Turtles – Box – Owning


General Informationturtles-box-owning-1

Several species of turtles are available for purchase as pets. By far the most common species is the popular box turtle, which will be the subject of this discussion. If you own another species, most of this information will apply, but you should check with your veterinarian about any specific requirements for your pet turtle.

The box turtle is a very popular reptile pet. Box turtles can make great pets if cared for properly. Turtles are often one of the most neglected captive reptiles, since many people simply do not know how to take care of them properly. Please do your "homework" and research as much as possible about this type of pet before bringing it into your life.

"Turtles are often one of the most neglected captive reptiles, since many people simply do not know how to take care of them properly."

Most box turtles never get very large (unlike tortoises). The average adult size for box turtles is roughly 5-7 inches in diameter, with females being slightly smaller than males. If well fed and well kept, this adult size is reached at 4-6 years of age. Turtles that are not allowed to hibernate grow at a faster rate. Sexual maturity is reached about the fifth year of life. With proper diet and housing, captive box turtles usually live to 20 years of age but they can live 30-40 years.


I've been told that I should be concerned about Salmonellosis. Is this true?

Salmonella is a bacterium often implicated in human "food poisoning". Salmonellosis is the disease caused by an infection with Salmonella organisms. The disease is spread by contact with infected feces. While the disease rarely causes anything more serious than vomiting and diarrhea in adults, young children, the elderly and people with lowered immune systems can easily develop a fatal disease. Although turtles are certainly not the only pet or reptile that can carry Salmonella, most turtles carry the infection asymptomatically, which means that they do not show signs of illness. Since box turtles are a common family pet, the danger of infection is very real. You can imagine how easily the disease, which involves contact with infected feces, could be spread if young children were placing soiled hands or the turtles itself in their mouths!

"Some municipalities passed laws prohibiting the sale of any turtle smaller than 4 inches in diameter."

Due to the high incidence of Salmonella poisoning in the 1970's, some municipalities passed laws prohibiting the sale of any turtle smaller than 4 inches in diameter. Apparently, the reason for the size limit was that turtles larger than 4 inches could not be easily placed into the mouth! Before purchasing a turtle, check your local laws regarding ownership. Common sense and good hygiene are essential in preventing this disease. After handling any pet, its excrement, its bedding or its toys, THOROUGHLY WASH YOUR HANDS.

How do turtles differ anatomically from other pets?

Compared to other animals, turtles have different muscle structures, and many of their bones (like the ribs) are replaced by a protective shell (which is hinged underneath, allowing the animal to close its shell tightly to escape predators). The top or dorsal shell is called the carapace and the bottom or ventral shell is called the plastron. The shell is covered with bony plates called scutes. The scutes are usually shed in large patches, unlike snakes, which usually shed in one piece. The numbers of scutes or the "rings" on the scutes have nothing to do with the turtle's age. The pectoral or chest muscles are well developed in turtles. Despite the obvious differences in muscle anatomy, turtles are extremely strong. The strength, manifested by the turtle retracting into its shell when disturbed, is one of the signs to check for when purchasing a turtle.

Turtles lack teeth but have a strong "beak" and turtles can and do bite!

"Turtles lack teeth but have a strong "beak" and turtles can and do bite."

Turtles have no diaphragm, but rather breathe by movements of membranes enclosing their internal organs and by movements of their legs and head.

Turtles have a three-chambered heart, whereas dogs, cats, and people have a four-chambered heart.

Turtles have a renal portal blood system, where blood from the hind limbs is filtered by the kidneys before reaching the general circulation. This means toxins from the rear limbs (as could occur from wounds on the legs) as well as drugs injected into the rear legs are usually filtered through the kidneys before entering the general circulation.

Turtles excrete uric acid as their main waste product of protein metabolism (dogs, cats, and people excrete urea). This allows them to adapt to desert environments where water supply might be restricted. Unlike many other reptiles, turtles have a urinary bladder.

Turtles have a cloaca, which is the common "receptacle" or receiving compartment for the urinary, gastrointestinal, and reproductive systems. The cloaca empties externally through the vent on their ventral (under) surface of the tail.


Is there any difference in appearance between the sexes in turtles?

In general, males have a more concave plastron than females. This concavity allows for easier mounting and mating. Males are also larger than females and are usually more colorful (having a male and female next to each other makes the comparison easier). Males also usually have a longer and thicker tail, which facilitates easier maneuvering during mating. Males have red irises and females have yellowish-brown irises. Finally, the distance between the vent (common opening for the digestive, urinary, and reproductive tracts) and the turtle's body is greater in males.


How do I select a box turtle?

Most owners buy turtles locally from a pet store or breeder. Young, captive-raised animals make the best pets. Older imported animals may harbor internal parasites and often suffer from the stress of captivity. Avoid sick-looking animals.

"A soft shell is a sign of disease."

Avoid box turtles that have sunken or closed eyes, have any type of discharge coming from the nostrils or eyes, or appear inactive or lethargic. Eyes that are sunken into the head or swollen shut often indicate dehydration, emaciation, malnutrition, and/or Vitamin A deficiency. A healthy turtle is usually active and alert, feels "heavy" and retracts its head and limbs into its shell when handled. Make sure the shell is clean and there are no cracks, missing scutes (plates) or any signs of infection (often seen as shell discoloration or moldy growth). The shell should be hard; a soft shell is a sign of disease. The vent should be clean and free of wetness or fecal accumulation. If you can GENTLY open the mouth (which is difficult or impossible in most box turtles), there should be a small amount of clear saliva present and the lining of the mouth should be pink. Mucus that is cloudy, bloody or has a "cottage cheese" appearance (in reptiles, pus is thick and white, and looks like cottage cheese) is a sign of mouth rot, as is redness or pinpoint hemorrhages on the mucus membranes. Always inquire about the guarantee in case the turtle is found to be unhealthy.


turtles-box-owning-2My turtle looks healthy. Why does he need to see the veterinarian?

Within 48 hours of your purchase, your turtle should be examined by a qualified reptile veterinarian. The visit includes determining the animal's weight, as well as thorough physical examination, including an inspection of the shell. The animal is examined for signs of dehydration, malnutrition, or other abnormalities. A fecal test is done to check for internal parasites. Many veterinarians consider all turtles (even those bred in captivity) to have internal parasites, so your turtle may be routinely dewormed for parasites. The oral cavity is examined for signs of infectious stomatitis (mouth rot). Your veterinarian may recommend blood tests, cultures, or radiographs (X-rays) to check for other diseases. No vaccines are required for turtles.

"The animal is examined for signs of dehydration, malnutrition, or other abnormalities."

Like all pets, turtles should be examined at least annually, and should have their feces tested for parasites at every visit. The toenails of captive turtles should be clipped periodically; your veterinarian can show you how to do this correctly.

REMEMBER TO WASH YOUR HANDS THOROUGHLY after feeding, cleaning or handling any turtle.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Rick Axelson, DVM

© Copyright 2009 Lifelearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.