What Not to Use as Box Turtle Bedding


There are some substrates to avoid using in your box turtles' habitat.

Your boxie likes to dig into a soft substrate, but make sure the one you provide is safe for turtles. This guy’s leaves are just fine. 🙂
Cropped & modified version of photo by Kerry Wixted @ Flickr; licensed under CC BY 2.0

It’s best to give your box turtles a soft floor in their home, but not all materials are safe to use with them. Some can even be toxic.

Here’s a brief overview of safe substrates and substrates to avoid.

Soil, leaf mulch and wood chips are good choices for your turtle’s floor. The choice is up to you, but here are some things to keep in mind about these materials.

Choose plain potting soil or topsoil. It should not contain any:

  • Perlite: A type of volcanic rock that looks like small pebbles
  • Vermiculite: A type of mica that has been treated to expand
  • Styrofoam: A polystyrene (plastic) foam

Some box turtles will seek out and eat these additives, which can cause digestive problems and even impaction (blocked intestines).

Other substrates that can cause gut impactions include gravel, silica or calcium sand.

Avoid anything too coarse, which can scratch your turtle. Scratches can lead to infections, including shell infections.

Wood chips or shavings are ok, as long as they are not pine bark or cedar. These woods contain aromatic oils that are toxic and can cause respiratory problems in reptiles. Some turtles may even die from them.

Box turtle experts also recommend avoiding commercial products like:

  • Recycled newspaper
  • Walnut shells
  • Aspen shavings
  • Rodent pellet bedding
  • Cat litter

Also, reptile carpet is not suitable for box turtles. It doesn’t stay moist, and your turtle can’t dig into it to hide.

Box turtle eating strawberryA plain floor without a substrate is better than an unsafe substrate. That’s not a good long-term solution, of course, but if you can’t find a suitable substrate right away, your turtles can do without for a little while.


24 thoughts on “What Not to Use as Box Turtle Bedding

  1. Martin

    Good stuff on the bedding info! I use mostly dug up soil from naturally wooded areas. It stays moist without being muddy, and has no man-made additives. I rake it up about every 2 weeks to freshen the top layer and fold in the leaves that compost. It seems to be doing well, as I have earthworms living below the surface that the turtles feast on from time to time. I keep a good selection of fruits: strawberries, tomatoes, melons, and such for their food.

    1. boxturtleworld Post author

      Hi William,

      Hay is generally safe to use with box turtles. It’s good for digging and burrowing.

      You might want to keep a couple of things in mind:

      * Some hays are rougher than others. Some people have found their turtles prefer softer hays.
      * Hay can mold pretty easy when it gets wet. I don’t know where you live, but if it rains a lot, you’ll need to keep an eye on that. Possibly change it pretty often.

      Of course, most things will mold if they stay wet too long. It’s just something to think about.
      Good luck and enjoy your boxie!

  2. Anaya

    I live in Florida and my back yard is mostly sand. Can I create a substrate for my [wild-found] baby box turtle with sand on the base and then 2-3″ of dead leaves and shredded paper (from a shredder, so pretty small pieces)? The reason I want to use paper is simply to increase the volume of the burrowing material, since I don’t have a ton of leaves, but will it be safe? Also, separate question — when I got him he would eat red wigglers (from my compost) but then I introduced him to mealworms and now he won’t eat the wigglers. Is there a way to encourage him to go back to more natural food? I really want him to have a range of proteins. and I’ve been looking all over for snails and pillbugs and can’t find any in the yard, so I need to figure out how to get him to enjoy worms again. He won’t strike at even the very active ones.

    1. boxturtleworld Post author

      Hi Anaya

      Shredded paper may not be the best choice for an outdoor enclosure. It’s often recommended for a sick turtle you’re caring for indoors, where you can easily change it out as necessary. But when paper gets wet (like rained on), it gets mushy, clumpy, and can mold pretty easily. That’s not the best environment for your turtle.

      Some plain wood chip mulch (not pine bark or cedar and not dyed) might be a better choice.

      I’m a little surprised your turtle is turning up his nose at wigglers. Usually they love active foods! Is there another food he really likes? A lot of boxies like berries or other fruits and you can get them to try other foods by chopping it all together with their favorites. Obviously chopping up the wiggler isn’t the best choice, but maybe you could smear it with berry or fruit? (I’m assuming you’re not too squeamish to touch it!). Then put it right in front of him. If he’ll eat that, slowly decrease the amount of fruit you put on the worm until he’s happy to eat it by itself.

      Other than that, I’m not really sure … Are you sure he isn’t finding his own insect meals when you’re not around?

      I’m assuming he still eats the mealworms and other foods (fruits/veggies)? If he’s not eating anything, take him to a reptile vet to see if he’s sick or has an impaction (blockage in his gut).

      This time of year I might also suggest he’s eating less to get ready for hibernation, but I think Florida boxies don’t usually hibernate since it doesn’t get that cold. So that’s unlikely to be it.

  3. Sydney

    I have a box turtle and was looking for an organic topsoil. I bought a couple bags of Scotts Premium Topsoil. Is this a safe product? There are wood chips but I don’t know what type of wood.

    1. boxturtleworld Post author

      Hi Sydney,

      I don’t have personal experience with Scotts Premium Topsoil, so I can’t say for sure. But it looks to be all organic and without any chemicals that could be harmful.

      I’m not sure I understand your comment about wood chips. Do you mean there’s some in the topsoil? I don’t know what kind they’d be either. If they’re big maybe pick them out? Or sift the dirt through some kind of wire mesh?

      Sorry I don’t have a better answer for you. Like I said, I’m not familiar with that topsoil. Maybe someone who’s used it (either in their yard or for their turtle) can give a better answer.

  4. Ashley

    I have had my boxie for 3 years and he’s doing great. I’m in the process of clean his inclosure and got pine bedding that says it is toxen free. Is this OK to use. He loves to dig and cover himself up. Please someone help me.

    1. boxturtleworld Post author

      Pine is not recommended because of the oils in the wood.

      I’m not sure what toxin-free is referring to on your bedding. Maybe the wood can be treated to remove the oils? … but I’m not sure if I’d risk it. Unless it specifically says that’s what was done.

      I’d probably go with either a coconut fiber bedding or cypress mulch.

      Hope this helps!

  5. Jenni

    Hi I have a turtle that will be hibernating and was wondering what kind of bedding I should use to start the hibernation process. I have some potting soil and was wondering if that would be ok to use. Thank you.

    1. boxturtleworld Post author

      Hi Jenni,

      Yes! Potting soil is a good bedding option for hibernation (Just be sure it’s plain soil, without fertilizers, vermiculite, perlite, etc.). Adding a layer of leaves or straw on top of the potting soil is also good.

      We have a page about hibernating box turtles indoors, if you’d like to read more about it.

    1. boxturtleworld Post author

      Hi Caroline,

      Yes, people do use hay as bedding for their box turtles. It’s loose, so they can dig and burrow easily.

      That said, I’ve seen some boxie owners saying their turtles prefer softer hays. Apparently some kinds are rougher than others. I’m not sure how big a deal this is.

      Also, it may mold quicker than some other beddings if it stays wet too long. I don’t have personal experience with hay, but I’ve seen other turtle owners seeing this problem. As long as you make sure you scoop out any soiled areas regularly, I doubt it would be a big problem. But it is something to keep in mind.

      Hope this helps!

  6. Kayla

    I just got a baby box turtle. My cousin found him in her back yard and gave him to me and my sister she gave us box turtle food and a habitat for him the tank floor has wood chips on it. I do not know what kind of wood it is. My sister and I are looking for a new tank and bedding for him because the tank is very small. What is the best size tank for a baby box turtle. Also what type of bedding is the best. It is cold where I live now that it is becoming winter, will he go in to hibernation because of this? We also have other animal who live inside also but all of them are mammals and don’t live in a tank. Will this cause problems with the turtle? They do not try to hurt him or even pay attention to him so I don’t think it will in that way. He loves to be held and crawl under clothing onto our shoulder. He is held often to keep him warm, if we hold him to much will it hurt him. I also must ask because he is a baby are there any precautions we must take with different types of food and bedding. We bought him t-Rex box turtle dry formula from petco for him to eat we put water in it so he does not choke we want to no if this is bad for him. If so what would be some recommendations for him.

  7. Brenda

    Just moved from Idaho to Florida have a boxie for 16 yrs , need to know what kinda bedding I should use ?
    We always used walnut shells but now I hear they are bad for them

    1. boxturtleworld Post author

      Hi Brenda,

      There’s actually a lot of different substrates you can use. You may need to do some trial and error to see which you and your turtle like best. For example:

      • Potting soil
      • Coconut fiber (Like Zoo Med’s Eco Earth)
      • Cypress mulch (like Zoo Med’s Forest Floor)
      • Orchid bark

      Hope this helps!

  8. Payton

    I have a box turtle I found in my creak and he is in a 4 foot long box and about 10 inches wide and has a cardboard house a old paint tray still with old paint in it I don’t know if that will kill him or not but he has a nice soft dirt bedding all through the bottom and grass in his house does every thing sound right

    1. boxturtleworld Post author

      Hi Payton,

      We have lots of information around this site on what kinds of things box turtles need to stay healthy. These pages are a good place to start:

      And just explore the site to find more. (I would definitely replace that paint tray).

      One final thought. You don’t say how long you’ve had him. But if you found him recently, please consider putting him back where you found him. Box turtle populations have been declining for years, and every time someone takes one home, that’s one less box turtle left to make baby turtles. We have more information on (not) keeping wild box turtles here. Of course, sometimes there are good reasons not to release a box turtle back to the wild. I don’t know your specific situation, so I can’t tell you what to do. Please use your best judgment.

  9. Cameron Andes

    Hi I have 3 year old manure for my bedding. Is that safe? Also, my turtle like to play in pine bark, so I have a small pile in the corner, is this ok

    1. boxturtleworld Post author

      Hi Cameron,

      I’m afraid I don’t know anything about using manure as bedding. I do know that when buying topsoil/potting soil to use as substrate you should get stuff without manure. But that could be because the manure used in those products isn’t aged. Like I said, I don’t know about manure.

      But the pine is not a good idea. Pine contains oils that can cause respiratory problems in turtles. Something like orchid bark or cypress mulch would be safer. Zoo Med’s Forest Floor substrate is cypress mulch.

      Hope this helps a little.

  10. Hannah

    My eastern box turtle loves worms, but he refuses to eat his fruits and veggies I was wondering if there is any way to get him to eat better foods.

    1. boxturtleworld Post author

      Not necessarily. Calcium sand is different from regular sand. Calcium sand is actually sold as reptile substrate, partly because it’s edible and non-toxic. But eating too much of it can cause impactions. Calcium sand dust can also irritate eyes and respiratory tract.

      Regular sand isn’t edible, but many people use it mixed with top soil, peat moss, and/or cypress mulch. The mixture is looser and easier to dig into. Box turtles love to dig!

      It’s probably still best not to use any sand all by itself. Eating regular sand may also cause impactions, since it’s not edible. But when it’s mixed with other substrates the odds of eating much are lower.

      The final decision is, of course, up to you!

      Hope this helps.


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