Three-toed Box Turtle Care Sheet

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Three-toed Box Turtle Care Sheet

Three-toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis) North American three-toed box turtles are found in several states west of the Mississippi Rive

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Three-toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis)

North American three-toed box turtles are found in several states west of the Mississippi River including much of Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana. They occur in portions of southeastern Kansas, eastern Oklahoma and the eastern half of Texas. They are also found further east in south-central Mississippi, Alabama and parts of Georgia. The carapace can be brown, yellowish brown or olive with varying amounts of yellow or orange dots or dashes on each scute. The plastron is tan color with none to varying amounts of brown that follow the scute margins. The head and neck is often pigmented with areas of yellow, orange, black and white on brownish skin. Scales on the forelegs are commonly yellow or orange. They are called three-toed box turtles because they usually have only three toes on their hind limbs. Having four toes on the hind limbs is not an uncommon feature however.


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Three-toed Box Turtle Information

Three-Toed Box Turtle Hibernation

Three-toed Box Turtle Availability

Three-toed box turtles are frequently seen in their natural ranges, but should not be collected from the wild because their numbers are constantly being reduced by suburban encroachment, road kill and pollution. Both captive-bred box turtles and long-term pet turtles are available from many sources, including reptile expos, turtle organizations, internet sales and directly from small breeders and owners who want to re-home a turtle. Prices can vary from “free to a good home” to a price usually under $100.

Three-toed Box Turtle Size

Full grown three-toed box turtles are typically 4 to 6 inches long (10.2 to 15.2 cm). They grow rapidly during their first 6 years, but slow down thereafter and reach full size in 12 to 15 years.

Three-toed Box Turtle Life Span

In the seminal study by E. R. Schwartz and C.W. Schwartz (1974): The three-toed box turtle in central Missouri, Part 2: A nineteen year study of home range, movement and population, the authors determined some of the older turtles in their study area to be from 33 to 51 years old. There have been numerous undocumented reports of box turtles living 50 years or more in captivity.


Three-toed Box Turtle Caging

Box turtles do best when they can live outside in large, naturalistic pens. Outdoor enclosures should be built on well-draining soil with rot-resistant walls at least 20 inches tall. A barrier should extend at least 10 inches underground at every perimeter wall to prevent turtles from digging out. Access to sunny spots, as well as shade, should be available so the turtle can thermo-regulate. Small shrubs, dwarf fruiting trees, ground cover and small logs will offer shade, hides and sight breaks for the turtle. Large, shallow water pans should be provided at all times so the turtles have a source of drinking water and for soaking.

The small size of box turtles makes them easy to house indoors. As long as adequate space, proper temperature range, humidity and full spectrum radiation are provided, an owner can keep their box turtle in good health. Indoor habitats should be as large as possible so that light and heat fixtures, as well as hides, sight breaks and water dishes can be properly positioned. A digital thermometer and hygrometer should be installed to avoid guesswork about providing proper temperature and humidity.

Young turtles can develop shell abnormalities if housed in dry conditions. Turtles are less likely to develop ear and eye infections when kept in a humid environment. Combining coconut coir or milled peat moss with sphagnum moss or top soil will produce a good substrate that retains moisture and provides digging opportunities. Avoid using play sand, pine and cedar wood shavings, and paper or clay-based bedding as these products are not suitable for box turtle habitats. Place shallow water dishes in the habitat for drinking and soaking, as well as flat rocks for the turtle to walk over to help keep claws trimmed. If your turtle’s beak or claws are overgrown, you may be able to trim them yourself after consulting with a veterinarian for the proper cutting technique.

Three-toed Box Turtle Lighting and Temperature

A temperature gradient should be maintained in the enclosure with a warm side of 80° F (27° C) and a cooler side about 10 degrees less. A heat lamp or incandescent light bulb can supply heat and a basking area of 85° F (29° C). A mercury vapor bulb (MVB) provides ultraviolet B (UVB) wavelength radiation as well heat. If a MVB is not used, a full-spectrum fluorescent bulb or a compact fluorescent bulb should be used to provide the UVB radiation necessary for synthesis of vitamin D3. Vitamin D3 is required for calcium uptake and is important for proper shell and bone development and maintenance. Lights and heating sources should not be placed too close to the turtle so that overheating or damage to the eyes is avoided. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for safe positioning. Keep lights turned on for 12 to 14 hours a day. A drop in temperature at night is normal, but should not go below 75° F in the winter in order to suppress the urge to hibernate.


Three-toed Box Turtle Food

Captive box turtles can become picky eaters and the best way to prevent this is to provide an assortment of food items at each meal. A variety of foods also help to ensure the turtle receives the nutrition it needs to remain healthy. An adult box turtle can be fed two or three times a week, while hatchlings or young turtles can be fed every other day. Three-toed box turtles will accept a variety of animal and plant matter. Animal matter can include night crawlers, crickets, earthworms, superworms (Zophobas morio), mealworms (Tenebrio), bee moth larvae, and lean cooked beef and poultry. Occasionally, canned or soaked dry dog or cat food can be used. Commercial turtle food is a good source of protein and can be used with dark leafy greens, vegetables, fruits, fungi and occasional live insects to provide a complete diet.

Turtles can be fed most types of fruits, vegetables and fungi. Fruit choices include apples, grapes, cantaloupe, bananas, persimmons, cherries, strawberries and mulberries. Vegetables include lightly steamed sweet potatoes and winter squashes, spine-free Opuntia, zucchini, carrots, tomatoes, corn, green bean and peas. Good options for leafy greens are red leaf lettuce, kale, bibb lettuce and arugula. Even spinach, with its high oxalic acid content, can be used occasionally as long as calcium supplements or cuttlebone are supplied. The danger with any food item is to use one or two exclusively. Provide a cuttlebone to your box turtle at all times. A few times a week, a reptile vitamin and mineral supplement that contains calcium and vitamin D3 should be sprinkled on food at the recommended dosage. Feeding turtles on a hard, flat surface will help to keep beaks trimmed. Remove uneaten food quickly to reduce the occurrence of ants and other pests.

Three-toed Box Turtle Water

Turtles need a constant source of water, whether they are housed indoors or out.  Dehydration is a common cause of illness. Clean water should be provided in shallow containers such as plastic plant saucers or plastic roller paint pans. These are easy to clean and most turtles will enter them without hesitation. If you have a turtle that will not use the pans, try placing the water dish level with the substrate or ground. Often times, very young turtles must be placed in the water. Soak hatchlings and very young turtles in tepid water several times a week for 10-15 minutes to insure they are well hydrated.

Three-toed Box Turtle Health

Box turtles are sturdy reptiles and when given proper diet and housing, will usually stay healthy in captivity. However, when box turtles are subjected to over-crowding, poor diet, dehydration, or sub-optimal housing, they can become ill. Common illnesses and medical conditions include internal and external parasites, shell rot, mouth rot, eye infections, inner ear abscesses and upper respiratory illness. Injuries caused by animal attacks should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible since shell rot and systemic blood infections are frequent outcomes of these wounds. A recently documented disease, an infection caused by the Ranavirus, can quickly decimate a collection of turtles. Quarantine any new turtles for at least 6 months and avoid keeping all turtles in one pen to eliminate some of the risks of cross-contamination. Any deviation from normal behaviors could be a sign of illness and should motivate the owner to seek veterinary advice.


Three-toed Box Turtle Hibernation

Cold temperatures and the lack of food and water prompt three-toed box turtles to seek shelter and overwinter underground to endure the adverse conditions. Although hibernation, or more correctly, brumation, is a normal behavior, it is not without dangers and sometimes box turtles will not survive the winter. They must find a suitable location for a hibernaculum, one that will afford protection from cold, floods, and predators. They must also be in robust health so they don’t succumb to diseases during the winter. Captive box turtles rely on their owners to provide them with the proper care to insure good health, as well as the right type of hibernaculum to safely overwinter. It is a good idea to observe how the pen handles the vagaries of a full winter. These are question you must be able to answer if you intend to hibernate your turtle in its pen: does the area flood in the spring? Is the soil suitable for digging and will it insulate the turtle during the winter? Are a lot of predators attracted to the area? Even mice or rats can kill hibernating turtles. If there is any risk factor or conditions that will not allow for safe hibernation, artificial hibernation is an option. 

Three-toed Box Turtle Handling and Temperament

Most box turtles appear to recognize their owner’s touch and voice and will tolerate gentle handling. Some box turtles don’t like to be held but can still be enjoyed as pets—even the most taciturn box turtle will usually come out of hiding if they sense you have brought out a treat. Box turtles should never have free range inside a room or home. They can become lost or get hurt, and over longer time periods, will suffer from inadequate temperature and humidity. No matter how endearing a box turtle becomes (and they can be quite engaging), remember that their biology necessitates a specialized environment, diet and care.

For more detailed information about three-toed box turtle care, look for Tess Cook’s book, Box Turtles, or visit her website at


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