Three-Toed Box Turtle Care: Essential Tips For A Long & Happy Life

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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I get it! You want your pet three-toed box turtle to live to the fullest! But are you sure the care sheet you follow is up to the mark? Today, I will give away a fool-proof care guide for the three-toed box turtles with all essential tips and tricks.

Arrange a minimum 10 × 12 feet pen for an adult three-toed box turtle with heating and UV lamps. The basking temperature and humidity should be 85 – 88F and 60%, respectively. Also, prepare a meal with both animal and plant matter. Finally, take the pet for regular medical checkups.

Keep reading for more details.

Three-Toed Box Turtle: Species Summary

Scientific NameTerrapene carolina triunguis
SizeUp to 7 inches
NativeSouth-Central United States
HabitatGrassland near water sources
LifespanMore than 50 years
Price$140 to $430

Appearance: How Do Three-Toed Box Turtles Look?

The three-toed box turtles do not have the brightest colors. Instead, the creatures are drab.

Take the shells as examples. The three-toed box turtle shells are olive-brown and miss the usual yellow, red, or orange pattern burst like other box turtles.

Well, the carapace can be tan or light yellow other than olive. The plastron is usually yellow with no marks. You will observe dark borders on each scute.

These small box turtles have narrow domed shells with keels running through the center. The skin color of three-toed turtles ranges from dark brown to black.

A distinguishing characteristic of the three-toed turtles is the bright scales on their heads and forelimbs. These scales are generally brighter for males than the females.

Do you know that three-toed turtles have 3 toes on their back feet? This is why the species is named so.

However, some people have claimed to spot three-toed box turtles with 4 toes on the back feet. The chances are that these are the hybrid offspring of three-toed box turtles and eastern box turtles.

Size: How Big Do Three-Toed Box Turtles Get?

Three-toed turtles are smaller than their close relatives. They grow not more than 3 – 6.5 inches, while some box turtles cross 7 inches carapace length.

However, exceptions can occur when the three-toed box turtles may reach more than 7 inches. In any case, the adult males are slightly smaller than the adult females.

Habitat: Where Are The Three-Toed Box Turtles From?

As you know, box turtles are not the best swimmers. Sure, they will manage to float in the water for 20 – 30 minutes, but then the pets will give up. No wonder why experts advise against housing the box turtles in water.

The three-toed box turtles are no different from their relatives. These box turtles can not live in water either. Instead, they inhabit woody and grassy lands near a freshwater source. In captivity, you can replicate the habitat with substrate like leaf liffer and bushy plants.

Geographically, three-toed turtles are endemic to the South-Central United States. You will find these creatures from Missouri to Oklahama, west into Texas, and south to Alabama. The three-toed box turtles are the official state reptiles of Missouri.

Lifespan: How Long Do Three-Toed Box Turtles Live?

Unfortunately, the experts can not agree on an exact life expectancy range for three-toed box turtles. From the available data, it is assumed that this species can live up to 50 years. However, some individuals claim to encounter three-toed box turtles of 70 and even 100 years old.

Behavior & Temperament: Do Three-Toed Box Turtles Bite?

Three-toed box turtles are cute and docile species that love interacting with their owners. But under some circumstances, these friendly pets can get aggressive. Such as frequent handling, loud noise, constant poking, or other threats.

An aggressive three-toed box turtle may attack the opponent without a second thought. The turtle will bite or kick the predator or threat.

Well, the bite of three-toed box turtles is not dangerous. It may leave a reddishness on your skin or make you bleed at best.

However, some owners have claimed that three-toed box turtles do not bite in any condition. The experience of raising the same species can vary depending on the keeper and care sheet.

How To Determine The Three-Toed Box Turtle Gender?

I have already pointed out a few differences between the male and female three-toed box turtles. For starters, the adult females are slightly bigger than the males of the same age.

Again, the heads and necks of male three-toed box turtles are covered with brighter yellow or orange patterns. The male eyes are usually red, while the females have yellow-brown eyes.

Moreover, these turtles show differences in the tail and shell structure too. For example, the male three-toed box turtles have a concave plastron and a thicker tail. On the contrary, the female tails are small and thin.

Do you want to learn the easiest way to determine the gender of a turtle? Give this article a read for the tricks.

Three-Toed Box Turtles Habitat Set Up

Well, the background research on the three-toed turtles definitely helps you know the species better. Now you can bond with your turtles more easily. Also, making decisions on the habitat type, community living arrangements, or breeding gets less complicated.

See also  Are Box Turtles An Endangered Species?

I will focus on the tank setup and related care tips in the upcoming sections.

Tank Size For Three-Toed Box Turtles

As mentioned, the majority of three-toed box turtles grow up to 6.5 inches. So, they do not require a big enclosure to thrive.

Habitats with 4 * 4 or 6 * 3 will work for babies and juveniles. In other words, you need at least 16 – 18 inches of floor space.

The pen size surely needs an upgrade as your three-toed box turtles grow into adults. For example, manage a 10 * 12 square feet enclosure for the pet.

Customizing the box turtle enclosure size will help raise the pet more effortlessly. But of course, investing in ready-made commercial tanks also suits the species. If you follow the rule of thumb, a 5.5 inches three-toed box turtle requires a 55-gallon tank.

Hey, remember! I have only stated the minimum enclosure size requirement for the three-toed box turtles. You can invest in a bigger habitat without any hesitation. The three-toed turtles love extra space.

In any case, do not forget to build high walls. The experts advise making the walls at least 2 feet tall so that the turtles can not escape the housing.

One more thing! Three-toed box turtles are okay with both indoor and outdoor habitats. If you live in the native regions of the subspecies, do go for outdoor living arrangements. But sure, you must put some fencing and chicken wire coverings around the turtle house to restrict the predators.

However, indoor enclosures are also fine if you can not manage outdoor space.

Do Three-Toed Box Turtles Require Substrate?

All box turtle subspecies, including the three-toed box turtles, must have a substrate-layered enclosure. Such beddings can retain humidity and maintain the perfect moisture percentage in the pen. Also, you can grow plants on the substrates to replicate the wild environment inside.

A substrate is required in the indoor and outdoor housing of three-toed box turtles. For an inside home, the layer must be 4 inches. But the bedding should be at least 12 inches thick for outside arrangements.

Preferable and safe substrate options for three-toed box turtle habitat are,

  • Richly organic, moisture-retentive soil
  • Cypress mulch
  • Coconut husk fiber with bark chip and sand
  • Coconut coir with sphagnum moss or topsoil
  • Peat moss with sphagnum moss or topsoil
  • Leaf litter, etc.

The three-toed box turtles will eat or poop on the same substrates. Therefore, you need to keep the bedding clean to prevent bacterial growth. It is advised to change the substrate every 3 – 4 months.

Well, not all beddings are safe for pets. For example, sand, paper, aspen, pine or cedar wood shavings, rodent pellets, and clay-based substrates.

To be safe, you can go with the commercial bedding. Get my recommendations on the best substrate for three-toed box turtles from this write-up.

Do Three-Toed Box Turtles Need A Heating Lamp?

External heating is necessary for all turtles, including the three-toed box turtles. See, this species is ectothermic and can not regulate its body temperatures as we do. So, when the outside temperature falls, these turtles also get cold.

A constant low temperature triggers a temporary biological function of the three-toed box turtles. The creatures will slow their metabolism to cope with the temperature drop. Thus, you will notice the pets getting inactive day by day.

Besides, the cold temperature promotes bacterial or other harmful microorganism growth in the enclosure. Therefore, box turtles are at more risk of falling sick.

The only solution is to arrange an artificial heating light for the three-toed box turtles. You can buy a commercial lamp for the indoor turtles, while the sun is enough for the outdoor pets.

Do not buy the home-watt bulbs as a heating alternative for the box turtles. Those bulbs can not generate enough heat for the reptiles.

Keep the bulb on for 10-12 hours a day and turn it off at night. Depending on the weather and region, you may have to keep the light on for 14 hours.

Remember, it is essential to set the lamp in the right position. It should be right above the basking dock, creating the hottest zone underneath and a temperature gradient around.

Is An UV Lamp Necessary For Three-Toed Box Turtles?

UV rays are equally important for all turtle species. Of course, the sun is the ultimate source of UVs. Hence, outdoors, the three-toed box turtles require no additional sources to fulfill their UVA and UVB needs.

On the contrary, indoor three-toed box turtles can not access enough daylight. Therefore, you must install an artificial UV source in their enclosure.

What if you don’t set up any UV lamp in the pen? What happens?

UV rays are a combination of UVA, UVB, and UVC. While UVC harms the turtles, UVA and UVB are essential for their biological functions.

For example, the UVA helps the turtles hold their chills and relax. Besides, the rays also contribute to the healthy metabolism and appetite of the pets.

UVB, on the contrary, is primarily linked to calcium production. The more calcium in the system, the more vitamin D absorption. As a result, the three-toed box turtle can develop a solid shell and bone structure. The UVB exposures also help build immunity, appetite, and digestive system.

Three-toed box turtles with no or insufficient UV access develop weak skeleton structures. They often suffer from soft bone or shell disease and abnormal growth.

In fact, as per a report, baby turtles with inadequate UV exposure die within a year. Even if they survive, the hatchlings grow weak and can not enjoy a full lifespan.

Tragic! Hah?

If you do not want your three-toed box turtles to fall into a trap with such conditions, install a quality UV lamp immediately.

There are certain rules about UV setup that you should know. I have discussed those elaborately in this article. Let let me give you an overview,

  • Do not fall for the full-spectrum UV lamps. The 5% UV lights are suitable for the three-toed box turtles.
  • Maintain a minimum distance between the UV lamp and the ground. For example, set up the bulb at least 18 inches over the dock.
  • Keep the UV bulb on for 10 – 12 hours daily and turn it off at night.
  • Replace the old UV lamp with a new one every 6 months.
See also  How To Take Care Of Eastern Box Turtle? [Fool-proof Guide]

Environment Requirement For Three-Toed Box Turtles

I have already mentioned the significance of proper temperature in the previous section. The right humidity in the enclosure is equally important.

For example, low moisture content makes the shell and skin flaky. Similarly, the high humidity percentage leads to a damp pen, causing a bacterial or fungal outbreak.

The ideal environmental quality for three-toed box turtles is given below,

Day TemperatureNight TemperatureBasking TemperatureHumidity Percentage
70-75°F (21-24°C)65-70°F (18-21°C)85-88°F (29-31°C)60%

Three-Toed Box Turtle Diet: What Do They Eat?

More or less, all box turtle subspecies are omnivores and almost anything. However, the hatchlings and juveniles show more carnivorous traits, while the adults are omnivorous. Sometimes the old three-toed box turtles enjoy a herbivorous diet rather than animal proteins.

I am sure the food preferences are already making you confused. But do not worry. The experts suggest adding plant matter and animal protein in a 1:1 portion. Besides, pellets and supplements are always there to complement the meals.

Yes, fruits are allowed. But use these sugary items only as treats. Too much fruit in the meal will make the three-toed box turtles sick.

Moreover, go through the nutrition percentage when picking up the items for each meal. You need to avoid toxic elements at any cost. To make your food choices easy, I am adding a safe diet list for turtles.


  • Acorn
  • Butternut
  • Pumpkin
  • Zucchini
  • Bell peppers
  • Carrots
  • Green beans
  • Okra
  • Cactus pad and fruit
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Potatoes
  • Corn
  • Tomatoes
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Beets
  • Cucumber
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Chinese and green cabbage

Green Leafy Vegetables:

  • Collard greens
  • Mustard greens
  • Parsley
  • Endive or escarole
  • Dandelion greens
  • Beet tops
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Turnip
  • Watercress
  • Clover

Animal Protein:

  • Crickets
  • Earthworms
  • Grasshoppers
  • Beetles
  • Caterpillars
  • Mealworms
  • Waxworms
  • Super worms
  • Red worms
  • Snails
  • Slugs
  • Minnows
  • Cooked meat (without spice)
  • High-quality, low-fat dog food


  • Strawberries
  • Raspberries
  • Cranberries
  • Blackberries
  • Apples
  • Apricots
  • Bananas
  • Figs
  • Grapes
  • Kiwis
  • Melons
  • Peaches
  • Plums
  • Papaya
  • Cherries
  • Watermelon

Commercial Food:

  • Pellets


  • Multivitamin
  • Calcium
  • Vitamin D

Foods To Avoid:

  • Tomato leaves and vines
  • Avocado peel, seed, and leaves
  • Tobacco plant
  • Poisonous ivy
  • Potato leave
  • Dairy products
  • Processed food
  • Candy
  • Junk food

How Much Should You Feed A Three-Toed Box Turtle?

Overfeeding the three-toed box turtles poses serious issues. For example, pets can fall victim to obesity or shedding. So, to be the safe side, determine the right quantity for the turtle first. 2 most popular methods are,

The Head Method: To follow this technique, take a container about the size of the turtle’s head if it were empty. Fill the bowl with a balanced meal and offer the pet. As the head size increases with growing age, you need to keep upgrading the container with time.

The 15-Minute Rule: Experts believe 15 minutes is enough for a turtle to fill its tummy. From this thought, the owners are encouraged to allow their turtles to eat the meal for only 15 minutes.

How Often To Feed A Three-Toed Box Turtle?

The appetite of three-toed box turtles varies with age. Generally, baby box turtles are the most hungry, and they require more nutrition to build their body. So, you must feed the three-toed box turtle hatchlings every day.

Juvenile and young three-toed box turtles (8 – 12 months) are okay with a meal every 2 days. Finally, for the adults, prepare meals once every 3 days.

The diet chart must include the foods safe and suitable for the turtles of that particular age. You can access more details on the feeding guide of the three-toed box turtles from my previous article.

Do Three-Toed Box Turtles Require A Water Source?

Well, three-toed box turtles are not the masters of the water. Agreed. But of course, they need water to drink and bathe. A shallow pool in the outdoor yard and a bowl indoors will be excellent water sources for these pets.

Remember to keep the water fresh and change it every day. It is because turtles sometimes tend to urinate and take a dump when soaking their bodies.

Three-Toed Turtle Potential Diseases & Care

Well, three-toed box turtles indeed have the resilience to survive any situation. But when it comes to sickness, these hardy creatures fall vulnerable. Prior knowledge of the possible health conditions, their signs, and treatment gives you the advantage to act right on time.

I have added 6 common diseases of three-toed box turtles and their treatments below,

1. Vitamin A Deficiency:

Lack of vitamin A in the meals causes hypovitaminosis in the three-toed box turtles. Swollen eyes, puffy eyelids, appetite loss, weight loss, and the emergence of other infectious diseases are the symptoms of hypovitaminosis. A vitamin A diet and antibiotic shots cure this condition in box turtles.

2. Respiratory Infection:

Main 3 causes of respiratory illness in three-toed box turtles are,

  • Untreated vitamin A deficiency
  • Cold weather
  • Infectious attack on the respiratory tract

The respiratory sickness is quite severe, and the signs of this disease are always visible. For example, runny nose, teary eyes, sneezing, wheezing, weakness, etc.

Urgent medical attention is necessary for curing respiratory illness in the three-toed box turtles. The vet will suggest antibiotics and a nutritious diet to quicken the healing process. Besides, you must ensure enclosure hygiene and a warm temperature for the pets’ recovery.

3. Ear Abscess:

A cheesy lump on the side of the turtle’s head is nothing but an ear abscess. The pus of dead tissue starts swelling at one point, making the pet uncomfortable. In fact, sometimes, the lump bursts into pieces on its own.

Infection in the middle ear, untreated hypovitaminosis, or prolonged vitamin A deficiency is primarily responsible for the ear abscess. You must take the sick three-toed box turtle to a vet for the lump operation.

4. Shell Diseases:

Three-toed box turtles are vulnerable to different shell conditions. Shell rot, shell peeling, cracked shell, and pyramiding are the most common.

The scutes are heavily infected with bacteria, viruses, or fungi in shell rot. Anti-bacterial or similar solutions and healing creams are recommended in this treatment.

See also  How To Setup The Perfect Indoor Box Turtle Habitat?

Pyramiding, conversely, is the result of overfeeding of protein. Thus, controlling the diet is enough to stop the abnormal shell growth of the three-toed box turtles.

Again, the cracked or punctured shells can easily lead to shell rot if the wound is not treated immediately. Though turtle shells heal independently, you should fill the holes with epoxy-based composite. Talk to an expert for more help.

5. Metabolic Bone Disease:

Lack of vitamin D3 and calcium causes soft and deformed bones and shells. Such conditions are referred to as MBD or metabolic bone disease. It usually occurs when a quality UV lamp is absent from the three-toed box turtle habitat.

Soft shells, lumps on the spine, deformed limbs, etc., are indications of MBD. Feeding the turtle calcium supplements and installing a quality UV lamp in the enclosure is the cure for this disease.

6. Parasite Attack:

Dirty enclosure is the breeding ground for larvae and grubs. Eventually, these organisms can enter the three-toed box turtle’s system, making the pet sick.

Vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, stomachache, etc., are the effects of parasite attack. Deworming the three-toed box turtles regularly can build a defense against these parasites.

This article will cover symptoms, causes, and treatments of 32 other box turtle diseases.

Can You House Three-Toed Box Turtles With Other Turtles?

Well, obviously, you can not raise three-toed box turtles with aquatic or semi-aquatic species. But yes, housing multiple box turtles is possible. Yes, the species is shy and prefers a lonely habitat. However, a company with adjustable space and food can be a fun experience for the box turtles.

Certain conditions are there for raising more than one three-toed box turtle in a single enclosure. For example, you must manage enough space so that the turtles can live without the battle for territory. Also, you need to take care of the food and basking crisis.

Sometimes, the fight is mandatory, especially when you try housing male adult box turtles with females or babies. It is because the males are a little aggressive and crave social power. If you see your pets fighting, separate them immediately.

But then again, there is a high chance that the three-toed box turtles will live together without complaint. For more tips on housing multiple box turtles, follow this article link.

Three-Toed Box Turtle Breed Care

Breeding the three-toed box turtles is not the best idea if you have no prior experience. One wrong move can damage the health of the pair. But, of course, breeding box turtles with enough knowledge is safe.

First, select an adult male and female pair to breed your three-toed box turtles. The couple must be physically and mentally fit to participate in the copulation. So, recheck the gender and health of the pair before putting them in the same enclosure.

If the couple gets along, they will soon get involved in mating. In many cases, the female refuses to participate in the copulation, which raises unwanted fighting in the pen. Besides, the male turtles often become aggressive during the process. Thus, the female three-toed box turtles can get hurt physically and stress over the incident.

For this reason, experts suggest maintaining a male-female ratio in the enclosure. As per the rule, more females must be against one male to minimize the damage.

Separate the pair right after a successful mating. The female will enter the gestation period soon. Three-toed box turtles with eggs show a behavior change. For example, digging soil, weird walking patterns, and less appetite and energy.

If you notice the female three-toed box turtle carrying eggs, prepare a nesting box for it. Commercial boxes are available in the pet store, or you can DIY one for the pet. In this article, I have described the right way of pulling off a nesting site for box turtles at home.

After depositing the eggs, the mother turtle will peck down the nest and leave the spot. Usually, each clutch includes 3 to 8 oval-shaped eggs. You have to collect the eggs afterward and incubate them for 70 to 120 days. The ideal incubation temperature for three-toed box turtles is 84 to 88F.

Once the hatchlings come out, move them to a properly furnished enclosure with heat and UV rays.

mexican box turtle

Hibernating Care Of Three-Toed Box Turtles

Three-toed box turtles prepare for hibernation in the colder weather. Generally, temperature below 60F is too cold for these creatures, and so they shut down their metabolism.

The box turtles will drop their heart rate and oxygen consumption to adapt to the weather. They will not drink or eat and spend the winter sleeping.

Of course, unlike aquatic or semi-aquatic turtles, three-toed box turtles do not hibernate at the bottom of the pond. Instead, these turtles burrow 10 – 15 cm below the soil or a dry leaf damp. The hibernating box turtles wake up as the temperature rises to normal.

Hibernating the turtles, especially the babies, is discouraged in captivity. If you plan to do so, prepare the turtles beforehand. For example, feed the turtles well to make them physically fit. The turtle should be fasting for about 1 month before hibernation.

Allowing the three-toed box turtles to hibernate outdoors is not secure. So, arrange an indoor space for the hibernating turtles, for example, cold storage or a refrigerator. When the winter ends, wake the pets up by increasing the temperature gradually.

Click here to get more details on the box turtle’s hibernation process.

Are Three-Toed Box Turtles Good As pets?

Three-toed box turtles are one of the best beginner box turtles. It is because they are easy maintenance and fun to handle. The turtle is definitely shy, but it develops a bond with the owner over time.

You can house the three-toed box turtles either outdoors or indoors. As the turtle is a land creature, changing water every week is not easy.

Yes, the three-toed box turtles are a little over the budget. You need to pay $140 – $430 to own one of these subspecies. But trust me! These turtles are worth every penny!

Before You Go

Ornate box turtles are also an excellent option for keepers. Yes, the turtles are more expensive than the three-toed box turtles. But the care sheet is similar. I have attached a detailed care guide specially drafted for the ornate box turtles.

How To Take Care Of Ornate Box Turtles

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About Author

Muntaseer Rahman started keeping pet turtles back in 2013. He also owns the largest Turtle & Tortoise Facebook community in Bangladesh. These days he is mostly active on Facebook.


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