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Turtles/I am worried about my newlly purchused box turtle


QUESTION: I recently bought a central American wood turtle that is about 5 months old and since then I've been worried. Right now he is living in a 40 gallon aquarium (I wasn't aware that glass was not good for him at the time) with a container of water and a basking log that he can go under when he wants to hide. I have a uv light for him that stays on for about 12 hours a day, and a 100 watt light bulb during the day with a non lighting heating bulb at night. At first I noticed snot bubbles and sneezing and I took him to the vet. However in my area, there isn't an expert. He gave him two shots and told me he needed more vitamin A. I haven't noticed any of the same things lately, but I am not sure if he is eating. I put out food each morning and leave it there each day. Also, he is burrowing under his bed-a-beast and moss every time I am around. I have not seen him bask lately but Im only home a portion of the day. He does get in his water daily. The humidity will not stay in the tropical range unless I am constantly spraying down his tank and the hottest part of his tank is only about 70-78 degrees f. Are these actions and conditions okay?


The first thing I would do is get a 50 gallon Rubbermaid bin and put him in that.  Glass can be very difficult to establish a temperature gradient in.  Make sure the substrate (mix coir, playsand, and spagnum moss) is deep (about 4"), and very moist.  If you prop the cool end up an inch or so, water can collect in the warmer end and make a nice little bog for him.  Then every few days, water it all down heavily.  Spraying is nice, but ineffective because the basking light will dry it out right away.  You want to make sure the substrate is moist all the way through.  Being too dry can also cause symptoms of a respiratory infection.  

You didn't say what kind of UVB (?) bulb you have, but I would get a ZooMed Powersun, and use that for both heat and UVB.  Most of the UVB bulbs out there aren't very reliable.  You can get the Powersun online.  Since you're using a 100 watt bulb now, and warm temps are only 78 degrees, I suspect you're measuring air temperature, in which case the actual basking temperature may be much too hot.  You need to measure temperatures on the substrate--basking temp right under the lamp.  You may find that the temperature is actually 90 degrees or hotter.  You do want the basking temperature to be around 90 or a little higher.  The burrowing may be an indication that he's too warm (or too cool).  The cooler area can go down to about 75, but shouldn't go above 80.

Unfortunately, the vet may have done more harm than good.  I'd guess that he gave vitamin shots, which is what vets do when they don't know what else to do.  Suggesting more vitamin A is the other thing they come up with, but vitamin deficiency is not all that common unless the turtle has been quite neglected, and is easy enough to treat with diet rather than injections.  The risk of vitamin overdose is pretty significant, and not generally advisable.  Don't worry about it, since it's already done, but in future don't let a vet give vitamin injections unless they can give a very good reason for it.  

I think if you increase the moisture, make sure the temperatures are correct, and get a decent UVB bulb, your turtle should perk up.  Let me know how it goes!

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QUESTION: I will get the Rubbermaid container as soon as possible, but do I need some sort of top for it? If so what kind?
Thank you so much!


I've been doing some more research for you on this species, since it's not one I've had much experience with, and it seems that many people do keep them in tanks because it's easier to keep the humidity up--however, you'd need more like a 75 gallon for an adult.  I think the Rubbermaid bin is safer than a 40 gallon because you don't have the overheating issue you can get with a smaller glass enclosure, and the plastic will hold humidity as well as glass.  You don't need a id, because you do want to allow air circulation, but if you have a hard time maintaining the warmth or if it dries out too quickly, you can cover half the bin with just about anything (or just use the bin lid).  Just make sure it's at least partially open.

I did want to make sure that there is an ample water area--big enough for him to get into completely, and preferrably enough room to swim and move about.  This will also help to avoid any risk of dehydration.

One final thing--where did you get your turtle?  How big is he?  The reason I ask is because if you got him from a pet store, they often don't actually know the age, but give the customer a (wildly erroneous) guess anyway.  A 5 month old juvenile would be quite small--I'd guess no more than 2.5".  If he's much bigger than that, he's probably much older than you were told.  This doesn't really affect how you'd keep him, but juveniles are more carnivorous than adults, so if he's mature or close to it, you'd want to offer a good variety of greens along with animal protein.  Obviously an adult would need more room as well.

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QUESTION: He is actually about 6 inches so he must is much older. As far as the water goes, I purchased the one that they had in his tank at the pet store. He can get in completely and I see him drinking but it probably isn't big enough for him to actually swim around. Just to clarify, in the long run, would a Rubbermaid that is 50 gallons be better than just getting a much larger tank? Once Summer comes, where I live it gets pretty hot and I was hoping to get an outdoor pin for him just to get some sun for an hour or two a day. However it gets up to 100 degrees on any given day. Do you have any advice on that as well? That may help him be able to have more space.

Hi Kat,

OK, then he is definitely mature (more or less).  I'm glad I asked!  In that case, if you can get a 75 or 100 gallon tank, that would be much better than the Rubbermiad.  The bin really would be too small.  If you can get a tank that size, then maintaining temperatures shouldn't be an issue, and you'll be able to fit in a larger water area for him.  Other options would be using a stock tank, or building your own enclosure.  One disadvantage of a large glass tank is that it's breakable, and also very heavy.  

I thought since you live in WA, your summers would be cooler, but you must live in the eastern part.  I would definitely build an outdoor pen for him if you can.  The heat doesn't matter so much as the moisture.  I'm guessing you're in a pretty dry area, so you would want to make sure the pen was well-planted with plenty of shade, and keep it watered.  Having a heavy layer of leaf litter will help maintain the moisture--you can also use straw for mulching, and it will gradually break down and compost (also good for snails, slugs, bugs, etc. he can forage for).  You might have to bring him in at night depending on your night temps, but otherwise he could spend all day outside (with predator protection if that's an issue).  It's always ideal for turtles or tortoises to be outside as much as possible, because the natural sunlight is so much better than artificial lights, plus it gives them the opportunity for more natural behavior (grazing/foraging).  


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Questions regarding husbandry of Russian tortoises and other Mediterranean species, sulcata, and redfoot tortoises; general tortoise and turtle care; box turtle care. If I can't answer a specific question, I can provide sources for further research. Disclaimer: My advice is not a substitute for vet care. If I think your tortoise/turtle has a specific medical condition or injury that warrants a vet visit, I'll tell you so, and if possible I'll help you locate a vet. It is neither legal nor ethical for me to provide veterinary advice.


I have kept and bred Russian tortoises for over ten years and have other Mediterranean species plus redfoots and box turtles. I've worked with other tortoise and turtle species while doing volunteer rescue work; mostly sulcata but some leopards, California desert tortoises, yellowfoots, all box turtle species, red-eared sliders, etc. I don't personally keep aquatic species, but have access to a wealth of information and research to help you with any questions you might have.

My knowledge is based on hands-on experience keeping, breeding, and working with tortoises and turtles.

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