To keep a box turtle healthy it is important to provide it with suitable box turtle food. In order to do this, it is crucial to keep in mind that there are many different species and subspecies of box turtles and that box turtles live in many different types of environments in Mexico and the United States. It is always advisable to research your specific species or subspecies of box turtle and adjust the box turtle food in accordance to what your turtle would eat in the wild.
If you have hatchlings, please seek out specific information regarding how and what to feed box turtle hatchlings, because that is not covered in this article.
What do box turtles eat in the wild
As mentioned above, the best box turtle food is food that your box turtle would be eating if it was in its natural habitat. So, what do box turtles eat in the wild? Here are just a few examples of things that many (but not all) species and subspecies of box turtle will eat in their natural environment:
- Carrion, even big carrion from mammals, birds and amphibians
- Fallen fruit (often over-ripe or rotten)
As you can see, box turtle food spans from dead snakes to sweat berries in the wild, so don’t keep your pet on a bland and unvaried diet in captivity. Also, do not give your box turtle products that it would never encounter in pristine wilderness, such as cheese, candy, bread and heavily processed meat.
Box turtle food
Since we still do not know exactly what a box turtle needs to stay healthy, it is best to give it a lot of different things. That way, you are more likely to cover all important vitamins, minerals, proteins, and so on in the box turtle food. A good rule of thumb is to include several types of food in each serving, but this is not a hard-fast rule. Feeding your box turtle protein rich food one day and leafy greens and berries another will not harm it, provided that it always has access to water.
Protein and calcium
For most species and subspecies of box turtle, protein rich food should make up 50% of the diet. Live, whole foods are recommended, such as slugs, earthworms, waxworms, sow bugs, beetles, etc.
What do box turtles eat in the wild? In the wild, your box turtle would eat whole animals and therefore ingest not only muscles but bones, shells, etc. If you feed your box turtle muscle meat, the box turtle food needs to be sprinkled with calcium to prevent calcium deficiency. (Do not use a supplement that contains phosphorus.)
Placing a cuttlebone from the pet store in the enclosures is also a good idea, since it will give the turtle access to calcium and other trace minerals at it’s own leisure.
Low-fat soaked dog/cat kibble or canned dog/cat food can be given as a treat once in a while, but should not form the basis of your turtles diet. The same goes for eggs.
Veggies and leafy greens
Roughly 30% of the box turtle food should be colorful vegetables and another 10% should be dark leafy greens. Frozen items should be completely thawed to room temperature before serving.
Examples of suitable vegetables are squash, peas, carrots, sweet potato, okra and green beans. Corn (including corn on the cob) and tomatoes are also good foods, but should not be a staple. The same goes for beets, cauliflower and cabbage.
Dark leafy greens are an excellent source of fiber. What do box turtles eat in the wild to get fiber? Mostly grasses and leaves, and mimicking this in captivity is recommended. Not getting enough fibers can cause serious problems for box turtles, so make sure fibers are included in the box turtle food. Dandelion leaves, turnip leaves, romaine lettuce, collard greens and mustard greens are all great sources of fiber for a box turtle. Parsley, spinach and kale should only be given occasionally. Potato leaves, tobacco leaves and rhubarb leaves are not suitable as box turtle food.
Fruits and berries
Fruits and berries should constitute roughly 10% of the box turtle food. Examples of suitable box turtle food from this group are apples, pears, blackberries, raspberries, mulberries, peaches, melon, banana, mango, cherries and plums.
Most species and subspecies of box turtle eat mushrooms in the wild and will like them in captivity as well. Of course, toxic mushrooms must be avoided.
Feeding schedule for box turtles
Young turtles need to be fed a full meal every or every other day. Healthy adults only need to be fed full meals every 2-3 days. Box turtles will appreciate a small snack on the days when they go without a full meal.
Adjust your feeding based on the health and activity level of your particular box turtle, and don’t forget to take seasonal variations into account.
Box turtles should always have access to water.
Hunger strikes in box turtles
Finding out what your box turtle should be fed is not your only task; you must get it to accept the food as well. Box turtles are opportunistic omnivores that will devour pretty much anything in the wild (live spiders and worms, bird and mammal carrion, mushrooms, berries, rotten fruit, grass – the list goes on and on) but for some reason it is not usual for captive box turtles to embark on hunger strikes or become obsessed with one type of food and reject all others. The exact reasons for this behavior remains unknown, but it might be a sign of stress. What we as pet keepers can do is trying to mimic the species or subspecies native environment as closely as possible to reduce the animal’s stress levels.
A dog or other mammal that is provided with a type of food it doesn’t like or that feels stressed out by an unsuitable environment will usually stating eating sooner or later since its high metabolism will prompt it to. A box turtle on the other hand is not a mammal and its metabolism works very differently. When subjected to adverse circumstances, a box turtle can simply decrease its activity, retreat into its shell and wait for better times to come around. It is up to you, it’s keeper, to make sure that those better times actually do come around before the turtle grows so weak that it succumbs to illness and dies. Read up on the natural environment of your box turtle and try to mimic it as closely as possible. Don’t forget factors such as substrate, temperature, sun light, access to water, ability to seek shadow and ability to burrow.
Tips for getting your box turtle to eat
- In the wild, box turtles tend to be most active at dusk and and dawn, and feeding a box turtle at those times can therefore make it more interested in eating.
- For unknown reasons, some box turtles are reportedly more keen on eating after a rain.
- Late morning hours is another time of day when box turtle owners have noticed an increased interest in food in their pets. This is probably because the turtle has had a chance to warm up a bit after the cooler night. Cold turtles can not digest food properly. (A box turtle is too cold to digest when the room temperature is 65° F /18° C or below.) If you are keeping your box turtle outside, ideally place the enclosure in a spot where it will get plenty of morning soon. That way, it doesn’t have to wait until afternoon to get warm enough to eat its box turtle food.
- Some box turtles dislike eating out in the open, so feeding them in a sheltered area is recommended. You can for instance include a shrub in the set up and place the box turtle food underneath.
- During sunny summer days, avoid placing box turtle food in a sunny spot since the turtle may not be able to eat there without having to risk overheating.
- If your box turtle has become obsessed with one particular type of box turtle food, try serving it mixed with other types of food. Let’s say your turtle loves all kinds of worms but refuse to eat any greens. Mixing chopped up worms with chopped squash can coax in into realizing that squash are food too. If your turtle loves pumpkin but hates protein rich food, then mashing some meal-worms in with the pumpkin can make your pet broaden its horizons.
- Is your turtle being bullied? If you keep two or more turtles together, a weak turtle might be to scared to eat its box turtle food in the presence of a more dominant turtle. Make sure there are several sheltered feeding spots. If this is not enough, separate the turtles permanently or at least during feeding times.
- For turtles kept indoors, UVA and UVB producing fluorescent lights are strongly recommended for a variety of reasons, unless they have access to plenty of real sun light. Proper lighting will have numerous positive effects on the turtle, including increased appetite. Full spectrum light is required for vitamin D3 production.
- A medical problem may be the root of your turtles’ eating disorder. Contact a veterinarian for more information. (Also, a prolonged hunger strike may necessitate medical treatment. A vitamin A deficiency can for instance easily lead to dry and infected eyes in box turtles.)