Hibernating Water and Box Turtles

Adapted from the article "Hibernating Turtles & Tortoises" by Larry White, DVM

What is the real meaning of hibernation? Hibernation is an inactive state that some animals go into during cold weather to survive. Their metabolisms are lowered so that respirations, heartbeats and other body functions significantly slow down. Animals in true hibernation go dormant in the fall and remain so until spring. In milder climates a lighter form of hibernation is used. Reptile hibernation is called brumation. Turtles and other reptiles in the South may go dormant during the coldest periods but then may come out during warm days to bask. When the warm days pass, they go dormant again. To simplify the wording of this article, only the term hibernation will be used.

Much difference of opinion exists concerning the necessity of hibernating pet turtles. While many captive turtles have lived for years in captivity without undergoing a period of winter dormancy, virtually all reptile breeders and serious hobbyists will provide for a period of cooling every year for those species which become dormant in the wild. This period of dormancy serves to normalize the reproductive cycles of these animals. Some species cannot be bred successfully without it.

If your turtle is native to your area and healthy, there is no reason why it shouldn't be allowed to hibernate naturally outside in its pen over the winter months. If a turtle is kept inside and not allowed to hibernate, it is important to keep the tank or habitat setup lights on for 12 hours per day. Preparation for hibernation is triggered by shorter daylight hours. Turtles kept inside over the winter should remain warm, active and eating. Turtles can not properly hibernate if temperatures are above about 55 degrees so are unable to hibernate indoors.

If a decision is made to hibernate your turtle, there are a few preparations that should be made. Approximately four to six weeks before hibernation is to begin, the animal should be fed plenty of high energy food, paying particular attention to supplying plenty of vitamins A and D3. See our Box Turtle and Aquatic Turtle diet and care sheets for diet information. You should not have to worry about when to discontinue feeding. Most native North American chelonians will begin to go off food in the fall of the year when the temperatures begin to drop into the fifties. They seem to know when to stop eating so that their digestive tracts are clear before going dormant. If they didn't stop eating before going dormant, undigested food would spoil and cause infection which could lead to death.

Animals which are to be hibernated should be examined carefully to make sure that no infectious diseases are present. Infections of the respiratory system are especially devastating. A turtle which enters hibernation with a mild respiratory infection will likely die from pneumonia during hibernation or shortly after emerging. Turtles with respiratory disease will frequently have swollen eyes and a discharge from the nostrils. If the turtle will extend its head, try to gently put pressure on the throat. If mucus comes from the nostrils, this is an indication of respiratory disease. Turtles which continually extend their head and open the mouth frequently are manifesting difficulty in breathing. Aquatic turtles which exhibit a tilting to one side while in the water are usually suffering from severe respiratory disease. Aquatic turtles which remain out of the water at night should be examined carefully, as this may be an indication of disease. Ideally, turtles destined for hibernation should be checked for internal parasitism and treated appropriately if found to be harboring parasites. Check the skin and shell carefully for evidence of hemorrhages. If found, these animals should be treated aggressively with antibiotics. If a turtle appears to be too light when picked up, compared with others of the same shell size, don't hibernate it. Box turtles are especially prone to abscesses involving the middle ear cavity. This will manifest as a swelling on the side of the head behind the eye. These abscesses should be emptied and packed with antibiotics. An experienced reptile veterinarian can perform this procedure safely.

Any turtle which has recently recovered from an illness should not be allowed to hibernate that winter. In summary, a turtle which is to be hibernated should be in as close to optimum condition as possible before cooling.

Turtles which have been living freely in a yard will usually bury themselves if a well drained area is provided. Try to provide a good deep pile of hay, leaves, or mulch over soft soil. The turtles will usually disappear for the winter and emerge on warm days, or in the spring. Aquatic turtles which are kept in an outdoor pond will usually overwinter in the pond with no problem if adequate water depth is provided. I recommend at least 18 inches to keep the water temperature from fluctuating too much. This depth recommendation is for areas where the winters are mild. Colder climates require deeper ponds. Some water turtles will bury into the mud/dirt next to the pond.

Some turtle keepers allow turtles to hibernate in special refrigerators but this requires special equipment and knowledge and should not be attempted by the average turtle owner.

Animals in hibernation should be checked periodically to make sure that no problems are developing. Animals which are active and moving about on the surface frequently are having problems, and should be slowly warmed back up and kept out of hibernation. Box turtles may be gently soaked every three or four weeks in order to prevent dehydration. Hibernating turtles will frequently have a mucus material in their eyes which will clear after soaking. This soaking doesn't need to be an extended period. Five minutes will do. As the spring arrives, box turtles coming out of hibernation can be soaked for at least thirty minutes. This will allow them to re-hydrate themselves and void any waste. Usually within two weeks the animals will resume feeding and may begin to exhibit breeding behavior. They should be checked closely after emerging, and any signs of illness should be attended to promptly.

All of the above information pertains to turtles from temperate climates and is not recommended for animals from a tropical area of the world.

Other contributors to this article are:

Editing by Anita Peddicord, B.S., Permitted Wildlife Rehabilitator and GCTTS Secretary
Additions by Bob Smither

GCTTS Note: Dr. White is one of the foremost reptile veterinarians in the greater Houston area and also has extensive personal experience with chelonians. He is at Briarcrest Veterinary Clinic, 1492 Wilcrest, Houston, TX 77042. Phone 713-789-8320.

Please contact us if you have questions regarding the hibernation of turtles or tortoises.

Copyright (c) 2004 Gulf Coast Turtle and Tortoise Society
Permission is granted to copy for non-profit use with proper credit given. For any other use you must obtain permission.

Gulf Coast Turtle and Tortoise Society
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Houston, TX 77073
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