Three-Toed Box Turtles

Three-toed Box Turtle, Terrapene carolina triunguis, central USA

James Gerholdt / Getty Images

The three-toed box turtle is named for the number of toes on each of its hind feet. Other box turtles have four toes on their back feet. These handsome, classic-looking turtles are native to the United States and are among the most popular pets for turtle enthusiasts.

Three-toed box turtles—box turtles in general—aren't especially well-suited to be pets for new turtle owners or in homes with very young children. They actually require a significant amount of care compared to other species of turtles and prefer consistency in their environments. Even just a ride to the veterinarian can prove stressful for a box turtle. 

Breed Overview

Common Name: Three-toed box turtle, 

Scientific Name: Terrapene carolina triunguis

Adult Size: Roughly 3 1/2 to 5 inches in length 

Life Expectancy: Up to 100 years in the wild, usually 30 to 40 years in captivity

Difficulty of Care: Advanced

Three-toed box turtles have a high domed carapace or shell, that is usually olive-brown with some yellow markings. On the plastron or chest, there may be dark areas. The skin is brown with some yellow spots, and the males may have red markings on their heads, and sometimes red, orange, and black on the neck and forelegs.

Males often have red or orange markings on the head and sometimes the neck and forelegs. They also have longer, thicker tails than the females. In addition, the plastron is slightly concave in males and flatter in females. Males have red irises. Typically, the claws on the hind feet are shorter and more curved than those on the females.

Behavior and Temperament

Three-toed box turtles can live in a wide variety of habitats, from woodlands to meadows, but are usually found near a water source. They often venture into shallow water, perhaps more so than other North American box turtles.

As with other North American box turtles, three-toed box turtles hibernate when it is colder; in warmer climates, they stay active longer. They are found from Missouri south to Texas and Alabama. 

Most box turtles are not good options as pets for young children. These animals don't like to be handled and can suffer stress-related health problems if they are handled.

In the wild, three-toed box turtles have been observed migrating with the seasons, since they prefer humid environments. They also seek out water and soak for long stretches if they feel safe doing so. Three-toed box turtles are more likely to spend extended time in the water than other box turtles.

If their habitat becomes too dry, three-toed box turtles in the wild may burrow into leaves or other ground covers to better retain moisture. 


While it is possible to keep three-toed box turtles, especially hatchlings and juveniles, in a large indoor terrarium (aquariums are too small), they do much better in outdoor enclosures where the climate is agreeable. They should have easy access to a shallow pan of water at all times, access to hiding spots, and loose litter for burrowing.

It is not unusual for three-toed box turtles to wade into shallow water to drink and have a soak, more so than other North American species. Provide a large shallow pan of clean water at all times, but make sure they can easily get in and out of the water without tipping or drowning.

Regularly mist their pen or run a sprinkler for added moisture, as even in captivity, three-toed box turtles prefer a bit more humidity than others.


If kept in an outdoor pen, make sure there are both sunny and shady areas available, as the turtle should be able to move from cooler to warmer areas as necessary. Indoors, a terrarium including both a heat source and a UVB-emitting reptile light is essential.

Provide a basking spot with temperatures of 85 to 88 F, maintaining the terrarium with a gradient down to about 75 F. The nighttime temperature should not drop below 70 F.

Food and Water

Adult three-toed box turtles are omnivores. Approximately half of their diet should be made up of vegetables, fruit, and hay/grasses. The remainder is made up of low-fat protein sources; whole live foods are ideal (earthworms, slugs, snails, mealworms, crickets, grasshoppers, small fish, etc) but cooked lean meats and low-fat dog food can be added as a supplement. Hatchlings are more carnivorous.

Common Health Problems

Like other breeds of turtle, box turtles are susceptible to Vitamin A deficiency, shell rot, and internal parasites. Respiratory infections also are common. 

Vitamin A deficiency is usually the result of a nutrient-poor diet. Although they like leafy greens, some varieties, like iceberg lettuce, don't have enough nutritional value for turtles. The signs of a respiratory infection include open-mouthed breathing, wheezing, nasal discharge, and drooling. These two conditions often go hand in hand.

Shell rot is the result of either a bacterial or fungal infection. This condition is serious and painful for the turtle and, like other common ailments, should be treated by a veterinarian who specializes in reptiles. Shell rot sometimes appears following an injury to the turtle's shell.

Parasitic infections are usually difficult to detect except during a veterinary exam. 

Choosing Your 3-Toed Box Turtle

Box turtle populations are declining around the world. Many states protect box turtle populations and have laws against collecting box turtles from the wild. It is best to get a pet box turtle bred in captivity from a reputable breeder, most will not sell a turtle that has health issues. Any bumps or redness on the shell, mucus in the nasal area or mouth, or cloudy eyes may indicate a turtle with health problems. 

Wild-caught turtles do not adjust well to captivity and may die from stress. "Unfortunately, thousands of box turtles are still collected annually to supply the demands of the pet trade. Most of these turtles—which live for decades in the wild—will die within 12 months of capture."

Different Species of Box Turtles

If you’re interested in pet box turtles, check out: