Three-Toed Box Turtle: Ultimate Guide

Found in several states west of the Mississippi river the three-toed box turtle is named for the three toes on its hind feet. Though they may be small and cute, this species of turtle is not best suited for first timers as they can prove very difficult to keep happy.

So If you’re thinking about getting one of these handsome boys, read on for everything you ever wanted to know about owning one of these these three-toed reptiles!

Male vs Female

It is quite easy to determine the sex of a box turtle. Compared to females the males have longer thicker tales, shorter claes and have a slightly curved shape. A female will on average be larger than a male and the colors will be much more muted.


The easiest way to identify a three-toed box turtle is by, you guessed it! Checking how many toes they have on their hind limbs –  the three toes are something unique to the species as other box turtles have four. 

The carapace is a shade of brown or mobile with some yellow or orange spots and their skin is brown and the neck, forelegs and head are often pigmented with areas of yellow, orange, black and white.

As a Pet

The three-toed box turtle is a popular pet for turtle enthusiasts throughout the US but these turtles aren’t for the inexperienced turtle owner or for families with young children. Box turtles do not like to be handled and as a result can suffer from stress related health problems if they are picked up and handled (even just a ride to the vet can prove stressful for a box turtle).

They enjoy consistency in environments and require a significant amount of care making them a pet that should only be taken on by the experienced turtle keeper. 


In the wild a three-toed box turtle can live up to 100 years and some turtles in captivity have been known to live well above 70 years old.

The Expected Lifespan 

Though some have been known to clock in an impressive amount of years, the average captive bred three-toed will likely live for 30-40 years – which is certainly a big commitment!


In order to protect themselves from predators, these turtles are able to pull their heads, legs, and tails into their shells. Box turtles as a species have the additional ability to clamp their shells completely shut and because the shell is made of bone, very few predators can successfully prey on an adult turtle.

They also have claws on the end of their toes to help them with digging and sharp edges on their jaw (known as a beak) to aid with eating and digestion!

Breeding Season

The breeding of captive three-toed box turtles can be easily achieved if they are kept in their natural climate. The breeding season is usually between spring and summer though it is possible for females who have not bred for as long as four year to still produce viable eggs due to their ability to retain sperm.


A pregnant female will seek out a warm, moist area in which to dig her nest, in which she will likely laye between 3-8 eggs. Once the eggs have been laid the female will go to great lengths to ensure that the nest is completely hidden from sight. Eggs incubate successfully between 84 and 88 degrees Fahrenheit, and on average take about 70 days to hatch.

Growth Rate

A full grown three-toed box turtle can range anywhere between 3 ½ to 6 inches long. They grow quite rapidly in the first 6 years of their life but slow down until they reach their full size at around 12 – 15 years.

Life Cycle

Three-toed box turtle eggs take around 70 days to hatch. They reach sexual maturity at around 4-5 years of age, and will then continue to mate over their 40 year long lives. 


You can keep your three-toed box turtle in groups but there should be no more than four or five. The male to female ratio should be an even split or the female should outnumber the males. If there are too many males this can result in aggressive behaviour.


You should remember to feed your box turtle a varied and nutritious diet, to help them stay healthy and happy/ Being omnivorous Half of their diet should consist of fruit, veggies and grasses and the other half should be low fat proteins like worms, snails, crickets, small fish and grasshoppers. Good quality dog food and cooked lean meat is also a suitable addition to their meal.


Both the three-toed box turtle and their eggs are vulnerable to falling prey to a manner of wild animals. The most common predators for these turtles are coyotes, raccoons and even some birds of prey.

Roaming Range

The three-toed box turtle needs plenty of room to roam and dig. Each adult needs three square feet of floor space for every eight inches of their shell length as a very minimum. If your turtle is a juvenile then it will need two square feet.

This species tends to do much better outdoors, so if the climate suits then it is a good idea to build an outdoor enclosure. This will need to be constructed on well draining soil and will need non toxic rot resistant walls of at least 20 inches tall. Your wall barrier should also extend down 10 inches to prevent your turtle from being able to dig out and escape. The minimum size for the enclosure should be four feet by four feet  but doubling the length to eight feet would be ideal.

If you are unable to house your turtle outdoors then don’t worry, just make sure they have an enclosure of around 48 inches x 12 inches and shy away from using a glass terrarium. Three-toed box turtles can become easily confused by glass and will constantly try to climb the wall. For the turtles own happiness they would prefer a living space that doesn’t have see through walls.

Just make sure that whether your turtle is kept indoors or out that they have easy access to hiding spots, loose leaf litter which they can burrow in and a large shallow pan of clean water.


There are several diseases and illnesses that can affect your three-toed box turtle but a lot can be avoided with proper care and hygiene. If you notice your turtle looks sick or isn’t acting itself, then you should take them to your local veterinarian for advice.

Here are some common health complaints to look out for:

  • Vitamin a Deficiency

If your turtle develops a vitamin A deficiency this is likely due to a lack of nutrients in their diet. Whilst your turtle will love to eat leafy greens, some types (such as iceberg lettuce) just don’t provide your turtle with enough nutrients. Therefore it is important  to make sure your turtle gets a varied and nutrient rich diet.

  • Shell Rot

Shell rot is a big problem that faces turtles and needs medical intervention or it can quickly become a serious issue. Caused by either an injury or bacterial and fungal infections, shell rot is a very painful condition that if left untreated could be fatal.

Signs to look out for are small pits or slime on the surface of the shell or a reddish fluid under or softening, lifting or flaking of the turtle’s schutes.Take your turtle to be checked out by a vet if you notice any of the above symptoms. 

  • Respiratory Infections

These types of infections are unfortunately very common in these types of turtles. A turtle with a respiratory infection may be wheezing, breathing with its mouth open, drooling or have some nasal discharge. These infections can be caused by bacteria, fungi and viruses but certain living conditions can make your turtle more susceptible as well.

To give your turtle the best chance of not getting an infection make sure they are well nourished and that the air in their enclosure is not too dry or too cool.

Eye Color

A male three-toed box turtle will have red eyes whilst a female’s eyes are brown.


Preferring a warmer climate and more humid climate, three-toed box turtles have often been observed migrating in the wild. Like most box turtles, the three-toed will hibernate during the winter and reappear in the summer.

Can they swim?

Three-toed box turtles definitely enjoy wading in shallow water, they tend to seek it out for a drink or a soak and are more likely to spend time in water than other turtle species. 


As discussed through this article, proper care is paramount for their health and happiness. A large enclosure, correct temperature and balanced diet are all incredibly important for keeping your turtle happy and comfortable. Any prospective box turtle owners will need to make sure to do their research to make sure they give their reptile the best and longest life possible.


If purchasing from a pet shop a three-toed box turtle can set you back around $100. If you’re serious about getting a three-toed box turtle make sure to check rehoming pages for any up for adoption! 

Fun Facts

  • Three-toed box turtles are the smallest of the box turtle subspecies
  • A three-toed box turtle is the office state reptile of Missouri!