Post-Hibernation Turtle Care
Turtles can come up sooner than expected!
Spring is here at the Ornate Bird Garden, and if you are keeping your box turtles outside like you’re supposed to, soon they will start popping up out of hibernation all over the back yard. Here’s how to care for them, especially if they come up too early. They’ve been taking their six-month dirt nap all through the winter, and now it’s time to look for food and water. (Well, mostly water. They might not be real enthusiastic about food at first.) Be careful as you mow the grass or walk around out there; turtles can dig their way up sooner than you think, and turn up in a different place than expected!
What You Will Need:
- An experienced reptile vet to fall back on
- An escape-proof, fenced-in back yard (see Create a Backyard Habitat)
- A food-scale that measures in grams (available at Target or on the internet)
- A mixing bowl big enough that your turtle can’t climb out (don’t use it for cooking after this)
- A terrarium (get a big plastic storage box or tub from Target)
- For the terrarium: a shallow water dish in which your turtle can soak and drink
- For the terrarium: a shallow food dish into which your turtle can climb
- Turtle goodies: fruits (especially strawberries), vegetables, and nightcrawlers which are available at bait shops and sporting goods places
Step 1: You’ve found your turtle sitting in the ruins of his hibernation hole, or perhaps across the yard from it! Does he look all right? I’m not talking about being caked with dirt; that’s normal. Are his eyes fully open and bright, or are they swollen, shut tight, or messy with pus or watery discharge.
Weigh him upside-down on a food scale.
If his eyes (or nostrils) look runny, get him to the experienced vet right now. Otherwise, carry him indoors and weigh him on your food scale. Place him upside-down on the scale, and he’ll be less-inclined to make a break for freedom. Make sure you sterilize the food-scale afterwards if you plan to use it in food preparation! (See Practice Turtle Hygiene to Prevent Salmonella Infection.)
Weigh him in grams, and write down this baseline reading in case you need it for comparison later on. For example, I have a small male ornate box turtle. He has exhibited the following weight range: 300 grams (which is light for him and would cause me to worry) to 345 grams (a good weight). I’ve had bigger males weigh as much as 478 grams. You’ll get a feel for when your turtle feels comfortably dense and heavy.
Step 2: Give your turtle a relaxing soak in a warm bathroom. Fill up the mixing bowl so that he can sit comfortably with his head above the warm water. Test the water with your finger to make sure it’s not too hot.
A relaxing soak
You might want to rinse your turtle off under the tap before you put him in the mixing bowl. This is to get most of the dirt off him so he doesn’t turn the water in the mixing bowl completely brown. The reason you’re soaking him right now is to stimulate him to drink and replenish his fluids. He’s probably going to be dehydrated first thing after coming out of hibernation. Let him sit in the mixing bowl for 5 to 10 minutes. He might act like he wants to get out, but it’s good for him to soak for a little while.
When Osiris (soaking in the photo above) came up from hibernation last spring, he went straight to his water dish and spent the next 30 minutes standing there, drinking and urinating. The poor little guy was obviously dehydrated!
To be perfectly safe from salmonella, you’re not going to want to use the mixing bowl for cooking after you let the turtle soak in it. You could disinfect it in the dishwasher, but I would just add the bowl to my reptile supplies and buy a new one for cooking! (See Practice Hygiene to Prevent Salmonella Infection)
Step 3: Determine if you need a terrarium. Check your local weather reports to see if days and (more likely) nights are still too cold to allow your turtle to stay outdoors. In the day, turtles enjoy temperatures of 70 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit; at night, they don’t like temps colder than 50 degrees .
Temporary terrarium. This one is see-through to show you the contents, but you need to tape paper over it so your turtle can’t see out.
Normally, I never recommend keeping your turtle indoors in a terrarium unless it is temporary: for example, if he is recovering from a health problem. But in the spring time, you’ll want to have an indoor terrarium ready in case of cold weather. Let your turtle roam outside in his outdoor habitat, and bring him inside to his terrarium at night or if daytime temps plunge.
Step 4: Outfit your terrarium with a shallow bowl of water into which your turtle can climb to soak and drink. Add a shallow food dish, a reptile heat lamp that you can clamp onto the side (available at pet stores), and a piece of newspaper he can hide under. That’s all you need. Keeping the terrarium simple helps you to keep it clean. It may look boring for him, but he will spending most of the day in his outdoor habitat anyway. It’s important that your terrarium not be see-through: otherwise, your turtle will batter himself obsessively against the sides, trying to get out. Pick a solid, colored-plastic tub or tape paper over the sides of the terrarium to block his view.
Step 5: After you’ve found your turtle, weighed him, soaked him, and set up his terrarium, you’ll want to tempt him to eat. Some turtles (especially later in the spring) come up hungry, and this is not a problem. If your turtle came up early, he might still be sluggish and uninterested in eating. If he’s too cold, he won’t feel like eating. You’ll want to let him warm up either in the sun in his outdoor habitat, or under the reptile heat lamp in his indoor terrarium.
What could be more delicious?
Then find a snail in your backyard (or get some nightcrawlers from the bait shop or at WalMart) and put some live, moving prey in front of him. The exciting movements from the snail or nightcrawler should tempt him to eat. You could also try offering him a bowl (or a piece of wax paper) loaded with banana slices and strawberry slices. A turtle’s sense of smell is very keen, and the scent of his two favorite fruits will stimulate his appetite.
Offering him food in his outdoor habitat is often helpful; he may feel more in the mood to eat if he’s outdoors and semi-hidden from view. Giving him a daily soak in the mixing bowl will help his appetite as well (and make sure he’s drinking enough). Don’t worry if it takes him days to start eating again. Just monitor his weight, and keep offering him goodies. He will eventually start eating again. (See Get Your Turtle to Eat.)
Outside and warmed-up, he feels like eating.
Step 6: Keep an eye on your local temperatures! You want to move your turtle permanently to his outside habitat as soon as you can. Inspect the habitat for any escape routes or needed repairs. Get it ready for him.
 The Box Turtle Manual by Philippe de Vosjoli, Advanced Vivarian Systems, Inc. 1995, p.17. Available on Amazon through this link: