I have two Ornate Box Turtles. One I have had for five years and the other for two years. I recently constructed a new indoor pen that is 6′ by 4′. It has a large hot rock,a wooden house,a large shallow pan for water,a 150w daylight spotlamp,a 4′ Zoomed flourescent daylight lamp,orchid bark and peat substrate. The lights are on a timer and on 10 hours a day. Daytime temp is 80 to 85 and night temp is 68 to 70.
Both turtles seemed to adjust to the new pen just fine at first. About 2 weeks later though they started to stop eating. Now they hardly eat . They both used to eat every other day. They don’t appear to be sick in any way except they seem to be very lethargic and spend most of their time near the hot rock. This has been going on for about 3 weeks and I am worried. They usually eat a diet of insects, ocasionally meat, and a lot of vegetables. They like bananas,tomatoes,carrots,apples,grapes. They also eat crickets, meal worms(not too often), and any insects I can find. Once in a while they get some cooked chicken. I would appreciate any advice you could give me.
When box turtles lose their appetite it’s likely because they are too cold. I think the nightime temps are too low and they cannot raise their core body temp high enough during the day to maintain a hearty appetite. I suggest you buy several ceramic heat lamps and bulbs and try to maintain the temp at night at 75. With the larger, open air pen the temps may not be maintained as high as you think, even in the day time, so use another heat lamp or spotlight. Try covering part of the open pen with a board or plastic sheeting. This will help maintain the temperature and humidity and remove drafts from the pen which also cool things down.
I have a young Eastern box turtle who has stopped eating (she is about 2 years old and 3 inches long). I haven’t seen her eat for almost two weeks now (plenty of food is available and the other 20 or so turtles I have are eating fine). Her eyes are sealed shut and she is VERY lightweight and weak. I believe that she has a vitamin A deficiency for some reason (she used to eat like a pig — everything from crickets to cataloupe to collard greens and earthworms). I need to get her eating again ASAP … I’m afraid I am going to lose her. There isn’t a vet in the area who looks at reptiles so I am going to have to do this on my own.
There is no quick and easy way to “cure” the eyes caused by vitamin A deficency. Vitamin A deficency cause changes in the cell membranes the eye lids and because of those changes the Haridian glands in the eye lidss get inflammed and pus and infection set in. You must get the infection under control, the harden pus removed and change your diet so more vitamin A is present AND in your case, get the turtle to eat something while she recoverying. I’ll list the steps here.
1. Get the infection under control- take your turtle to ANY vet and note to the vet you think your turtle has an eye infection and other turtle owners you know have suggested using Gentocin Antibiotic Eye Ointment. Smear some into her eyes per direction several times a day. It takes anywhere from a week or two for it to clear up. If it doesn’t clear up by then, she might have another kind of eye problem. Never take it for granted that it’s always a vitamin A deficency induced eye infection. It could be an injury.
2. Remove the harden pus from eyes. Go to a petstore or online mail order pet supplier and buy a bottle of Tetrafauna “Turtle Eye Rinse”. It has soften agents in it to help remove the pus. Use it when you are soaking your turtle in about an inch and half of tepid water. Do this 2 times a day for the first week! She must get her eyes comfortable or she won’t want to eat. Sometimes just soaking her twice daily will allow the pus to be pushed out after awhile.
3. Get her to eat something while she recoverying. Buy caplets of vitamin A (usually cod liver oil) and poke a hole in it and squeeze a drop of the liquid onto anything that will hold the product and force feed her the food. Try cooked chicken, try a soaked dog kibble. It’s just a small turtle and she can’t bite your finger off. Force feeding box turtles is relatively easy-just takes patience and effort on your part. If nothing works, then make her a gruel of baby mashed sweet potato, with baby salt free chicken and the cod liver oil. Try placing her in a bowl of the thin gruel, or feed her via a syringe or eye dropper.
4. Go to this USDA webpage and look at the vit A levels of the foods you have been feeding her. Most of the foods you listed are low in Vit A. She needs more orange flesh vegetables. Buy a reptile vitamin with vit A and use it once a week. Until she recovers she should housed alone in an extra clean hospital enclosure, with warm temperatures and a clean water pan.
Dear Tess, I wish I knew where your site was before our box turtle got sick. She had been hibernating and she started to stir around. We looked at her and of course her eyes were closed shut. Nothing out of the ordinary. Her eyes usually does this, we just place her in the bathtub with luke warm water and she opens them. Well this time her eyes are stayed shut and are filled with pus. She is rubbing them too. We notice that a little pus is coming out of her nostrils. I guess we need to take her to the veterinarian. Is there anything that we can do to help her while we wait for her vet appointment?
Yes, your turtle will need to see a veterinarian but until then you can try this, it may be all she needs. Put your turtle into a small tank lined with cotton towels and place half the tank on a heating pad or use an overhead lamp to bring the temp up to 85 degrees. Keep her this warm both day and night. (Get a thermometer in there, you don’t want to cook her!) Add a hide box so she can get out of the light’s glare.
Soak her in tepid water twice a day-do not let her get chilled. I usually use a bathroom basin so there is no chance of the turtle crawling out. If a basin is used be sure to clean it before your human family uses it. She may work the pus out of her eyes in several days.
Hand-feed her favorite foods. She may not be able to see to eat, but can smell what’s in front of her nose and may eat. If she won’t eat then add some Pedilyte (TM) and apple juice to her soaking water. If the turtle does not respond in a few days get her to a veterinarian who is experienced with reptiles. He may want to begin her on antibiotic shots.
We recently bought my daughter a box turtle (an eastern one, I believe: he/she has “painted” features.
1. He stinks! What can we do to eliminate this? Should we limit the time and availability of his water bowl, aka his swimming pool?
2. What can we do to encourage his confidence? He let me pet him under the chin a while today, then shot back in his shell.
3. We live in New York. Is it acceptable to keep him in his tank outside? Right now he lives in my daughter’s room.
1. No, let him have his water at all times. Be sure the bowl is always filled with clean, fresh water. If he stinks he’s probably not eating the right foods. What are you feeding it? The proper diet will eliminate the problem. Please read my diet section. If the diet appears the diet is correct, he may have a protozoan infection. Take him to a veterinarian experienced with reptiles for a stool check.
2. Getting him to accept you will take time but if you want to speed it up buy waxworms and hand feed him. He’ll love you for it. You can buy waxworms from mailorder live food companies. Do a search on reptile food or bait companies.
3. No, you should not leave a tank outside. That’s because the tank heats up in the sun like an oven and if it’s in the shade, it’s too cold. If you want it outside please build it an outdoor pen. Look at the housing chapter of my online book.
FAQ’S about hibernation
Q: Is it safe to keep box turtles indoors during their months of hibernation or should they be left outdoors to allow them to hibernate and keep their body temperature low?
Indoor temps are not low enough to stop most of the activity of the box turtle’s body, so a lot of energy is used. Therefore fat reserves are also used. The turtle can lose weight and become weak, even sick by springtime. Keep them outside but protect them by making a safe hibernation site. Please read the hibernation chapter of my online book.
Hi Tess, I figure my box turtle is trying to go into hibernation. It is very sluggish, won’t eat, won’t soak itself. I have had it for about 7 months and this is the first time it has acted this way. Is there some way to send it into hibernation, or should I just warm it up some? At the moment it is in my sons room where it has always been. It is close to a window. I am keeping the water changed, and have tried to feed it, but it just isn’t interested. Thanks so much.
You are correct-the box turtle is trying to hibernate but if it is being kept indoors you should try to keep in awake and eating. If it continues to live in this half awake/half sleepy, non-eating mode it will lose too much weight and may get sick.
Please go to the hiberation chapter and health chapters. It discuss ways to keep box turtles eating. Basically, you need heat and light to keep the turtle awake and eating. 12-14 hours of light and a warm temp of at least 80-85 degrees. The window area may be too cold for it. Feed it live insects, like earthworms, gut-loaded crickets, Superworms. Once it believes summer has returned it will begin to eat again and become more active.
I live in a dulpex so I can’t hibernate my box turtles outside, but I hear hibernation is good for a box turtle. Is there some other way I can hibernate my turtle?
I hibernate my box turtles in an artificial hibernation box made out of 3/4 inch plywood. To make one exactly like mine, which is suitable for 6-10 turtles, depending on the size of the plastic boxes you fit into the hibernation box, you will need the materials I list below. You can decrease the size of the lumber depending on the number of the turtles you want to hibernate, but don’t shorten the height of the box as you want to keep the bulbs away from the turtles and the plastic boxes that contain them. And I would not increase the size of the hibernation box. The unit I made is very heavy and you would be better off building additional units instead of making a bigger hibernation box.
1 1/2 sheets 4 feet by 8 feet by 3/4 inch plywood
2 sturdy hinges
2 wooden knobs
deck or drywall screws
2 ceramic light fixtures; several feet of 14-2 Romex wire; and electrical
cord that will connect to 120v outlet
2 25 watt bulbs
1 thermostat like the ones that run electric baseboard heaters or a 120V
thermostat, not the low voltage type used for furnaces
1 accurate thermometer
1 sheet of rigid insulation board
Cut lumber for the top half:
2 short side pieces 8″ by 30 ”
2 long side pieces 8″ by 41 1/2″
top piece 31.5″ by 41.5″, the top piece fits on top of the side pieces.
V Lumber of the bottom half:
2 short side pieces 16″ by 30″
2 long side pieces 16″ by 41 1/2″
bottom piece 31.5″ by 41.5″, the bottom piece fits on top of the side pieces.
1. The top and bottom of the box is built separately. Be sure to pre-drill the screw holes to avoid splitting the plywood. Also build the top and bottom using the same arrangement for joining the side pieces or you’ll have one half bigger or smaller than the other half.
2. Join the top and bottom with the two hinges.
3. The rigid insulation board is placed beneath the bottom half to help insulate the unit from a cold floor or to keep bugs out when the unit is on a dirt floor.
4. Add the 2 ceramic light fixtures to the inside of the top unit. Space the lights about 12 to 15 inches apart for more even heating. Position the thermostat as far from the lights as possible. Connect the light and thermostat in parallel with the Romex and attach the wires to the electrical cord. Put the cord through a hole in the back of the top. If you do not know how to do the electrical work yourself, please have someone who knows do it for you.
5. Put the knobs on top and drill two holes on the side of the top for ventilation.
Find a cool place to set the unit up and monitor the temperature with the thermometer. You can put the unit somewhere that is colder than ideal because the backup heat will come on when the temp goes below the prescribed 50 degrees. Do not put your turtles in until you are sure the temp is being maintained at the correct level.
If your turtles are outside they can be placed into the hibernation box after they have already begun to slow down or start hibernating. If your turtles are kept inside then begin their cool down about 2 weeks before you want to place them in the hibernation box. Stop feeding them and turn off the heat in increments till they begin to slow down. Soak them in tepid water daily so they can void their intestines.
Fill plastic shoe or sweater boxes with damp sphagnum moss. Place one turtle in each plastic box. Poke a dozen holes in the lid and close the top. Check on your turtles often to be sure the temperature and humidity is being maintained. I take the turtles out every 2 weeks in the first month to weigh them and soak them in tepid water. After that I leave them alone until early spring where I again take them out every 2 weeks to weigh and soak them. If you notice any signs of illness like swollen eyes or runny nose or restlessness, take the turtles out and bring them out of hibernation by slowly warming them. Begin to feed them and take care of their problems.
FAQ’S about eggs and hatchlings
I saw a common eastern box turtle lay at least 3 eggs (maybe more) in my flower bed and am wondering how long it usually takes for them to hatch. What predators may try to get the eggs and do you have any recommendations for their protection and successful birth. Thanks.
Thank you for your email.
Box turtle eggs do not have a set incubation period and can take 2-3 months to hatch, or 70 to 90 days. The factors involved in determining incubation time are average nest temperatures and relative humidity inside the egg chamber. Depending of the average nest temperatures the turtles can be all males or all or females.
Sometimes the hatchlings will overwinter in the nest if they hatch late or the fall is too cool. They live off the yolk that is still present in their intestines. So even if you don’t see any hatchlings emerge, they may still be down there, hibernating till spring. It’s best not to disturb a nest. To protect them you can place a metal screen strainer over the nest to keep raccoons or dogs away.
Good luck and hope you are will be able to see the tiny hatchlings. If you go to my “turtle’s very own web page” you can view pictures of some of my hatchling Three-toeds.
Hello Tess: What do you feed your hatchlings? Do you modify their diet at all from what you’d feed the larger turtles? I have 2 hatchlings, Cleo & Toni, about 6 weeks old, and although they’re doing VERY well, I appreciate the input.
Please read the chapter in my online book baby box turtle care book about hatchlings.
I feed my hatchlings just like I would the adults. I use a diffrent protein each time. It could be waxworms one time or soaked Repti-TEN sticks (TM), waxworms or mealworms, or soaked Milkbone (TM), or soaked low fat dog kibble another time. I avoid feeding them insects I collect outside until they are at least 50 grams. If they need treatment for internal parasites they will be at a size where the medication won’t hurt them.
I also provide them with very finely choped vegetables, greens and fruits. I do not give hatchlings just protein as some books advise. They eat the fruits and vegetables when they are ready, but until then they are getting use to seeing and smelling these foods. I’ve found that at around age 6 months they will eagarly eat the plant foods.
I have 7 baby box turtles in a 20 gal aquarium. My problem is that not all of them are eating. When I get them out of hiding and present the food, it seems that all they can think about is getting back to their hiding place. They do not eat and the food sits there till it gets old. I would appreciate your suggestions.
How warm and humid is the 20 gallon tank? Baby box turtles must be keep warm and humid or they will not feel like feeding. Please be sure the substrate is one that retains moisture and there is plenty of clean, fresh water in a shallow tupperware type lid for them to drink from. How are you keeping the tank warm? And is there enough light for them to think it’s spring time and the time to eat?
Try feeding them finely chopped up food that is placed on a paper plate UNDER a small box with two sides cut off. It will feel like a cave to them and they will feel protected and not exposed to predators. They feel scared in the open tank. A few of the very weak and shy ones may need to get their own tanks if they continue not to eat. They will get sick and may die if they don’t eat soon. Seven hatchlings in one 20 gallon tank is quite crowded and maybe the commotion casued when the greedy turtles eat is scaring the shy or smaller turtles.
What are you feeding them–something they even want to eat? Baby box turtles need lots of live foods like waxworms and small mealworms. I also feed mine soaked milkbones and chopped up roamine, grated carrots or yams and grapes.
My two newly hatched babies seem to be doing all right. I have been soaking them for 15 min. every day, although one seems to like to crawl out of the water before that. I am now trying to get them to eat. Any and all suggestions would be appreciated.
How old are the baby turtles? They may not eat for several weeks to a month. Keep trying small insects like pill bugs, small worms called red wigglers, waxworms and small crickets or mealworms. I’ve even had luck with Reptile-TEN floating food sticks. They will eat when they are hungry unless they have something wrong with their brain or body. I doubt that is the case with your babies, but everyone should be aware that some babies just don’t make it. Be sure you have the right housing for them. Read the breeding chapter in my online book for more info. Good luck!
I have an estimated twenty-six year old, 3-toed named Shelly. She has been displaying signs that she is pregnant (digging and soaking) for about two months now. I had her x-rayed and she is, indeed carrying 5 well formed, well placed eggs. Should I be concerned that she has not layed yet? Should I induce “labor”. If I (and a vet) did, and it didn’t work, would she have to have an emergency c-sec? She has layed 14 eggs in the past four years with no problems (although they have all been infertile).
If the vet concurs, I would induce laying especially if you really think it’s been two months since she been trying to lay these eggs. I don’t think she’ll retain the eggs if she’s given oxytocin. Be sure the vet is aware that injectable calcium should be given some hours before the oxytocin. If she still will not lay, I’d try another round of calcium and oxytocin before cutting opening her plastron up to remove the eggs.
FAQ’S about housing
Help! We have had this turtle in a glass aquarium for several months. Since I have read that this is bad, I have covered the sides of the aquarium, so the turtle can not see through. I have put in ceder shavings. Also, he has been maintained on a diet of lettuce for a long time now. Should I change it up some? I have given him vegetables other than lettuce periodically, but he wont eat them. Maybe I should try fruit. I have read your online book, but please help me. I wonder if I should release him in the wild. I know this sounds terrible, but I want to do what ever is best.
Get rid of the cedar chips ASAP. It is toxic to reptiles. It does damage to their respiratory tract and can cause eye problems. Don’t use rocks or sand either, or anything that is drying. The best thing is terrarium moss and topsoil or leaves. I use terrarium moss and reptile bark. I mist it twice daily to keep the humidity up and wash the moss and bark once a month. I let my young turtles walk around an outdoor pen once a week so they can get sun. Please read the housing chapter and make the turtle a better home.
As for the food, turtles cannot survive on lettuce. Just imagine where box turtles live in nature. They eat insects, worms, fallen fruit and weeds. They LOVE earthworms and slugs. They like to eat baby mice and dead birds if they can find them, and fallen fruit like apples, mulberries, wild grapes and strawberries. You must get it to eat a better diet. The diet section tells you how to retrain your turtle’s eating habits.
There’s a lot of changes you need to make but after you get him fixed up there won’t be any extra work then what you are doing right now. I don’t think you need to let him go back to the wild. That’s takes a lot of work also. Look at my article on releasing turtles to see what is involved.
FAQ’S about box turtles
Dear Tess, I have a box turtle that was taken from the wild about ten or eleven years ago when I was a kid. I would like very much to return this turtle to it’s natural habitat, however my sister argued that it will not survive on their own after being fed for so many years. I called my local humane society and they told me that the turtled would be okay if I let her go in something like a strawberry patch in early summer. What do you suggest?
I understand your desire to release your turtle back into the wild, however there are several factors you must consider before you release a pet back into the wild.
1. You should only release turtles that have never been sick. Captive turtles that have been sick can spread disease to native populations.
2. Pet turtles should have an acclimation period in the new area before release and the release site should be perfect-that means plenty of food, hibernation sites, and permanent water.
3. The area must be safe from cars and people. For example, if you release it in a strawberry patch someone else will find it sooner or later and maybe it will not be a good owner.
A better idea may be to find someone to adopt your pet turtle. Perhaps there is a turtle club in your area and you can find someone to adopt your turtle who has an outdoor pen for box turtles.
Here is an >article I wrote about some turtles I released.
Hello, I am interested in buying a box turtle. Any suggestions? I was specifically looking at an ornate. Do you recomend it? What type food, lights and bedding do you suggest.
I have Ornates and I can tell you that they do not do well in indoor set ups. And it depends on where you live whether or not they will do well in your area. Many ornate box turtles were sold in pet stores and many, many have died because of their poor acclimation to indoor captivity. If you can maintain one outside please get one from a rescue organization. But if all you can do is keep one inside, then please don’t get one and get a captive bred turtle or rehabbed turtle instead.
Search the Internet for rescue and turtle adoption organizations
Dear Tess, I’m hoping you might have some insight for us to find our missing box turtle, we call her Gertie & we enjoy her company routinely. She has always been very habitual about where in the house she eats and voids when we let her out. We’ve found her in a number of places before but this time, well, we’ve looked everywhere.
Any help you could give us would be most appreciated. Signed clean corners but still no Gertie.
Hi, I recommend you look not only under things but IN things. Turtles will crawl into little openings and dig their way far into the back reaches, as if they were going into a den or tunnel. So look between cushions, between folds in blankets, between magazines, draperys, and anything that touches the floor or could be reach by a turtle standing on her tippy toes. Pull everything away from the wall. Nothing is too crazy-for example- look inside an umbrella if it’s on the floor. Look into boots- she could even be inside the bedframe.
I have heard of turtles climbing trees! So look in indoor potted plants and anything that would be up against the wall that she could scoot up on and end up off the ground.
Another thing to try is get ripe bananas or very ripe strawberries or strong smelling canned cat food and place several plates of it out around the house. If she smells the food and is hungry enough she’ll come out to eat. I hope you find her!