Important: Turtles can carry an infectious bacterial disease called Salmonella. Salmonella is easily spread through bathtubs, hands, carpet, and clothing. For safety’s sake, your pets should not be allowed to roam free. In most people, Salmonella exposure causes no problems, but in certain cases it can be quite dangerous – even fatal. People at serious risk for Salmonella include children under age five (especially infants,) pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems. Always wash your hands after handling your turtle, and do not eat or put anything into your mouth while handling your pet. (This also means that reptiles should be kept out of the kitchen, and kitchen sinks or infant bathing areas should not be used to bathe reptiles, their cages, or their dishes.) Read more tips from the AVMA about preventing Salmonella infections associated with reptiles and amphibians on their website.
There are many different types of turtles and tortoises! Ask your veterinarian what supplies, cage, temperature and food are right for your type of pet.
- A glass aquarium – shallow, minimum size of 40 gallons. You can also make your own cage out of plywood and concrete. The bigger the home, the better. Walls should be high enough so that your turtle can’t crawl out. If the walls are high enough, no lid is needed.
- Line bottom of cage with bedding material like large wood chips mixed with peat moss or sand and soil mixture. This is called humid substrate. Drier substrates can cause a turtle’s skin to crack.
- A “hide box” and/or drifts of alfalfa hay to burrow in. Turtles like to be alone sometimes.
- A 75 to 100 watt incandescent bulb with a reflector at one end of the cage. Like all reptiles turtles need light to warm themselves. Lighting should be direct. It should not pass through glass.
- An easy-to-clean, shallow water dish, big enough for the turtle to get in. The bowl must be in the cage at all times. Make sure it’s shallow. Box turtles can drown in deep water.
- Keep the Cage Clean
- Clean waste material out of the bedding (or substrates) once a week
- Clean the water bowl daily
- Once a month, clean the entire cage. Remove the turtle. Clean all items and tank, using ammonia-free dish washing soap mixed with a few drops of bleach. Make sure there is no film left on the tank. Bleach and soap film can hurt turtles.
- The right temperature
- The cage should be no colder than 70-75 degrees at night
- Gradually warm the cage to 85-88 degrees during the day
- A 75 to 100 watt incandescent bulb at one end of the cage can provide a warm basking area for the turtle. Like all reptiles, turtles need light to warm themselves.
- A temperature gradient during the day should be provided with one side of the enclosure at 75 degrees, with the other side ranging to 88 degrees as a basking area
Feeding Your Turtle
Adult turtles need to eat 3 or more times a week, but younger turtles must eat every day. The best time to feed your turtle is in the morning. Like people, turtles need a mixture of foods. Wash and chop or shave all fruits and vegetables. To make sure your pet eats vegetables, mix them in with other foods. Young turtles should have a diet comprised of 50-75% protein. For adult turtles, protein should be less than or equal to 10-20% of the total food volume.
Some protein favorites:
- Earthworms, Crickets, Grasshoppers, Cicadas, Slugs, Snails
- Whole-skinned chopped mice; Baby mice (pinkies)
- High quality canned dog food (i.e. low fat, chicken based food)
- Mashed/soaked monkey chow
Some favorite fruits and vegetables:
- Tomatoes, Strawberries, Raspberries, Apples (remove seeds), Grapes, Cherries, Peaches, Pears, Plums, Oranges, Nectarines, Figs, Melons (remove seeds), Bananas, Mangoes, Grapefruit
- Dark leafy greens, Kale, Cabbage, Spinach, Red leaf or romaine lettuce, Dandelions (leaves, stems and flowers), Bok choy, Pak choi, Broccoli rabe, Squashes (steam them to make them easier to chop – don’t boil), Sweet potatoes, Carrots (shaved, not chopped), Mushrooms
Vitamins & Minerals for Turtles
Box turtles need vitamin A. Some good foods with vitamin A include:
- Yellow or dark orange vegetables
- Dark leafy greens
- Lightly dust food twice weekly with calcium carbonate, lactate, citrate or gluconate
- Every 2-4 weeks, lightly dust food with multivitamins, but only if vitamin fortified foods aren’t eaten.Full spectrum – or direct – lighting is required to metabolize Vitamin D3 and prevent calcium deficiencies. In order to be effective, UV light cannot pass through glass. Full spectrum lighting is recommended 12-14 hours per day in addition to incandescent light/heat sources.
If You Have a Box Turtle that Won’t Eat, Try This:
- Feed him/her red, yellow and orange foods, as well as live animals
- Feed them when they’re most active – in the early morning or late afternoon
- Mist the cage with water before feeding them. Rainstorms make box turtles more active.Your pet should see a veterinarian once a year and when you think it might be sick
How to Tell if Your Turtle is Sick
- Behavior or eating changes for more than 2 weeks
- Whitish or grayish areas on water turtles, either on shell or skin
- A soft shell
- A dry, flaky shell
- Dry, flaky or see through skin
- Spots on shell or skin
- Red tinge in shell or skin
- Nasal discharge
- Swellings or lumps especially over the ear
- Foam or discharge from sides of mouth
Call your veterinarian immediately if you think something might be wrong with your turtle! American box turtles can be beautiful and personable pets, and with the proper care, can become lifelong companions. The best advice we can give you is to talk with your veterinarian to make sure you’re providing your pet with the best possible conditions and care to ensure a long, happy and healthy life.