Technically, turtles don’t hibernate, rather they brumate. This is true of box turtles as well. Brumation or winter cool-down is natural among North American box turtles.
Brumation allows the turtle to survive the winter when food is scarce and temperatures are low. With reptiles, brumation is usually referred to as hibernation. I’ll be doing the same in this article.
There are several species of box turtles including but not limited to the common box turtle (which includes the subspecies eastern box turtle & three-toed box turtle), spotted box turtle, western box turtle (which includes the desert box turtle subspecies).
Box turtles hibernate and as such, if you want to allow your pet to hibernate, you need to prepare adequately. During the winter, it is best to bring outdoor turtles inside where you can easily regulate the temperature.
With box turtles, it isn’t advisable to even allow them to hibernate outdoors. The Florida box turtle and the Gulf Coast box turtle are two species that rarely hibernate.
Table of Contents
Box turtle hibernation guide
Why should you hibernate your pet box turtle and why shouldn’t you?
Hibernation has several disadvantages. Even when done properly and all the needed precautions are taken, the turtles can still die. An unhealthy turtle will most likely not survive hibernation.
This is also true of younglings. Even a healthy adult turtle can die during the hibernation period. Because of this, hibernation should only be allowed when absolutely necessary.
If you have to, then absolutely make sure the temperatures within the box turtle’s enclosure (see the box turtle setup guide for more) remains constant even through winter.
Keeping the temperature within a particular range throughout an entire year is only possible for indoor enclosures.
According to many breeders, a cooling period ensures a successful breeding season This is because the cooling period stimulates breeding activity once temperatures return to normal.
As such, if you want to breed your box turtles, then you may need to allow them to hibernate.
Similarly, if you have several turtles housed outdoors, you may not have the space/facilities needed to successfully house them inside over the winter.
Maybe you don’t have a large enough indoor enclosure to house all the turtles without causing overcrowding.
Since chelonians are inactive during hibernation, each turtle does not require a lot of space. Hibernation may just be your only choice.
Find out when your box turtle hibernate and for how long
Hibernation is directly linked to the change in seasons. As the temperature drops and winter approaches, the turtle prepares for hibernation.
In the wild, box turtles look for hides and burrows to spend the wintering months in.
The turtle also eats less and do less. In mid-October when temperatures are low enough, the box turtle enters its burrow and only emerges when temperatures return to normal.
North American box turtles hibernate from mid-October (or early November) to late February (even until early April).
Box Turtle Hibernation Steps
1. Preparing for Hibernation
The hibernation process can be an arduous one. As such, you need to properly prepare.
This preparation includes building a hibernation box, adjusting the turtle’s diet, visiting the vet to make sure that the turtle is healthy, and fasting the chelonian.
All of these are essential for the survival of your box turtles.
2. Visit the vet
Most pet keepers do not take regular check-ups seriously. Similarly, unless the turtle appears ill, most pet owners don’t visit the vet.
With hibernation, if you can, have a vet inspect your chelonian. Even the smallest of infections can kill a hibernating turtle.
Herp vets are trained to detect illnesses that you otherwise can’t. The vet may collect samples from your turtle for testing.
Some tests the vet may perform include checking fecal samples for parasites, x-rays, and blood work. These are things you cannot do.
Even if you can’t have a herp vet check on your box turtle because of availability, here are some signs to be on the lookout for.
- Discharge from mouth, nose, and eyes
- Injuries, wounds, and cuts
- Respiratory problems such as wheezing
- Shell rot
- Swollen body parts
- Weight loss
Since you know your turtle, it should be relatively easy to detect signs of ill health and anomalies.
3. Adjust the box turtle’s diet
If you plan on hibernating your pet, then you need to make the necessary changes to the box turtle’s diet.
This includes feeding your turtle foods high in vitamin A. If you already feed your box turtle foods rich in vitamin A, then you need to just continue.
Some leafy greens and vegetables high in vitamin A include broccoli, collard greens, squash, dandelion greens, carrots. Reduce the amount of spinach, and romaine lettuces fed to the turtle.
Animal foods high in vitamin A include cod liver oil, fish, and pinkie mice.
Of course, this list isn’t complete and there are other sources of vitamin A.
Check our what do turtles eat guide for more.
4. Fast the box turtle for about 10 days before hibernating
Increase the fiber content of the turtle’s meal towards the end of summer by increasing the amount of weeds, grasses, alfalfa, and timothy hay offered to the turtle.
Unlike tortoises, box turtles need very little time to digest the food in their system. You need to stop feeding the chelonian about 14 to 10 days before hibernation. Undigested food within the digestive system can decay and lead to infections.
4a. Make sure the box turtle is well-hydrated
Keeping the turtle well-hydrated is necessary while you fast the turtle. Once every two days during the fasting, place the turtle in a bowl of tepid water.
Keep the turtle in the water for about 30 minutes. To prevent drowning, the water needs to be ¾ inch deep or below the bridge. In addition to this, make sure that the turtle always has clean drinking water.
5. Track the Weigh your turtle
Weigh the turtle right before hibernation. Record this down. From henceforth, you have to weigh the turtle every few weeks.
The turtle must not lose more than 1% of its body weight within a month.
As such, if your 2 kg turtle loses 20 g, then you need to stop the hibernation process. One of the leading causes of death during hibernation is starvation (the turtle burning through its fat reserves).
6. Reduce the temperature of the box turtle’s enclosure
Gradually lower the temperature within the enclosure about 7 days to hibernation. For the first 3 days, keep the temperature at 65 °F (18°C). Over the next 2 days, reduce the temperature to 60°F (16°C). For the final two days, reduce the temperature gradually to 48 to 50 °F (9 to 10°C).
7. Decide where to house the box turtle
While box turtles can hibernate both outdoors and indoors, a hibernation box is recommended as this allows you to quickly and effortlessly locate and inspect your turtle whenever you need to.
A hibernation box is also referred to as a hibernaculum.
You can also allow your turtle to hibernate in outdoor burrows, it is important to prepare the hibernation area properly.
8. Building a hibernaculum
A hibernaculum simply refers to any box within which the chelonian can hibernate. This usually isn’t a complicated build.
The box-within-a-box hibernaculum is one of the more popular choices. This involves placing a smaller box within a larger box.
A layer of insulative material such as shredded newspaper is laid down in the larger box with the smaller box placed on top.
The space between the smaller box and the larger box is then wadded with newspaper. This serves to provide insulation. Other insulative materials you can use include packing foam and polystyrene.
The box should be large enough to fit the turtle. There should be just enough room for the turtle to turn around.
Have some substrate inside the box, just enough for the turtle to bury itself in. You can use shredded paper, coco coir, or moss as substrate.
A mix of shredded paper and dampened moss such as Zoomed Sphagnum moss is an excellent combination.
The larger box will need a lid. Poke/drill some holes in the lid for aeration. Place a thermometer within the box to monitor the temperature range.
Place the box in a room that allows some natural light in. When kept in a basement, you can crack open a window to allow sunshine in. Just place the hibernation box away from the window.
9. Start the hibernation process
The temperature within the hibernation box should be high enough to prevent freezing but low enough to ensure hibernation.
If the temperature isn’t low enough, the turtle may remain inactive but burn through its fat reserves quickly, lose too much weight, and die.
Regular weighing will help you notice if the turtle is burning through its fat reserves too quickly.
As already mentioned, the chelonian shouldn’t lose more than 1% of body weight.
The temperature must be below 50 °F and above 37 °F. Ideally, the temperature should be 40 °F (4 °C).
10. Follow up steps during hibernatin
10a. Check the temperature daily
There are several different places you can put the hibernation box. Just make sure that the temperature is right and that the turtle is well-protected from predators.
Places you can keep the turtle include the basement, garage, and a shed. The temperature of the place where the turtle is placed shouldn’t fall below 35 °F.
Also, the temperature shouldn’t rise above 50 °F during the hibernation period.
10b. Inspect the box turtle at least every two weeks
Every few weeks you need to check on the turtle and make sure it’s okay. Inspect the turtle’s weight, appearance, activity level, and moisture level.
- Check to see if the turtle’s skin is drier than usual or if the turtle has urinated. Evidence of any of these two signs will require rehydration in tepid water before returning the turtle back into the hibernation box.
- Check the substrate. It shouldn’t be moldy or too dry. Replace moldy substrate and moisten dry substrate.
- Check the weight. The chelonian shouldn’t lose more than 1% of body weight.
Reasons to stop the hibernation process
Hibernation can be a dangerous period for an unhealthy turtle. Sometimes during hibernation, the turtle may start to show signs of ill health.
When this happens, you need to stop the hibernation period. This is why it is important to inspect the turtle every so often.
- If the turtle shows any signs of illness such as wheezing, discharge from the mouth, nose, and other body parts.
- If the chelonian urinates and/or excretes.
- If the turtle loses more than 1 percent of its body weight in just a month.
- If the turtle keeps on moving and remains active.
For the turtle of breeding, turtles can be allowed to hibernate for 6 to 8 weeks in the Northern and Western United States.
After hibernation, gradually increase the temperature.
For the first two days, keep the temperature within the hibernaculum at 60°F (15°C).
Over the next three days, increase the temperature to 65 to 67 F, gradually.
Then you can return the turtle to its normal temperature which is 85 °F at the warm end of the enclosure and 70 °F at the cool end.
Every other day after returning your turtle to its regular schedule, soak the turtle just as you did pre-hibernation.
Box Turtle Den Video Guide
This video gives a nice guide for wild box turtles. If you have box turtles in your area you can create a den for them using what may already exist.
The reason you might want to do this is simply to help with the conservation of the species. As humans develop the landscape more and more their habits are becoming more reduced.
Additionally they are getting killed by other man made things like when crossing a road.
Hibernation among box turtles can be confusing. The first step is deciding whether to allow the chelonian to hibernate or not.
Hibernation is not necessary unless you wish to breed the turtles or you don’t have the space to accommodate them indoors during the wintering months.
Don’t hibernate unhealthy turtles, underweight turtles, and juveniles. These turtles may not survive the hibernation process.
Similarly, check on them regularly and stop the process if you feel something is wrong. This can be massive weight loss, signs of infection, or the turtle being active.
If you have any questions or information, please leave a comment below.