Help with indoor box turtle housing

Indoor Enclosures for Box Turtles and Other Moisture Loving Chelonians

By Steph Moore
New Mexico, USA

Most experienced box turtle keepers agree that it is best to keep box turtles in an outdoor enclosure. However, there may be times when you need to bring a box turtle indoors and keep it in an indoor enclosure. For example, if a box turtle is injured or sick, if you want to keep box turtles indoor during the winter months, or if you want to raise baby box turtles indoors. In this article we describe how to set up a simple indoor box turtle enclosure.

Here are the steps we use to build our baby box turtles' indoor enclosure. The instructions can be used to make an enclosure of any size box turtle.

1. The actual enclosure:

We use Rubbermaid Rough Tote. What size you use depends on the size and number of turtles that will be living in it, but we suggest getting the largest one you can find. We currently have five baby box turtle in a 10-gallon Rough Tote, which is rapidly becoming too small. If you have one or two adult box turtles it's best to get one of the 55-gallon Rough Totes. Bigger containers are always better! You can find these totes at Wal-Mart, Target, Sam's Club, or Home Depot for relatively low prices.

2. Substrate:

You want to use a substrate (or bedding) that holds moisture, particularly if your house uses a gas-fired furnace for central heating. The indoor humidity in a gas-heated house can drop into the single digits, which is bad for your turtle. They *NEED* humidity to keep from developing eye problems. Most so-called "Vitamin A Deficiency" eye problems are actually NOT a lack of Vitamin A at all -- they're a response to low humidity.

The substrate we use and recommend is called "Bed-A-Beast." It's made from ground-up coconut shells, so it is non-toxic and it holds humidity very well. When you buy it at the pet store or online, it is compressed and dried into the shape of a rectangular brick. You put this brick into a five-gallon bucket, add a gallon of very warm water, and then let the stuff absorb the water and expand. It will expand *GREATLY* from the compressed brick, and will easily make enough to fill small containers. For a 55-gallon container, you will probably need at least two, better yet three bricks.

Put the substrate into the container in a layer deep enough to allow the turtle to dig down into it. For our babies we have a 4-inch-deep layer of substrate into which they have dug extensive burrows. For adult box turtles, the substrate should be *at least* six inches deep. This will allow them to dig burrows, which can help them to stay properly hydrated and avoid the aforementioned eye problems.

3. Cage furnishings:

Include some items in the enclosure that your turtle can hide under and climb on. For our baby box turtles, we used thick strips of bark from a dead cottonwood tree near our yard. You can buy things for bird cages and/or reptile enclosures at the pet store, but don't be afraid to use non-toxic things from around your house, either. Also put in some flat rocks (like flagstone or concrete pavers) to use as feeding rocks. These rocks will also get warm underneath your heat lamp, and then slowly release that heat at night, providing a bit of extra warmth for your box turtle


Don't forget a water bowl! This should be large enough for the box turtle to climb into, but shallow enough that the turtle can get out of it easily. We've found that the saucers that go underneath potted plants work really well for this. We use the plastic ones made by Rubbermaid because they can be cleaned easily. If you use terracotta saucers, look for the ones that have a glazed interior, because they will be easier to clean out than the unglazed ones. Remember to change the water in the bowl at least once daily.

4. Lighting and heating:

This is one of the most critical issues in box turtle care, second only to humidity levels in helping box turtles stay active and happy throughout the wintertime.

You need to provide BRIGHT lighting and sufficient warmth to keep the turtle from obeying his natural instincts, which might be telling him that it's time to quit eating, slow down, and find a place to sleep for the winter. Turtles that are being kept indoors due to illness need to be kept very warm to help their immune systems fight off the infection.

You must also provide UV radiation (typically found in sunlight) to your turtle. Turtles and lizards need exposure to UVB radiation to help them produce Vitamin D3 in their bodies. The Vitamin D3 then helps the turtle or lizard to properly absorb and use the calcium in its diet, preventing serious health problems such as Metabolic Bone Disease and other potentially fatal disorders.

There are a variety of ways to provide heat and UVB using two separate types of bulbs and two separate fixtures. However, we have found that it's really much easier to use a single, self-ballasted, mercury-vapor bulb over our turtle enclosure. This type of light bulb puts out both heat and UV radiation in quantities that benefit turtles, and only requires one fixture.

The mercury-vapor bulb that we use and recommend is the ActiveUV Heat Bulb, available in selected pet stores, and online at or from reptile supply sources like Big Apple Herp ( or The Bean Farm ( ActiveUV Heat Bulbs are made by the T-Rex Corporation. Zoo-Med puts out a similar product called the PowerSun Bulb. Both bulbs are available in a variety of wattages.

You *must* use heat-resistant fixtures with mercury-vapor bulbs. MAKE SURE that you get one with the porcelain socket, NOT a plastic socket. You want the porcelain socket because the heat lamp will be on at least 12 hours per day. Plastic sockets could melt and cause a fire! You should be able to find a domed clamp-lamp at hardware stores, farm and ranch supply stores, or online at either of the reptile supply sources listed above.

Whichever brand you purchase, we recommend using the 160-Watt Flood bulb, and mounting it between 12 to 16 inches above the substrate on one end of the enclosure. That way, your turtle can move to that "warm end" if he wants to warm up, or go to the opposite, cooler end if he needs to cool down. A digital thermometer is a necessity and will tell you what temperatures are available to the box turtles and will help you position the light and determine what watt flood bulb is right for your situation.

UV Heat bulbs seem expensive initially (approximately $50 per bulb), but they last for years without requiring replacement. Many folks initially are appalled by the high cost of the UV Heat bulb, and think that they'll save money by using those fluorescent tube bulbs. However, be aware that the coating on the inside of those fluorescent bulbs -- which is what produces the UV radiation -- breaks down within six months, after which the bulb is NO LONGER emitting UV radiation, although it will still emit plenty of white light. Thus, to be safe, you should replace tube florescent bulbs at least once every six months. Once you calculate the yearly costs of changing your fluorescent bulbs, it becomes apparent that the UV Heat bulbs are a better deal. They emit more UV right from the start, and continue to emit a good deal of UV for at least two years. We have one right now that is three years old, and still going strong!

The UV Heat lamp should stay on for at least 12 hours per day, and then be turned off at night. We recommend buying an appliance or lamp timer (available in most hardware stores), and setting it so that it will be on for 12 hours and then off for 12 hours. Plug the lamp into the timer, and then plug the timer into a surge protector - this will help increase the life of your UV Heat bulb.

As for heating -- the daytime temps in the enclosure should range from 70 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. The nighttime temperatures should not drop below 65 degrees. If your turtle gets too cold at night, his system will start shutting down, and he may not eat or drink regularly. You can provide heat by using the above-mentioned UV Heat bulb, focused down on a big flat rock in the enclosure during the daytime. The rock will slowly release heat at night.

One important tip: DON'T put the enclosure on the floor! Almost all homes are anywhere from 5 to 10 degrees colder near the floor. And any heat in the enclosure will leach down into the floor, particularly if you've got a tile floor or a concrete foundation. Put the enclosure up on a small table or bookcase. We have our turtle and tortoise indoor enclosures in the same room as our computers, which are left on 24/7. The waste heat from the computer CPUs and monitors heats the room enough that we don't have to provide supplementary heat to the room very often. We do have an electric, oil-filled radiator heater that we can use to heat the room if it gets too cold.

5. Humidity:

An adequate level of humidity is critical for the health of your turtle. Buy a spray bottle or a pump sprayer that you can dedicate to misting your turtle's enclosure daily. Use filtered or distilled water to prevent problems with bacteria or mineral buildups.

We found a 2.5-gallon pump sprayer in the gardening section at Home Depot, and purchased it specifically for misting our reptile enclosures. The sprayer has never held anything but distilled water, so we know that there are no poison or weed killer residues in it. We mist all enclosures daily with the sprayer to raise the ambient humidity levels, and it has definitely helped keep all our reptiles healthy and happy.

You can also use sphagnum moss in the enclosure to help hold humidity. When you mist spaghnum moss, it will absorb and hold the water, gradually releasing it over the next few hours. The baby box turtles really like to burrow underneath the moss layer of their enclosure. It provides humidity and some camouflage for them as well.

Please visit the following webpage to see sequential photographs that show how we set up this enclosure:

Sulcata Station:
Turtle Homes:
My box turtle page:

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Disclaimer: Please use all information contained on this web site at your own risk. Last updated on December 31, 2010 .