Box Turtle Hibernation: What You Need To Know

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Many people decide to get turtles as pets, thinking they are low maintenance. While it is true for some species, it is not quite true for box turtles. You have to take good care of them during hibernation. So, if you have a box turtle, you should know all about box turtle hibernation. 

Box turtles have an instinct of hibernating as they live in places where temperatures can get quite low for them during winter. The turtles lower their temperature for 3 to 5 months in order to survive the cold climate and wait for better days. 

In this article, I will talk about the hibernation of wild and pet Box turtles. Hibernating is not a simple task for the turtles. So, you should know how you can help your pet Box turtle hibernate.

Do Box Turtles Hibernate?

Many people think Box turtles hibernate in winter. But they actually brumate on cold days, not hibernate. Cold-blooded reptiles and amphibians brumate, and endothermic or “warm-blooded” animals such as some mammals and birds hibernate in winter.  

Also, reptiles often wake up from their brumation from time to time. Although they do not eat, they may drink to stay hydrated. But animals that hibernate usually wake up after the hibernation time without having food or water. 

Hence, you can expect your box turtle to wake up for a while at any time during its hibernation or brumation process.

For better understanding, we will use the term hibernation instead of brumation, as brumation is a word used for hibernation of cold-blooded animals. 

Why Do Box Turtles Hibernate/Brumate In The Wild?

Hibernation is common among wild Box Turtles. Now, you may wonder why box turtles hibernate. Well, hibernation is crucial for the survival of wild Box Turtles in the wild. 

As mentioned before, wild Box turtles live in geographic locations where temperatures can get lower than they can tolerate during winter. Box turtles are cold-blooded reptiles. To keep themselves warm, they have to derive heat from their environment. 

Hence, when the temperature of the living area of the box turtles gets low, the body temperatures of the turtles also get low. Also, they do not get enough food to sustain their body. Because of a lack of heat and energy, the turtles cannot move quickly. Thus, they become too weak to defend themselves.

It makes them an easy target for predatory animals. So, to protect themselves, the turtles naturally preserve their bodies through hibernation. Going into hibernation reduces their metabolic activities and need for food. 

Besides, they dig themselves deep under soil, rocks, and leaves. Box turtles can completely close themselves inside their shell in hibernation. Thus, they hide from predators during the cold months.  

Also, many experts believe brumation is important for Box turtles to maintain their health. The process helps them to regulate their hormones for reproduction. 

However, hibernating pet box turtles is not an easy task. The pet owner has to be well-educated about hibernating turtles. 

What Temperature Is Too Cold For Box Turtles?

If you plan to have a box turtle, you must know the ideal temperature for their habitat. When the temperature gets too low, the growth and health of your Box turtle get seriously affected. Box turtles cannot function properly when the temperature drops below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The turtles can partially function below 60 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. But it becomes hard for the box turtles to survive less than 41 degrees F. 

So, you have to provide the right amount of heat to keep your box turtles healthy and active. 

Your Box turtle tank temperature should be between 70 to 80 degrees F during the daytime. The basking area should be 85 to 90 degrees F. At night, keep the temperature around 65 to 75 degrees F. 

What Is The Box Turtle Hibernation Temperature?

60 degrees Fahrenheit is not low enough for Box turtles to hibernate. They usually hibernate in temperatures below 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Your box turtle may begin hibernation at 50 degrees F. This is the warmest temperature for hibernation to start. 

In the wild, Box turtles will find and dig a place for hibernation. Since your pet Box turtle will not have that option to choose their hibernation spot, you have to arrange it for them. If you hibernate Box turtles indoors, keep the temperature below 55 degrees F. 

Keep the hibernation box in a garage, basement, back porch, or wine cellar where the temperature does not fluctuate too much. 

When Do Box Turtles Go Into Hibernation?

When will your Box turtle hibernate depends on its living environment, age, and species. You can expect hibernation of North American Box turtles in the middle of September or the middle of October when the temperature starts to go down. As the hibernation lasts for 3 to 5 months, the turtles can wake up from hibernation between late February to early April. 

A Box turtle will show symptoms of hibernation. For example, it will eat less and become inactive. This is because they have to preserve their energy. They eat less so that by the time they brumate, there is no undigested food in their stomach. 

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Do not worry. A healthy Box turtle can survive the hibernation period by using energy from the stored fat in its body. 

How Long Do Box Turtles Hibernate?

Depending on how long winter lasts in an area, Box turtles from North America can take 3 to 5 months to come out of hibernation. Some box turtles may take longer than that.

During winter, wild Box turtles have little food available. So, they developed the habit of hibernation to keep themselves alive by staying dormant. Your pet Box turtle naturally has this instinct for hibernating. 

However, you can control the length of the hibernation period of your pet Box turtle since you can provide them with sufficient food and heat to survive the cold months. But putting box turtles in hibernation and waking them up at the right time can be complicated. So, you should do the process carefully. 

How Deep Do Box Turtles Hibernate?

Box turtles are semi-aquatic. They live in various places, such as woodlands, marshes, and moist grassy areas. Like any other turtle, they also like to dip in the water now and then. However, Box turtles do not hibernate underwater like many other turtle species. They dig a hibernation chamber for themselves. They usually hibernate 10 to 50 cm deep in the soil. 

 But some box turtles may burrow 2 feet deep to have their desired temperature for hibernation. So, how deep your Box turtle may hibernate depends on its species and the temperature of the hibernation spot. 

Do All Kinds of Box Turtles Hibernate?

Now, here is an interesting fact. Not all Box turtles hibernate in winter. Box turtles live in areas where the temperature gets quite low in winter. So, they hibernate to survive. For example, three-toed, Eastern, and Ornate Box turtles have a higher chance of hibernating in winter. 

On the other hand, the Southern parts of the USA have a much warmer climate. The winter days are not too cold in these parts. Hence, Box turtles in this area do not hibernate as they have favorable temperatures and sufficient foods. 

So, whether a turtle will hibernate depends on the environment it lives in and the availability of food. 

When You Should Not or Should Hibernate Your Box Turtle? 

Hibernation is crucial for the survival of wild box turtles. But should you let your pet box turtles hibernate? Well, it depends on a few factors. You should know that not all ages of box turtles hibernate. Also, you can even decide not to let your box turtle hibernate. 

Hibernation is risky for any turtles. Even a healthy Box turtle may not survive a long hibernation period. So, think carefully before letting your box turtle hibernate. 

Here are the reasons you should not let your Box turtle hibernate:

  • The box turtle is under 3 years old.
  • Your box turtle is underweight. 
  • It is sick or injured.
  • You can see some kind of discharge from your turtle’s nose, mouth, and eyes.
  • Turtles have breathing problems.
  • Your turtle is dehydrated.
  • Suffering from shell rot.

So, only Healthy adult Box turtles should be allowed to hibernate. You should take your Box turtle to a vet for a health checkup. If the vet finds the turtle healthy, you can let it hibernate. 

Now, when should you let your Box turtle hibernate? 

Many Box turtle owners want to breed their Box turtles. A successful hibernation process helps them to manage their hormones. The cooling time stimulates the reproduction activities when the temperature becomes normal. 

Besides, your turtle may have the instinct to hibernate. It might have survived other hibernation periods in its life. In that case, you can let it hibernate, but make sure it is in good health. 

How to Get Your Box Turtle Ready for Hibernation?

If you have decided to let your box turtle hibernate, you have to consider many factors. You think about where you live. Is your turtle native to that area? And how low does the temperature of your area get in the winter? Your box turtle will like to hibernate in winter if it feels too cold. 

You must help your turtle get ready for hibernation and also prepare a hibernation spot or box for it. First, you have to be sure your Box turtle is in perfect health. Take him to the vet to be sure. 

Here is how you prepare it for its dormant period:

Give Healthy Food to Your Box Turtle

Remember, your Box turtle must be healthy to survive the brumation. So, you should feed it a balanced diet throughout the summer months. Add lots of nutritious food containing vitamin A because, during hibernation, the turtles lose vitamin A faster than other nutrients. 

You can give your turtles dark green vegetables like broccoli, kale, mustard, and collard. Orange and yellow fruits and vegetables are also great sources of vitamin A. So, your turtle should eat carrots, cantaloupes, squash, sweet potatoes, and peaches. Besides, you can give them small fish. 

You should also give Box turtles foods containing a good amount of fiber like grasses, seeds, alfalfa, and hay. You can increase the amount of high-fiber food at the end of summer.

As the hibernation time approaches, you stop feeding the box turtle. Box turtles should stop eating for about two weeks before going to hibernation. The turtles must keep their digestive system empty before going dormant because undigested foods in the intestine cause discomfort and fetal illness to a turtle.

Keep Your Turtle Hydrated 

Although you have to stop the food supply, keep the box turtle well hydrated. Put your turtle in a container with 3 to 4 inches of warm water for 20 to 30 minutes every 48 hours before brumation. 

This way, your turtle will stay hydrated. It also helps your turtle to defecate and clean its intestine before hibernation.

Weight Check

Next, weigh your Box turtle before brumation. Write down the weight with the date. Use a high-quality digital scale for accurate weight reading of your turtle. After that, you must weigh your pet every 2 to 3 weeks during hibernation. Record the weight in grams as it will be easier to keep track of. 

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How to Prepare A Hibernation Place for Box Turtles?  

Besides preparing your turtle for hibernation, you also have to think about where you are going to hibernate it. If you keep your box turtle in an outdoor enclosure, you can let it hibernate outdoors or indoors. But it is better to let indoor box turtles hibernate indoors, as they cannot adjust to the natural environment outdoors. 

Outdoor Hibernation of Box Turtles 

A wild Box turtle can find a perfect hibernation spot in nature for itself. But your pet turtle does not have the freedom and space. To help your box turtles that live outdoors, you need to find a suitable spot for them to hibernate.

First of all, the hibernation spot should not get flooded. Water must not stand there in case it rains or gets soaked in any way. Many turtles die drowning under water during hibernation, which is tragic. So, do not let this happen to your pet. 

The soil of the hibernation place should be soft and moist for your turtle to dig in. The moisture in the soil is necessary to keep your turtle hydrated. But make sure the soil is not too wet. The hibernation spot should have enough substrate for the turtles to dig at least 10 to 15 cm. 

Also, keep the spot well protected from predatory animals. You can hide your turtle’s outdoor hibernation chamber by putting some dead leaves and tree branches around it. 

Indoor Hibernation of Box Turtles 

Your Box turtles that live indoors may not need to hibernate as the environment is controlled according to their natural habitat. 

However, you may want or have to let your pet box turtle brumate indoors in winter. In that case, lower the enclosure temperature and light-adjusting with the natural weather outside. 

Then, prepare a special container or box for the turtle to hibernate. This box is called a hibernaculum. 

You can easily make this container with some shredded newspaper and special moist moss. To let air pass through the containers, drill some holes in the lid. Then when it is time for your turtle to hibernate, put it in the hibernaculum. 

Before letting your turtle hibernate indoors, you must choose the perfect spot to keep the hibernaculum. You have to put the box in a room where the temperature remains between 40 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

The temperature in the room should not fluctuate too much during hibernation as it can affect the health of the turtle. Also, the humidity in the room should not be too high. Do not keep your turtle in complete dark. Let some light get in the room. For such a setting, a garage, a wine cellar, or a basement is a perfect space.  

When the hibernation box is ready, and your turtle is starting to hibernate, put it in the box. Then place the box in a safe place where the temperature remains stable. 

How to Build Hibernaculum for Your Box Turtle?

If you want to make a hibernation box for your Box turtle, you can do that quite easily. Making the box is also easy. Here is how you can make a hibernaculum for your box turtle:

Materials You Will Need:

  • Two boxes or containers- one large box with a lid and one small waterproof box. The smaller box should be large enough to shelter your Box turtle.
  • Some shredded newspaper for insulation.
  • Damped Sphagnum moss
  • A thermometer 

How to Build:

  • First, line the large box with shredded newspaper.
  • Then place the smaller box on the newspaper in the large box. Your turtle should fit in the small box, and it should be able to move a bit. 
  • After that, fill in the space between the small and large box with some more shredded newspaper. Put the special Sphagnum moss in the small box as the substrate for the turtle. The moss should be moist to keep the turtle hydrated. 
  • The smaller box does not need any lid, but the larger box will need one. Since your turtle will require some air inside the box, poke or drill some holes in the lid. 
  • Finally, put your turtle in the box and place the hibernaculum in a room where the temperature stays 40 to 50 degrees F. It should also get some natural light. Check the room temperature with a thermometer for a few days before putting the hibernaculum there. Make sure the temperature does not fluctuate too much.

Do not abandon the turtle after storing the box. Check on it from time to time to hear some moving sound. Your Box turtle may wake up in the middle for some water to drink. 

How To Take Care of Box Turtle During Hibernation?

It is crucial to take proper care of your Box turtle during hibernation. You have to be careful. Hence, you should know how to take care of a hibernating turtle. 

Let us learn about the three stages of turtle hibernation and learn how to take care of a turtle in each stage. 

Stage 1: Pre-brumation/Pre-hibernation 

After you have stopped feeding your box turtle and recorded its weight, lower the temperature of its tank for about 7 days to brumation. Adjusting the temperature slowly to the hibernation temperature is crucial for your turtle’s health. 

For the first 3 days, set the temperature between 65 to 68 degrees F. Then lower the temperature to 60 degrees F. for the next 2 days. Finally, move your turtle into its hibernation box and put it in the room where the temperature remains between 45 to 50 degrees F. 

Stage 2: Brumation/Hibernation 

 Your turtle may stay in hibernation for 3 to 5 months. It is a long time. As turtles are at health risk during these dormant months, you should check on them every 2 to 3 weeks. 

Here is what you need to do:

Check the Weight

Weigh your Box turtle. Then compare the new weight with the weight taken before the hibernation. During the first month of hibernation, the turtle should not lose more than 1% of its weight. 

So, if your 900 g turtle loses 9g weight within a month of hibernation, you have to wake it up from hibernation. Your turtle should not lose weight so fast during the hibernation period. It will starve and die in hibernation. In such a situation, take the turtle to the vet.

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Hydrate

Remember, your turtle will brumate, which means it will wake up from its hibernation for some drink. So, you should put a cup of water in the hibernaculum for your turtle to drink from it. When you check on your turtle, clean the water cup and refill it with fresh water. 

If you see the skin of your box turtle dry while checking on them, soak them in tepid water for 20 to 30 minutes. This way, you can keep them hydrated during the brumation. 

Health Inspect

Your turtle might have been healthy when you put it in hibernation. But it can get sick during hibernation. So, you better check for signs of illness every 2 to 3 weeks. Check your turtle’s eyes, nose, and mouth for any secretion. 

Make sure its shell is not infected, or there is no sign of parasites on the turtle. Also, it should not have any respiratory issues. If you find any of these symptoms, take them to the vet as soon as possible. 

Stage 3: Post-brumation/Post-hibernation 

If your turtle is going through the hibernation with no health issues, you can let it hibernate for as long as it needs. You can consult with a veterinarian to decide how long your Box turtle should stay in hibernation. 

When you decide it is time to wake up your turtle, gradually adjust the temperature. 

To wake up your turtle from hibernation, do not remove the turtle from the box right away. Instead, transfer the box to another room, where the temperature is about 60 degrees F. Leave the box there for 2 or 3 days. Do not forget to soak the turtle in warm water during that time.

After that, keep the hibernation box with the turtle at a temperature between 65 to 68 degrees F for another 2 days. 

Finally, after 2 days, you can put your Box turtle back in its regular tank or enclosure. You should also take it to the vet for a post-hibernation checkup. 

Your turtle may not eat right away after hibernation. It may take a few days to readjust back to its regular life. So, do not panic if your turtle does not eat. Provide them sufficient amount of fresh water to drink. 

Can You Wake A Hibernating Box Turtle?

If you check on your hibernating turtle and find it has some signs of illness, can you wake up the hibernating turtle? Yes, you can wake up a hibernating turtle if it is ill or you find it losing weight too fast. 

Check the hibernation box carefully. If you find a turtle urinating in the box, you better wake up the turtle. Also, your box turtle may move around a lot and seem quite active in the box. Then move your turtle to its enclosure. 

Letting a sick or underweight turtle is risky. It can die during the long hibernation time. So, you should wake up the turtle by following the instructions mentioned before. Then take it to the vet immediately. 

What Happens If A Box Turtle Doesn’t Hibernate?

Pet Box turtles do not need hibernation in winter. They can easily survive the cold months in the regulated temperature indoors. But the same cannot be said about wild Box turtles. Box turtles live in geographical areas where winter can get really cold. As a result, food becomes scarce for the turtles. 

In order to survive the low temperature and scarcity of food, Box turtles in the wild have to burrow into the soil for months. If they do not find a proper hibernation spot, they will die of cold and hunger. Their body becomes inactive because of starvation, and they cannot even open their eyes. Hence, they become easy prey to predators. 

So, it is crucial for Box turtles to hibernate to survive wintry days. Without hibernation, Box turtles can die in the wild. 

Do Box Turtles Eat In The Winter? 

During winter, one reason Box turtles brumate is the lack of food. By brumating they can live without eating food for months. In fact, they eat less and less when the time of their brumation approaches. They have to keep their digestive tracks clean during hibernation. 

However, if the winter is not cold enough for the Box turtle to hibernate, it may slow down and eat less food. Although turtles do not eat, they drink plenty of fresh water to keep their body hydrated. 

On the other hand, pet box turtles kept indoors all year round under controlled light and temperature do not need hibernation in winter. They also have food supplied by you. So, they will eat food like they always do, even in winter. 

However, some box turtles that have previously hibernated may want to hibernate in winters. They reject food weeks before the hibernation period. 

Do Baby Box Turtles Hibernate?

Young Box turtles also brumate in winter. Unfortunately, many baby Box turtles cannot survive their first winter. Even juvenile Box turtles are too weak to survive hibernation in the wild. They remain at great risk when they hibernate.

If you have young pet turtles, you should not let them hibernate. Keep them in a safe enclosure indoors during winter. Keep the temperature between 70 to 80 degrees F, which is the ideal temperature for Box turtles to stay healthy. 

Conclusion

It is not easy to decide whether or not your Box turtle should hibernate. By now, you must have understood that hibernation is not strictly necessary for pet turtles. If you can regulate the indoor environment and temperature for Box turtle, you can keep it awake on winter days. Besides, your pet turtle will have plenty of food to survive. 

If it is necessary, you can allow your Box turtle to hibernate. But make sure to put them into hibernation safely and check on them regularly. Hopefully, your little friend will have an easy hibernation time. 

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About Author

Muntaseer Rahman started keeping pet turtles back in 2013. He also owns the largest Turtle & Tortoise Facebook community in Bangladesh. These days he is mostly active on Facebook.

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