General Care of Terrapena carolina sp.
Shannon R W Brandl, CVT and
Susan Horton, DVM
Pictured above is a beautiful male Three-Toed Box Turtle; Terrapene
turtles are from the eastern, central and southwestern
. The turtles
commonly offered in pet stores are: Eastern box turtle, Three Toed
and Ornate box turtle.
They are called “box turtles” because of their ability to pull
in their heads and limbs and seal themselves in- as if in a box.
This is accomplished by the plastral hinge that allows movement of
portions of the plastron, (bottom part of the shell).
They have a 30-40 year potential.
are 1-1 1/2 inches long and adults are 4-8 inches long.
is extremely variable among species.
Box turtles are docile and sometimes shy. They can
become quite personable and will sometimes feed from their owners
hand or follow their owners
when they are hungry.
Pictured above is an Ornate Box Turtle: Terrapene ornata
Captive Care Requirements
Cage/ tank: The
minimum size for a single box turtle should be at least 36”
long, 15” high and 12” wide. For 2-3 turtles, 48” long is
recommended. Larger is always better.
or reptile carpet is recommended to cover the bottom of the
enclosure. Bark, sand, corn cob or cat litter should not be used.
These can be accidentally ingested causing an impaction and/or can
be very irritating to a turtle’s eyes.
A pan of cypress mulch can be provided for digging in.
It should be changed weekly.
Pictured here is what I call turf toe. It is a nail
bed infection common in box turtles associated with malnutrition,
unclean bedding and/or sharp Astroturf. Some of the shiny Astroturf
will cut the skin in between the nail beds, hence the name turf
toe. This foot pictured above was associated more with
malnutrition, which lead to accumulation of dead skin at the nail
base. This dead skin started to constrict as it dried,
cutting off circulation. Next, bacteria from an unclean
environment go to work and the result is pododermatitis.
This will take quite some time to heal (months).
full spectrum light source, which provides UVB is necessary for
good health. The best source is natural sunlight but a special
fluorescent or mercury vapor bulb can be purchased from a pet
store. The fluorescent bulb should be no more than 12” from the
basking site and should be place on a timer to provide 12 hour
light and dark cycles. The fluorescent bulbs need to be replaced
yearly. The mercury
vapor bulbs are good for 3 years.
There also should not be any plastic or glass between the
bulb and the animal. A screen top is acceptable.
water should be available at all times. The dish should be large
enough for the turtle to get into and soak. Turtles often defecate
in their water therefore the dish should be changed daily and
disinfected weekly. It is also a good idea to soak your turtle in
a shallow pan of lukewarm water for 15-20 minutes 2-3 times
weekly. Always check water depth and temperature. Turtles can
drown if left in too deep of water and are easily burned if water
temperature is too hot.
under the tank heat pad with thermostat should be provided under a
portion of the tank. A
basking light should also be made available. Basking area
temperature should be 80-90 degrees. Heat rocks are not
recommended. The air temperature should range between 70-80
degrees. The humidity should be between 60-80%. Use thermometers
and a humidity gauge to monitor these perimeters.
hide area such as an overturned box with an opening or reptile
hide log made of bark is necessary. It should be 1” greater than
the height of the shell when the turtle is standing. A tray of
potting soil can be placed under the box to allow the turtle to
dig. If soil is used, remember the change weekly.
are opportunistic feeders and their wild diet tends to be varied.
Always offer a variety of foods at every meal.
tend to be more carnivorous. Offer earthworms, “gut loaded”
and dusted crickets, mealworms, fruits, calcium rich greens (kale,
mustard greens, collard greens) and mixed vegetables. (especially
rich in beta carotene-sweet potato, red pepper, squash).
are omnivorous. Offer fruits greens, mixed vegetables, commercial
food, crickets, mealworms, and earthworms.
a multivitamin over food 1 time weekly and also use a phosphorous
free calcium supplement once weekly.
dog and/ or cat food is not advised. It can cause serious damage
to their internal organs- especially the kidneys.
Beak problems as
demonstrated in this photo, are usually associated with
malnutrition, sinusitis, or trauma. I see this kind of
beak most often associated with malnutrition. Once they've
gotten to this stage, a normal beak occlusion surface can
never be achieved. This turtle will need regular beak
trimming for the rest of it's life.
can be very finicky eater. First try offering some of their favorite
foods. Keep in mind that box turtles are often attracted to red,
orange, and yellow fruits and vegetables. Sometimes live food will
stimulate feeding. Rain often stimulates activity - spraying the
cage and then offering food is often effective. Bad eating habits
can take a very long time to correct. Keep offering foods even if
they are not eaten initially-
Usually, over time, they will begin to eat them.
Annual checkups with blood work and stool checks are
recommended. Turtles hide disease extremely well therefore, it is
important to pay attention to any possible signs of illness. These
may include: decrease appetite, decrease activity level, discharge
from eyes or nose, selling of the eyes or anywhere else, noticeable
weight loss, sunken eyes, overgrown beak and/ or nails, flaky skin
or any abrasions. Turtles are susceptible to nutritional
deficiencies and internal parasites. At any sign of illness, the
turtle should be taken to a veterinarian, (familiar with reptiles).
The most common household hazard for turtles is dogs. A dog can
easily puncture the shell causing serious and life threatening
damage. Any turtle bitten by a dog should immediately be taken to a
Adult box turtles should be allowed to hibernate.
Before allowing hibernation to occur, a thorough exam by a
reptile veterinarian should occur. When mature box turtles are ready
to hibernate, they stop eating, become lethargic, and attempt to
burrow or hide. An
accurate weight in grams should be recorded every 2 weeks during
for hibernation includes withholding food for 10-14 days prior to
hibernation. Warm water
soaking every other day should be done during this time to promote
gut emptying and good hydration.
Once you are sure that the intestinal tract is empty, lower
the turtles’ ambient temperature to 65 degrees for 3 – 4 days.
Next, keep them at 60 degrees for the next 2 days.
Then placed them in their hibernaculums and maintain them at
are small containers made of rubber or plastic (such as a plastic
sweater box). Small
holes should be drilled into the lid.
A mixture of shredded or recycled newspaper product and peat
moss should fill the container 2/3 full.
The mixture should be most, but not dripping.
The turtle should burrow into this mixture.
2 weeks, the turtles should be warmed to room temperature, weighed,
and soaked for 30 minutes in warm water.
Examine the turtle for any signs of unhealthiness.
Discharge for the eyes, nose or mouth means the hibernation
is discontinued and you need to call the vet.
You should also be concerned if your turtle has lost more
than 10% of its weight. Remoisten
substrate as needed. The
turtle may be returned directly to the hibernaculum after soaking.
in the Midwest, box turtles are hibernated for 3-4 months.
The box turtle should have a minimum of 6 weeks hibernation.
To stop the hibernation period, slowly increase the box
turtles ambient temperature over several days.
Soakings should be done every other day during this time.
Once the turtle is in its normal temperature zone for 2-3
days, you may begin feeding again.
turtles make wonderful companions. They become quite tame and
bond well with their keepers. With the proper care and
respect, they will live well for many years.
have any questions or problems, please give us a call at