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By Brent Parker, D.V.M.

To hibernate is to pass the winter in a dormant or torpid state. Although we are most familiar with the concept of bears hibernating, some reptiles also hibernate. In the wild, box turtles and some tortoises and snakes that live in temperate regions hibernate. In captivity, hibernation for reptiles can be optional; however, it is often beneficial to induce successful reproduction. Some say hibernation helps maintain a reptile’s normal thyroid activity and helps them attain a normal life span. Clearly, hibernation stimulates normal reproductive activity in males, and may synchronize ovulation in females. Some reptiles cease feeding in the winter, so they’re better of if hibernated.

Most box turtles are active from March until October or November, depending on the latitude (photoperiod) and subspecies. In the early autumn they’ll often stop eating. This is usually the first sign of the turtle’s desire to hibernate, although it should not be confused with any disease process which requires attention. If hibernation is desired, withhold food, but not water, for one to two weeks, and keep the cage temperature warm (70 to 80 degrees F.) This will allow the turtle to clear its digestive system, which slows down during hibernation. After a following week at room temperature, the turtle should be ready to hibernate.

Indoor hibernation is safest for pet box turtles. The area chosen for the turtle should be quiet, dimly lit, dry, free of drafts, and maintained at 45 to 60 degrees F. If over 60 degrees F, the turtle’s metabolism may be too high, and it may slowly starve. Prolonged periods under 45 degrees F can also be harmful, and freezing temperatures should be avoided. Examples of commonly used places include a basement, garage, porch, wine cellar, or a closet in a cool room.

The turtle can hibernate in a large box, crate, cooler, or aquarium containing about 12” of slightly humid peat-based potting soil with a 3” to 6” covering of shredded newspaper, hay, or drives leaves. Do not place this hibernaculum directly onto cold cement. The turtle will burrow into the soil. The soil should be moist, but not wet, so the turtle won’t dehydrate. Soak the turtle in a pan of lukewarm water for two hours every two to three weeks during hibernation. During this time, observe the turtle for signs of life (an occasional respiration, the eyes opening). If all appears well, dry the turtle off and return it to its hibernaculum. If not, seek veterinary assistance rather than allow it to re-enter hibernation. In the spring, as the box turtle becomes more active at warmer ambient temperatures, the turtle should start eating again within a week. It should not have lost more than 10% of its body weight. If it has, this problem should be looked into.

Hibernation is safe for healthy species only. Underweight, sick, or convalescing reptiles should not be hibernated. Have a stool sample from the reptile checked before any attempt at hibernation, so any gastrointestinal parasites can be eliminated. If a turtle appears sick coming out of hibernation or refuses to eat within a week or two, have it examined by your veterinarian.

Species of reptiles other than box turtles may also benefit from hibernation such as some snakes and tortoises. Thus, it’s extremely important to be familiar with the natural history of the species of reptiles you maintain. This information may be obtained from books, journals, zoos, biology departments in universities, and herpetology clubs. A wealth of information is also available on the Internet.

Dr. Brent Parker is a veterinarian who practices in Santa Fe.

This article first appeared in the Winter/Spring 1997 issue.

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