How do I hibernate my tortoise? A tortoise hibernation guide

Can you hibernate your tortoise? How and when should you hibernate your tortoise? We explain tortoise hibernation, different methods, and problems you should look out for.

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David Alderton, editor of Practical Reptile Keeping talks through how to hibernate your tortoise in our video above.

Do tortoises hibernate?

Not all tortoises hibernate, however the following tortoises will hibernate:

  • The Spur-Thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca)
  • Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni)
  • Horsfield’s tortoise (also known as the Russian tortoise, or Agrionemys Horsfieldii or Testudo Horsfieldii)
  • The Marginated Tortoise (Testudo marginata)

These are Mediterranean tortoises, who due to their natural warmer climate will hibernate in the cooler winter weather. 

Other tortoise types such as Desert tortoises (Gopherus agassizii) can also hibernate.

You may also like this: Tortoise food and diet advice

weighing sales that can be used to weigh your tortoiseYou should weigh your tortoise before hibernation.

How to hibernate a tortoise

You should start thinking about hibernation around mid-August. suggest that if your tortoise isn’t healthy enough to hibernate by the end of August, then it won't be healthy enough to begin hibernation a few months later. 

Your tortoise will need to be not only fit and healthy, but also have put on enough weight to see it through the winter. Sufficient fat reserves is essential, and without them, your tortoise could simply die of dehydration and starvation during hibernation.

August is a good time to start monitoring this. 

Its strongly recommended you have your tortoise health checked by a vet to make sure it has no problems prior to hibernation. 

Hibernation usually begins around November.

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Your tortoises fasting period

Prior to hibernation your tortoise will need to undergo a ‘fasting period’. This entails a fasting period of anywhere between two and six weeks beforehand, depending on the size of your tortoise. In this time your tortoise should not eat anything, but you should encourage it to drink by bathing it once a day in a shallow pool of water.

Tortoise should be kept in a temperature of around 12 degrees Celsius for three weeks after its last meal to allow enough time for digestion.

If your tortoise has not properly digested its food before hibernation, it can decay in the stomach and bring about asphyxiation or cause bacterial infection. 

Weighing your tortoise

There are methods of weighing your tortoise that can be taken as a guide. One is the Jackson Ratio, which can be used as a guide for Spur-Thighed tortoises and Herman’s tortoises.

This calculates the weight to length ratio and produces a figure for your tortoise which can help when hibernating your tortoise. It should never be used for other tortoises as it will not be accurate.

The other method is the Mcintyre Ratio, which can be used for Horsefield tortoises.

Remember, the figures produced from these ratios should only be taken as a guide, and each method should only be used with the appropriate tortoises for that method.

Find out more information about measuring and weighing your tortoise in our article Tortoises, old, older and oldest.  

The fridge method - can you put a tortoise in the fridge? 

Yes you can, although you should not use the same fridge to keep your food in. It's a good idea to keep a separate fridge for your tortoise.

To use a fridge to hibernate your tortoise you will need:

  • A box that is a little larger than your tortoise.
  • These boxes can be made out of cardboard, plastic or wood, but for species which require a moist environment to hibernate in, plastic is best.  
  • The box should be filled with substrate, preferably sterilised soil, and should have air holes in it to facilitate ventilation.  
  • The substrate needs to be deep enough that the tortoise can bury itself.
  • The optimum temperature to keep the box in is 4 to 5 degrees Celsius, and it is essential that this never approaches 10 degrees or falls lower than 3. Between 3 and 7 degrees  is generally fine.
  • If the temperature begins to approach 10 degrees, your tortoise will start using up valuable energy reserves that it needs to hibernate safely. If the temperature drops below 3 degrees, your tortoise could become ill or die from being too cold.
  • It is important to maintain the fridge so that the temperature of the box does not vary too much. It is recommended that you test the fridge well in advance of hibernation to see how stable it is,
  • The temperature outside the fridge is also integral to maintaining the temperature inside. You shouldn’t put the fridge in a cold room, such as in a garage, as if the fridge drops below 1 degree the tortoise inside could freeze and die. It is best to keep the fridge in a normal temperature room.
  • You could also fill the fridge with some sealed two-litre bottles of water in order to stabilise the temperature of the fridge.
  • Ensure you open the fridge for a few minutes three or four times a week to facilitate ventilation, otherwise your tortoise may suffocate.

How to hibernate a tortoise outside - the box method

If you want to hibernate your tortoise outside in a garage or shed, you place it in a secure box within the building. This is known as the 'box method'.

You'll need to ensure that the buildings are not at risk of flooding or prone to fluctuations in temperature. Nor should their be any access for wild animals or pets.

To setup the boxes you'll need:

  • Two boxes, one small enough that it can fit in the other with a couple of inches of space around it.
  • The smaller box is filled with a sand and soil substrate mix, and the other box is used as insulation by filling the gap with shredded paper.
  • Again, a thermometer is needed to accurately check the temperature within the box. The temperature should be between 3 and 7 degrees Celsius, the same as the fridge.

Ideal temperature for tortoise hibernation

The ideal temperature is between 4 and 5 degrees Celsius, however anything between 3 and 7 degrees is generally fine. 

You should never allow the temperature to rise above 10 degrees, or drop below 3 degrees. 

This ideal temperature is the same regardless of whether you're hibernating your tortoise in the fridge, or outside.

Humidity in hibernation

Bear in mind that humidity will play a part in the hibernation of your tortoise, too. The holes you drill in the box for your tortoise will help to keep the humidity in the box up. Various tortoises and turtles will need different levels of humidity; the Horsfield’s tortoise, for example, needs a less humid environment than hibernating box turtles.

My tortoise is not hibernating

To encourage your tortoise to enter hibernation, you'll need to follow the steps of 'how to hibernate a tortoise', explained above.

How long is hibernation for a tortoise?

The Tortoise Shop offers a list of hibernation times based on the age of the tortoise. 

  • One year old – three weeks
  • Two years old – six weeks
  • Three years old – 10 weeks
  • Vet experts recommend that you do not hibernate your tortoise, regardless of age, beyond 12 weeks.

Some places recommend that you do not let your tortoise hibernate if it is less than one year old (some even say three years).   

This is because a tortoise can withstand a weight loss of no more than 10% of its body weight during hibernation, before it impacts on its health. So the smaller the tortoise, the more likely a weight loss will have an impact.

It is also so you can be certain that the tortoise is totally healthy. Hibernating a tortoise that is unhealthy is very dangerous and could exacerbate health problems or, in extreme cases, lead to the death of the animal. Our article Tortoises - Old, Older and Oldest offers advice on how to tell if your tortoise is healthy

As advice is often conflicting, we would recommend that you speak to your exotic pet vet regarding the amount of time you should allow your tortoise to hibernate for.

Hibernating your tortoise late in the year

You can hibernate your tortoise later in the year, however you'll need to have fully prepared your tortoise beforehand.

You'll also need to maintain the correct heating and lighting during the cooler autumn period, until your tortoise begins its 'hibernation wind down'. 

Also remember if you're hibernating your tortoise for a longer period, then you may struggle to maintain suitable temperatures as the spring arrives.

Your tortoise will also need a sufficient time between hibernation periods, to build up energy reserves in preparation for the next hibernation.

How to wake a tortoise from hibernation

Whether you’ve decided to use the box method or the fridge method you will need to gradually wake your tortoise up.

The best way to do this is to place the tortoise in its box in a warm room for around an hour.  

Once the tortoise begins to warm up it will begin to move around.

It is important that you maintain an adequate temperature consistently after the initial period of warming your tortoise. Your basking lamp should provide a temperature of at least 26 degrees Celsius. 

Usually, it will take the tortoise two or three hours to fully wake up. It’s also important to include a UV light, not only while you’re waking up your tortoise, but all the time.

UV light will help tortoises produce vitamin D3, which is important as it allows the tortoise to effectively metabolise calcium. If your tortoise does not have a sufficient supply of UV light, it can cause metabolic bone disease. Symptoms of this include swellings, lethargy and general weakness in the tortoise.  

It’s better to keep your UV lighting separate to other lighting for more easy control. 

Tortoises waking early from hibernation

If your tortoise begins to wake up from hibernation, you should not try to put it back to sleep. 

It can be dangerous to try and put a tortoise back into hibernation once it has started moving around as metabolic processes associated with waking up have begun

The most common reason that a tortoise will wake early from hibernation is because the temperature has become too high. If temperatures consistently stay above 10 degrees Celsius, it is likely that your tortoise will wake up.  

Tortoises dying in hibernation

There are a few reasons that your tortoise may die during hibernation. This could be that it was unhealthy or underweight when you began the hibernation process, and your pet became ill. It could also be that the temperature dropped too low and your tortoise froze to death. This is quite common when tortoise owners fail to properly regulate the temperature while their tortoise is hibernating.

Tortoises pooping or urinating during hibernation

If your tortoise poops during hibernation, it’s usually okay. Make sure the faeces aren’t runny, as diarrhoea can cause your tortoise to dehydrate.

However, if your tortoise urinates while it is hibernating, you should wake it up. Otherwise, it may become dehydrated, which can be fatal. Tortoises must remain hydrated for the duration of their hibernation period.

Tortoises scratching during hibernation

If you can hear your tortoise scratching during hibernation, it probably means it has woken up. It is likely this is due to the temperature being too warm. Remember, temperatures should be between 3 and 7 degrees Celsius for hibernation.

Feeding your tortoise after hibernation

Once a tortoise has woken up from hibernation, it’s important that you adequately feed and re-hydrate it as soon as possible. Once your tortoise is up and moving around, you can encourage it to drink by placing it in a shallow dish of warm water. Actually putting the tortoise in the bowl or dish will usually better facilitate its drinking than simply offering it water.

Drinking is more important at this stage, as the tortoise will be dehydrated from its time in hibernation, and will need to flush out the toxins which will be present after a long period of hibernation.

After your tortoise has hydrated, you can start offering it food. It’s important that your tortoise begins to put back on the weight it lost during hibernation. A great food to offer to a tortoise just after it has come out of hibernation is fresh tomato. This will rehydrate the tortoise as well as feed it, and you can lace the tomato with a vitamin supplement, too.

Tortoise post-hibernation anorexia

Sometimes a tortoise won’t resume eating within the first 14 days of waking up. This usually means that something is wrong.

What could cause post-hibernation anorexia?

  • It could be that the tortoise isn’t being kept at high enough temperatures to encourage feeding
  • It could mean that your tortoise has been in hibernation for too long
  • It could also be down to a health problem that the tortoise has acquired, such as mouth rot. This can be identified by a bad odour and yellow deposits building up in the mouth.

Learn more about ExoticDirect tortoise insurance.

Tortoise weight loss during hibernation

During hibernation, a tortoise may lose up to 1% of its total weight per month safely. If a tortoise loses more than this consistently, you should wake up the tortoise and overwinter it for the remainder of the hibernation period.

For this reason, it is important that your tortoise begins to eat in the first couple of days after it wakes up from hibernation.

To check that your tortoise isn’t losing too much weight, you should weigh your tortoise every week. Make sure that you weigh your tortoise before you begin the hibernation process, but after the fasting period to get an accurate starting weight.

If your tortoise doesn't begin to eat, it could be a sign of problem, which you should get checked by a vet. 

Other things to check your tortoise for after hibernation

There are a few different ailments your tortoise could be suffering from after hibernation. They often require treatment from a vet immediately, as after hibernation the tortoise is at its most vulnerable, being dehydrated and having lost some weight.

These ailments include:

  • Eyesight problems, including blindness and cloudiness
  • Frostbite and gangrene affecting the legs
  • Swellings on the head and body
  • Green urine
As previously stated, lots of things can cause your tortoise to be inactive, not eat and not improve, even when placed in the correct warm surroundings.

Hibernation is a delicate process and needs to be treated with the utmost care. If handled incorrectly, your tortoise can become ill or even die. It’s important to follow the correct procedure to ensure a healthy and successful hibernation period.

Do tortoises have to hibernate?

The necessity for hibernation is a hotly debated topic. Some experts feel it is absolutely necessary, while others feel it may not be.

It's suggested that hibernation can allow the tortoise's reproduction organs a chance to rest, suggesting that it wakes up more fertile.

It's also suggested that hibernation prevents the tortoise from developing other health conditions.

If you do decide not to hibernate your tortoise, it will need to be overwintered. Meaning that you'll provide it with the correct UV and heating for the entire winter. This can be hard, as the weather is so much cooler.

If you're not sure whether to hibernate your tortoise, speak to your vet.

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