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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
You should weigh your tortoise before hibernation.
How to hibernate a tortoise
You should start thinking about hibernation around mid-August. Tortoisetrust.com 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
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.
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
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
Tortoises dying in hibernation
Tortoises pooping or urinating during hibernation
Tortoises scratching during hibernation
Feeding your tortoise after hibernation
Tortoise 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
Other things to check your tortoise for after hibernation
- Eyesight problems, including blindness and cloudiness
- Frostbite and gangrene affecting the legs
- Swellings on the head and body
- Green urine
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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