good hiding place, or a whole flower pot partially buried in the substrate. A hollow log is good if you have one handy! Use your imagination on this. Just bear in mind that whatever you use, it should be easy to clean, free of sharp edges, and easy for the turtle to crawl under. Do be sure to provide a hiding place. Your turtle will be much happier.
Food dishes are also important. A box turtle food dish should be as flat as possible. If it has any kind of lip at all, the turtle will tip it up when it tries to eat. Terra cotta tiles make good food dishes. They can be bought for a few cents at a home improvement store. Their rough surface helps keep the turtle's beak pruned. Buy two or three, so you can just prepare the turtle's food on one and trade it easily with the one in use. This way you will always have a clean food dish available.
Box turtles don't like a lot of handling, but if you are always quiet and gentle around your turtle, it will learn to trust you. Feed at the same time, in the same place in the enclosure every day, and soon you will find your box turtle waiting for you at feeding time. Sometimes they like to take tidbits from your hand or a spoon; however, it is not a good idea to encourage this. Box turtle bites hurt! It is also better for the turtle to eat from its dish, than to become "spoon dependent." This makes feeding easier for you, too.
If you keep your turtle indoors, it will enjoy outings on nice days. Be sure to stay with your turtle, and keep your eye on it every single minute! Turtles are actually quite fast, and they can disappear in a flash! Keep your turtle away from areas where dogs or other animals may have soiled the ground.
Wash Your Hands After Touching Your Turtle
As with all reptiles, be sure to wash your hands after you handle your turtle. Wash turtle dishes separately from human dishes. Even healthy turtles can carry germs that people don't want!
Here's a quick review of what you'll need for your pet.
Building materials for a pen:
- Fence wire
- Stakes: Wood or metal. Stakes for an electric fence are fine.
- Zip ties.
- 2–3 bags of topsoil. If in doubt, tell the clerk at the garden center how big your pen is and that you want the topsoil to be at least 3" deep. They can help you decide how much to buy.
- Plastic wading pool (drill holes in the bottom).
- 2–3 bags of topsoil.
- Large plastic semi-transparent tote (holes drilled in the top, if used).
- Rabbit pellets or commercial substrate.
- Kitty litter scoop.
Light, Heat, and Accessories
- Heat rock and/or UV light (optional).
- Food dishes or terra cotta tiles.
- Soaking dish.
Food and Supplements
- A variety of fruits and vegetables.*
- Live and non-live meat sources.
- Oyster shell calcium, grit, or cuttlebone.
- Vitamin and mineral supplement.
Note: Baby food is very good for getting box turtles to eat if they lose their appetites. Pungent fruit flavors like banana and peach seem especially favored, but turtles like most fruit and veggie flavors and plain meat flavors. Do not give them baby food (or other food) with grain starches like pasta. Also, don't give them milk products. These are very unnatural foods for turtles.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2015 justmesuzanne
justmesuzanne (author) from Texas on March 24, 2020:
Thanks, Peggy! Yes, there are stories of pet box turtles handed down from one generation to another. :)
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 20, 2020:
I had no idea that box turtles could live that long! It sounds like you would have to make provisions for it in your will so that it gets good care after you die. I will never own one, but this is all useful information to know.
justmesuzanne (author) from Texas on August 02, 2019:
I have never had any problem with the pens that I build.
Big son on July 16, 2019:
This is a good article. The only thing i have found wrong with it is that you should never build you box turtle pin out of wire because they can easily climb fence, so if you do build one out of fence then make sure it has a dome top to it,
Shyron E Shenko from Texas on August 04, 2016:
Suzanne, this is an interesting and amazing hub. I would not begin to raise a box turtle unless it is already 120 years old.
I truly enjoyed reading this.
Blessings and hugs dear friend.
justmesuzanne (author) from Texas on May 19, 2015:
Thanks! I have a yard full of them, and I'm considering moving! I'm not sure what I'll do. :/
FlourishAnyway from USA on May 19, 2015:
125 years? OMG! Anything with a life span that long I know is off my list. This was such an interesting hub, Suzanne. I learned a lot. I will never have one of these as a pet, but I do value them as sweet creatures.
justmesuzanne (author) from Texas on May 18, 2015:
Thank you! Tortoises and box turtles are not the same, but quite a bit of the information can be generalized. Your friend should also get a good manual on tortoise care.
Akriti Mattu from Shimla, India on May 18, 2015:
Hey thanks for writing this hub.My friend just got a tortoise as a pet. Will make her read your informative hub :)
justmesuzanne (author) from Texas on May 15, 2015:
Thank you for your kind comments! This article isn't really even finished yet! I intend to add some photos, videos, products and so on. I just haven't had time. I have quite a bit of content that I need to post, and I just decided to start tossing it out there and then come back to it to finalize it. Glad you like it so far! :D
torrilynn on May 13, 2015:
I like turtles. I think that they are unique and kind of cool. thanks for this informative and useful hub on caring for turtles.
poetryman6969 on May 13, 2015:
Turtles eat worms? I missed the memo. I would have killed them by feeding them only lettuce. There is a belief amongst some that we crave what need but that is clearly not always the case in fact when I see what addiction does I wonder if it is ever the case?
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Can Box Turtles Swim?
Box turtles are terrestrial, which means that they spend most of their time on land. Does that mean they can’t swim? Here’s the answer.
Box turtles are native to North America and can be easily distinguishable from other species by their domed shells. Unlike other species, they can also fully retract into their shells.
But, can they swim?
So, here’s the quick and short answer.
Box turtles can indeed swim. Sometimes they are actually seen swimming in the wild. However, most species are not particularly adept at it, and they often look clumsy.
As opposed to the long webbed feet of aquatic species such as cooters and red-eared sliders, box turtles’ feet are usually shorter with individual toes. These features that don’t lend themselves well to swimming.
Due to this, it’s advisable that you create a suitable habitat for them that contains shallow water rather than deep water.
There’s actually quite a bit to decompress and explain here, as box turtles do need to spend time in the water. However, how and where they spend that time is different from more aquatic species like painted turtles.
Like I noted above, box turtles do swim. However, they usually aren’t very good at it.
For instance, compare this short video of this red-eared slider swimming.
Compare that with this short clip of this Eastern Box Turtle swimming in a small creek.
Do All Box Turtles Swim?
Some people might be curious if there are specific species of box turtles that cannot swim. For instance:
- Can ornate box turtles swim?
- Do eastern box turtles swim?
- Are 3-toed box turtles able to swim?
And while this list isn’t exhaustive, and I don’t think I could check and verify if every single species of box turtle can swim, I have not found a specific species of a box turtle that could not swim when push comes to shove.
For example, just doing a little bit of digging around on Youtube, here is an example of a 3-toed box turtle swimming.
Most of the examples I came across were Eastern or 3-toed box turtles. I haven’t found any examples of other species of box turtles, such as Asian box turtles or desert box turtles swimming. If anyone does, please let me know!
That being said, based on my research I would estimate that just about every box turtle can swim if need be, such as to escape from a predator.
However, if the water they are swimming in is rough or deep, it probably exponentially increases their chances of drowning.
How Long Can Box Turtles Swim?
When box turtles do swim, they often tend to swim on the top of the water, in places such as lakes, ponds, rivers, and creeks.
They do this because typically, box turtles are swimming to get somewhere. Say, across a small creek to the other side.
Because they aren’t aquatic, they don’t swim for long periods of time.
This is contrasted with cooters, sliders, and painted turtles. These turtles spend most of their day swimming around the bottom of lakes, ponds, rivers, and creeks.
This is why it’s very rare to see a box turtle just swimming way out in the middle of some large lake. But I’ve seen lots of painted turtles, cooters, and sliders out there!
So, they do swim, they just aren’t fantastic at it and don’t spend a lot of time doing it.
Can Box Turtles Swim Underwater?
Let’s say a box turtle absolutely needs to cross a rather deep river or pond.
Every example of a box turtle swimming thus far has shown them swimming at the top of the river or pond. But can they also swim underwater?
Based off my first-hand experience (more about that later), I can tell you that from what I have personally seen, if a box turtle is in deep water swimming (and lets it tires out and needs to rest) it will often sink to the bottom and just sit down there.
I can’t tell you how long they are able to do this because I have never timed them. But it was at least for a few minutes.
So while I can’t say this as some authoritative source, I would say that box turtles cannot swim underwater very well. If and when they do swim, it seems to be on the top of the water.
This is great news if you plan on putting fish in your tank, as you don’t need to worry about your box turtle eating all the fish. If you want to learn the best way to keep turtles and fish together, you should check out my article on can turtles live with fish?
Do Box Turtles Live in Water?
A long time ago when I first began my pet turtle adventure, I made a lot of really bad husbandry (pet keeping) mistakes. One of the worst was when I was given two baby turtles.
One was a baby red-eared slider and the other a keeled box turtle.
At the time, I knew next to nothing about turtles. Nothing about where to put them, what to feed them, or any of that. All I knew was that they lived in the water.
Or so I thought.
I got a 55-gallon tank, filled it up with water, and put both my box turtle and red-eared slider in it!
The slider took to the water effortlessly.
The box turtle, however, swam around frantically and gripped his short limbs around the filter. He would hold onto that filter for hours. I thought he just wasn’t used to swimming and that eventually, his skill would grow.
I was wrong. Big time!
After a few weeks of no improvement, and after educating myself, I had realized that I had made a gigantic mistake!
Do Box Turtles Need Water?
All turtles need water in order to swallow and digest their food properly.
This is why you should always feed your captive turtle in the water. Tortoises are different though.
Because their anatomy is different, however, their feeding plays out quite differently in the wild.
Aquatic turtles live the vast majority of their lives in the water. Their shells tend to be more elongated and oval, and due to their webbed feet and slick features, they can easily glide and swim in water with ease. During feeding, they usually float around, chomping at pellets, pieces of greens and insects.
Box turtles not only lack the webbed feet that aquatic species have, but their shells are usually more circular. Moreover, the bottom part of their shell (called the plastron) is hinged, which means that when they retract their heads into their shell, it closes up a bit more. This helps protect them from predators a bit better than non-box turtles.
When it comes time to feed, box turtles prefer to sit in shallow water. This water should not be shallow enough so that they are not totally submerged though. So, just a few inches of water is sufficient for box turtles.
That’s not the only reason why your habitat for your box turtle should contain shallow rather than deep water though.
Can A Box Turtle Drown?
The other reason is that box turtles can drown.
The AAHA (American Animal Hospital Associate) lists deep pools and tanks as drowning risks for box turtles.
I wrote a more detailed article on the risks of turtle drownings that you can read here, but the basic gist is that most turtles are able to hold their breath for 15 to 30 minutes at a time.
Box turtles are especially susceptible to drowning as they tire out from swimming easier. This is because it takes a lot more energy for them to swim in the water. They also generally are not as comfortable in it.
How Much Water Do Box Turtles Need?
Here’s a good rule of thumb to follow.
Keep enough water somewhere in your tank so that:
- Your box turtle can fit its entire body in the water.
- It is a few inches deep.
- It can be regularly cleaned a few times a week.
Make sure it’s also dechlorinated.
Whatever you do, don’t put them into an aquarium full of deep water!
Although box turtles are primarily terrestrial, they do like to spend time wading in the water. They also will need this place to eat. This is why the depth should only be a few inches.
Unfortunately, this is also the place they track dirt to (and poo in!). So, you’ll often have to clean it daily or every other day.
I’ve seen some box turtle water trays that have deep ends in them so that they can be totally submerged. I actually quite like these, but I don’t think they are necessary.
Can A Box Turtle Swim In Tap Water?
Because your box turtle isn’t going to need a whole lot of water, at first glance you’re probably going to be tempted to just fill up his drinking or multi-use water bowl with plain tap water.
I want to make a quick case of why you shouldn’t, and why you should instead use distilled water.
Firstly, regular faucet water often contains fluoride and other additives, and while these chemicals are not harmful to humans (nor animals), it does have a tendency to make your turtle’s shell appear chalky white.
I’ve had this happen with turtles in the past, who after sitting long periods of time in tap water and then drying out, had their shells caked in chalky, white dust.
This isn’t harmful to your turtle but it looks terrible.
Secondly, I think it’s just more natural.
In their native environments, turtles swim in, live in, eat and sleep in ponds, creeks, lakes and, ponds. And while no doubt this water isn’t distilled or purified, it also isn’t filled with fluoride and other additives.
As your box turtle won’t be using a lot of water, getting a few bottles of distilled water a week won’t hurt financially, and will certainly only help your turtle’s health and appearance.
- Box turtles do and can swim, but generally in shallower areas, or in order to pass through deeper rivers or lakes to get from point A to point B.
- Although they can swim, they aren’t particularly good at it, due to their lack of webbed feet.
- Don’t put a box turtle into an aquarium full of water. Instead, give them a bowl or a container filled with a few inches of water.
- Use distilled or purified water if you can.