Housing Your Box Turtle
Article by Tess Cook

The time to set up your box turtle’s living quarters is before you bring it home. The several species of box turtles commonly kept as pets live in different kinds of natural habitats. Depending on the box turtle’s natural habitat, it can live in one of the three outdoor setups described below. The more you know about the natural environment of the kind of box turtle you have, the better home you will be able to provide it. One thing is for sure, wild turtles don’t live in houses, apartments or a glass tank! Box turtles are outdoor animals.  They need sunlight for health and well-being. Health will be discussed later. The well-being of a turtle is important for you also. A turtle housed in a glass tank is not the same interesting, inquisitive, funny, bold creature you thought you’d be getting. A box turtle in a tank will likely go into a corner and try to scratch and climb its way out. It will finally give up, and when it does, it becomes more like a rock then a turtle. Many will succumb to various stress-related illnesses or stop eating.

Not everyone has access to a backyard, but even a large plastic pond liner placed outdoors can work out as housing. It should have drainage holes and be placed in partial shade.  Spread bark (made for reptiles) and terrarium moss on the bottom and add a few potted plants and a hide box. Don't use cedar shavings or cedar bark as this material contains harmful oils that are toxic to turtles. It will cause eye, nose and respiratory problems in box turtles. The potted plants can be herbs or vegetables. Do not use plants that may be toxic to turtles. It takes some initial effort, time, and a little money to build the proper setup, but in the long run you have less work and more fun with your turtle. Aquariums should only be used to house hatchlings, sick, quarantined, or nonhibernating box turtles.

In the summer, forest-dwelling box turtles like the Common Eastern, Three-toed, Florida, and Gulf Coast box turtles live in warm, moist and shady environments. All wild box turtles have a home range and know every rock, tree, weed patch and water hole in it. The water tends to be a permanent pond or stream. These forest-dwelling box turtles eat foods that are typically found in woods and near streams. These can be grubs, worms, insects, weeds, fallen fruit, berries and mushrooms. When planting in a turtle enclosure, use edible plants like collard greens, parsley, strawberry plants, clover and alfalfa. Also, make a compost area where grubs and worms can be harvested by your turtle. On a weekly basis pile pesticide-free cut grass in an area and occasionally add some bread or potato peelings and water it well. Worms will flock to the area and the turtle will get a free meal after rains when the worms come up for air. Another idea is to place an outdoor light above the enclosure during summer and leave it on for two hours right after dark. Moths, June bugs, crickets, and frogs will be attracted to the light, and your turtles will learn to stay up for the free meal. Plant dwarf fruit trees like mulberry or apple for shade and food.

Placement of the enclosure is important. Don’t put it on the north or west side of a building.  These sites get too little or late sunlight. The best site would be where the sun hits the enclosure early in the morning. This way the turtles can warm up from the night and begin their day as they would in the wild. The east side of a building is a good spot. Second choice would be the south side, or ideally, it would be in an area that is open on all sides. Access to sunlight is critical as turtles need it to metabolize D3, an important vitamin used for calcium uptake.

The walls of the enclosure should be high enough so the turtle cannot stretch up, grab the top and hoist itself up and over the rim. In fact, double the height you think is safe because turtles are escape artists! The sides can be made of wooden boards, plastic siding, brick or cement. Don’t use lattice or wire because the turtle can see out and will keep trying to squeeze out of the little holes. The area around the inside perimeter of the wall should be floored with recessed paving tiles or bricks so when the turtle digs at the wall it will learn that there’s no escape that way. Some people recommend sinking chicken wire down about 8 inches, but turtles will still dig holes and the chicken wire can poke out an eye or cut a foot.

The pen must be a safe haven for your box turtle. Protection from pet dogs, wild animals, birds, biting insects and small children is important. It only takes a dog a few minutes to damage or kill a turtle.

The size of the enclosure should be as large as you can afford to make it. It will need enough space for all the activities box turtles like to do and for placement of the water and feeding stations. The water station can be a shallow flower pot saucer that is slightly recessed into the ground. The feeding station can be a gravel area where you can put out a shallow plate of food. The enclosure will also need to have a shady area. Plant shrubs or vegetables for shade. A hide box should be provided for each turtle. Place some sturdy logs in the pen for climbing or for digging under. By placing rocks, plants and logs in the pen, the turtles will have a varied landscape and won't be able to see eachother.

Be aware of the male and female ratios as well. Too many males with just one female could be disastrous. The female would be constantly pursued by the males and could become weak and injured. Or the males could fight among each other for dominance and seriously injure or traumatize the less aggressive turtles. All-female groupings are best, or one male and several females. It’s easy to fall into the trap of getting more and more box turtles.  Each turtle has its own personalities and each is different, but with additional turtles come additional responsibility and more time needed for upkeep. What started as a fun hobby could easily become a time-consuming chore.

Here are directions for making an inexpensive outdoor enclosure using the thick vinyl siding that won’t rot or rust and is easy to maintain. A suitable sized enclosure for three or four turtles is 5 feet by 5 feet. If you have more than 4 turtles, the area should be at least 5 feet by 8 feet. Don’t keep too many turtles together. Instead of one large pen for 10 turtles, make several smaller pens for groups of 4 or 5 turtles. This is just safe practice. A small group will cause less stress to each other and each can find a niche in the pen.

The following dimensions will make an enclosure big enough for 3-4 box turtles. You’ll need:

  1. One sheet of 4 x 8 feet vinyl siding. Cut into three lengths 16 inches wide. Cut one of the lengths in half. Or use an existing wall of the house or garage and use all three      pieces as 8 foot lengths. (The following supply list is for a four sided, vinyl pen.) 
  2.  45 feet of 1-inch PVC pipe cut into 8, 2-foot lengths. These pieces will be used on the two long sides of the pen. Cut six, 16-inch lengths which will be used on the two short sides. Lastly, cut 10, 22-inch lengths which will be vertical members and sunk 6      inches into the ground for support. 
  3. 10 PVC 1-inch T-shape connectors, 4 elbow connectors and PVC glue. 
  4. Lots of 1-inch galvanized drywall screws. 
  5. As many bricks or paving stones as needed to go around the inside perimeter of the enclosure. The sod next to the walls of the enclosure is removed and the pavers      recessed so their tops are flush with the soil surface.

Pick an area of the yard that receives the morning sun. This would be on the east side of a house or garage. One side of the house or garage could be a side of the enclosure. If you do this, you will not need the 4th length of vinyl siding or PVC pipe. Don’t put the enclosure under a large shade tree or in an area that floods after rains.

The PVC pipe and T-shape and elbow connectors are glued together to make a frame and the siding is screwed onto the frame. Be careful to avoid gaps at the corners of the pen. PVC pipe may be used in the corners to close any gaps. The PVC pipe is also used to anchor the frame into the ground.

Adjusting the pen for the different box turtles.

This enclosure can be used for Eastern or Western Ornate box turtles. However, if the pen is used for Ornate box turtles you will want to modify the plants. Ornate box turtles naturally live in dry, open, grassy areas. The open areas can be prairies, undisturbed fields, scrub areas or deserts. These areas can get hot, and the turtles spend most of the day buried in the ground. They have a strong instinct for digging, so provide them places to dig and stumps or boards to hide under. In the prairies of Kansas, Ornate box turtles are often found in prairie-dog burrows and at one time they ate the grubs and dung beetles they found in the manure piles of buffaloes. They are still found in close association with cattle.   They also eat grasshoppers, worms, bugs they find under rocks and some grasses, fruit and flowers.

Place the same types of feeding and watering stations for the Western Ornate box turtle as the Eastern’s. Make sure the enclosure drains well. The Desert Ornate especially needs to have dry places to sleep. Plants can be prairie grasses, groundcovers, wildflowers, and sparsely leafed shrubs like scrub oak and sagebrush.

Asian box turtles come from hot, humid countries. Most live near water and spend much of their time actually in water. They eat worms, fish, frogs, insects and plant material. Their enclosure needs a permanent swimming area that is at least 6–8 inches deep with sloped sides for easy entry and exit. Their pen should be heavily planted so high humidity is maintained.

During hot days, all types of box turtles will benefit from a light watering with a garden hose. The water will refresh the turtles and make the ground moist and cool. Automatic sprinklers can be set to come on for a few minutes each afternoon during the summer months. It’s important to insure your box turtles do not overheat.

Box turtles from different countries should not be housed together. They shouldn’t be mixed with other species of turtles or tortoises, either. Turtles from different countries have resistance to different strains of bacteria. A bacteria that causes no harm to a southern turtle may make a northern turtle sick and even kill it. Keep species apart, better to be safe, than sorry.