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Avoiding problems with Box Turtles

A C Highfield

Terrapene c. carolina - Eastern Box Turtle

American Box turtles of the genus Terrapene are attractive, intelligent and - if maintained properly - fairly hardy animals. There are, however, certain conditions that cause box turtles serious problems, and unfortunately (often as a result of poor advice) many keepers unwittingly subject their turtles to precisely these conditions. The result is a collection of turtles suffering from sore and swollen eyes, ear abscesses, nasal abscesses and poor skin condition. In a recent survey of box turtle owners, more than half reported that their box turtles had experienced ear and eye problems at some stage in captivity. Many keepers had lost turtles as a result. The good news is that these problems can be eliminated almost entirely by careful environmental and dietary maintenance.


Contrary to much published advice, box turtles do not like extreme heat and neither can they tolerate being kept in dry environments. These turtles originate in a temperate - not tropical - climate but despite this, many owners mistakenly treat them as tropical creatures. The turtles are, not surprisingly, unable to cope and suffer severe metabolic stress as a result. This often manifests as kidney failure. In my experience, it is very difficult to create indoor conditions which are entirely satisfactory. For some years the author maintained several box turtles in an indoor vivarium, but there were repeated incidents of eye and ear problems despite great care being taken to maintain temperature and humidity within safe limits. If you must keep Box turtles indoors, then a gentle all-round background temperature of 22 C-24 C plus a localise low intensity basking source is recommended. Certainly, temperatures much above this are to be avoided.
By far the most
critical factor in preventing eye and ear problems in American box turtles is humidity. Should these turtles be allowed to dry out for even a short time, then trouble quickly follows. I found that spraying the vivarium liberally with a house-plant mister twice a day definitely helped. The substrate must also be selected with a view to water retention. A sphagnum moss or moist leaf litter 'carpet' can help a great deal in this respect. A bathing area is also essential. The Three-toed box turtle (T. carolina triunguis) is particularly fond of water, and really behaves as a semi-aquatic turtle. The bathing pool should ideally be deep enough for the turtles to take a proper swim, and the water must be kept scrupulously clean. Dirty water is an ideal habitat for pathogenic bacteria and can easily lead to a severe cross-infection problem occurring within the collection.

Even if maintained with the greatest of care however, an indoor vivarium habitat is far from ideal for these North American turtles. If at all possible, aim for an outdoor terrarium. Certainly in central and southern Britain the climate is perfectly well suited to such an arrangement, and in my experience box turtles not only survive but positively thrive in this environment.

Outdoor terrarium design

For the past 9 years I have maintained several different varieties of box turtle, including Terrapene carolina carolina (Carolina box turtle), T. c. triunguis (Three-toed box turtle), T. c. major (Gulf Coast box turtle), and T. ornata ornata (Ornate box turtle) in a purpose-built outdoor environment. This unit has no artificial heating or lighting, and is situated in a relatively shady part of the garden, although it does catch the sun for a few hours each day. This is very important, as box turtles do need to bask. The terrarium is constructed of 1/4" marine plywood on a wooden frame and measures approximately 6' wide x 8' in length. Half of the unit is covered by a twin-weld mesh protective cover, and the remainder is glazed with transparent plastic sheeting. The interior floor is of natural earth and is heavily planted with grass and a variety of 'weeds'. In the centre, a small pond has been sunk to allow for bathing. Finally, a few short lengths of 4" diameter pottery drainpipe and several semi-rotted logs have been placed at strategic points to provide cover. These are much used by the inhabitants. From time to time the entire unit is watered which encourages visitations by earthworms and slugs - which in turn provide the turtles with natural prey. The box turtles have now lived in this unit very successfully since it was first bought into service, and have had none of the problems previously experienced whilst they were being maintained in the indoor vivarium.
As box turtles are all great diggers, and are highly agile and proficient escapers, if you do decide employ an outdoor terrarium it must be made completely secure. Pay particular attention to the sides of the unit - burying a layer of wire mesh to a depth of at least 150mm is definitely recommended. This will not only prevent the animals inside getting out, but is added security against the terrarium being raided by foxes or badgers. The upper 'lid' frames, containing the twin-weld mesh and plastic sheeting, must also lock very securely into position. A well constructed and carefully situated outdoor terrarium of this type will provide box turtles with an interesting, safe and hospitable home where they will survive happily for many years requiring little human intervention. In more northerly regions of the U.K. however, it may be necessary to provide some artificial heating - especially in the in the spring and autumn. Should this be required, a water-proof tubular heater can easily be installed into the 'greenhouse' section of the terrarium.

Feeding & dietary management

Juvenile box turtles are almost exclusively carnivorous and feed mainly on earthworms, slugs, crickets and insect larvae. As they develop, their dietary preferences change and they gradually adopt an omnivorous feeding pattern, taking roughly half and half vegetables or fruit and animal products. Favourite items include strawberries, apple, banana, mushrooms, pear and green-leafed vegetables. Some supplementary animal-derived foods are also given about twice per week. Low-fat tinned dog food is recommended in preference to high-fat content tinned cat foods (which can lead to steatitis or fatty liver problems). This presents a good opportunity to deliver added vitamin and mineral supplements. Vitamin-A deficiency is quite common in box turtles, as are calcium deficiencies; a high quality multi-vitamin preparation, plus added calcium carbonate given three times per week will prevent all dietary related deficiencies from occurring.
The outdoor terrarium does however provide a very good range of 'natural' foods without human assistance; the rotting logs attract many beetles, slugs and snails all of which are enthusiastically stalked by the turtles. Their liking for slugs and snails, can however, present a hidden danger.
Never employ slug bait or other garden pesticides in any area where box turtles are kept.
Box turtles tend to be most active and interested in feeding in warm, overcast and humid conditions, or in the early morning or at dusk. One disconcerting habit they have is that of fasting, sometimes for quite long periods. Provided they are alert, bright-eyed and not losing weight, this is usually nothing to worry about. They eventually will begin feeding again of their own accord.

Stocking density

Box turtles are naturally quite gregarious creatures and enjoy each others company. Whilst overcrowding is to be avoided, a small but stable colony in my experience is likely to do better in the long term than a solitary animal. In the terrarium previously described, seven animals are presently accommodated. It is fascinating to observe the behavioural interactions which occur between them, and is certainly more interesting for the individuals than if they were maintained in solitary confinement. Very little aggression has been observed, and mating activity is a regular occurrence in summer. In the evening, the turtles usually retire to a collective 'hide burrow' excavated under a large log.


Male box turtles are readily identified by having longer tails than females and may have a concave plastron and red coloured eyes. Females typically have brown eyes, although in the case of T. ornata both sexes have yellow-green eyes. Box turtles usually mate following or during rain, and in Britain tend to nest between April and August. The nest, which is frequently excavated at night, will usually contain between 3-5 soft-shelled, elliptical eggs. Box turtle eggs require incubation at a relatively high level of humidity if dehydration (which usually manifests as collapse of the egg) is to be avoided. At least 80% is recommended. At a temperature of 31 C the first hatchlings should emerge in about 70-80 days. Box turtle juveniles are even more sensitive to environmental and dietary mismanagement than are adults - it is therefore essential that adequate facilities are prepared in advance. They should on no account be allowed to mix with adults as parasitic infections, easily acquired in shared accommodation, can easily prove fatal to the rather delicate youngsters.


As autumn advances, box turtles will eat less and become more and more inactive. For several days at a time, they may disappear under plant roots or excavate surprisingly deep holes in the earth floor of the terrarium. If the area is deemed suitable, the turtle can be left in situ for its winter hibernation. An additional covering of dry leaves and grass cuttings can provide additional protection from the cold - I also cover the terrarium with a layer or two of old carpet. Frost damage to a turtle hibernating underground naturally is in fact very unlikely.
It is imperative that only healthy turtles of good weight are hibernated. On no account attempt to hibernate a sick, freshly imported or underweight animal. It will almost certainly not survive.

If hibernation in an artificial environment is necessary, it is essential that adequate steps are taken a) to prevent frost damage and b) to ensure that an adequate level of humidity is maintained. Unlike 'normal' tortoises, box turtles cannot be hibernated in a dry box. If they are placed subjected to such conditions they may die of dehydration. Instead, a substrate comprised of damp leaf litter, moss and loose earth should be employed. The hibernation box should be well protected, and placed in a frost-free area - use a thermometer to check temperatures constantly. A hygrometer, to check for substrate humidity level is also advisable. An ideal temperature for hibernation is 5 C +/- 2 C. If temperatures fall to less than 2 C, remove the box to a slightly warmer place.

Health problems

Box turtles are generally resilient creatures, but naturally problems may occur from time to time. In fact, the range of diseases typically observed in box turtles is fairly small, with the following being by far the most common:

Swollen and closed eyes

Eye infections are common if the environment is not damp enough. They can also be caused through contaminated drinking/bathing water. If the turtle's eyes are permanently closed, it will not eat. Consult your vet. Antibiotic eye ointment and a change in conditions will usually clear the problem. Swollen eyes can also be a symptom of:

Ear abscesses

The cause is the same as above. Ear abscesses are probably the number one health problem of captive box tortoises. Consult your vet. The abscess will need lancing, draining and a lot of post operative attention. The operation can be carried out under either local or general anaesthetic. The site is best left open to heal naturally rather than being sutured following surgery, otherwise, recurrences are very common.


This distressing condition is frequently seen in debilitated turtles. It is usually accompanied by much straining of the head and neck, and there may be an excess of mucus. This is a serious condition requiring immediate veterinary attention. Antibiotics will need to be given by injection.

Sore skin

May be associated with vitamin-A deficiency, or can occur as a result of dirty or bad housing. Veterinary diagnosis essential. Persistent skin trouble can be symptomatic of an underlying liver problem.


Being semi-carnivorous, box turtles are exposed to a wide range of parasites (they eat many potential intermediate hosts). Tape-worms are common, as are both oxyurid and ascarid worms. Flagellate organisms can also give rise to problems. Samples of suspect faeces can be checked microscopically for evidence of these organisms and the appropriate treatment given. Worming preparations or 'Flagyl' are best delivered orally, by stomach-tube. At such times, the box turtle's hinged plastron will prove it's effectiveness as a defence mechanism.... a competent handling technique is absolutely essential!
If box turtles are looked after properly, they can attain great age. Records exist of wild specimens surviving well in excess of 100 years. It is certainly a great responsibility to take on animals which may well outlive their owner, and these very intelligent, attractive and entertaining turtles deserve the best accommodation and treatment you are able to provide. They will repay their keeper with many valuable insights into their unique natural history and behaviour.

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