So far I’ve touched a little on small mammals and birds. Time for my next favorite topic: reptiles! And if I could pick any reptile to see, it would probably be a box turtle. They are one of the most common pet reptiles I see and they have to be one of my favorites. They have such amazing personalities and character, and it is so fun to watch them move around throughout the day. Have you ever seen a box turtle eat a strawberry? Hilarious!
Box turtles come in many different species across the world. In captivity we most commonly see the Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina), the Three-Toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis), and the Ornate (or Western) Box Turtle (Terrapene ornate). The majority of box turtles are considered terrestrial animals, meaning that they live on land and do not typically swim. However, they always need access to fresh water and something that they can climb into. Several species of Asian box turtles, including the Malayan Box Turtle (Cuora amboinensis) and Chinese Box Turtle (Cuora flavomarginata), are not commonly seen in captive environments and have completely different husbandry requirements. They both spend most of their time in the water!
The most ideal habitat for a captive box turtle is to keep them outside! A large enclosure can be created for them that should contain areas of shade, sunshine, and burrowing areas. It should be predator proof, which means protection from above as well. Plants can be placed in this enclosure (strawberry, raspberry, squash) for the turtle to hide under, as well as to eat! They need a fresh water source, large enough to crawl into but should not be so deep that it covers their head. Native bugs (except for fireflies if you live somewhere other than Colorado) can be placed into the enclosure for the turtle to eat, and a small composting area in the habitat may help attract them. These turtles can be kept outside for the majority of the year, and then brought inside during the winter OR you could consider hibernating them for the winter.
A habitat can also be created for box turtles inside. “Turtle boxes” can be made which consist of a raised habitat created from wood, which are high enough to prevent the turtle from climbing out of it but lower than most aquariums so that there is good air flow. Different substrates can be used including mulch, wood chips, or dirt. Be sure to feed your turtle on a more solid surface (a rock, in a dish) so that he does not accidentally ingest small pieces of substrate. The temperature of your enclosure should range from approximately 85-88F in the basking area during the day, to 70-75F at night. This can be obtained by using heat lamps, and a red heat lamp can be purchased for night use as needed. Box turtles also require a light source that contains UVB. The best source of UVB is the sun, but if your turtle is remaining indoors a special light needs to be purchased. ReptiSun and Megaray are two great options, but these lights can be purchased at pet stores as well. Be sure to read the box carefully, as most UVB lights only emit UVB for approximately 6 months! This means the fluorescent light will still be present, but no UVB is being emitted. Be sure to label the light fixture with the month the bulb should be changed. UVB light also does not go through glass or plastic, and should be within 18 inches of the turtle. The highest source is in the center of the bulb, so try to position this over the turtle’s basking area.
Box turtles are omnivores, but require more plant material (75%) than they do animal material (25%). A salad should be prepared for your turtle approximately 3 times per week. Some options of vegetables to feed include carrots, chard, collard greens, dandelion, escarole, lettuce, mustard, parsnip, spinach, squash, and sweet potatoes. Fruit can be added as a supplement including berries, apples, and melons. Protein sources should be fed 2-3 times per week in small amounts, including earthworms, mealworms, crickets, hardboiled eggs, and canned dog food. Canned dog food should only be given in small amounts and only on occasion. Insects can be “gut-loaded”, by feeding them Fluker’s gut loading formula, before feeding them to your turtle to give them even more nutrition. Wild insects can be caught and also fed to your turtle (except fireflies). A multivitamin or Calcium powder can be sprinkled on the food, but if your turtle is eating a well varied diet and has a UVB source, this is likely not necessary. The key is variety! Avoid processed and frozen foods, as they contain a lot of preservatives and lose a lot of their nutritional content.
An annual veterinary exam is recommended for all box turtles, to discuss husbandry and to help catch illnesses early. If you are considering hibernating your turtle, he should be examined beforehand to be sure he is healthy enough to hibernate, and also to discuss how to safely do this. Consider weighing your turtle regularly to help monitor his health. Keep a chart or notebook to help you keep track, and if you notice a trend of weight loss or gain, this is a good indication to schedule a veterinary exam. Common signs of illness include eye swelling or discharge, ear swelling, oral lesions, or beak or shell abnormalities.
Very interestingly, Ornate Box Turtles are native to the state of Colorado! So, if you see one of these guys wandering around while you’re out on a hike, enjoy it, take a picture, and then leave him alone. If you relocate them, they will walk for DAYS trying to get back to where you took them from, which may mean crossing busy roads and through neighborhoods. If you do have to move one for some reason (maybe because he is injured?) take note of the exact location of where he was found so that he can be returned.
Contact the Colorado Reptile Humane Society (www.corhs.org) for more information on caring for box turtles or if you are interested in adopting one of these scaled friends! Anapsid.org is another great resource for box turtle needs.
Julia Katzenbach, DVM