Box Turtle vs Painted Turtle – What is the Difference?

If you’re ready for your first pet turtle, we have 2 potential contenders today: the box turtle and the painted turtle. While these are different species, they both share a variety of similarities but also differences.

Understanding their needs, behavior, physiology, and environmental requirements is critical to provide your turtle pet with optimal care. So, let’s discuss this more in-depth!

What is a Box Turtle?

box turtle

Box turtles are North American land reptiles that can live for decades and rank as highly popular among reptile lovers. That is, despite their difficulty of care. They are undoubtedly beautiful and charming and make for great pets as long as you figure them out.

What is a Painted Turtle?

painted turtle

Painted turtles are similar in appearance but also showcase significant differences to box turtles. They are equally adored and also populate North America. They are adaptable, colorful, and can also live for decades. If you’re already an adult, your painted turtle pet will most likely outlive you.

Comparison: Box Turtle vs Painted Turtle

To differentiate between the 2, we’ll have a look at the most important metrics, mainly:

– Appearance

Box turtles can reach up to 7 inches in size when adults, so they don’t need too much space to live long and comfortable lives. The typical box turtle comes with 2 main colors, black and yellow, and most specimens are usually spotted. Several variations are available in terms of color patterns, and juveniles are different than adults in this sense.

Baby and juvenile box turtles have a lot more black and display a yellow stripe running longitudinally across the shell.

Painted turtles are typically smaller, up to 6 inches. They are also less colorful, as most specimens have black shells, sometimes with hints of red or green. The turtle’s body, though, is considerably more colorful. Painted turtles showcase exquisite color patterns with black, bright red, and yellow, depending on the specimen.

They also have flatter shells compared to box turtles, who have them taller and fuller.

– Size and Growth

Box turtles generally stay between 4 and 7 inches, depending on the specimen. This species has a slow growth rate, which is standard for turtles in general. Expect your box turtle to grow between 0.5 to 1 inch per year, depending on its genetics, environment, diet, and overall health. This means that, depending on the turtle’s maximum growth potential, your pet may reach its maximum size in 7-14 years.

Painted turtles grow a bit faster, up to 2 inches per year at first and 1 inch per year later on until they reach adulthood.

Please note that you can improve your turtle’s growth rate only to a point. The turtle will be limited by its genetic potential.

– Requirements

Both of these species are similar in terms of requirements. Since they are reptiles, these turtles require a temperature gradient with standard dwelling temperatures around 75-80 F. The basking spot should get close to 90 F. Nighttime temperatures can go as low as 65 F, but not any lower.

When it comes to housing conditions, the situation is vastly different. The reason is that box turtles are land animals, while painted turtles are aquatic. For this reason, box turtles require at least 40 gallons of space necessary to craft a personalized habitat.

Painted turtles, on the other hand, demand at least 100 gallons. This may sound excessive, given the turtle’s small size, but it makes sense. These animals are avid swimmers and need space to feel comfy and safe. Given that painted turtles can live for decades in ideal conditions, every little thing matters.

12 hours of UVB lighting are also necessary as part of a stable day/night cycle, while humidity is only important for box turtles. Aim for values around 60%, which you can achieve via spraying their enclosure regularly. Painted turtles have no problems with humidity.

Due to the need for plenty of space and natural lighting, these species are best kept outdoors in a personalized and secure pond or enclosure. This is especially true for painted turtles since bigger specimens may need more than 100 gallons.

– Behavior

Both species are docile and friendly and can be easily tamed. They don’t scare easily and won’t take long to adapt to your presence, so long as they live in a natural-looking habitat. These reptiles can be quite active during their wake hours and when not basking, which makes for a welcoming spectacle.

– Handling

You should have no problems with your turtles when it comes to handling, so long as you don’t overdo it. Reptiles generally aren’t fond of being held or handled for too long or too often. Only pet your turtle occasionally and allow it the space it needs to stay happy and calm.

Also, keep in mind that human fingers are not compatible with turtle mouths. You would think this wouldn’t need specifying, but you would be wrong.

– Lifespan

Box turtles can live between 20 and 40 years, sometimes more, sometimes less. Their lifespan and life quality depend on the care quality, genetic makeup, overall stress levels, etc.

Painted turtles, on the other hand, can easily reach 50 years or more, depending on the specimen. Such lifespans are normal for turtles in general, thanks to their slow metabolisms, among other biological factors.

It’s safe to say that getting a pet turtle is a lifetime investment, so you need to ponder the pluses and minuses carefully beforehand.

– Care Level

Box turtles aren’t particularly difficult to keep, so long as you craft their environment properly, that is. In fact, this is the actual difficult part – getting their habitat setup right. The ideal habitat for box turtles should be somewhat semi-aquatic. Approximately 80% of the layout should be land with various logs, rocks, leaves, branches, and other hiding areas. These are necessary to shelter the turtle from the heat and when resting.

The other 20% should consist of an aquatic setup where your box turtle can go for a soaking routine. Don’t worry; you don’t need much water since box turtles can’t swim. So long as you get the turtle’s habitat layout right, the rest is fairly easy.

The same can be said about painted turtles. The difference is that the layout proportions are now reversed. Since painted turtles are aquatic, at least 80% of the environment should consist of water, preferably more. The painted turtle will only require a bit of land for basking and resting purposes.

Overall, I would say that painted turtles are more demanding simply because aquatic ecosystems are more difficult to maintain. But neither species is great for beginners. So, if you’ve never had a reptile pet before, don’t start with turtles.

– Health Problems

Calcium deficiency is the most obvious health issue that all reptiles struggle with. Metabolic Bone Disease is the severe form, leading to skeletal problems and death. You can decrease the risk of metabolic bone disease by monitoring your turtle’s calcium and D3 intake and ensuring proper UVB lighting.

When it comes to box turtles, respiratory problems are also a matter of concern when linked to poor environmental humidity. This condition is typical among reptiles dealing with low humidity. This species can also experience parasitic, bacterial, and fungal infections, most of which relate to poor husbandry practices.

Painted turtles face similar issues, especially when it comes to calcium deficiency. In addition to that, though, painted turtles also face hypovitaminosis A, which is vitamin A deficiency. Poor water quality can also lead to bacterial infections and parasites, present especially in the digestive system.

It’s worth noting that painted turtles are notorious for parasitic infections compared to box turtles or any other turtle species. Many specimens also become infected with salmonella, a deadly bacterial pathogen that can infect humans.

You can prevent most of these issues by adjusting your turtles’ environmental parameters and providing personalized care and maintenance. In addition to that, I recommend taking your pet turtle to a vet for a regular consultation 2-3 times per year.

– Price & Cost

Box turtles come with various prices, depending on the subspecies and the morph. Expect prices between $30 and $8,000, depending on the species. McCord box turtles are valued at 7,000-8,000 per specimen thanks to its rarity and red shell.

Painted turtles are considerably cheaper and don’t showcase as much variety. You can get a painted turtle for prices between $30 and $150, with small variations either way. If this is your first pet turtle, keep in mind that the acquisition price is usually the least important expenditure.

You also have to account for the setup and long-term care, including food, medical assistance, and overall maintenance.

– Diet & Feeding

Both species rank as omnivorous, consuming insects, shrimp, fruits, fresh veggies, low-fat meat, etc. Plant-based foods should be prevalent, with animal-sourced nutrients making up for approximately 30% of the turtles’ diet. Juvenile turtles eat more frequently and require one or even 2 meals per day when very young. Adult turtles may only need one consistent meal every other day.

Meal size depends on the turtle’s age, appetite, and preferences. Feed your turtle until it begins to refuse the food, at which point you should remove the leftovers.

Clean and fresh water is also critical for both species. When it comes to painted turtles, you need to have a good filtration system in place and perform regular water changes to preserve the water quality. This species is notoriously sensitive to poor water conditions, making it prone to parasitic and bacterial infections.

Most importantly, you should always consult your reptile vet regarding your turtles’ nutritional intake. Both species are prone to calcium deficiency, so they might require supplementation to remain healthy.

Box Turtle vs. Painted Turtle – Which is Better for You?

The answer is the box turtle. Get a box turtle if this is your first time acquiring a turtle pet. Painted turtles are considerably more difficult to keep and are not fit for children and individuals with immune-compromised systems. Furthermore, painted turtles are notorious for easily developing various forms of parasitic and bacterial infections.

Salmonella is especially dangerous.

I recommend going for box turtles, although you can opt for painted turtles as well, so long as you take the necessary precautions. These include buying them from reputable sources, verifying the turtle’s health and age prior to purchase, and, preferably, keeping it outdoors. Most importantly, keep contact at a minimum and wear gloves when you need to handle the turtle.

Always wash your hands thoroughly afterward to eliminate the risk of infection.


Box turtles and painted turtles are different and unique species, each with their own ups and downs. Overall, they are quite resilient and can live for decades in the ideal setup and with personalized care.

Robert from ReptileJam

Hey, I'm Robert, and I have a true passion for reptiles that began when I was just 10 years old. My parents bought me my first pet snake as a birthday present, which sparked my interest in learning more about them. read more...