Is a Box Turtle the Right Pet For You?
North American box turtles are popular pets here at the Ornate Bird Garden but their needs are complex. This terrestrial turtle is known for its ability to close up both the front and back sides of its plastron, boxing itself up completely in its own shell for protection. Four main species of box turtle are offered in the pet trade: the eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina), the ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata), the three-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis), and the Gulf Coast box turtle (Terrapene carolina major) .
Never capture a wild turtle from its native habitat; this can cause destabilization in the wild populations, and will stress out the captured turtle probably to the point of death. Adopt an unwanted pet turtle from a reptile rescue society, or get one from a reputable turtle breeder.
What You Will Need for Your Box Turtle:
Turtle goodies (strawberries & bananas) in a shallow bowl
- An experienced reptile vet
- An escape-proof, fenced-in back yard (see Escape-Proof Your Turtle Yard) or
- An outdoor turtle enclosure (see Build Your Turtle an Outdoor Habitat)
- An opaque (not see-through) plastic tub to keep your turtle indoors TEMPORARILY if he has a health problem
- A shallow water dish in which your turtle can soak and drink
- A shallow food dish into which your turtle can climb
- Turtle goodies: fruits (especially strawberries), vegetables, worms, snails, or lowfat canned dogfood (see Get Your Turtle to Eat)
Step 1: Don't get a turtle for your kid. I can't stress this enough. Being reptiles, turtles will not enjoy enforced cuddling and excessive handling. Get your kid a puppy or kitten instead. Turtles are not throw-away pets that will sit in a glass terrarium in your kid's room.
If you want a cheap "starter" pet for your kids, get them a goldfish or some guppies. A turtle kept inside a terrarium will retreat into a miserable catatonic state. Turtles are creatures who like to roam, and they suffer in confined spaces. One wild box turtle normally patrols a territory the size of an average American park! You can bet that he or she knows every single pebble within it.
Step 2: Don't get a box turtle if you can't keep it outside. Period. The ONLY time you should keep your turtle in a container indoors is temporarily if he's recovering from a health problem.
This terrarium is see-through so you can see its contents. You’d need to tape paper over its sides so your turtle can’t see out. For temporary use only.
In that situation, don't put him in a see-through container. Turtles don't understand transparent barriers and will relentlessly batter themselves against glass or mesh or wire, trying to get out. Your temporary terrarium should be opaque plastic like a huge sweater-box from Target or a large tub for mixing cement.
Step 3: Consider the longevity of your average box turtle. If treated well, your turtle will easily make it through the next 40 years, and could live more than 100 years. That’s a long commitment to the little scaly guy’s well-being!
Step 4: Research box turtles before you get one. Pick the type of turtle whose natural climate in the wild most resembles your backyard.
If you live in a dry climate, a Western box turtle (of either sub-species: ornate or desert) might be good for you; its native climate is the grasslands of Kansas and parts of the American southwest. If you live in a humid climate, consider a three-toed box turtle (native to the lower Midwest like east Texas) or a Gulf Coast box turtle. It's just too hard to manufacture a different climate in your back yard.
If you end up with a non-native turtle like I did with Potscrubber, the three-toed box turtle (see My Turtles), you'll need to meet her needs. I live in the desert and I make sure that Potscrubber has lots of mud, water, and wet grass-clippings to enjoy. I'm lucky: it's easier to provide more humidity in a dry climate than to manufacture dryness in a humid climate!
To keep cool, my three-toed box turtle lurks in a bucket of soil/grass clippings that I hose down every day.
Step 5: Find a good reptile vet by asking around at reptile societies or searching on the internet. Most vets don't know much about reptiles or other "exotics" because their training is concentrated on mammals. So you don't want to go to your average vet when your turtle is in trouble. Dogs and cats form the "bread and butter" of a veterinary practice so a vet who knows reptiles has acquired her knowledge through love, and is worth her weight in gold.
Step 6: Decide if you want to build an outdoor enclosure for your turtle (this is what I recommend – see Build Your Turtle an Outdoor Habitat) or let it have free run of your entire backyard (see Escape-Proof Your Turtle Yard). Do everything required to fix up your turtle's home before you bring her home.
Step 7: Decide if you want a male or a female. (See How to Tell Males from Females for sexing information. See Which Turtle Makes a Better Pet for advice on male-to-female population ratios.)
Step 8: Get your turtle from your local turtle rescue group or reptile society. Do an internet search to find ones in your area, or check with the biology department at a nearby university. There are plenty of unwanted reptiles who need a good home. Don't give your trade to pet stores (as I unfortunately did before I knew better). Pet stores often obtain turtles through increasingly illegal "harvesting" or poaching on wetlands and other turtle places in the wild. This is what I'm sure happened to my female ornate Horus (see My Turtles).
Step 9: Your box turtle will want to hibernate during the approximately four to six months of cold weather, depending upon where you live. Get your turtle a checkup from your experienced reptile vet beforehand. Your vet is the best one to clear up all your hibernation questions.
Step 10: Don't handle the little scaly guy! Believe me, your reptile doesn't want to interact with you. If you must pick him up, don't let his little legs flail away in empty space. Put one hand under his feet so he'll feel secure. (Wash your hands afterwards, especially upon cleaning their habitats and changing their water. Their droppings are loaded with salmonella, which is normal for them but could be harmful to you. See Practice Turtle Hygiene to Prevent Salmonella Infection.)
Box turtles do best with people who will give them a small amount of supervision, a secure home, and then lots of hands-off observation. Every turtle has her own personality, and they can be fascinating to watch. The best times to watch them are in the morning and around sunset when they hunt and roam: they retreat to their burrows at night, and also tend to sleep away the hot hours of afternoon. With good care, your box turtle may live to be one hundred years old -- or older!  This should provide you with a lifetime of unique reptilian companionship.
 The Box Turtle Manual by Philippe de Vosjoli, Advanced Vivarian Systems, Inc. 1995, p.7. ISBN 1882770293
 The Box Turtle Manual by Philippe de Vosjoli, Advanced Vivarian Systems, Inc. 1995, p.12. ISBN 1882770293. Second edition available on Amazon through this link: