Hibernation is Not Always Best for Pet Box Turtles


Should you hibernate your box turtle? This guy's not telling.

Should you hibernate your box turtle? This guy’s not telling
Photo by Bob Larrick @ Flickr; licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

So, should you hibernate your box turtle?

Not necessarily. But maybe.

In nature, most box turtles start to slow down and eat less during the fall months.

Eventually they dig down into a burrow where they spend the the winter. They may come out for short periods of time if the weather warms up. But for the most part, they stay hidden until spring.

Most people call this behavior hibernation, but you might also hear it referred to as brumation when people are talking about turtles and other reptiles. This is because the physiology of the process is different from hibernation in mammals. So some people prefer to use a different term to describe it.

Whatever you call it, it’s a way for animals to survive the winter. We will use the term hibernation since that term is more familiar to most people.

Turtles living in areas where the winters stay relatively warm, like Florida, do no necessarily hibernate. They do slow down, since temperatures are usually lower than they prefer, but they may not burrow for months like those where winters are cold.

It’s not usually strictly necessary to hibernate your pet box turtle. Most seem to do just fine without ever hibernating.

The only time it might be a real issue is if yours absolutely refuses to eat during the fall and winter. In that case, you might have to let him hibernate, at least for a little while. If you don’t he may lose too much weight.

And sometimes it’s not a good idea hibernate your turtle. Even in nature turtles can die over winter. Some drown when their burrows flood. Others freeze if they don’t dig down far enough. And sick turtles may not be strong enough to survive the stress of hibernation.

If you’re thinking about hibernating your pet, ask yourself a few questions first.

Is Your Box Turtle Healthy?

This is one of the most important questions to answer before hibernation. You should never hibernate a turtle that is or has recently been sick if you can avoid it.

Check your pet for any signs of illness or anything unusual, like:

  • Runny nose or mucous bubbles around nose or eyes
  • Swollen eyes
  • Open wounds (recent wounds are ok as long as they’ve healed completely)
  • Being underweight (if you’re not sure, your vet can help you figure this out)

Internal parasites are not always obvious just by looking at your pet, so it’s a good idea to have him tested at least a month before you plan to hibernate him. This gives you time to treat him if necessary. Your vet can do an exam at the same time to look for other problems.

Hibernating a Sick or Underweight Turtle

As mentioned, if your pet is determined to hibernate, you may not be able to stop him, even if he’s sick or underweight and not a good candidate for hibernation.

Keeping him at warm temperatures could be even worse for his health. If he’s not eating anything, he’s only going to use up what little nutrient reserves he has and lose even more weight. But you should still see if your vet can help you figure out what’s wrong. You might be able to treat the problem and then hibernate him normally.

If you do need to hibernate him while he’s still underweight, your best option is to do it inside in a hibernation box, not out in the yard. You can control the temperature better and keep a closer eye on him inside. And you probably want to keep his hibernation short, at two months or less.

Has Your Box Turtle Been Eating Well?

Your turtle needs nutrient stores to survive the winter without eating. And a turtle that has not been eating right is unlikely to have those stores.

This might sound like another way of asking if your turtle is underweight, but it’s not. Certainly an underweight boxie has probably not been eating enough, but good nutrition is really a separate issue. Even a normal weight turtle may not have enough nutrient stores if she hasn’t been eating the right things.

Now we know you’ve been giving her a variety of nutritious foods (right?), but that doesn’t mean she’s been eating them all. If your pet has been picky and only eating one or two things, she may not be healthy enough to hibernate.

Is your Box Turtle Native to Your Area?

If not, do not hibernate her outside. Boxie’s are generally well adapted to their native habitat. But they may not be able to survive conditions in other parts of the country. Letting an ornate box turtle, adapted to desert conditions, hibernate in someplace like Wisconsin for example, is just not a good idea. They’re not adapted to the deep freezes there.

You can either keep a non-native turtle active inside all winter or make an indoor hibernation box where you can have better control of the temperatures.

How Old is Your Box Turtle?

It’s generally best not to hibernate hatchlings (babies) or very young turtles (juveniles). Hatchlings and juveniles have a hard time surviving hibernation. In nature, many do not make it through their first winter.

Captive hatchlings will often stay active and keep eating through their first winter. They may then start fasting during the fall of their second or third year—a sign that they’re ready to hibernate.

If you do want to hibernate young turtles, setting up a hibernation box in a cold room and keeping a close eye on them is safer than hibernating them outside.

How Long Have You Had Your Box Turtle?

And how much do you know about her past?

If you’ve just adopted your boxie, it’s usually best to skip hibernation until you can be sure she’s healthy, well-fed and able to handle the stress. If you know for sure she’s been hibernated successfully in the past and has been well-fed, then it might be okay. But try to use the same hibernation technique used by her previous owner (indoor vs outdoor).

Has Your Box Turtle Been Living Inside or Outside?

You only want to let a turtle hibernate outside if he’s been living outside for at least a couple of months before starting hibernation (from about the beginning of September on). And preferably all summer. Turtles get their cues to start slowing down, eat less and dig down from the changing weather conditions. A turtle that’s been living inside may miss those cues and not be ready in time (even if he is eating less).

If you want to hibernate your indoor turtle, do it inside.

Why All The Fuss?

Yes, this might seem like a lot of fuss over something box turtles have been doing naturally for thousands of years. But remember, not every turtle that digs in for the winter survives. And by keeping him as a pet, you’ve already disrupted some of his natural ways. No matter how much you try, you cannot exactly mimic wild conditions. So it’s up to you to give your pet the best chance possible of surviving through the winter.Box turtle eating strawberry

If hibernation is not a good idea for your pet this year, do your best to convince him not to do it.

And if you do decide to hibernate him, then you’ll want to create the right conditions. Check out Hibernating Box Turtles: An Overview to start learning how to do that.


6 thoughts on “Hibernation is Not Always Best for Pet Box Turtles

  1. Rena

    I just adopted two baby box turtles. From what I’ve read about age these were just hatched because there are no ridges to count on the shells. I’ve bought everything I need to get them stated on a long happy life with us. We live in South Carolina and it was the first of march when we accidentally uncovered them while doing yard work. Since we’ve had them this first month they haven’t eaten anything and all they want to do is stay buried under the mulch. Is this normal for new borns?

    1. boxturtleworld Post author

      Hi Rena,

      I don’t have personal experience with hatchlings, but this thread on Tortoise Forum discusses how to get them to eat. (Apparently it can sometimes be a bit of a challenge!)

      I also like the information on Box Turtle Site. Tess Cook has a lot of experience with box turtles of all kinds and ages. She talks about how too much protein can make the babies grow too fast and end up with deformed shells.

      1. Rena

        Great! Thanks for the info! I will continue to research and learn everything I can. So far they are doing well. I put them at their water and it looks like they do drink. So at least there’s that.

  2. Rena

    Just an update…..
    One came out from under the mulch and walked to the water bowl and drank from it!! Yay!!!


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