Hibernating Box Turtles: An Overview


This guy says hibernating box turtles can be tricky!

This guy says hibernating box turtles can be tricky!
Photo by Bob Larrick @ Flickr; licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Although most box turtles hibernate (some people also call it brumate) in nature, hibernating box turtles you keep as pets isn’t strictly necessary. As long as you keep temperatures optimal for normal feeding and activity, most boxies will happily stay awake even through winter.

There is some evidence that going dormant for a few months improves a box turtle’s ability to breed. And possibly helps life expectancy too, although that’s not completely clear. But most turtle keepers don’t really need to worry about either.

A side note about breeding: If you are planning to breed yours, make sure you know the laws in your state. It may not be legal without a license. And you’ll probably need to make sure your breeding pair is the same subspecies.

Now back to hibernation. If you do plan to hibernate your pets, you’ll need some idea of how hibernation works for boxies. And you’ll need to plan ahead.

Where to Hibernate

You basically have two choices. Prepare an area outside that they can dig into and be safely below the frost line for the winter. Or make a hibernation box and keep it in a cold room in your house. The garage or a shed is also an option as long as it won’t get too cold in there.

Hibernating Box Turtles Outside

This isn’t always an option. If you normally keep your boxie inside, it’s not safe to hibernate her outside. And if you don’t live in her native range, it’s also not safe.

But if your pet is native to your area and normally lives outside, outdoor hibernation is an option. You can prepare an area of her pen to make it easy for her to burrow deep enough to avoid freezing over the winter.

The easiest way to do this is to loosen the soil on one side of her regular habitat and mix in some leaves, peat and/or grass clippings to keep it nice and loose. Make sure you dig below the frost line for your area. And make sure you choose a spot that doesn’t flood in the spring.

You can add an extra layer of leaves for more insulation after your pet has burrowed in for the winter.

If you create a hibernation spot outside of your boxie’s normal habitat, you’ll also need to make sure you escape-proof it. Turtles will come out if there are a string of warm days during the winter. And you can’t completely predict when they’ll come out in the spring. You don’t want your pet to escape before you notice she’s awake!

Also make sure your pet’s hibernation spot is secure from predators. Just like over the summer, hungry animals may decide to make a snack of your turtle if they can get at it.

Hibernating Box Turtles Inside

If you’re hibernating your pet inside, you’ll need to mimic the slowly cooling temperatures of fall followed by steady temperatures cool enough to keep your pet in a dormant state. And then slowly warm him up come spring (or whenever you decide it’s time).

In general, you’ll want to maintain reasonably steady temperatures around 45° Fahrenheit. It’s okay if they occasionally dip below or rise above this, but not by too much or for too long. Too low can kill them. And too high will wake them up too early.

Most commonly, turtle keepers use a wooden crate or build a box to use as an indoor hibernation box. Then you fill it with loose dirt, leaves and/or other bedding materials. Put it in a cold room, basement or root cellar and let your pet dig in.

Another option is to convert a refrigerator to maintain the needed temperature range (most fridges get too cold without modifying the thermometer).

Whatever you choose for your indoor hibernation box, make sure you leave a dish of water available in case your turtle wakes up and wants a drink.

How Long to Hibernate

In nature this depends largely on the weather conditions where the turtle lives. On average, they hibernate for around 3 months. But in areas with longer, colder winters, this can extend to about 5 months.

If you’re hibernating outdoors, your pets will decide when to dig in and when to come out. You’ll just need to be sure you’ve given them the right conditions to do this in.

Inside you can basically decide how long their hibernation should be. But plan for at least 2 months.

Preparing Your Box Turtle For Hibernation

Start planning well in advance. Make sure your boxie gets plenty of nutrition in the last month or so of warm weather.

Vitamin A is especially important to keep him and his eyes healthy over winter. Carrots, sweet potatoes and all winter squashes are good sources. So is cod liver oil, so you could add a drop or two to his food once or twice during the last couple of weeks. But don’t give too much or you could overdose him. Too much Vitamin A is just as bad as not enough.

Box turtles need to hibernate with an empty gut. So you should stop feeding them for at least two weeks before hibernation. The actual length of time depends on the temperatures. Cooler temperatures mean slower digestion and a longer time to empty their guts. In this case, they may need to go without food for up to 4 weeks before hibernating.

To help them eliminate their last meal, give your turtles regular soaks in the weeks leading up to hibernation (you should be doing this anyway!). And soak daily—or at least every other day—for the last week.

Checking on Your Turtle During Hibernation

You don’t want to disturb a hibernating turtle too often or you could disrupt his hibernation cycle. And each time you wake him, he uses up more of his precious nutrient stores.

But you should take a peek approximately weekly to make sure he’s not up and walking around. If he is, you might be keeping him too warm. Or he might be sick. If you’re not sure, bring him to your vet for a checkup.

During your weekly checks, make sure the substrate in your indoor hibernation box is still moist. If it’s drying out, add a little water around the edges. But not too much. You want it damp, not wet.

About once a month or so, take your indoor hibernating turtle out and weigh him. Then soak him for an hour or so. Then, as long as he hasn’t lost too much weight, put him back in his box. If he’s lost 10% or more of his body weight, bring him out of hibernation.

Waking Up Your Pet After Hibernation

If your boxie is hibernating outside, the warm spring days will wake him up naturally. Check on him daily so you know when he’s up.

To wake up a boxie hibernating indoors, slowly warm him up to mimic what happens outside. If you can slowly warm the room his hibernation box is in, that’s one option. If not, dig him out and put him in his habitat but without his heat lamps.

Once he’s awake, either outside or inside, offer food and water. Don’t be surprised if it takes a couple of days before he wants food. He’s likely to be a little disoriented after his long sleep.

Once he’s fully awake, eating and moving around, you can turn on the indoor heat lamps to bring him up to his preferred temperature.Box turtle eating strawberry

There are risks to hibernating your pet box turtle. Just like in nature, sometimes they don’t survive. But as long as she is healthy before hibernation and you keep the temperature in the right range, she should wake up in the spring ready to explore for another year.


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