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 than 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 so it has partial shade at all times. The sides of any kind of plastics can store and reflect heat so the inside of the enclosure can become very hot. Heat can build up and overcome your turtles if the plastic pen is not well shaded.

Spread a thick layer of top soil, bark chips made for reptiles and terrarium moss on the bottom. Don't use pine, fir or cedar SHAVINGS as these materials contain harmful oils that are toxic to turtles. They can cause eye, and respiratory problems and even organ damage in box turtles and other reptiles. Add a few potted plants. They can be herbs or vegetables. Do not use plants that may be toxic to turtles. A list of poisonous plants can be found at the California Turtle and Tortoise Club website.
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, and the set up is discussed in the health chapter and you may go directly to the indoor housing section via this link Indoor enclosure by Steph Moore.

In the summer, forest-dwelling box turtles like the 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. If you have dogs you MUST take responsibility to protect your turtles from them. It means you may have to make modifications to the turtle's home so it is dog proof. Make the walls higher and stronger. You may even have to place a top over the turtle's pen.

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 in an attempt to stay cool and moist. They have a strong instinct for digging so they can make a humid microenviroment for themselves, so provide them deep, good soil to dig into 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 buffalos. They are still found in close association with cattle. They also eat grasshoppers, worms, bugs they find under rocks and some grasses, fallen fruits and flowers.

Place the same types of feeding and watering stations for the Western Ornate box turtle as the Easterns. 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 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.

Turtles from different countries should not be housed together. They shouldn't be mixed with other species of tortoises or reptile, either. Turtles from different countries may have resistance to different strains of bacteria than your pet. A bacteria that causes no harm to one turtle may make another turtle sick and even kill it. Keep species apart, better to be safe, than sorry.

Additional types of box turtle housing.

Below are instructions and pictures for two other styles of box turtle housing. The pictures and write-ups were supplied by the builders and pet owners.

Description: A Unique Turtle Living Quarters by Marianne L. G. in CT

Those of us who live in the colder climates on this earth face a common challenge if we decide not to hibernate our land loving turtles. What is best for our shelled friends during the colder winter months when they must be "indoors"?

Challenged by this question, Bill (my fiancee) came up with an idea for a unique living quarters for our "herd" of turtles. Stevie (my rehabbed ornate box turtle) lives with our other box turtles in this cozy, homemade "turtle bin." You'll read about cost, size and construction, mobility, substrate, water, heat and light, hiding areas, and caves. Read on, maybe you can use some of our ideas.

COST: Brace yourself, when all was said and done, the materials added up to around five hundred dollars! Ouch! Almost all of the materials are commonly available at a builders store, such as Home Depot. Despite the cost, we were actually quite pleased with the end result.

SIZE and CONSTRUCTION: The huge bin (Figure A) is 4-feet by 8-feet in floor space with 3-feet high walls (1.2m x 2.4m, with 1m walls). There are two "doors" that make up the top of the bin. These 4-foot by 4-foot hinged doors are made of wood framework. Ripply vinyl greenhouse roofing is nailed to the wood. This clear top acts like a moon roof in the summer. When the top is shut, it lets the light in and keeps the cool evening air out.

MOBILITY: I live in the northeast USA where we have cold and snowy winters. For this reason, the bin sports four large swivel caster wheels, one mounted at each corner. This setup enables us to easily roll it out for the summer sunshine, and roll it back into the garage for the winter. When "parked" for the season, each locked wheel sits on a block of wood centered inside a plastic pan full of water. These pans of water simulate a "moat." They effectively stop the ants from crawling up the wheels and into the bin.

SUBSTRATE: The substrate in the bin consists of about 4-inches (10cm) of mulch. I spray the mulch with water to keep it moist, as needed. Since the bin has a hinged top, the humidity stays high when the top is shut. The turtles love to dig down into the mulch and hide. As a point of interest, I noticed the mulch holds the heat at night very nicely. The turtles noticed it, too, for they dig down in the evening to sleep when the lights click off.

WATER: Water is provided by three large water bowls One is a ceramic Lizard Lagoon (giant size, Figure B). The other two bowls are glazed ceramic plant saucers available from plant nurseries. My gulf coast box turtle appreciates the larger 1-foot diameter water bowl. He can fit in it. I change the water in all three bowls daily (or more often as needed). These bowls see a lot of action. Everyone knows that turtles use water bowls for toilets!

HEAT and LIGHT: The inside temperature of the bin is maintained around 70F during the night with a gradual rise through-out the day to peak at 85F (21C to ~30C). We accomplished this in a few ways. These temperatures are maintained (economically) because the bin is insulated on all 6 sides with 3-inch thick "pink" foam insulation board between the walls. It's a bit over-kill, but it works! For night heating, there are 2 small electric "bathroom" heaters (on thermostats) mounted high on the inside walls (Figure C). For day heating, there are 6 spotlights mounted across the top. These track lights are nice, because you can swivel and aim them as needed. There is a full spectrum fluorescent tube light (4-foot) mounted across the upper back wall for UVB during the winter. All the lights are on timers to simulate day/night cycles. This is great for hands off operation. I adjust them to simulate the seasons.

HIDING AREAS: The bin is "decorated" inside to simulate a forest floor with lots of hiding areas. A large hollowed out tree stump (Figure C) is in the center (Bill found it in the woods). The smaller turtles hide in there. The bigger turtles like to dig under it to sleep. Turns out that one of my females laid her eggs under the tree stump deep in the mulch during Christmas!! Clever spot she chose. Silk bushes and vines are stuck into the mulch through-out the rest of the bin for additional privacy. (I chose silk because they would munch on the real stuff.) Each turtle has their "preferred" hangout. Bill thought to mount a section of a house gutter on the upper back wall to act as a planter. It is filled with non-toxic plants to help with air purification.

CAVES: There are two caves inside the bin, soon to be three (Figures B & C). Last summer I built a good size cave out of small diameter tree branches, cut to size. My lashing skills (learned in girl scouts) came in handy here to hold the branches together. Mulch covers the wood. A split log serves as a ramp for the turts to walk up and hang out on top. I placed a large silk "bush" of leaves on top of this cave for them to hide in. Murtz (our eastern box turtle) is so cute when she hides up there and peers out through the leaves. One of the spot lights shines there for basking.

The second cave consists of a giant Habba Hut (hollowed out half log) on the opposite side of the bin. The cave is butted up against the corner wall and placed on the mulch, with more mulch poured on top and down the sides. This serves as a ramp for curious torts to hang out on top. Again, there is a spot light and a silk bush for basking and privacy.

CONCLUSION: Well, that is our cozy, homemade "turt heaven" in Connecticut. Once the turtles (and I) got adjusted to the set-up, their health and well being has been most excellent. I even catch a glimpse of the turtle "courtship" thing happening under the warm basking lights! The lengths we all go to in order to provide the best accommodations for our shelled friends! (MLG 1998)

Materials and instructions to construct a beautiful, partially in-ground pen.

Approx 96 12" perforated bricks.
20 FT aluminum or vinyl soffit.
1 12FT 1x12 Cedar rough sawn siding.
1 8FT 1x12 Cedar rough sawn siding.
1 10FT 4" SQ cedar pole.
2 12FT 1x3 Furring strips.
1 10FT roll of Garden fencing with 1/2" squares 48IN wide.
Cost without the brick and cedar planks~$70.

We chose to use cedar as it is insect resistant and weathers very well. Cedar when used for outdoor pens is not a problem, however never use ceadr for indoor pens. If you choose to build this pen completely above ground do away with the soffit and use 1 each extra of the 12 & 8 foot cedar planks.

1. Dig the hole a little larger than needed for a 4' x 6' pen. Next dig the footers aprox 6" deeper at the corners to sink the poles.
2. You will need to cut the cedar siding in half to get 2 6FT & 2 4FT lengths, also cut the pole into 4 equal lengths of 2 1/2FT each. This way there is no waste. After hole is dug and level, screw one of the 4FT lenghts to the poles at both ends so you have a proper guide and lay them in their respective holes in corners. Then do the same at other end. We put the pen together on site in the hole to make sure the cedar siding was level with the ground.
3. After this is done you now measure and cut the soffit to size. The inside walls of the pen now measure 8IN shorter because of the 4" poles at either end. Measure the soffit so that it can be bent at a 90 degree angle and have a 2IN lip to attach to each pole. Attach the soffit by using a staple gun at very close intervals, aproximately 3IN to the botton edge of the cedar planks on the inside. Since we used rough sawn planks they have one smooth side. This is the side we faced into the pen. Be sure you have no rough edges. The soffit, at least aluminum kind, is easily cut to size by scoring it with a sharp knife then bending it until it snaps. This seems to make the cleanest edge.
4. After this is done fill in the dirt on the outside of pen & pack it down well to make sure the soffit is sitting in position nice & straight. Next make a layer of brick in bottom of floor making sure the bricks against the soffit are nice and tight against the wall. You may think this is over kill but we have a male Ornate boxer named Moximillian LeRue (MOXY) who could probably be hung upside down by his tail in a turtle straight jacket with his mouth taped shut and he would still get OUT! We used both perferated brick and perforated soffit so that there would be good drainage.
5. After bricks are lined on bottom floor start putting the dirt back. We used 50% of the original dirt mixed with 35% peat moss and 15% sand. This works very well and keeps the ground nice and soft for digging. Once you are full almost to top of the soffit put one last single layer of brick around the perimeter to stop the digging at walls, (a wonderful idea taken from Tess).
6. Now you are ready to put back some of the grass you hopefully saved. We made 2 ground areas for digging one of which has a nice hollowed out log found in the woods. This is Turtle Hollow. The other 2 hiding places are down in the front of pen. One is Turtle Cove, a 1FT broken length of Tera-Cotta pipe used on inside chimneys. The other is 2 of those 12IN bricks counter sunk partially in ground and reasonably dug out, spaced aprox 14In wide so they can go down into this area. It is covered by a large flat rock. This is the Bedrock Hotel. All three have piled in there and sleep in the stranged positions I've ever seen.
7. Instead of shrubbery that in a few years would probably get too large for the pen, we bought a couple of Blue Fescus Ornamental grass. These need no care and never get too big , & make GREAT bushes. There is also several ferns that grow wild around here.
8. Their pond is a 15 IN x 13IN x2IN heavy duty plastic serving tray bought at an area restaurant supply store. The sides are angled outward and make it easy for even my littlest named Zippadelia Rae (Zippy) to get in and out. This too is sunk into the ground. Magnolea Rose (Magpie) the other female seems to love to use the brick against the walls as a race course.

Now the screen covers. We decided to make screen covers for one obvious reason, MOXY. Also because of unwanted enemies, such as neighborhood dogs, hawks and who knows whatever else which eats all the catfood left on the porch at night. My wonderful husband Don made the covers using the furring strips.

First he mitered the ends like a picture frame and screwed them together with nonrusting angle irons. As you can see from the picture the doors are not of even widths. This is only because we built it under the deck steps for added protection from the wind. I wanted the doors to open outward from the middle.

Second he hinged them with 3 3IN nonrusting door hinges on each side. Then put 2 slide bolts in at either end of the doors in middle where they open, aprox 10IN in from the ends. (This way they can swing up and open completely out of the way and get latched with a hook and eye to the deck poles on either side of the pen when I want it completely open to clean, change water, & redecorate, etc...). When closed they can be latched for safety.

Lastly you are ready to staple the garden wire to the door frame. Don decided it would be stronger to do it from the outside rather than inside if something would decide to come and sit on it. He did an incredably neat precise job. No sharp edges & a perfect staple job.

The box turtles are all happy. You can see the smiles on their faces. And best of all no escapes and no intruders.


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Disclaimer: Please use all information contained on this web site at your own risk. Last updated on December 28, 2013 .