Here’s What You Need To Know About Caring For A Baby Box Turtle
It is hard to find anything cuter than a baby box turtle.
In the wild, these tiny hatchlings emerge into the world looking like fully pint-sized versions of their parents. There is no protective mama hovering – right from day one they are on their own to provide for all of their own needs.
In captivity, that burden falls to their human owners – us – instead. What is most daunting to realize is that these teensy babies already know more about how to take care of themselves than we do about taking care of them!
So unless you are an experienced box turtle owner who also has prior hands-on experience with raising hatchlings, it can make sense to choose an older box turtle for your pet instead.
But if you decide to bring home your new pet as a baby, this baby box turtle care guide will orient you to the fundamentals of their care!
Make Sure It’s Legal In Your State!
In the United States, it is illegal to sell any turtle – box or otherwise – that is less than 4 inches long. The one exception to this law is if the sale is for “education purposes only.” Pet stores will not carry baby pet turtles of any species due to this law, so your best bet is to contact a private breeder.
Due to their popularity as pets, box turtles have been systematically removed from the wild en masse. This means some species of box turtles are illegal to own, especially in states where they are indigenous.
But before you buy, you should also check each of the following:
- Is the type of box turtle you want to buy legal to own in your state?
- If yes, do you need to apply for a permit before you can buy it?
is carried by almost all turtles, though it almost never impacts their health. But humans are vulnerable to salmonella (read more from the CDC), especially the elderly, the very young, pregnant moms and any woman who is trying to conceive.
The risk of contracting salmonella increases when you buy a baby box turtle. This is not because the turtle carries more of the salmonella bacteria, but because it is so small and cute it does not appear to be a danger to anyone.
Therefore, there is more of a desire to handle the turtle (at a time in its life when it can least tolerate being handled) and less of a chance that the handler will do the kind of thorough hand-washing required to keep the bacteria from spreading.
So before you make your final decision to get a baby box turtle, be sure your household is well aware of the danger and totally willing to wash their hands and sanitize anything that may come in contact with your new pet. And if you are pregnant or trying to conceive, it is best to not bring a turtle of any age into your household.
When Is Your Hatchling Ready To Come Home?
The first thing to know about bringing baby box turtle care is that you should absolutely wait until your hatchling is bright and active and eating heartily on its own before you take your new pet home (which will mean it is at least 30 days old).
If you look at your new baby box turtle and you can still see the egg tooth on the end of its beak (nose), or you turn your turtle over and you can still see signs of a disappearing yolk sac, it is too soon to take your pet home.
If you are going to start from scratch caring for your baby box turtle, you also need some kind of minimum health guarantee.
Most pet stores and many breeders will offer a “healthy pet” guarantee for at least 30 days from the date of purchase. Mail order services may only offer a guarantee of “live arrival.”
Since most hatchling turtles in the wild don’t make it for a variety of health and other reasons, having at least a basic health guarantee is more important than you may think.
Also do as much research as you can into the former owner or breeder to be sure it is a reputable place that takes good care of its stock.
How to Get Ready for Your Baby Box Turtle’s Arrival
First things first – if you have any other turtles or tortoises on the premises, you will need to house your baby box turtle away from them in its own enclosure. This holds true even if you own another box turtle of the same species or sub-species. Your baby turtle will have its own specific care needs that are much stricter than what an adult would require.
Keep your baby box turtle indoors. For an indoors turtle tank, you can start your baby out in a simple plastic container or tub filled with a thick layer dampened sphagnum moss. The container does not need to be very large – shoebox-sized will be fine at first.
You will need to keep the ambient temperature between 82 and 85 degrees for a baby turtle. At night, temperatures can go down to 75 degrees. In general, keep the warm end of your turtle’s tank at around 82 to 85 degrees and the cool end at around 75 degrees. Humidity should be kept at 60 percent – this is very important since your baby turtle will be very vulnerable to dehydration.
To accomplish the right temperature and humidity balance, you will want to get a full spectrum UV-A/B bulb as well as a basking heat bulb (ceramic bulbs are best since they emit heat but no light). You will want to have a spray mister bottle handy to keep the moss damp and may want to use a small humidifier to raise the humidity level.
Using a thermometer/hygrometer and an infrared digital temperature gun will help you determine what if any adjustments you need to make.
As your baby turtle grows, you can add some loose coconut fiber substrate in with the moss – both are excellent substrate options for retaining humidity.
Keep your baby box turtle outside. It is not advisable to keep your baby box turtle outdoors at first, unless the local climate is a very good match with their needs and you can provide an enclosure that is fully secure against predators and the elements (this means top, sides and underneath are all secured).
If you are able to meet these requirements, you will not need to provide extra UV, heat, and humidity so long as the weather complies with your turtle’s needs.
If the weather becomes hotter or cooler or dryer than your hatchling can tolerate, however, you will need to be prepared to bring it indoors and provide these conditions artificially until the weather improves.
Feeding A Baby Box Turtle
Baby box turtles will have a need for a higher protein diet than juveniles or adults. So the diet you provide should consist of approximately 70 percent protein sources and about 30 percent vegetation plus some fruits and fungi.
Even if your baby turtle does not seem interested in eating the vegetation, fungi or fruit, continue to offer it with each meal. Hatchlings that consume too much protein are at risk of early growth that can cause later health issues. Your turtle will sense when vegetation is needed and move to consume it if it is offered.
SAFETY NOTE: Do not ever “harvest” your turtle’s meals from outdoors – you won’t know whether the vegetation, fungi or insects will have come in contact with toxins or poison.
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Recommended Protein Sources For Baby Box Turtles
Recommended protein sources include gut-loaded worms (blood worms, mealworms, earthworms, super worms, silkworms, wax worms), insects (crickets, grasshoppers, snails, slugs), chopped hard-boiled egg, canned tuna or salmon.
Sounds delicious, right?
You can also supplement as needed with commercial box turtle food – but do not ever use these foods as the sole source of nourishment for your baby box turtle. Recommended fungi include whatever varietals your local grocer stocks. Recommended fruits include melon, kiwi, apples and berries.
Recommended vegetation includes dark leafy greens (carrot tops, kale, mustard, collard, turnip, dandelion), green beans, clover.
You may want to remove your turtle from its main enclosure for feeding time to reduce the amount of cleaning you have to do afterwards.
Make Sure To Feed Your Baby Box Turtle Safely
Be sure to watch your turtle during feeding times to determine if the food is small enough for it to grasp and swallow easily. You may need to chop it up more finely at first so your baby turtle doesn’t struggle trying to eat.
Supplementing Your Turtle’s Diet
Right from the start, you should begin supplementing your turtle’s diet with a high quality reptile multivitamin powder and a calcium with D3 powder. You can just sprinkle these supplements right onto your turtle’s food.
When your turtle seems able to grasp and bite it, also begin offering a turtle bone it can use to get calcium as needed.
Your Baby Box Turtle Will Need to Hide
Baby turtles of any species will spend a lot of time hiding. This is a deep-seated instinct that protects them in the wild from predation.
Even though you are protecting them from predators in captivity, they won’t necessarily know that. So if your turtle seems to disappear for hours at a time, don’t panic. This is normal.
Just be sure you check on your turtle at least once daily – ideally at the same time when you offer a soak and some food and change out the water and any soiled substrate.
Baby Box Turtles Need Water
Even if your baby box turtle does not seem to want to eat every day, it will absolutely need to drink every day, and probably more than once per day.
You will need to ensure the water you offer is safe – this means either offering spring water or filtered water (NO distilled water!) or removing the chlorine from your tap water with a tap water conditioner.
This is critical because primarily terrestrial turtles like box turtles will seek out water to soak and excrete (which explains why you will need to change the water out frequently)! If the water contains chlorine and heavy metals, this can irritate your baby turtle’s eyes.
Because your baby turtle may not always sense when it is getting dehydrated, it is best to offer a short soak in fresh tepid water each day.
You can do this by removing your turtle and placing it in a shallow dish of water or by simply moving your turtle to the water dish in its enclosure (after which you should always change the water, since your turtle will probably pee while in it).
In addition to the soaks, be sure there is a shallow dish of fresh, safe water present at all times in your baby turtle’s tank (if the water comes up past the very bottom of the shell, it is too deep).
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Your Baby Turtle’s Medical Needs
In addition to the initial “well turtle” checkup, which should be done the day you get your turtle or very soon thereafter, you should make sure you watch your turtle closely for signs of any of the following:
Respiratory issues. Bubbling from the nose or mouth, watery or swollen eyes, crusty eyes that won’t open, sneezing, discharge.
Soft shell. Your baby turtle’s shell will still be softer than it will become as it grows up, but if you see any soft patches, notice a smell or discharge, see white spots or shedding, these are all danger signs.
Eating or drinking problems. Refusing to eat for days at a time, not drinking or drinking continuously.
These symptoms can indicate dehydration, illness or the presence of bacterial infections or parasites. Vet care is needed in every case.
This baby box turtle care sheet gives you a general overview of what your baby box turtle will need from you in terms of care. While caring for a baby anything is never easy, it can be very rewarding and give you a chance to bond with your new pet right from the start.