The tree-toed box turtle is a more adaptive subspecies of the common box turtle and has an easier time living in captivity compared to other box turtles. They’re very calm and peaceful and even fun to observe. But you need to know how to take care of them so they can thrive.
This box turtle us called the three-toed box turtle because of having three toes on its back feet instead of four like other box turtles. They’re mostly found in humid places like grasslands and marshes and will migrate to maintain their preferred level of humidity in their surroundings. Just like other box turtles in general, the three-toed box turtle doesn’t like to be handled and it can suffer stress-related health problems. They require specific care and consistency in their environment.
Description and color
The three-toed box turtle is a slightly smaller terrestrial turtle with a high dome on its shell with a thin ridge at the center of its carapace. The carapace can either be brown, yellowish-brown, or olive with some yellow or orange spots. The plastron has a tan color with no to varying amount of brown along the scute margins. The scales on their forelegs are mostly yellow or orange. Their skin is brown with some yellow spots while the male has red markings on their heads and some occasional black, red, and orange on their neck and forelegs.
The males also have thicker and longer tails than the females and red irises with shorter claws on the hind feet and more curved than the females. Overall, the female is larger. The heads of adult males and females tend to be brightly colored with a combination of red, white, or orange. Males have red eyes while females have brown ones. Younger turtles usually have an olive-brown shell with faint orange or yellow markings from the center of each scale. You’ll also find dark brown markings along the top of their carapace. Box turtles are omnivorous, but their diet will vary depending on the season and the foods available.
A fully grown three-toed box turtle is about 4-6 inches long and they grow fast during the first 6 years then slow down after they reach their full size in 12-15 years.
Caring for the three-toed box turtle
The three-toed box turtle can survive better in captivity than other subspecies, but it has a lot of needs that need to be met if it’s going to survive for a long time. Your turtle will need a safe, large enclosure, lots of water sources, a humid environment, and a balanced diet. The most important factor in taking care of this box turtle is to observe its temperament because it is nervous, shy, and can easily get stressed, also it needs a peaceful space where it feels safe.
One thing you need to remember is the three-toed box turtle needs lots of living space. Although it’s a small turtle, it needs lots of space to move around and forage for food. If possible your turtle should have an outdoor enclosure so it has enough room to roam, relax, and burrow. But remember to sink the barriers at least 10 inches into the soil to prevent your turtle from burrowing its way out of its enclosure. Ensure you create the outdoor enclosure on top of well-drained soil.
Make sure you add a protective covering to keep your turtle safe from predators. If you decide to keep your box turtle indoors, you can use a terrarium that is at least 55-75 gallons to house your turtle. The walls shouldn’t be see-through as your turtle will want to go beyond and try to climb the glass walls. Whether your box turtle is indoor or outdoor, make sure your turtle has access to hiding places and loose substrate to burrow. Provide clean water in a large shallow bowl at all times and ensure your turtle can easily get in and out of the water bowl without accidentally falling in and drowning.
Box turtles are much happier in an indoor enclosure with a substrate that is moist and they can burrow. For your indoor enclosure, you can use coconut husk fiber is a natural material that is good at retaining moisture, and mix with clean sand and large bark chips. You could also use peat moss, cypress mulch, or topsoil mixed with sand. Layer about 3 inches of the substrate at the bottom of your turtle’s terrarium for burrowing.
Avoid using cat litter, coarse gravel, calcium, silica, or walnut shells because they can cause small lesions on your turtle’s exterior leading to a chronic infection. Also, pine bark, cedar, aspen shaving, newspapers with ink have moderate toxins that can cause respiratory problems or even death for your turtle. Most box turtles in captivity tend to be secretive so they’ll want to hide during the day. To create some hiding spots, you can use can make a cardboard shelter with a cutout entrance hole, use tree bark, or buy reptile hide spots.
Food and water
Captive box turtles are at times picky eaters and the only way to avoid this habit is to feed them a variety of foods for every meal. This will ensure your turtle gets enough nutrition to remain healthy. Hatchlings are carnivorous because they need lots of protein to grow, but the adult three-toed box turtle is omnivorous. Half of your turtle’s diet should comprise of veggies, fruits, and grasses and the remainder should include low-fat protein sources like mealworms, earthworms, snails, slugs, small fish, grasshoppers, crickets and you can also include quality dog food and cooked lean meat as a supplement.
Some of the fruits include apples, cherries, strawberries, grapes, bananas, cantaloupe, while the veggies include carrots, squash, sweet potatoes, zucchini, tomatoes, green beans, corn, and peas. Some of the leafy greens include kale, red leaf lettuce, and arugula. However, spinach is high in oxalic acid but you can feed it occasionally along with calcium supplements and cuttlebone. You should feed your adult turtle 2-3 times a week and your hatchlings every other day. Sprinkle their food with a vitamin and mineral supplement at least twice a week. To prevent your non-foraging captive box turtle from becoming obese, provide the amount of food that your turtle will eat in 10 minutes and be fed in the morning or afternoon when your turtle is mostly active.
Three-toed box turtles love water so make sure there’s plenty of water to drink and soak in it. Turtles bathe a couple of times a day or more in it so it can become dirty quickly. Ensure that you change the water a few times a day. Box turtles aren’t good swimmers so the water bowl should be shallow and large enough to accommodate your turtle. To keep your box turtle hydrated, soak him in lukewarm water for about an hour once a week.
Lighting and temperature
The three-toed box turtle-like all reptiles can’t internally regulate their body temperature, so you’ll need to provide gradient heating in the enclosure so one side of the enclosure will be warm while the other will be cool. Provide an outdoor enclosure that has both a sunny for your turtle to bask in the sun and a shady place to cool off. For an indoor enclosure, you’ll need to keep ambient temperatures of between 75-88 degrees F. with nighttime temperatures dropping to 70 degrees F. Use a quality temperature gauge to control the temps in the enclosure.
Your box turtle will need exposure to UVB light to help in absorbing calcium from its diet and synthesize vitamin D3 and artificial UVB lighting like florescent bulbs will produce enough UVB rays your turtle needs and maintain strong bones and a healthy shell. A mercury vapor bulb can produce both heat and UVB rays so your turtle is sorted on all sides at once.
Box turtles are least likely to develop any infection when living in a humid environment, instead, they thrive in it. Regularly mist your turtle’s enclosure to create a humid environment for your turtle and keep the bottom layer of the substrate damp or moist. The humidity levels in the enclosure should be between 70-80%. Box turtles that live in dry conditions tend to burrow under the substrate for long periods in an attempt to stay in a humid area. Use a reliable hygrometer to ensure the humidity levels don’t drop.
Handling and temperament
Unlike other turtles, three-toed box turtles are gentle and friendly and they don’t bite. They’re solitary creatures that are more comfortable being housed alone and are generally shy so sometimes they may refuse to eat in your presence and spend the time staring at you motionless. You can place your turtle’s food in a corner or a hidden spot to eat in peace.
Most turtles can recognize their owner’s voice and touch and will follow you around, want to be near you, and tolerate gentle handling, however, they can get stressed from too much handling. Your turtle is a diurnal creature so it tends to be more active in the cool morning hours. It’s fun to watch turtles, especially when they’re searching for food in the morning or when they’re digging around their enclosure.
One thing you need to remember about your three-toed box turtle is that it doesn’t like to be handled. And as much as you want to pick it up and interact with it, your turtle will not enjoy it. Turtles get easily nervous and stressed and just want to be left alone in the peace and safety of their enclosure. If you need to pick your turtle or move him, be gentle and reduce the number of times you hold him as much as possible.
Common health problems
Some several illnesses and diseases can affect your three-toed box turtle, but with proper care and good hygienic practices, you can avoid some of these health complications. You must discuss your turtle’s health issues with your vet. Some of the common health issues include:
Respiratory infections are very common in these turtles and some of the signs include wheezing, drooling, open-mouthed breathing, and nasal discharge. These can be caused by fungi, bacteria, or viruses, but certain conditions make your turtle more susceptible to an infection like malnutrition, vitamin A deficiency, and too dry or too cool air on the enclosure. Take your turtle to see a vet immediately.
Vitamin A deficiency
This is mostly as a result of your turtle not getting the correct nutrients in its diet. Although your turtle will eat leafy greens, some of them like iceberg lettuce can’t provide your turtle with enough nutrients. This will lead to a change in the epidermis and mucus membranes, decreased appetite, lethargy, and swollen eyes and ears.
Shell rot is a big problem for turtles and it can quickly become serious if not attended to and corrected. This is a result of a bacterial or fungal infection and it’s serious and painful for your turtle. If your turtle gets injured it will lead to shell rot and the best way to treat shell rot is to take your turtle to the vet for intensive treatment.
Parasites like roundworms are among the parasites that plague your turtle, so your turtle must get tested by a vet, especially if you have a new turtle. A fecal sample is taken by the vet to look for signs of parasite infestation. If your turtle has nematode parasites, you’ll notice signs like runny stool, lethargy, loss of appetite, and loss of weight. You should also watch out for parasite flies that will lay eggs on your turtle’s shell and skin. If your turtle has wounds with maggots, remove them and clean the wound with betadine solution to disinfect it. Then apply an antibiotic ointment at least every day until your turtle heals.
Dehydration is a huge concern when it comes to box turtles. Although they like living in humid conditions, they need to stay hydrated. A dehydrated turtle will usually spend most of the time in its shell and the skin loses its elasticity. Soaking your box turtle in shallow water for a few hours and daily soaks of about 15 minutes thrice a day will help keep your turtle hydrated. For baby turtles, soak them in shallow tepid water for about 10 minutes daily.
Conjunctivitis and ulcerated corneas and even cloudy eyes are other health problems that can affect your box turtle. Taking your turtle to see a vet can help to treat these problems before they become serious.
Metabolic bone disease
Most turtles can suffer from MBD if they don’t get enough UVB light to help absorb the calcium in their food and produce vitamin D3 in their bodies to regulate their body temperatures. You can easily prevent this by exposing your turtle to UVB light in the enclosure or some sun in the morning.
A guide for the best reptile healthcare products for your three-toed box turtle
When your box turtle is sick, there are some reptile healthcare products that you can use to treat their wounds and skin and prevent some of the infections. You will also save some cash from the frequent trips to your vet.
This solution will cleanse and disinfect wounds without the burning or stinging effect. It will save you the expensive trip to your vet every time your turtle has an infection that you can easily treat. It’s a safe and effective way of taking care of cuts, scrapes, abrasions, sores, and skin injuries on your turtle.
Turtle fix is a safe and natural way of treating topical bacterial infections on your turtle’s body. It works quickly to repair the damaged tissue and open wounds. This all-natural treatment contains tea-tree extract that works very well on your turtle’s body to heal any skin redness and prevent irritation.
This moisturizer and conditioner for shells are formulated to keep your turtle’s shell strong and healthy. it’s absorbed into the shell and leaves it shinning for days. It has a wonderful smell and you only need to apply a little to go a long way. It contains coconut and avocado oils that also help to fix minor cracks on your turtle’s shell.
This turtle eye drops are a great and easy solution if your box turtle has an eye infection. It’s a non-irritating solution formulated to combat bacterial eye infections in your turtle. You can use it as a preventative measure for eye disease that is caused by vitamin A deficiency.
Some of the most common infections for box turtles are a result of bacterial and fungus infections. This bacteria and fungus treatment contain natural healing oils that will help to treat any fungal or bacterial infection on your turtle’s skin. It’s safe to use on your turtle and it’s not formulated with any harmful ingredients.
The three-toed box turtle is a very popular turtle to keep as a pet. You can easily take care of this box turtle and since they can live for many years, you’ll need to commit before adopting one. These small creatures may be shy at first, but they have more personality than people give them credit for. With a spacious enclosure, plenty of freshwaters, a humid environment, enough sunlight, and the proper diet, your box turtle will live a long and healthy life.