By Liz Palika
Onyx is an old box turtle -- old enough that her shell is worn completely smooth. But even in her advanced years, she's active, her eyes are bright and her appetite hasn't slackened one little bit. As she bites into a strawberry, she smears it all over her face and front feet, and it's obvious she enjoys the treat.
She lives with me and my husband, and both of us have long had a soft spot for turtles, tortoises and other reptiles, along with more popular pets such as dogs and cats.
Box turtles are native to the United States, and at one time were commonly seen throughout the eastern and central states. Unfortunately, habitat loss and collection for the pet trade have significantly decreased their numbers. Some populations are so depleted that they are now protected by law.
The good news is that box turtles breed well in captivity, producing offspring who are entertaining, engaging and quickly learn to recognize their owners.
Feeding these turtles is quite interesting, as adult box turtles are omnivores -- they eat both meat and plants -- but for the first two to five years of life, young box turtles are almost exclusively carnivores.
In the wild, adult box turtles will eat insects, worms, grubs, newborn rodents, berries, fungi and just about anything else they can find. In captivity, offer earthworms and grubs from your backyard and mealworms and crickets from the pet store. Feed a variety of plant foods, too, including strawberries, blueberries, melons, tomatoes and some chopped greens. Provide your box turtle with a cuttlebone (from the bird section of the pet supply store) so that your pet has a source of calcium.
Hatchling box turtles are a little more challenging as they need worms, insects and other live foods of the correct size. Since newly hatched box turtles are about the size of a quarter, they need small mealworms, tiny grubs, sow bugs and small red worms or earthworms. As the young box turtles grow, tiny pieces of plant foods should be offered so they can get used to them.
If it's possible, keep adult box turtles in a safe enclosure outside. Ideally, the enclosure should be at least 10 square feet in size with a fence or wall around it that is at least 2 feet high.
An inside enclosure should be as large as you can make it, but at least 3 feet long and 2 feet wide. The sides of the enclosure shouldn't be glass because turtles don't understand glass and tend to beat themselves up against it. The bedding on the floor of the enclosure can be dirt with leaf litter, potting soil (without fertilizers), leaf mulch or moss.
The box turtle will need a plant saucer set into the ground or bedding for easy access to water for drinking and soaking. The turtle will also need some hiding places for both sleeping and for lying low; a plant pot on its side works well.
The outside enclosure should have both sun and shade so the box turtle can regulate his or her temperature. Inside, the turtle will need artificial heat in one area of the enclosure while the rest of the enclosure is room temperature. Indoor turtles will need to make field trips outside so they can bask in the sun and absorb some vitamin D.
Onyx has lived with us for the past 20 years. She's personable, friendly and will come running toward anyone carrying food. It's amazing how fast she can run!
(Liz Palika, a member of the Pet Connection advisory board, is a San Diego-based reptile expert and dog-trainer as well as an award-winning writer.)
Clean environment key
to minimizing risks
Q: I say pet birds are high risk for passing disease on to people. I think they should be banned. And now everyone wants a chicken coop, including my neighbors. What do you think? -- via e-mail
A: Every animal we meet and especially those with whom we share our lives has the potential to pass health problems to us, whether it's rabies, parasites or salmonella. Medical conditions that can be passed from animals to humans are called "zoonotic."
Like any companion animal, pet birds from parrots to backyard chickens can have the potential to pass disease to their human keepers. The risk is small, but it does exist and needs to be acknowledged. However, as a suburban chicken-keeper with a friendly flock of egg-layers, I am in favor of legalizing backyard chickens and glad to see more cities do so.
The key to avoiding disease transmission from an animal is to educate yourself about risks, work with your veterinarian to keep pets healthy and parasite-free, and use plenty of basic common sense when it comes to hygiene. Keeping a pet healthy, combined with maintaining a clean environment and washing your hands after interacting with any animal, will minimize the small risk that exists.
That said, there is one problem with birds that should be noted: If you have allergies or asthma, you probably should consider avoiding certain species of pet birds, such as the cockatoo, which gives off lots of powdery white dust.
Other than that, I don't lose any sleep worrying about pet birds -- or any other pets, for that matter. As my writing partner, Dr. Marty Becker, always says: "Lose the risk and keep the pet." -- Gina Spadafori
on debark, declaw
-- Close to 60 percent of all Americans and 55 percent of those with cats approve of declawing, but only 8 percent approve of surgically altering a dog's vocal cords. According to an Associated Press-Petside.com poll, about half of pet owners would support a law making debarking illegal, with only 1 percent reporting having had the procedure done on a dog they owned. In contrast, only 18 percent would support a law making declawing illegal.
-- Chinchillas, nocturnal rodents with a lush, soft coat, were first imported to the United States from South America in 1923, promoted as a small business in raising the animals for fur. In the 1960s they began to grow in popularity as pets. Chinchillas can live up to 20 years and are known for taking regular dust baths. They are promoted today as an easy-care pet for those looking for a quiet animal suitable for a small apartment.
-- "Love me, love my pet" is the rule in the United Kingdom, where four out of five residents polled said they would not date someone who didn't like their pet. And they're looking for Mr. or Ms. Pet Lover when they are meeting people: Among dog owners, 5 percent reported meeting someone to date while walking a dog, with the love triangle still going strong for about one-fifth of those who met someone that way. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Dr. Becker can also be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker.