By  Tom C

      As the cold months creep up on us, we have to take special precautions for our turtles. What I mean when I refer to “winterizing”, is to make your tanks suitable to house your turtles, in indoor settings, through the colder winter months. Some keepers have their tanks the same all year round and have had no problems. Most likely, this is because their tanks are already “winterized” or they do not allow the temperatures in their home to fall below a certain level. We enjoy leaving the windows open in the cooler months, so we need to take precautions for our turtles.

         Turtles do not adapt well to the cold unless they are housed outside in their native regions and given the proper conditions in which they need to survive the colder times of the year. If you choose to let them hibernate, then that is one way of caring for your turtles throughout the winter. Another method of caring for them is to force hibernation. When doing this, great research needs to be done long before attempting this. Death comes swiftly to those ill-prepared for forcing their turtles into hibernation.

       What we are going to discuss in this article is how to keep them awake and active through the winter months and have them maintain their health.

        The main thing that you need to concentrate on, is keeping the water and air inside the habitat nice and warm. Just keeping the water warm (about 73 F for most aquatic species) is not enough. You have to keep the air warm as well. In fact, it is a dangerous situation not to. Should your water temps be in the desired area but the air temps in the set-up are in the 50’s or 60’s, then your turtle runs the risk of catching a respiratory disease. It is comparable to a person wearing a nice, warm coat and going outside into the cold air. Although your body is kept warm with the jacket, you are still breathing in the cold air. This cold and hot mixture is what can cause an inner body chill. This can lead to problems in turtles and humans alike.

        Most turtle keepers have a screen top or nothing at all covering their turtles’ basking area to allow for a nice, warm, basking light. Others use a screen cover to allow them to keep their turtles inside and not allow the to crawl out while placing a heat lamp above. This works out great during the warmer months, but in the winter, it allows all of the desired heat to escape the habitat once the light has been turned off.

       There are a couple of methods of maintaining this heat: Submersible water heaters, Heat lamps on 24 hours a day; alternate heat sources; and enclosing the habitat.

       Most keepers keep submersible water heaters in their turtles’ water throughout the year. Some, like us, take them out during the warm months of the year and place them into the set-ups as it begins to get cooler. There are various brands of submersible heaters. We have used Tronic Heaters and are happy with their performance and have recently begun using Ebo-Jager Heaters and they have proven just as good. They are also cheaper, so that makes it a nice deal. Depending on the species that you keep, the water temps will vary. For most, maintaining the water temperature throughout the year in the low to mid 70’s is ideal. Be sure to check the specific needs of your turtle.

       Heat Lamps on 24 hours a day is an acceptable solution to the maintaining of heat in your turtle’s home. The turtles have shown no negative side affects with this method and some experienced keepers have been using this method for several years. It’s safe, simple and easy and nothing needs to be done to prepare for the winter.

       There are, however, a couple of drawbacks to this. Depending on where your turtle’s set-up is located, some do not like trying to sleep with lights on. Some people need complete and total darkness to sleep, and if their turtle is in their room, this is not a viable option. Another drawback to this method of heating is the expense. Keeping lights on all the time over the winter months (4 – 8 months, depending on your geographic location) can not only run up your electric bill (depending on how many lights you need to run), but you will also need to purchase lights bulbs more often to replace the ones that burn out. They are going to be used around twice as much, so they are going to burn out twice as fast. If you have only 2 or 3 heat lamps running, then your electric bill and replacement costs won’t be that big of a deal. But if you have several (we have 17 heat lamps), then it can add up. Remember, it’s the Holiday Season, and every penny counts.

       Alternate Heat Sources are another practical method of keeping your turtles warm. One alternate heat source is a space heater. If your turtles are maintained in a room that is dedicated to them, then this is a great way of keeping them nice and toasty when it’s cold outside. Simple to use and require no modifications to your set-ups. If your turtles are not kept in a room strictly for them, then this idea most likely won’t work for you, especially if they are kept in your room. Unless you like the heat, don’t try it. If your turtles are kept in a high traffic area (living room, dining room, etc) then I would advise against using a space heater.

       Two of the main drawbacks to this method are money and safety. Space heaters are not the cheapest things in the world to purchase or run. They suck up a lot of juice and the electric bill will show you just how much you love your turtles each month. They are not the safest methods of constant heat either. There are numerous advances that have brought the dangers to an extreme minimum, but they still pose a danger none-the-less. Some keepers are not willing to take the chances with this form of alternate heat. We have opted to go with this method and have taken some precautions. First, we purchased a safer model of space heater. We bought the one with everything internal and no heat elements are exposed. In addition, it has a safety shut off should the heater fall over, it automatically shuts itself off. Next, we placed the space heater on some bricks, and the surrounding floor area is also covered with bricks, should it ever tip over. Not the most attractive spot in the house, but it does the job. The air temps are kept in the high 70’s to low 80’s in that particular room, allowing us to make no changes with the habitats themselves.

       Another alternate heating source for the turtles are black heat bulbs and ceramic heaters. After having a few of the black lights explode into small pieces, we decided to use them no longer. We are completely happy with the ceramic heaters. They need to be lower than the basking lights, but they produce a great amount of heat and there is no annoying light illuminating the room or risk of falling over and starting a fire. Simply change out bulbs in the basking light fixture when you want to turn the lights out, and replace them with the ceramic heaters. In the morning, when you want the lights on, just take the ceramic heaters out and place the basking bulbs back in. Be careful, because basking lights can be hot to remove and those ceramic heaters are no joke either after only a few minutes of being on.

        The drawbacks to ceramic heaters are running the same for the lights being left on all the time. This time, though, you are saving money on basking lights, but you are spending money on the ceramic heaters – lots more vs. basking bulbs (around $40 + for a ceramic heater). In addition to the money, it will require more time. Changing them out in the morning and evening only takes a few minutes each time, but that is still time consuming if you are dealing with a large number of habitats. With the other methods, everything stays the same and no additional time is required by the keeper.

       The last way of heating the tank we are going to discuss here is enclosing the habitat. This way, you maintain the heat that is created from the basking lights and warm water. With the top of the tank enclosed, the warm water to aid greatly in keeping the air warm. There are a few ways to do this.

       The first way is the cheapest and easiest. If you use the typical aquarium hoods, then keep them shut at night. During the day, place a basking light in a holder with a clamp on it so that it so that the light aims directly onto the basking area through the open lid. Once you are ready to turn the lights off for the night, remove the basking light from the hood and close the lid. Plain and simple. You save money on your electric bill as well as the cost of purchasing new light bulbs more often. The drawback to this is that, if you don’t have the basking light positioned correctly, it can heat up and warp or melt some of the plastic on the hood and/or lid. Also, this method requires more time vs. various other methods which do not require any time after the initial set-up.

       Another method of enclosing a tank for maintaining heat, is to make your own lid. This can also be used throughout the year. Take either a piece of metal or wood and cut it to fit, either in the grooves of the aquarium’s top, or so that it fits over the top rim. Ensure that it is a proper fit. It would not be good to have it slip and end up falling into the water, bringing the lights with it. Cut out 2 sections to allow a basking light and a UVB light to be placed on top. Ensure that the holes are a little bit small than the holders of each of the lights. Don’t want them falling through. For the basking light, I would recommend a circular hole and then the light screwing into the wood or metal lid. For the strip light, I would make an elongated cut out so that the strip light is not blocked in anyway and allows the beneficial UVB rays to get to your turtles. Once again, this is another method that will not require additional time beyond the initial creation and placement.

        The drawbacks to this method are a little more than you would think at first glance. First, not to be an insult, but there are people out there that just do not have the skills to create something like this. Or they do not have the tools available to them to make a custom top. Whatever the material used, either wood or metal, they will need to be purchased and cut to fit, with holes placed for lighting. Metal has a tendency to rust is not properly sealed and wood needs to be treated or it will warp and begin to fall apart. Heat lamps may melt away the water-resistant coating placed on wood if the hole and basking light are not done properly. The hole needs to be large enough to encompass almost the entire face of the basking light fixture, leaving only enough to affix it to the lid.

        Whatever the method you use, something most likely needs to be done to your turtles’ home to prepare them for a safe winter. If you are planning to allow them to undergo a cooler winter period to assist in mating in the spring, then adjust your temperatures accordingly.

        Just remember a rule of thumb: If you are cold, then your turtles are even colder, unless you have taken those extra precautions.