Box turtles hibernate when the weather gets cold and food gets scarce. Since they are ectotherms, cold temperatures slow them down and make it hard for them to move. And lack of food … well, that’s obvious: They could starve.
But that’s outside. What if your turtle lives inside? Then how should you hibernate him?
You don’t really have to hibernate a pet box turtle. At least not one that has an indoor habitat. And sometimes you shouldn’t hibernate a turtle.
But if you’ve decided you want to and outside is not an option (he’s not native to your area or he lives inside, for example), it is possible to make him an indoor hibernation box.
Choosing an Indoor Turtle Hibernation Spot
You’ll need someplace where you can keep the temperatures cold and in a narrow range warm enough to keep your pet alive but cold enough to keep him dormant.
- Root cellar
- Another unheated room
A garage or shed may also be an option. But only if you know the temperatures won’t get too cold, which usually means it has to be heated or insulated. The point of indoor hibernation is that you have more control over the process, including temperatures.
You’ll want to monitor the temperatures in your chosen spot before using it. For a basement or other indoor room, checking it for a couple of weeks should be fine. If you want to use an unheated garage, you should really plan a year ahead and monitor it all winter before using it the following year. Of course, if the temperatures aren’t suitable in your chosen spot, you’ll need to find someplace else.
Your target temperature is about 45° F, with the acceptable range being about 40° to 50° F.
A little fluctuation in temperatures is okay. Down to about 36° F is generally still safe. And up into the 50’s is also okay. But don’t let temperatures stay outside the 40-50 degree range too long. If it stays too cold, it could kill your pet. And if it stays warm for more than a few days, your turtle will probably wake up.
Indoor Hibernation Boxes
There’s a lot of advice around about how to make a box for your pet to hibernate in.
A popular option is simply a wooden crate or other wooden box. If you have one or can get your hands on one, that’s the simplest option. Or you can build one. If you have only one turtle, it doesn’t need to be too terribly big. But still around 2 feet square or so (bigger for more turtles). So not that small, either.
And it’s going to be heavy by the time you have it filled with soil, leaves etc. for digging into. So make sure you pick the right spot for it before you set it up!
Some crates are built loosely, with spaces between the boards. This is good, because it allows air circulation. If your box is more solid, drill a few holes in the sides and lid. Either way, you’ll want to line the bottom half or so with plastic or otherwise make it waterproof, because you’ll want your substrate to be damp.
Plastic tubs also work, and they’re already waterproof. These you’ll definitely need to drill holes in for air circulation.
You can fill it with pretty much any substrate you want. But it does need to be something that’ll stay loose and moist. About a foot of potting soil topped with a few inches of leaves or straw works well. You might want to mix in turtle-safe wood shavings or pine needles to help keep it all loose. You could also use Eco Earth or whatever other substrate you use in your turtle’s regular habitat.
Peat or sphagnum moss holds moisture well and can help maintain humidity in your turtle’s hibernation box.
Make sure the substrate is all moist and put your turtle in after cooling him down (more on that in a minute).
Some people actually put this box into a second, larger box for extra insulation and to maintain humidity better. If you do this, fill the space between the boxes with loose material like shredded newspaper or packing peanuts.
Box(es) should be covered but not sealed to keep in humidity but still allow air to get in and out.
Some people convert a refrigerator to use as a hibernation box. This way you can maintain a steady temperature easier. So you have more flexibility about the temperature of the room you keep it in. But you’ll still need to make sure it will stay in the right temperature range.
If yours gets too cold even on the warmest setting, you’ll need to modify the thermostat.
Put your turtle into a box with a substrate as discussed above and put the box into the fridge. Another option, depending on the size of your turtle and the fridge, is to use the crisper drawer(s). Many fridges even let you control the amount of humidity in those drawers, so you can better ensure the substrate—and your pet—stays moist for the winter.
What method is best? Basically whatever works for you. The most important parts are to get the temperature right and have enough humidity. Also, only hibernate a healthy turtle.
Whichever kind of box you use, leave a dish of water in the box with your turtle in case he wakes up and wants a drink.
Get Your Turtle Ready for Hibernation
Before you start, you’ll want to be sure your pets are healthy enough for hibernation. Even though it’s a natural process, it’s also stressful on their bodies. In nature, sick or weak turtles don’t usually make it through the winter. The same is true of pets. So you should avoid hibernating those that are sick or underweight.
You can look for obvious signs of illness yourself:
- Runny nose
- Mucous around the eyes
- Swollen eyes
- Lumps around the head
- Any open wounds
If you find any problems, they should be treated before hibernation begins.
It’s also a good idea to have your pet checked by a qualified vet who can not only look for signs of illness but also test for parasites. Again, if your vet finds any problems, treat your turtle before letting her hibernate.
If you have your boxie checked out around August or so, you should have plenty of time to get her healthy in time for hibernation. So you’ll need to plan ahead!
Once you’re sure she’s healthy, stop feeding her about 2 to 4 weeks before you plan to hibernate her. She needs time to get rid of her last meal before hibernation. To help, give her frequent warm baths.
Then turn off the heat sources in her habitat around mid-October or so. Sooner if you notice she’s slowing down and eating less earlier. Try to let the temperature drop down to around 65° F. Give daily baths for these last few days to a week.
Just before putting her in her hibernation box, weigh her. This will be your baseline weight for making sure she’s not losing too much weight during hibernation.
Check Your Pets Regularly
You don’t want to disturb a hibernating turtle too often. Each time you wake him he uses up some of his nutrient stores. But do check about weekly to make sure he’s still buried.
Check the temperature at least weekly, too. If the temperature gets too warm for more than a few days, he’ll wake up too soon. If that does happen, bring him the rest of the way out of hibernation so he can eat. Otherwise he’ll be stressed and could lose too much weight. If it’s early in the season, you can try lowering the temperature and see if he’ll go back down. But keep a close eye on him and bring him out if he doesn’t settle within a couple days.
Then, approximately monthly, dig him out. Examine and weigh him. Most turtles only lose a few percent of their body weight. Up to about 2% per month, or 10% over the whole hibernation period, is generally considered safe. If yours is losing more than that, wake him, let him warm up and, if he doesn’t start eating and resuming his normal activities within a couple of day, take him to the vet.
While you’ve got him out, give him a room-temperature soak for an hour or two. Dry him off and put him back to continue hibernating (unless you’ve decided to wake him, of course).
While your pet’s bathing, check the substrate in his box, and if it’s getting dry, add a little water to the edges. Just get it damp, not wet.
Waking Your Box Turtle After Hibernation
As much as possible, let her warm up slowly. If you can move her box, moving it to a warm room and just letting it warm naturally will work. Pull her out and put her in her regular habitat when she starts moving around.
Otherwise, you can also dig her out while she’s still asleep and put her in her habitat without turning on any heat lamps.
Once she starts moving, give her a bath and offer food and water. It might take a few days before she’s ready to eat. Turn on heat lamps once she’s fully awake. The warmer temperatures will also encourage her to eat if she hasn’t already.
One Final Thought
Before you hibernate a pet box turtle, it’s important you realize that it is risky for your turtle. Even if you keep a close eye on him, he may not make it through the winter. Although there are arguments that hibernation helps turtles live longer and improves breeding, the evidence is weak.
Yes, it’s a natural response to cold weather. But in nature a box turtle is pretty much guaranteed to die if it doesn’t hibernate. So hibernation is the safer choice (not that turtles actually make a conscious “choice”).
But a pet, especially one kept inside, is not likely to die from not hibernating. So you’ll need to decide if the risk of hibernation is worth it.
That said, most people who choose to hibernate their pet box turtles, and are very careful about it, have very good success.