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Autumns Effect on Turtle, Lizard and Snake Appetites

As autumn approaches I invariably receive questions from reptile owners whose pets have lost interest in food.  This most commonly occurs among Red Eared Sliders, Box and Painted Turtles, and other North American species, but may show up in lizards and snakes as well.

Amphibians in general, and reptiles from regions without a seasonal change, are largely immune.  Bear in mind, however, that many species native to warm climates do experience a cool season – Bearded Dragons are a prime example, with certain populations hibernating in the wild.

Internal Controls on Behavior

It is common for native reptiles to slow down or stop feeding as the seasons change; often circadian rhythms (“internal clocks”) control this, and they will not feed even if kept warm. As long as the animals are otherwise in good health, they will be fine.  We are learning that reptiles have amazing abilities to alter their metabolisms to suit local conditions (please see article below).  Gharials (fish eating crocodilians) that I kept for 17 years at the Bronx Zoo went off feed annually, right in sync with wintertime in their native Pakistan.  Despite being kept at 86-92 F, and moving about daily, they lost almost no weight over their 3 month fasting period.

Keeping Turtles in Winter

Sliders, Snapping Turtles and others that refuse to feed as fall approaches can be kept in water that is at average room temperature (65-68F) or a bit higher over the winter.  Leave their UVB and basking lights on during the day, as they will continue to bask and move about.  You can offer food 1-2x per week, but they will likely not eat much.  Sick or stressed animals are another matter…please write in if you need advice.
Actually putting reptiles into true hibernation by lowering temperatures significantly is tricky, although often an important breeding stimulus.  Please write in if you need further information.

Future Research -Your Observations Needed

One thing I’ve noticed, and which I’d like to research further, is that wild-caught turtles, even if taken into captivity on the day of hatching, usually stop feeding in the winter, while captive-hatched animals of the same species feed throughout the year.  I would be very interested to hear from readers with similar or different experiences, thanks.

Further Reading

Please see Hibernation in Captive Bearded Dragons for specific information on these popular pets.

There is some amazing new information coming to light on snake metabolisms.  Please check out How Snakes Grow During Times of Food Deprivation.



  1. avatar

    Hi… I had a common florida snapper (hatchling) since August 2008. I recently gave him or her up, due to the fact that it would not eat or move bowels for about two weeks. It was given to a rehabe care center. I was just wondering what is the cause of this entire situation, when it was treated with the best care. P.S. this is the only thing i cannot understand too well with a snapper……please help with advive thx

    • avatar

      Hello Steve, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your interest in our blog.

      If the turtle originated from north Florida it would likely enter dormancy in captivity, or at least slow down a bit, as it would in the wild. Those living in south Florida stay active year-round; however, a captive would react to lower ambient temperatures in the home, if such occurred, by slowing down its feeding as well.

      However, if it fed well last winter then something else may be involved – an intestinal blockage, perhaps, or a bacterial infection. These are difficult to diagnose in snappers – an experienced reptile veterinarian would be the best option (infections can take hold under the scutes of the shell, and spread without being noticed, for example).

      Please write in with some details concerning its aquarium (water depth, size, temp., etc.), diet and any other symptoms, ands I’ll do my best to provide some insight.

      Good luck and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  2. avatar

    Hello, Frank.

    I previously have raised a common snapping turtle and an eastern painted turtle from hatchlings to third-year adults and successfully released them into the wild. (One was found a long way from water and the other was rescued from a raccoon Riviera.)

    In June of this year I came across a snapper hatchling in the middle of nowhere, marching in a direction I knew wouldn’t take him anywhere near water, so I adopted him, too. He ate voraciously until about three weeks ago, then stopped entirely.

    I found this odd because the other snapper never lost his appetite as winter approached. I live in Michigan, so the water in this snapper’s aquarium (average depth about 3 inches, with some deeper and some more shallow water, beside a window) has cooled lately. The turtle seems in good health, slightly overweight if anything, and travels his tank from one hiding spot to another.

    I’m interested to know if you think this one is simply slowing down because of the season, or if I should have him checked out by a vet. I can’t say I have a lot of confidence in a vet’s ability to diagnose issues in so young and small a turtle, but I’ll go with whatever you think.

    Thanks for your time and consideration. B

    • avatar

      Hello Beaufort, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your interest in our blog and vote of confidence.

      A hatchling discovered in June has likely spent the winter in the nest (they commonly hatch in August-September, but in the north overwinter in the nest) or perhaps was just a very small yearling. In any event, that amount of time exposed to a natural season cycle would be enough to cause the turtle to slow down even when brought indoors for the winter. However, in my experience there is some variability in this – actually I have seen such in the same clutch of snappers that hatched in an outdoor exhibit at the Bronx Zoo – some ate over the winter, others did not.

      It’s difficult to distinguish illness from semi-dormancy, but seeing as how you are experienced in raising turtles, and that snappers are quite hardy, I would say it is just slowing down. As you say, it would in any event be difficult to diagnose illness for other than a well-experienced reptile veterinarian.

      As long as the animal moves about on occasion and does not “list” (tilting when swimming indicates gas from a bacterial infection), I wouldn’t worry. Offer food each week or so, but the turtle will be fine if it does not eat. They adjust their metabolisms, it seems, to fit the situation (fairly new research on this) and those that have fed well all summer lose very little weight.

      Good luck and please keep me posted; I’m interested to know how the turtle behaves as the season progresses.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    Thanks very much, Frank. I suspected that this one (and the first snapper hatchling I found years ago, since he appeared in earliest spring) might have spent last winter in the ground, so I was pleased to have you second that perception. I’ll certainly keep you informed; I’m new to this Web site but find it fascinating reading.


    • avatar

      Hello Beaufort, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Your kind words are much appreciated, thank you.

      Yes, please keep me informed…we have a lot to learn; snappers especially seem to vary widely in their seasonal activity. I’ve seen them moving under the ice in NY, but have not been able to figure out why or even how they manage that; also, much of what we’ve learned about even relatively common species has been put to use in programs designed to breed endangered species.

      Good luck and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  4. avatar

    Hello Sir,
    I have a painted turtle caught in the local lake. I live in N.Y. His appetite was great all spring / summer. Only wants to eat fish and meat. No interest in green vegetables or fruit. Is this ok? I provide a clean habitat for him, with proper lighting as I was told. He resides in a 10 gallon tank. I will soon buy a larger tank. Shell appears healthy. Thank you for your time and advice.

    • avatar

      Hello Diane, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your interest in our blog.

      Young Eastern painted Turtles are mainly carnivorous; plants form more of the diet as they mature, i.e. from age 1 year or so on. Captive adults usually favor fish/meat, and may not take vegetables unless kept hungry for a time. Please check my article on Greens for Semi-Aquatic Turtles for some tips (2 Part article). Reptomin and some of the other foods listed there contain plant-based foods and vitamins, and should be included in the diet.

      Be sure to use whole organisms for the meat based foods – minnows and shiners as opposed to pieces of fish; earthworms are especially nutritious; crickets and other insects as opposed to pieces of meat. Freeze dried krill and canned shrimp are good sources of calcium.

      Good luck and please let me know if you need further info.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  5. avatar

    hello frank
    winters here in vegas and i have two red eared sliders
    ones about six and the others 4 and they seem to have lost appetite but are still moving around as usual, and also i put minnows in in september and the turtles now seem to ignore the remaining three even if they are right infront of them. i know it could just be the season change but i just wanted a seconed opinion

    • avatar

      Thanks for your interest in our blog. Here in NY we don’t think of Vegas as having a winter! But seriously, I would expect that the seasonal change is involved. However, if this is the case the turtles would have done this in the past as well, assuming they were kept under the same conditions. If they fed in the past and not now, then another problem may be involved…please let me know if you need any further info.

      Good luck and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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