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.

Table of contents:

How long is hibernation for tortoises? | Preparing your tortoise for hibernation | Weighing your tortoise | Methods of hibernation | How to wake a tortoise from hibernation | Feeding your tortoise after hibernation | Tortoise hibernation problems | Tortoise post-hibernation anorexia | Tortoise hibernation and weight loss | Other things to check your tortoise for after hibernation

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Many wild tortoises have to deal with climates in which the summers are hot and dry and the winters are mild and wet.

To deal with the winters they shut off all but the most vital functions and sleep. Hibernation in tortoises is common in Mediterranean tortoises, which includes:

  • The Spur-Thighed tortoise (testudo Graeca)
  • Hermann’s tortoise (testudo Hermanni)
  • Horsfield’s tortoise (also known as the Russian tortoise, or Agrionemys Horsfieldii)
  • The Marginated Tortoise (testudo Marginata)

However, other types of tortoises, such as Desert tortoises, may also hibernate.

You may also like this: Tortoise food and diet advice

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
  • Four years old – 16 weeks
  • Five years old and over – 22 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).   

The Tortoise Shop suggests tortoises should not be hibernated within the first year of ownership, regardless of age. This is so that a regular, consistent hibernating schedule can be maintained for tortoise’s life. 

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

Highcroft Vet Group say that the maximum amount of time you should allow your pet to hibernate for is twelve weeks.  

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.

You may also like this diet article: Tortoise diet, calcium, Vitamin D3 and not eating. 

You should weigh your tortoise before hibernation.

Preparing your tortoise for hibernation

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.

Find out more about ExoticDirect's tortoise insurance.

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.

Your 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.  

Methods of hibernation

There are two common ways of hibernating your tortoise – the fridge method and the box method.

The fridge method of hibernation 

  • For the fridge method, you will need a box which 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.
  • Make sure that the fridge is free from food and clean (with the exception of the bottles of water) before you attempt hibernation. You will also have to open the fridge for a few minutes three or four times a week to facilitate ventilation, otherwise your tortoise may suffocate.

The box method of hibernation

The other more traditional method to allow tortoises to hibernate is the box method.

  • This entails 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.
  • This box can be kept in a place such as a cellar or a garage or outbuilding. Make sure these buildings are dry and not at risk of flooding, or prone to fluctuations in temperature .
  • It’s also important that the box is in a place where other animals cannot get to your tortoise, so it won’t be attacked.
  • 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.

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.

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. This needs to be between 22 and 25 degrees Celsius, which can be achieved by using a basking lamp, or another ambient heat source. 

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. 

Tortoise hibernation problems

Tortoises waking early from hibernation

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.  

At 8 degrees, your tortoise may stir, and this this can be dangerous as it uses up valuable energy stores that are meant to sustain the tortoise throughout its hibernation.

If the temperature rises above 10 degrees Celsius then you should not attempt to put the tortoise back into hibernation. It can be dangerous to try and put a tortoise back into hibernation if it has started moving around – the metabolic processes associated with waking up have begun.

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 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.

Did you know we can cover tortoises for £2,500 of vet fees, mortality and theft? Find out more about tortoise insurance.

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Tortoise post-hibernation anorexia

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

The Tortoise Trust website suggests that if tortoises don’t feed within the first week of emerging from hibernation, there is either a husbandry or a health problem. It recommends that you find a vet who can help you figure out what is wrong with your pet.

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 hibernation and weight loss

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.

Find out more about ExoticDirect tortoise insurance.

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