Several species of turtles are available for purchase as pets. By far the most common species is the popular box turtle, which will be the subject of this discussion. If you own another species, most of this information will apply, but you should check with your veterinarian about any specific requirements for your pet turtle.
The box turtle is a very popular reptile pet. Box turtles can make great pets if cared for properly. Turtles are often one of the most neglected captive reptiles, since many people simply do not know how to take care of them properly. Please do your “homework” and research as much as possible about this type of pet before bringing it into your life.
Most box turtles never get very large (unlike tortoises). The average adult size for box turtles is roughly 5-7 inches in diameter, with females being slightly smaller than males. If well fed and well kept, this adult size is reached at 4-6 years of age. Turtles that are not allowed to hibernate grow at a faster rate. Sexual maturity is reached about the fifth year of life. With proper diet and housing, captive box turtles usually live to 20 years of age but they can live 30-40 years.
I’ve been told that I should be concerned about Salmonellosis. Is this true?
Salmonella is a bacterium often implicated in human “food poisoning”. Salmonellosis is the disease caused by an infection with Salmonella organisms. The disease is spread by contact with infected feces. While the disease rarely causes anything more serious than vomiting and diarrhea in adults, young children, the elderly and people with lowered immune systems can easily develop a fatal disease. Although turtles are certainly not the only pet or reptile that can carry Salmonella, most turtles carry the infection asymptomatically, which means that they do not show signs of illness. Since box turtles are a common family pet, the danger of infection is very real. You can imagine how easily the disease, which involves contact with infected feces, could be spread if young children were placing soiled hands or the turtles itself in their mouths!
Due to the high incidence of Salmonella poisoning in the 1970’s, some municipalities passed laws prohibiting the sale of any turtle smaller than 4 inches in diameter. Apparently, the reason for the size limit was that turtles larger than 4 inches could not be easily placed into the mouth! Before purchasing a turtle, check your local laws regarding ownership. Common sense and good hygiene are essential in preventing this disease. After handling any pet, its excrement, its bedding or its toys, THOROUGHLY WASH YOUR HANDS.
How do turtles differ anatomically from other pets?
Compared to other animals, turtles have different muscle structures, and many of their bones (like the ribs) are replaced by a protective shell (which is hinged underneath, allowing the animal to close its shell tightly to escape predators). The top or dorsal shell is called the carapace and the bottom or ventral shell is called the plastron. The shell is covered with bony plates called scutes. The scutes are usually shed in large patches, unlike snakes, which usually shed in one piece. The numbers of scutes or the “rings” on the scutes have nothing to do with the turtle’s age. The pectoral or chest muscles are well developed in turtles. Despite the obvious differences in muscle anatomy, turtles are extremely strong. The strength, manifested by the turtle retracting into its shell when disturbed, is one of the signs to check for when purchasing a turtle.
Turtles lack teeth but have a strong “beak” and turtles can and do bite!
Turtles have no diaphragm, but rather breathe by movements of membranes enclosing their internal organs and by movements of their legs and head.
Turtles have a three-chambered heart, whereas dogs, cats, and people have a four-chambered heart.
Turtles have a renal portal blood system, where blood from the hind limbs is filtered by the kidneys before reaching the general circulation. This means toxins from the rear limbs (as could occur from wounds on the legs) as well as drugs injected into the rear legs are usually filtered through the kidneys before entering the general circulation.
Turtles excrete uric acid as their main waste product of protein metabolism (dogs, cats, and people excrete urea). This allows them to adapt to desert environments where water supply might be restricted. Unlike many other reptiles, turtles have a urinary bladder.
Turtles have a cloaca, which is the common “receptacle” or receiving compartment for the urinary, gastrointestinal, and reproductive systems. The cloaca empties externally through the vent on their ventral (under) surface of the tail.
Is there any difference in appearance between the sexes in turtles?
In general, males have a more concave plastron than females. This concavity allows for easier mounting and mating. Males are also larger than females and are usually more colorful (having a male and female next to each other makes the comparison easier). Males also usually have a longer and thicker tail, which facilitates easier maneuvering during mating. Males have red irises and females have yellowish-brown irises. Finally, the distance between the vent (common opening for the digestive, urinary, and reproductive tracts) and the turtle’s body is greater in males.
How do I select a box turtle?
Most owners buy turtles locally from a pet store or breeder. Young, captive-raised animals make the best pets. Older imported animals may harbor internal parasites and often suffer from the stress of captivity. Avoid sick-looking animals.
Avoid box turtles that have sunken or closed eyes, have any type of discharge coming from the nostrils or eyes, or appear inactive or lethargic. Eyes that are sunken into the head or swollen shut often indicate dehydration, emaciation, malnutrition, and/or Vitamin A deficiency. A healthy turtle is usually active and alert, feels “heavy” and retracts its head and limbs into its shell when handled. Make sure the shell is clean and there are no cracks, missing scutes (plates) or any signs of infection (often seen as shell discoloration or moldy growth). The shell should be hard; a soft shell is a sign of disease. The vent should be clean and free of wetness or fecal accumulation. If you can GENTLY open the mouth (which is difficult or impossible in most box turtles), there should be a small amount of clear saliva present and the lining of the mouth should be pink. Mucus that is cloudy, bloody or has a “cottage cheese” appearance (in reptiles, pus is thick and white, and looks like cottage cheese) is a sign of mouth rot, as is redness or pinpoint hemorrhages on the mucus membranes. Always inquire about the guarantee in case the turtle is found to be unhealthy.
My turtle looks healthy. Why does he need to see the veterinarian?
Within 48 hours of your purchase, your turtle should be examined by a qualified reptile veterinarian. The visit includes determining the animal’s weight, as well as thorough physical examination, including an inspection of the shell. The animal is examined for signs of dehydration, malnutrition, or other abnormalities. A fecal test is done to check for internal parasites. Many veterinarians consider all turtles (even those bred in captivity) to have internal parasites, so your turtle may be routinely dewormed for parasites. The oral cavity is examined for signs of infectious stomatitis (mouth rot). Your veterinarian may recommend blood tests, cultures, or radiographs (X-rays) to check for other diseases. No vaccines are required for turtles.
Like all pets, turtles should be examined at least annually, and should have their feces tested for parasites at every visit. The toenails of captive turtles should be clipped periodically; your veterinarian can show you how to do this correctly.
REMEMBER TO WASH YOUR HANDS THOROUGHLY after feeding, cleaning or handling any turtle.
What type of cage does my box turtle require?
Box turtles may be housed indoors or outside, depending upon environmental conditions and owner preference, in an escape-proof enclosure that ensures the safety of the animal (providing protection from predators or other animals). Discuss the pros and cons of each option with your veterinarian.
If you choose to house your box turtle indoors (which is safer), a 20-gallon aquarium is usually adequate to begin with, depending on the size of the turtle. As the animal grows, you may need to provide it with a 60 – 100 gallon aquarium, or a special room or part of a room, in order to give the turtle ample floor space to walk around and explore. Bigger is better, but is also more to manage! The cage should be well ventilated and does not necessarily need a protective top unless it is to keep other animals out.
Does my box turtle need bedding in his cage?
Substrate, or bedding material, should be easy to clean and disinfect and be non-toxic to the box turtle if accidentally eaten. Newspaper, butcher paper, towels, or preferably Astroturf (or other indoor/outdoor carpeting material) is recommended. Some people suggest using straw, peat moss or alfalfa pellets as box turtles like to burrow. If you are using Astroturf, buy two pieces and cut them both to fit the bottom of the cage. With two pieces, one is placed in the cage and one is kept as a spare that it is always clean and ready to use. When the Astroturf inside the cage becomes soiled, you can replace it with the clean, dry piece. Clean the soiled turf with ordinary soap and water, then disinfect with diluted bleach (1 part bleach to 10 parts water) Avoid harsher products unless your reptile veterinarian approves their use. After washing, thoroughly rinse it and hang it to dry until needed at the next cage cleaning.
Alfalfa pellets can be used for bedding and are often eaten by the turtle, which is acceptable. AVOID sand, gravel, wood shavings, corn cob material, walnut shells, and cat litter, as these are not only difficult to clean but can cause impaction if eaten by the turtle, either on purpose or accidentally (if the food becomes covered by these substrates). Cedar wood shavings are toxic to reptiles and should never be used!
What else do I need in the cage?
Natural branches are enjoyed by the turtle. Make sure they are secure and won’t fall onto the turtle and injure it. Rocks easy enough to climb on or around in the cage also allow for a more interesting environment. A hiding place is appreciated by all reptiles. Artificial or real, non-toxic plants can be arranged to provide a hiding place, as can clay pots, cardboard boxes, pieces of bark, half-domed hollow logs and other containers that provide a secure area.
You will also want to provide a shallow dish or pan with a “ramp”, in which the box turtle can easily climb in and out of for soaking and drinking. Watch this container closely as they sometimes defecate in it; keep it very clean. You can use a similar shallow clean dish for food.
Turtles, like all reptiles, are ectotherms (also called cold-blooded, this means that they depend on external or environmental sources of heat to maintain their body heat). They need a range of temperatures within the cage to regulate their internal body temperature. Environmental temperature determines the activity of the box turtle. They slow down in cooler temperatures. A heat source is necessary for all reptiles. Ideally, the cage should be set up so that a heat gradient is established, with one area of the tank warmer than the other end. In this way, the box turtle can move around its environment and warm or cool itself, as it feels necessary. Purchase two thermometers that cannot be damaged; place one at the cooler end of the cage and one at the warmer end, near the heat source. The cooler end of the cage should be approximately 70o-75 o F (21 o -24o C), while the warmer end should be 90 o -100 o F (32 o – 38 o C). An inexpensive way to do this is to supply a focal heat source using a 100-watt incandescent bulb with a reflector hood; alternatively, you can purchase other types of heat lamps or ceramic heating elements at a specialty pet store. Use these heat sources as directed. Your heat source should be placed OUTSIDE and above one end of the cage so that your turtle cannot directly contact it, thus preventing accidental burns. At night, when sleeping, extra heat and light are not necessary, as long as the temperature remains at 65 o – 70 o F (18 o -24 o C). You must provide your box turtle with a “night time”. In the wild, the nighttime temperatures usually fall gradually.
A heating pad may be placed under one end of the cage for warmth; speak with your veterinarian to learn the correct way to use them so that you avoid burning your pet.
“Hot Rocks” or “Sizzle Rocks” are dangerous, ineffective, and should be avoided!
What about ultraviolet (UV) light?
A wild reptile may spend many hours a day basking in the sun, absorbing ultra-violet (UV) light. This spectrum of light is essential for the body to manufacture the vitamin D3 that the turtle needs for proper calcium absorption from the intestines. Vitamin D3 is manufactured in the skin. Failure to provide UV light can predispose your pet to nutritional metabolic bone disease. This is an overly common and completely preventable condition of pet reptiles is fatal if left untreated. The UV light should emit light in the UV-B range (290-320 nanometers). UV-A light (320 – 400nm), although important in terms of behavior, does not aid in the manufacture of vitamin D3. Most bulbs sold for use in reptiles provide both UV-A and UV-B. Examples of commercially available UV-B emitting lights are the RetisunTM, Iguana LightTM, Power SunTM (by Zoo Med) and Repti GloTM lamp by Exo Terra. The UV output of these lights decreases with age so they should be replaced every six months or as directed by the manufacturer. For UV light to work, it must reach the pet in an unfiltered form, which means that you must make sure there is no glass or plastic between the pet and the light. The light should be within 6-12 inches from the animal in order for the pet to receive any benefit. These bulbs are expensive, but worth the extra cost and often mean the difference between a healthy reptile and a sick or dying reptile. Regular exposure to natural DIRECT sunlight outside (unfiltered through glass) is encouraged and recommended whenever possible. When outdoors care must be taken, provide a shaded area for the turtle to escape the sun if it chooses. Your pet turtle should always be supervised if taken outside to bask in the sun, to prevent escape or attack from other roaming animals in the neighborhood.
What about outdoor housing for my box turtle?
If you choose to house your turtle outdoors, it should be contained within an escape-proof enclosure. Make sure a shaded area is provided, as well as a hiding area. Turtles can dig out of enclosures, so bury the fencing 6-12 inches or put bricks or rocks under the area. The enclosure must provide safe and secure confinement or containment against predators and other animals as well as provide escape from hot sun and rain. Some owners find a children’s wading pool to be a suitable container. You can use Astroturf for lining material, although grass, twigs, and other natural material will be fine if they are changed daily. Avoid cedar, as it is toxic to reptiles. Of course, food and fresh water must always be available. Bring the box turtle indoors if the temperature drops below 60oF (16 oC).
What do box turtles eat?
Box turtles are omnivorous, which means that they eat both plant and animal based foods. Some box turtles, like the ornate box turtle, eat insects. They have a sharp eye and keen sense of smell. Young, growing box turtles, up to 4-6 years of age, tend to be primarily carnivores and adults tend to be herbivorous. As a guideline, your box turtle’s diet should be about 50% plant-based material and 50% animal-based material. Be sure to discuss a specific diet for your turtle with your veterinarian.
How often should I feed my box turtle?
Most young turtles eat daily, while older turtles can be fed daily or every other day, depending upon the pet’s individual appetite.
What are some types of plant material I can feed my turtle?
Most (80-90%) of the plant material should be vegetables and flowers, and only 10-20% should be fruits. As a rule, anything dark green and leafy should make up a large part of the diet. Yellow, red and orange vegetables can also be included. Avoid fiber-rich, nutrient and vitamin-deficient light green vegetables including iceberg or head lettuce and celery, as their composition is mainly fiber and water with little nutrient value. The inner light colored parts of some vegetables are less nutritious than the darker green outer leaves.
Acceptable vegetables that should represent a high percentage of the diet include collard greens, beet greens, mustard greens, broccoli turnip greens, alfalfa hay or chow, bok choy, kale, parsley, Swiss chard, watercress, clover, red or green cabbage, savory, cilantro, kohlrabi, bell peppers, green beans, escarole and dandelion. A lesser percentage of the diet can include cactus, various squash, sprouts, cooked sweet potato, parsnips, okra, cucumber, asparagus, mushrooms, carrots, peas and corn. Fruit can include apples, pears, bananas (with skin), mango, grapes, star fruit, raisins, peaches, tomato, guava, kiwis, and melons. Fruits that are particularly healthy include figs (which are high in calcium), apricots, dates, raspberries and strawberries. Fruits may be eaten preferentially, are generally mineral poor and should perhaps be used sparingly as a top dressing. As a treat, flowers such as geraniums, carnations, dandelions, hibiscus, nasturtiums and roses may be offered.
Vegetables can be offered cooked or raw although raw is more natural and retains more nutrients. Thoroughly wash all fruits and vegetables. Flowers can be home grown or purchased from floral shops. Often, floral shops throw out older, wilting flowers. While these may be unacceptable for sale to the public, the florist will often give them to box turtle owners. It is wise to be sure that no chemicals have been applied to the flowers or water.
Swiss chard, spinach and beet greens should be fed sparingly as they contain oxalates that can bind calcium and other trace minerals, preventing their absorption. Diets composed primarily of these vegetables can lead to nutrient deficiencies. Caution should also be exercised when feeding cabbage, kale or mustard greens, as these contain goitrogens; excessive intake of these items may lead to hypothyroidism.
Food should be presented to your box turtle in a shallow clean dish that is not easily upset. Vegetables should be finely chopped and mixed together to ensure a wide variety of food types are eaten and discourage the eating of a single preferred food item.
What are some acceptable animal-based protein foods I can offer my turtle?
If you and your veterinarian decide that animal-based protein sources are acceptable, some appropriate foods include grasshoppers, crickets, mealworms, wax worms, silk worms, moths, slugs, earthworms, tofu, and hard-boiled eggs. High quality, low fat dog food may be fed occasionally. Commercial reptile pellets, bird pellets, and trout chow are excellent protein sources. Live prey such as crickets and various worms should either be raised by the owner, retrieved from a nearby field or purchased from a pet store, bait store or reptile breeder. Care must be exercised when collecting insects, especially from the home garden, as fertilizers and insecticides can be toxic to turtles.
Remember to feed a wide variety of healthy items from all of the food categories listed above for balanced nutrition.
Do I need to give my box turtle vitamins and minerals?
Turtles have a higher need for dietary calcium than phosphorus. It is recommended by many veterinarians to LIGHTLY sprinkle (2 – 3 times per week) all food offered to the box turtle with a calcium powder (calcium gluconate, lactate, or carbonate). A LIGHT sprinkling of a good reptile vitamin mineral mix on the food is also recommended weekly, especially if it contains vitamin D3. Any supplements should be dusted onto small portions of salads or moist foods and those portions fed first to ensure that the box turtle receives them.
A common problem seen in pet box turtles is over-supplementation with vitamins (especially vitamin D3) and minerals. Check with your veterinarian about the need to supplement your pet’s diet.
What are the box turtle’s water requirements?
Fresh clean water should be available at all times. Box turtles will not only drink from the water bowl but will often bathe in it as well. You can provide the water in a shallow dish, crock or pan that cannot be easily tipped over; provide the dish with a “ramp” so that the box turtle can easily climb in and out for soaking and drinking. The water level should reach up to its chin when the head is just coming out of the shell. You must change the water and clean the bowl frequently as many box turtles will defecate or eliminate in their water bowl.
You can mist the turtle with a water sprayer a few times a week as well.
Different types of box turtles may have slightly different nutritional needs. There are many different opinions regarding what is a nutritionally correct diet for box turtles; please discuss this very important topic with a veterinarian familiar with box turtles.
ALWAYS WASH YOUR HANDS THOROUGHLY after feeding, cleaning or handling any turtle.
What are some of the common diseases of pet turtles?
Common conditions of pet turtles include Vitamin A deficiency, respiratory diseases, abscesses, shell infections and fractures, and parasites.
What are the signs of these diseases?
Vitamin A deficiency (hypovitaminosis A) occurs from feeding turtles an inappropriate diet. Turtles fed iceberg lettuce, an all meat diet, or poor quality commercial diets are likely to develop hypovitaminosis A. Lack of Vitamin A produces changes in the epidermis (outer layer of the skin), and in the mucous membranes and mucus-producing glands of the mouth, eyes and upper respiratory tract. Symptoms of Vitamin A deficiency include a lack of appetite, lethargy, swelling of the eyelids (often with a pus-like discharge), swelling of the ear (actually an ear abscess) and respiratory infections.
In turtles, most respiratory infections are caused by bacteria and often are secondary to a Vitamin A deficiency. Turtles with respiratory infections may have excess mucus in their oral cavities (seen as bubbles in the mouth), nasal discharges, lethargy, loss of appetite, open-mouth breathing, and wheezing, and may stretch the neck out with each breath.
An abscess is a pus-filled swelling within a tissue of the body. In pet turtles, abscesses appear as hard tumor-like swellings anywhere on or in the pet’s body. Reptile pus is usually very hard and dry with the texture and consistency of cottage cheese. Abscesses often occur in the ears of turtles, and they appear as a large swelling at the side of the head just behind the eye. Abscesses in turtles are often related to vitamin A deficiency.
Shell infections (shell rot) are often encountered in turtles. These bacterial or fungal infections are often secondary to trauma, burns, or bites. Some of these infections can penetrate deep into the body of the shell, causing deep ulcers or pitting on the body of the shell. Remember that the outer (keratin) layer of the shell protects the live bone underneath; the inner organs of the turtle are located beneath the shell, which is an extremely important form of protection.
Internal parasites, such as roundworms, are common in pet turtles. In most cases, parasitic infections cause no clinical signs; they are detected on a routine fecal examination. In severe infestations, intestinal parasites may cause diarrhea or weight loss.
How can I tell if my turtle is sick?
Signs of disease in turtles may be specific for a certain disease, such as nasal discharge in the case of a respiratory infection. More commonly, signs of illness are non-specific, such as a turtle with anorexia (lack of appetite) and lethargy, which can be seen with many diseases. If your pet turtle shows ANY deviation from normal, you should be concerned and schedule an immediate evaluation by your veterinarian.
How are turtle diseases treated?
Vitamin A deficiency is treated with either oral or injectable Vitamin A. Treatment should only be done under veterinary supervision as hypervitaminosis A, a condition resulting from the incorrect usage and over-dosage of Vitamin A, can occur. Vitamin A deficiency indicates that your turtle’s diet has to be corrected or improved.
Respiratory infections are most often caused by bacteria. Many of these turtles also have Vitamin A deficiency that requires treatment. Your veterinarian may want recommend radiographs (X-rays), blood tests and cultures to determine the cause of the infection. Treatment for respiratory infections involves antibiotics, which may be given orally, as injections, or possibly as nose drops. Sick turtles may require intensive care, including fluid therapy and force-feeding in the hospital.
Abscesses are treated surgically. The abscess is opened, the pus is drained and the affected tissue is flushed with a medicated cleansing solution. A culture of the abscess may be needed to determine the type of bacteria that caused the abscess. Topical medication, oral or injectable antibiotics may also be required.
Shell fractures can usually be repaired by your veterinarian. Infections can be challenging to treat but usually involve identifying what type of organism (bacteria or fungus) is causing the problem, thoroughly cleaning the shell and using the appropriate antibiotic.
Parasites are treated with the appropriate deworming medication. The type of parasite identified on the microscopic fecal examination will determine which drug is needed.
In summary, it is important that you seek immediate veterinary care if there is any deviation from normal in your pet box turtle.
This client information sheet is based on material written by: Rick Axelson, DVM
© Copyright 2009 Lifelearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license
Compiled and edited for Aztec Animal Clinic by Julie Blossom DVM June 2017.