For tortoise keepers, understanding hibernation is key to providing proper care. Several tortoise species hibernate and understanding the specific species of tortoise you own is crucial for knowing their hibernation habits. Mediterranean tortoises, for instance, have distinct hibernation patterns compared to other species.
It is up to you to find out if your pet hibernates. Technically, among cold-blooded animals such as reptiles, hibernation is called brumation.
Reptiles brumate, birds and mammals hibernate. Brumation is usually down to the climate of the animal’s geographical range.
For tortoise owners, recognizing the natural behaviors of their pets, including hibernation patterns, is essential. Tropical tortoises endemic to tropical climates do not brumate in their natural habitat, however, tortoises found in temperate climates brumate.
Some tortoise species that brumate/hibernate include:
- Desert tortoises (Gopherus agassizii)
- Gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus)
- Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni)
- Marginated tortoise (Testudo marginata)
- Russian or Horsfield’s tortoise (Agrionemys horsfieldii)
- Greek tortoise or spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca)
- Texas tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri)
You also need to decide if you want the tortoise to hibernate. In the wild, most reptiles that live in areas where winter temperatures are very low need to hibernate.
This ensures that they can survive the cold and since food is scarce during the winter, they won’t starve to death.
In captivity, the tortoise doesn’t need to brumate as you control the temperature of the tortoise’s enclosure. In addition to this, you also control the tortoise’s food supply.
Table of Contents
Tortoise Hibernation Guide
Why should you hibernate your pet tortoise and why shouldn’t you?
Tortoises that are housed outdoors will hibernate when temperatures are low enough unless you bring them indoors (where the temperature is high) which is similar to box turtles, another species that brumates. Handling hibernation ensures that your pet is safe throughout the winter months.
Many tortoise parents decide to hibernate their tortoises as this is only natural. In addition to this, hibernation increases your likelihood of successful breeding.
However, hibernation has its risks. A sick or unhealthy chelonian may not survive hibernation. Deciding not to hibernate your pet eliminates these risks.
If you don’t plan on breeding your pets (the coming breeding season or in the far future), then hibernation may not be worth it.
If however, you wish to breed your pet, then hibernation is a good idea. Your pet must be healthy before hibernation.
Reasons to stop the hibernation process
Sometimes during hibernation, something may go wrong. When this happens, you need to end the hibernation process and bring your pet out of hibernation.
You can end the hibernation by returning the tortoise to its normal enclosure and returning temperature and lighting settings to normal.
Stop hibernation, if the tortoise
- starts showing signs of ill health
- refuses to go dormant and remains active all the time
- is losing too much body weight (more than 1% every month)
- attempts to bask on cold days
Find out when your pet tortoise hibernates and for how long
In many regions, the end of October marks the beginning of the hibernation period. Tortoises generally hibernate from October or November to late February through early April. This is in the northern hemisphere.
The hibernation length of time can vary depending on species and environmental conditions, but generally they hibernate for 4 to 6 months.
It is important to check with your veterinarian.
Caring for your hibernating pet isn’t an arduous process. As long as you take the necessary precautions, caring for a hibernating tortoise is easier than caring for a tortoise that isn’t hibernating.
Here are the steps to take, if you want a successful hibernation.
Find out when and how long the tortoise species hibernate
We have already mentioned a list of popular tortoises that hibernate. To reiterate, these include desert, gopher, Hermann’s, marginated, Russian, greek (depends on the subspecies), and Texas tortoises.
Some popular pet tortoises that DO NOT hibernate include Sulcata tortoise, radiated tortoise, red-footed tortoise, yellow- leopard tortoise, Egyptian tortoise, and golden greek tortoise,
If your pet isn’t included in the list, contact your vet to find out whether or not your pet hibernates.
Visit the vet
A checkup is a must as only healthy tortoises should be allowed to hibernate. Even the mildest of infections can lead to considerable damage and even death.
This is because the immune system of the tortoise slows down during hibernation which makes the tortoise more susceptible. As such it is important to inspect your pet for any signs of ill health.
Some signs to look out for include
- Swollen ears and/or eyes
- Weight loss
- Difficulty breathing
- Wounds or cuts
- Breathing through the mouth frequently
- Liquid leaking from under the tail usually accompanied by a bad smell
- Abscesses (pus-filled swellings)
- Nasal discharge
- Blood spots in the mouth
- Purplish red discoloration inside the mouth
- And discharge of pus inside the mouth
When you visit the vet, he/she will check for these signs of infection as well as assess the body condition of the tortoise. Some tests the vet may run include blood work, x-ray, and fecal sample check.
Be sure to visit the vet around late August to mid-September.
Weigh your tortoise
Knowing the weight of your pet will allow you to track its weight during hibernation. Larger tortoises require a little less attention during hibernation compared to smaller lighter tortoises due to their size and weight.
This is especially important to ensure your tortoise is not underweight before it enters hibernation. That way if it’s losing too much weight, you can stop the hibernation process.
After the initial weighing, weigh the tortoise every other week to ensure it isn’t losing too much weight.
Use the Jackson Ratio as a guideline to ensure your tortoise is not underweight for its size. The tortoise should lose under 1% of its total body weight every month. For example, if the tortoise weighs 2 kg, it shouldn’t lose more than 20 grams each month.
For small tortoises, use digital scales as these give more precise measurements. Also, use the same scale through the entire hibernation process.
How To Weigh Your Tortoise Video
Change the tortoise’s diet
Preparation should start in the summer months to ensure your tortoise is ready for hibernation. Starting around May, feed the tortoise foods rich in Vitamin A. This is because vitamin A is important for a successful hibernation.
Simply put, feed the tortoise foods rich in nutrients. Two such foods include squash and carrots.
Do this about 12 to 16 weeks before hibernation until 6 to 8 weeks before hibernation, which should be in late July.
In late July, place the tortoise on a high-fiber diet. Replace most of its normal food with hays, weed, and grass such as alfalfa and timothy hay.
Fast the tortoise for about a month before hibernating
The last meal is crucial and should be given well before the fasting period begins. Tortoises must not hibernate with undigested food in their digestive system as the food can decay and lead to bacterial infections. The tortoise has eaten within a month to hibernation, postpone hibernation.
For tortoises weighing over 2 kg, fast the tortoise for 4 to 6 weeks; for tortoises weighing 1 to 2 kg, fast the tortoise for 3 to 4 weeks; and for tortoises weighing under 1 kg, fast the tortoise for 3 to 4 weeks.
Make sure the tortoise is well-hydrated
Since the tortoise may not drink water for months, make sure to hydrate it. During the fasting period, soak the tortoise in water, preferably lukewarm water to ensure the tortoise’s comfort and safety. They should have a warm bath around 30 minutes every two days.
The water level shouldn’t go beyond the tortoise’s chin. You don’t want the tortoise to drown.
Reduce the temperature of the tortoise’s enclosure
Tortoises hibernate when the temperature falls. So gradually reduce the heat source and the temperature of the enclosure will slowly drop. This mimics the natural drop in body temperature that triggers hibernation. A gradual decrease gives the tortoise time to digest the food in its digestive tract.
While fasting the tortoise, reduce the temperature gradually. A month before hibernation slowly reduce the temperature to 60 °F (15 °C) over a week.
For the next 3 weeks, keep the temperature between 55 and 60 °F. When the temperature falls before 50 °F (10 °F), the tortoise will hibernate.
Note that monitoring the ambient temperature is key to initiating the hibernation process.
Decide where to house the tortoise
As long as the temperature is 50 °F or below, the tortoise will hibernate. The ideal temperature for hibernation is around 40 °F (4.5 °C).
Storing the tortoises in a fridge/refrigerator is an easy way to monitor the temperature.
Don’t pick a room where the temperature falls below 50 °F if you are storing the hibernating tortoise inside a refrigerator.
Tortoises can also be stored in the basement, garage, or even outdoors (although I don’t recommend this as there are several dangers outside).
The fridge method is a popular way to ensure a constant hibernation environment for tortoises and if you plan on storing the tortoise in a fridge, here are some tips.
You should use a separate fridge for hibernation though, and not your normal one as this avoids temperature fluctuations.
Make sure the temperature inside the fridge doesn’t fall below 38 °F. As such, it is best to use a new and modern fridge, faulty/unreliable thermostats in old fridges can lead to the tortoise’s death. The ideal temperature inside the fridge should be 3-5 °C (37.4 to 41 °F).
The fridge should be placed in a room where temperatures do not fall below 50 °F/10 °C. Even if you set the temperature of the refrigerator right, the temperature within the fridge can fall dangerously low if the temperature outside the fridge drops to freezing point.
Open the doors of the refrigerator for about 2 minutes every other day. This should ensure that the refrigerator is well-ventilated and the tortoise gets fresh air which is vital during brumation. If you want, you can even open the doors every day.
Store the tortoise in a hibernaculum. This ensures that the tortoise is protected from the hazards of hibernation. It also has an opaque lid so the inside is always dark.
How to setup a tortoise fridge for hibernation
Building a simple hibernaculum
Creating a hibernation box is a straightforward but vital step in preparing your tortoise for brumation. To build a simple hibernaculum, all you need is a box within a box. This box method is a tried and tested way of creating a safe hibernation environment.
The space between the edge of the inner box and the outer box should be about an inch or two.
- Do not use a cardboard box for the outer box as the integrity can be easily compromised. Use wood or plastic like a Rubbermaid container.
- The smaller box should be large enough for the tortoise to turn around in.
- Two boxes, one larger than the other. The small box should fit inside the large box with a gap of about an inch or two around the small box.
- Insulative material to fill the gap between the smaller and larger box. Good choices include packing foam, polystyrene, wool insulation & cotton insulation.
- A substrate such as coco coir, peat moss, or newspaper.
- Lay down a bottom layer of insulation; about an inch or two thick.
- Lay the small box on top of the layer of insulation inside the big box.
- Fill the gap between the outer box and the inner box with an insulative material such as packing foam or polystyrene. If there is no insulative material, shredded paper works as well. Just make sure to tightly pack it in the gap.
- Lay down about 3 inches of substrate. Some excellent choices include coco coir, peat moss, and even shredded newspaper.
- Insulate the top of the outer box’s lid and drill small air holes in the lid and insulation.
- Place a thermometer inside the box to monitor the temperature.
Start the hibernation process
Place the tortoise in the box and start the hibernation process. Make sure to follow all the previous steps discussed.
As already mentioned the ideal temperature for hibernation is 40 °F. Make sure the temperature inside the hibernaculum is between 3-5 °C (37.4 to 41 °F).
Check the temperature inside the hibernaculum daily
It is important to ensure that the temperature inside the refrigerator doesn’t fall below 35 °F (1.5 C). To ensure this, check the temperature consistently.
A thermometer that records the highest and lowest temperatures will allow you to take note of the temperature range at all times. Alternatively, you can have a thermometer that sounds an alarm when readings go below a certain temperature.
Inspect the tortoise at least every two weeks
Regardless of where your pet is hibernating, you need to inspect it regularly to ensure it’s in good condition. This can be weekly or bimonthly. Be on the lookout for signs of illness. Many of these signs have already been discussed.
If your pet is showing signs of infection, then you need to slow the hibernation process and contact the vet.
Also, inspect the substrate. It shouldn’t be wetter than it was at the start of the hibernation period.
If the substrate is wet or the tortoise’s skin is patchy, soak the tortoise in water for about two hours and change the substrate.
Once this is done, return the tortoise to the hibernaculum and continue the hibernation process.
During these inspections, you also need to track the weight of the tortoise. The tortoise shouldn’t lose more than 1% of body mass each year.
Once hibernation is over, place your tortoise on a tortoise table or in its enclosure with appropriate lighting, as this will help post-hibernation. Warm the tortoise’s enclosure to about 60 °F. Keep this temperature for about two days. For the next 2 days, keep the temperature above 65 but not below 60 °F.
After this return the temperature to normal. Two days after the temperature has returned to normal, feed your pet. Feed your pet as you normally would.
Also, remember to soak the tortoise once every two days for about a month. Regularly soaking your pet is something you need to do regardless of whether or not your pet hibernates.
For pet owners, understanding and managing the hibernation process of tortoises is a critical aspect of their care. The best way to ensure a safe hibernation is through diligent preparation and monitoring.
If your tortoise must hibernate, then you need to prepare adequately. Additionally, you need to keep an eye on the tortoise throughout the entire hibernation process.
You can allow the tortoise to hibernate outside, although it’s best to bring the tortoise inside during the hibernation period. This allows you to keep an eye on the tortoise.
The optimal temperature for hibernation is 40 °F (1.5 C). However, anywhere between 37.4 to 41 °F is okay. Storing the tortoise in a fridge is a great way to go.
Make sure to use a modern fridge since the thermostats on those are best. Inspect the tortoise regularly and ventilate the fridge adequately. When all the right measures are taken, your pet should survive hibernation with no problems.
If you’re getting a tortoise locally specialty pet shops can usually provide some additional resources and advice for first-time tortoise keepers.
Feel free to ask your questions below as well though, we are always happy to help.