Turtles in Houston
by Donald Ray Burger
Attorney at Law

I am a relative newcomer to the world of turtles. I built my first turtle habitat in September of 1994. It is a circular structure with a diameter of five feet and a height of 14 inches. I used keystone bricks to build the habitat. The height is more than enough to keep my mated pair of Mexican three-toed box turtles from climbing out, and it is a convenient height for sitting on the ledge to feed or watch the turtles.

The turtles produced their first set of five babies in October of 1995. We found the second set of hatchlings in early September of 1996.

Much of the information in this article was gathered at meetings of the old Houston Turtle and Tortoise Society. I'm not sure they are active any more. However, you can reach the Gulf Coast Turtle and Tortoise Society at their website:

Gulf Coast Turtle & Tortoise Society.

They also have valuable articles about turtle care. Iformation about meetings and other events is also available. Membership is $15.00 per year.

Turtle Habitats:

The type of habitat suitable for your turtles/tortoises depends on the kind and number of turtles or tortoises you have.

Dr. Larry White, DVM, a founder of the Houston Turtle and Tortoise Society, spoke on turtle habitat at the May 4, 1996, meeting of the HTTS. His slides revealed that many of his habitats are four landscape timbers high, with a top board which provides lip overhang. The overhang, which extends into the habitat, goes a long way toward preventing turtles from climbing out of an enclosure. Turtle literature recommends avoiding right angled corners in the habitat. Such corners provide an especially easy place for turtles to claw their way out. Round your corners, or at least 45 degree them.

The bottom of the enclosure is important. Soft dirt or sand is needed for burrowing during hibernation and for females to deposit eggs. At a HTTS lecture on September 9, 1994, Dr. Gary Harvell, DVM, recommended a 50-50 mix of sand and soil, at least 6 inches deep. Avoid sharp pebbles. They may scrape the turtles or be eaten by them.

The inside of the habitat should contain vegetation for browsing. Turtles eat cactus, grasses, fruits and vegetables. Flat rocks and logs for basking are important. Although the habitat should be in full sun, some shade should be provided. A broken flowerpot or a plastic dishpan with a door hole cut into it makes a good place for turtles to hide.

Make sure there are some high spots in the habitat in case of one of Houston's five inch rains. Also, water for drinking must be constantly provided. I find that the shallow plastic dish that goes under a flower pot works well as a water dish. Set it in an indentation in the dirt so it is easy for the turtles to get in and out. Replace with clean water daily. I keep a two gallon watering can by my habitat to make it easy to change the water.

Fire ants are a problem in Houston. These pests must be eliminated. I have noticed that ants like to make their nest under plastic. I used to put the food on a plastic lid. No more! If ants appear in the habitat, Dr. White recommends Logic. It is not harmful to turtles. However, if you are a worrier, try putting a plastic mesh strawberry container over the area where you sprinkle the Logic and weigh the basket down with a brick. The basket will keep the turtles out of the Logic.


In theory, the type of food depends on the type of turtle you have. I say "in theory" because although one sometimes reads that turtles prefer either animal or vegetable foods, my turtles eagerly eat both.

I feed each of my adult three-toeds three to five mighty mealy worms every other day during warm weather. Vegetables are also offered. Iceberg lettuce should be strictly avoided. Although most turtles will eat it with relish, it is almost totally lacking in any nutritive matter. Turtles become addicted to it and it is sometimes hard to get them to eat regular food. If this happens to your turtles try wrapping the new food in a small piece of lettuce. Gradually decrease the amount of lettuce wrapping until the addiction has been broken.

Live foods recommended:

snails (crush shells first)
meal worms
Crawfish are not recommended. They carry a bacteria (beneckia chitinovora) that can cause ulceration of a turtle's shell.

Plant foods recommended:

cactus pads (available at the farmers' market on Airline)
bananas (sliced)
apples (sliced)
tomatoes (sliced)
mixed frozen vegetables (thawed out)
strawberries (sliced or whole)
Avoid iceberg lettuce.
Avoid spinach.

Prepared foods recommended:

Repto-min by Tetra
Jumbo-min by Tetra
alfalfa pellets
rabbit pellets
Dog and cat food is not recommended. It is too high in Vitamin D and the calcium to phosphorous ratio is wrong.
Frozen fish is not recommended. It can cause vitamin B deficiencies.

I buy my mealworms from Grubco. They can be reached at 1 (800) 222 3563. They ship live food the same week as ordered. Call for their catalog. Crickets and mealworms are also available from some pet stores.

Dipping foods in a turtle supplement is recommended. Calcium deficiencies are common in turtles. For a calcium supplement I use Tetra's Terrafauna Reptocal. It is a white powder. Dip wet food in it to coat. For a dry supplement I use T-Rex Tortoise Dry Formula. The pellets should be moistened and sprinkled over food. Both these products should be available at larger pet stores.

The best way to tell if your turtles are getting enough food is to weigh them regularly. It is often difficult to recognize the wasting away to which turtles are subject just by looking. Regular weighing will provide a record of your turtle's general health. Remember, turtles are like people in that a balanced diet is best. The easiest way to ensure such a diet is to vary the foods offered. If your turtle goes off its food, check the temperature. Turtles are cold-blooded animals. It must be warm for a turtle to eat.


It makes sense to isolate any new turtles from your long-timers. Each turtle contains parasites in its intestinal tract and sometimes on its body. Always wash your hands after handling your turtles. Keeping a new turtle in isolation for approximately three months will give you time to make sure the new arrival is healthy and will minimize chances for infection.


With our warm winters, hibernation is an iffy thing in Houston. A temperature in the 50's will usually cause hibernation. Hibernating turtles go off their food and will burrow into the ground. My female regularly hibernates. The male, however, constantly come up on warm winter days.

Hibernation may be necessary to normalize reproduction cycles in females. However, there are risks with partial hibernation. If there is an excess of food in the digestive tract it may rot and kill the turtle who is too "at rest" to digest it. Desiccation is also a danger. Putting newly emerged turtles into water after hibernation is complete will help rehydrate them.

Because I do not like to disturb my turtles during hibernation I don't know how deeply they have burrowed. On those rare freezing nights in Houston I add a layer of pine needles (dried leaves would also do) in the habitat to add extra insulation.

Temperatures in the 65 to 75 degree range are the most dangerous. The turtle won't go dormant but it is not warm enough to digest food. This is a problem we in Houston have to live with. If you bring your turtles indoors for the winter you will avoid this problem. However, you must not forget the necessity of sunlight for indoor turtles. Something as simple as window glass can filter out many beneficial light rays.


Turtles bear their young by laying eggs in holes dug by the females. Provide a generous area of a soft soil/sand mix at least six inches deep. When a female cannot find a suitable place to deposit the eggs she may hold them inside her body. So-called egg binding can be life threatening. If you suspect it you can have your turtle X-rayed. Egg laying can be induced by a qualified vet.

Normal brood size for box turtles is 5 to 7 eggs. The eggs are white. Most turtle eggs are laid by mid-summer so as to allow time for incubation and for the hatchlings to emerge before winter hibernation. Sometimes hatchlings do not emerge until spring. Females need to be approximately ten-years-old before they can bear. It usually takes from two to four months for eggs to hatch, but it can take up to a year!

Eggs can be incubated away from the habitat at a temperature of 80 to 85 degrees. Try to not handle the eggs after the embryo starts to develop because handling may rupture developing blood vessels. Dr. Larry White, DVM, regularly incubates turtle eggs in a medium of vermiculite, sphagnum moss and sand. Wet the vermiculite with water at the rate of one ounce of vermiculite to one fluid ounce of water. Also, Dr. White recommends soaking the sphagnum moss in water, then wringing it out. Dampen the sand, too. A complete article on his techniques is available at the HTTS meetings.

Baby turtles need protection from predators and the elements to increase their chances of survival. A wire netting across their habitat is a bare minimum. Also, sunshine is essential. I feed my baby turtles tiny meal worms (available in quantity from Grubco) and soft vegetables such as tomatoes. I also feed them live earthworms from the garden. I have found that even when a hatchling is reluctant to eat, a wiggly earthworm is never refused.

If you are keeping your hatchlings inside the house in an aquarium, don't forget a reptile light if they are not in a window. Regular fish aquarium lights are not what I am talking about. They are fine for the fixture, but you need a special reptile light bulb to give off the correct light spectrum. I recommend ZooMed Reptisun 5.0 UVB Fluorescent Bulbs. Change the bulbs yearly. Should be available in pet stores.

I don't recommend sand for the bottom of the acquarium. Turtles are not delicate eaters, and when they are eating food they may get a mouthful of sand. Instead, try Energy Savers Unlimited's Reptile Desert Blend Lizard Litter. It looks like tan-colored sand but is actually ground up English walnut shells. The turtles can digest the shells if they get a mouthful. It also gives a natural and attractive look to the habitat.

Don't forget water. Dehydration is an especially dangerous condition for hatchlings. Also, heat above 90 degrees can kill hatchlings. Also, don't forget to provide shade in the form of a hollow rock or something the turtles can hide under when they want to get out of sight.

Local Veterinarians Who Treat Turtles & Tortoises

We have used a couple of Houston vets for our turtles. Dr. Larry White, DVM, treats turtles. He is at 1492 Wilcrest Drive. His phone number is (713) 789 8320. We have also used the Bellaire Blvd. Animal Clinic, at 6213 Bellaire Blvd. Their phone number is (713) 772 5574.

Years ago, the Houston Turtle and Tortoise Society had a list of recommended vets. I am not sure the list is still up-to-date, but here it is:

Nancy Carpenter, DVM (713) 520 8743

Roy Cruzen, DVM (713) 890 7257

Dave Doherty, DVM (713) 364 8333

Kit Kampschmidt, DVM (713) 468 8253

Pete Koplos, DVM (713) 499 7242

Louetta Animal Hospital (713) 370 0721
Dr. Duncan and Dr. Shafer: 24 hours/7 days a week

Mark Peckham, DVM (713) 708 8636

Adella Rico, DVM (713) 520 8743

Richard Rogge, DVM (713) 491 8387

Robin Scott, DVM (713) 332 5612

Stephen Burda, DVM (713) 869 0202

Fred Soifer, DVM (713) 772 5574

Robert Vaughn, II, DVM (713) 468 1676

Larry White, DVM (713) 789 8320

Julie Wickel, DVM (713) 498 6702

Originally written January 11, 1997, and revised periodically based on my experiences.

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