Do box turtles hibernate?
Where are all the box turtles in winter?
You may be wondering whether your pet box turtles need to hibernate in your home.
How could you, as their owner, set them up for a successful hibernation?
What are the risks involved?
Good owners are prepared for such questions, and we’re here to help.
Table of Contents
When Do Box Turtles Hibernate?
Since North American box turtles, like all reptiles, are ectothermic, once the temperature outside falls, their body temperatures drop also. They become more sluggish and inactive in the fall and bury themselves to sleep until March or April.
Technically, turtles brumate instead of hibernating, though these terms are often used interchangeably.
Hibernation generally applies to mammals, like bears, which pack on extra body fat before sleeping through the winter.
A brumating reptile does not sleep as deeply as a hibernating mammal and will sometimes wake up during brief temperature rises to bask, drink water or melted snow, and forage for food.
When outside temperatures rise, box turtles will dig themselves out of their burrows to search for mates and forage for food.
Their mating instincts often override their appetites.
Will My Turtle Need To Brumate In Captivity?
Even though it is a natural behavior in the wild, reptile experts do not recommend letting most box turtles brumate or hibernate in captivity.
The most important reason is brumation will increase the risks of any box turtle dying.
This especially applies to young and sick turtles, but brumation may also kill a healthy adult.
Some species do not even hibernate.
Florida and Gulf Coast box turtles, for example, rarely enter brumation in the wild since temperatures do not regularly drop enough to facilitate a drop in activity.
If your turtle lives outside during warm months, you should bring them inside for cooler months.
Inside, you will have control over the heat and humidity and will be able to keep conditions at normal.
It is especially dangerous to let your box turtles hibernate outdoors unless you have the proper requirements in place.
While box turtles are brumating, they make easy prey for predators like raccoons and opossums, easily digging them out.
When Should I Let My Turtle Hibernate?
There are a couple of situations where you may need or want to let your turtles hibernate.
If you intend to breed your box turtles, a forced cooling period will stimulate mating activity once their temperatures return to normal.
If this is your intention, make sure your state or local government allows breeding box turtles first.
Build a hibernation box in an indoor enclosure and follow our instructions on diet and healthcare.
Keep in mind even healthy adults may not survive brumation.
We recommend only doing this with turtles you have kept for five years or more and are sure of their health and stamina.
If you have several turtles which spend the warm months outdoors, and you do not have space or facilities indoors for their care, you may need to let some of them hibernate outdoors.
If this is necessary for you, make sure your turtles have enough dirt in their enclosure to dig themselves into brumation holes.
This is only recommended as a last resort, however.
Prepping For A Successful Box Turtle Brumation
There are several precautions and steps you will need to take to prepare your turtle for hibernation.
Going To The Herp Or Exotics Vet
Call your veterinarian to set up a check-up appointment.
Tell them you want to let your turtles hibernate this year.
The vet will then do bloodwork to find any infections or underlying issues.
They may also take x-rays and check fecal samples for parasites.
If you or your vet don’t have time, check yourself for signs of shell rot, nasal and oral discharge, injuries, swollen body parts, respiratory issues, and weight loss.
Your turtles need to be in the best of health before hibernation, and any issues should be addressed first before letting your turtles brumate.
Any underlying health problems may result in death during hibernation.
For the few months leading up to the fall cool down, feed your turtle foods high in vitamin A.
A healthy amount of vitamin A could help your turtle survive hibernation.
Plant foods high in vitamin A include:
- Leafy greens like dandelion or collard greens
Animal foods high in vitamin A include feeder pinkie mice (available frozen through online retailers and at pet stores), cod liver oil, and fish (available live at pet stores).
As with all food you feed your box turtle, make sure to provide foods high in phosphorous, goitrogens, and oxalates sparingly.
Fruits should make up the smallest portion of your plant matter.
Increase fiber content towards the end of the summer with these foods:
- Weeds (make sure these are pesticide-free)
- Timothy Hay
Stop feeding your box turtles 10-14 days before starting their brumation, around mid-October.
You do not want your turtles to have food in their digestive tract when they sleep, as it could rot and kill them during hibernation.
Make sure to put them in a bowl of tepid water to soak once every other day during fasting to keep them hydrated.
This bath should last 30 minutes.
Make sure your turtles always have clean drinking water, even during their hibernation, where they may occasionally wake up to drink.
Remember to weigh your turtle before hibernation and write it down.
As your turtle hibernates, check its weight every few weeks.
A box turtle should not lose more than 1% of its body weight in a month.
If your box turtle loses weight too rapidly, bring them out of brumation right away.
Starvation during brumation could easily result in the death of your pet.
Building A Hibernation Box
The easiest way to build a hibernation box or a hibernaculum is to put a smaller box within a larger box.
Put insulation like shredded newspaper, foam, peat moss, or polystyrene between the two layers of boxes.
The smaller box should be big enough for the turtle to enter and turn around within.
Make sure your turtle has a source of clean drinking water within its box.
Box turtle owners have also adapted crates, coolers, and glass aquariums into hibernaculum.
Putting a layer of soil within the box will allow the turtle to burrow and further keep warm.
Moisten the soil with a spray bottle of distilled water, which will help retain humidity.
Keep your brumating turtles in an area of your house which maintains an overall temperature of around 55° degrees Fahrenheit (12-13° C).
Check the area for several weeks before brumation with a thermometer.
Avoid environmental temperatures which get anywhere below 41° degrees Fahrenheit (5° C) or above 60° degrees Fahrenheit (15.5° C).
It was once thought disturbing a box turtle during its hibernation would harm it.
However, after years of research and updating information, it has been found this is not the case.
You should be checking your turtles every few weeks or so to make sure they still seem healthy.
If not, bring them out of hibernation and into a controlled enclosure.
Warm them up to 80° degrees Fahrenheit (27° C) and contact your veterinarian.
Every two to three weeks, wake up your turtles and let them soak in water which is 75° degrees Fahrenheit (24° C) to ensure hydration.
These baths should last 2 hours, and your turtles should open their eyes within this time.
If they seem healthy, let them dry and return them to their hibernaculum.
In the wild, box turtles will wake up from hibernation in March or April.
A gradual increase in temperature will stimulate this normal behavior.
Put your turtles in their typical indoor habitats without turning on their heat lamps or emitters.
Offer them food and water.
You might be able to gradually heat the room where they are hibernating instead, which also works.
It might take a turtle a couple of days to want food, and they may be disoriented and confused.
Once they move around and eat, turn on their heat lamps or emitters to bring them up to their average temperatures.
Though turtles hibernate in the wild, most experts do not recommend letting pet turtles brumate, except under certain circumstances.
If you are breeding your turtles, a forced cooling period may stimulate their mating instinct when it warms up.
If you have to brumate some turtles outdoors since you lack the facilities to keep them indoors over winter, make sure they are well-protected from predators.
If you are letting your turtles brumate, there are several pre-hibernation steps you need to take, including setting up a vet appointment, creating hibernaculum, changing diet, and fasting them for 10-14 days before they sleep.
Make sure you are also checking on them every few weeks during hibernation, and bring them out of it if there are any issues.