Three-toed box turtle species profile

The three-toed box turtle, found from southern Missouri to Texas and Alabama, is named for the three toes on its hind feet. There are four other box turtles. Native to the United States, these handsome, classic-looking turtles are one of the most popular pets for turtle lovers. However, three-toed box turtles (and box turtles in general) are not particularly suitable as pets for new turtle owners or homes with young children. These animals do not like to be petted and may develop stress-related health problems if held up. They actually require a lot of care and prefer the consistency of their environment compared to other species of turtles; even just going to the vet can be stressful for box turtles. This is why these turtles should only be taken by senior turtle keepers.

Species Overview

common name: Three-toed box turtle

Scientific name: Terrapene carolina triunguis

adult size: 3 1/2 to 5 inches long

life expectancy: Up to 100 years in the wild; 30 to 40 years if kept in captivity and properly cared for; only one year if transferred from the wild

The three-toed box turtle has a tall, domed carapace (dorsal shell) that is usually olive brown with some yellow markings. There may be black spots on the plastron (belly or thorax). The skin is brown with some yellow spots, and males may have red markings on the head and occasional red, orange and black on the neck and front legs.

Males usually have red or orange markings on the head and sometimes on the neck and front legs. They also have longer and thicker tails than females. In addition, the plastron of males is slightly concave, and the plastron of females is flatter. Males have red irises and usually have shorter and more curved claws on the hind feet than females.

Behavior and temperament of the three-toed box turtle

Three-toed box turtles can live in a variety of habitats, from woodland to grassland, but they are usually found near water sources. They often venture into shallow waters and may be more adventurous than other box turtles.

In the wild, three-toed box turtles have been observed to migrate seasonally because they prefer wet conditions. Like their cousins, three-toed box turtles hibernate in cold weather. In warm climates, they remain active.

Compared to most North American tortoises, it is not uncommon for three-toed box turtles to wade into shallow water for a bath. If they feel safe doing so, they will also seek out water and soak for long periods of time. Three-toed box turtles are more likely to spend longer periods of time in the water than other box turtles. If their environment becomes too dry, three-toed box turtles in the wild may burrow into leaves or other ground cover to better retain moisture.

Housing a three-toed box turtle

They do better outside if the weather is nice. Build your outdoor enclosure on well-drained soil and use a non-toxic, anti-corrosion wall at least 20 inches high; the wall barrier should also extend down, at least 10 inches below ground, to prevent your turtles from digging to escape. The minimum size is four feet wide and four feet long, but it is best to double the length to eight feet.

This species needs space to roam and dig. While larvae and juveniles can be raised in large indoor terrariums (aquariums are too small), adults need more space. Each turtle in the enclosure requires at least 3 square feet of floor space per 8 inches of shell length. Teens need an area of ​​at least two square feet.

Whether indoors or outdoors, they should have easy access to available hiding spots and loose-leaf litter to burrow. Always provide a large, shallow pan of clean water, but make sure they can easily get in and out of the water without tipping over and potentially drowning.


When they are kept indoors in terrariums, maintain a daytime temperature gradient from about 75 F on the cold side to basking with temperatures of 85 to 88 F. No part of the enclosure should have nighttime temperatures below 70 F. Use a ceramic heater as a heat source.

If your turtle is kept in an outdoor enclosure, make sure there is a sunny and shady area, including under the hideout. Each turtle should be able to move from cooler to warmer areas of their choosing.


These turtles need exposure to UV light to produce vitamin D3 so they can properly absorb calcium from their diet. Includes UVB emitting reptile light. Without it, your turtle can become lethargic, lose appetite, and even develop metabolic bone disease (MBD), which causes abnormal growth and development.


Box turtles are much less likely to develop any infection in a humid environment. Spray their pens regularly or run a sprinkler to add moisture, as three-toed box turtles prefer humidity more than other turtles, even in captivity.

Adding a weak heater above the water bowl will also cause some evaporation to increase humidity. Make sure to keep the heaters safely away from the turtles at all times, as they do get hot enough to cause burns. Add a hygrometer to the enclosure to ensure humidity stays around 70% to 80%.


These turtles need a moist (but not wet) ground layer or substrate. Coconut husk fibers (animal beds, eco earth, forest beds, etc.) are an ideal natural material to retain moisture. Bark chips and clean sand can be mixed in. Other good materials include cypress mulch, peat moss, or topsoil mixed with sand.Apply a depth of at least three inches to allow for digging

Avoid perlite, vermiculite, and Styrofoam as they can cause intestinal impaction problems when ingested intentionally or unintentionally. Coarse gravel, silica, calcium sand, cat litter, and walnut shells have all been linked to causing small abrasions on the turtle’s exterior that often lead to chronic infections. In addition, inked newspaper, rodent pellet litter, aspen shavings, pine bark, and cedar are all common pet substrates that are moderately toxic and can cause breathing problems and even death in reptiles.

A generationIf your living space is very dry and maintaining humidity is a challenge, there is a workaround that works well to maintain consistent and even hydration of the habitat through evaporation. In the waterproof enclosure, start with a layer of pea gravel (preferably a medium size). In an easily accessible corner, pile gravel an inch high for a downspout or water delivery channel. Then add clean (non-chlorinated) water until half the average gravel depth is reached. Use the substrate material of your choice as the top layer. You must periodically replenish the evaporated water by adding to the gravel inlet corners.

food and water

While hatchlings are juveniles and more carnivorous for growth, adult three-toed box turtles are omnivores. About half of their diet should consist of vegetables, fruits, and hay/grass; the rest should consist of low-fat protein sources. Whole live foods are ideal (earthworms, slugs, snails, mealworms, crickets, grasshoppers, small fish, etc.), but can be supplemented with cooked lean meats and low-fat, high-quality dog ​​food.

To prevent non-foraging turtles in captivity from becoming obese, the amount of feeding should be whatever they eat within 10 minutes. If using this schedule, feed your turtle no more than three days a week. If feeding juveniles, feed them every other day. Only give them what they eat within 10 minutes; feed them in the morning or afternoon, matching when your turtle is usually most active.

Common Health and Behavioral Issues

Respiratory infections are common among these turtles. Signs of a respiratory infection include mouth breathing, wheezing, runny nose, and drooling. These can be caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi, but turtles are more susceptible to certain conditions: vitamin A deficiency, cage air that is too cold or dry, and poor nutrition. .

Vitamin A deficiency is often the result of a nutrient-poor diet. Although they will eat any leafy green vegetable, some varieties, such as iceberg lettuce, are not nutritionally sufficient for turtles’ needs.

Shell rot is the result of a bacterial or fungal infection. This condition is serious and distressing to turtles and, like other common diseases, should be treated by a veterinarian who specializes in reptiles. Tortoise shell rot sometimes occurs after an injury to the shell.

Choose your three-toed box turtle

Box turtle populations are declining around the world; many states in the United States protect box turtle populations and have laws prohibiting the collection of box turtles from the wild. Unfortunately, thousands of box turtles are still collected each year to meet the needs of the pet trade. Most of these turtles (which have lived in the wild for decades) will die within 12 months of capture, as all wild-caught specimens do not adapt well to captivity and tend to die from stress.

It is best to obtain captive box turtles from a reputable breeder, as most people will not sell turtles with health issues. Any lumps or redness on the shell, mucus in the nose or mouth, or cloudy eyes may indicate a health problem in the turtle.

Similar Breeds of Box Turtles

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