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Do Tortoises Have to Hibernate?

I have often wondered about this question and depending on who you ask, the answers do vary. I thought I knew what was best but decided to set out on a mission to find the definitive response. Here’s what I found.

Do tortoises have to hibernate? Yes, tortoises do need to hibernate in the interest of their general health and also to control their growth rate. However, when it comes to hibernation time your pet tortoise will need a helping hand from you to ensure all goes well.

Everything you need to know to ensure a safe hibernation for your tortoise is set out in this article.

Keeping a Tortoise as a Pet

Tortoises are not that common as pets. Whereas for cats and dogs most of the answers to your questions are obvious and easy to find, the same can’t really be said for tortoises. I spoke to my sister who has owned a tortoise for a few years now. She confirmed what I thought, that tortoises do have to hibernate. It helps to keep their growth rate steady and is good for their health.

What does this mean?  I wanted to know more so decided to research the finer details. My findings are set out below.

Why Tortoises Hibernate in their Natural Habitat

Tortoises are reptiles and reptiles are poikilotherms (the posh term for cold-blooded) so they are unable to regulate their body temperature themselves. They can’t sweat to cool down in hot climates and they can’t run around to warm up when it’s cold. If a tortoise feels cold it will bask in the sun if it is out, or it will burrow into the ground, seeking heat. If it becomes overheated on a sunny day, a tortoise will burrow to find cool earth.

In the winter a tortoise finds it difficult to keep warm enough so it slips into a deep sleep known as hibernation so it can survive the winter. During this time, body temperature is lowered, the heartbeat and breathing slow right down and thus energy is conserved. Hibernation is also helpful in slowing down a tortoises growth rate because hormone production is shut down. When the weather warms up in spring the tortoise emerges from hibernation and a hormone surge occurs. This leads to a normal reproductive cycle. So, let’s look more carefully at answering the question, ‘do tortoises have to hibernate?’

Pet Tortoises and Hibernation

Ideally, you should bring your pet tortoise indoors for hibernation. There is a good reason behind this: if you don’t your tortoise might find a place to hibernate where you can’t find it and the winter may be too harsh for it to survive. Some people keep tortoises in a temperature-controlled vivarium indoors and just let it out in the garden on warm days.

If treated like this, a tortoise won’t naturally hibernate because the temperature is never low enough. You may think to yourself in a domestic situation like this ‘do tortoises have to hibernate’ and the answer is ‘yes’ because you should try to emulate as close as possible a tortoise’s natural lifestyle. If your tortoise doesn’t hibernate it will grow more quickly than is natural and this can have a detrimental effect on its health.

Do Tortoises Have to Hibernate?

To hibernate your tortoise, follow these steps

Health check

It is advisable to take your tortoise to a vet who specializes in tortoise health for a checkup because it is vitally important that it is in full health before it is hibernated.

Plan a Date for the Hibernation

The best time to begin hibernation is Autumn time. Experts recommend that you prepare your tortoise for hibernation for 6 weeks before this date. For the first 2 weeks gradually reduce its food intake. Then for the next 4 weeks reduce the temperature and the amount of daylight it is exposed to a little bit each day.  You don’t want to hibernate your tortoise with a belly full of food as this could decay and encourage the growth of bacteria which could kill it during its hibernation.

Your tortoise should be allowed to drink plenty of water in the lead up to this date and during the last 2 weeks don’t feed your tortoise but actively encourage it to drink by placing it in a shallow water bath every day. The optimum hibernation temperature is between 3 and 7 degrees centigrade so this is what you should aim to reach by the end of the 6 weeks. Finally, your tortoise must defecate before its hibernation begins so keep an eye out for this – hopefully, the water baths will have encouraged it to do so. Then your tortoise is ready.

Hibernation Methods

It’s best to hibernate a tortoise indoors as you can never be sure how outside temperatures will fluctuate. There are two main hibernation techniques which work well for indoor hibernation. Whichever method you choose, you should weigh your tortoise first and then twice-weekly during hibernation. During the weigh-in, check the newspaper is still dry. If your tortoise has urinated or if its weight has reduced by more than 1% in any month, it may be dehydrating and you should bring it out of hibernation as described in ‘Waking Your Tortoise from Hibernation, further down in this article.

The Fridge Method

Ensure your chosen fridge is in reliable working order and has a digital thermometer. It’s a good idea to use a second thermometer to check the fridge one is accurate on a daily basis. Find a cardboard box that is a little larger than your tortoise, add several air holes and half fill it with shredded newspaper. Then weigh your tortoise carefully and record its weight. Place your tortoise inside the box and place it in the fridge.

Ensure everyone who uses the fridge is aware that the tortoise is in there! Some people say you should empty the fridge of food and fill all empty space with bottles of water. My sister successfully hibernated her tortoise in her kitchen fridge with the usual contents still in it. The ideal thing about the kitchen fridge is that it gets opened several times a day which allows for air circulation. If you have a dedicated tortoise fridge you must remember to open it several times a day to allow air in.

The Box Method

For this method, you will need two cardboard boxes: one a little larger than your tortoise and one that is at least 4 inches longer, wider and taller than the first box. Half fill the smaller box with nearly dry soil or compost and add air holes in the lid. Again, accurately weigh your tortoise and record its weight. Place a thermometer and your tortoise into the smaller box and put a lid on it. Put this box into the larger box and make sure it sits in the middle with polystyrene chips or scrunched up newspaper packed all around all 6 surfaces.

Store this box somewhere safe and cool, ideally in a cellar or a cold room in your house, but not where the temperature can drop to freezing or anywhere that could flood. As per the fridge method, check the temperature regularly and also again check the inner box for signs that your tortoise has urinated. Again, if you suspect your tortoise has urinated or its body weight has reduced by more than 1% in a month, wake it up from its hibernation.

Bringing your Tortoise Out of Hibernation

Length of Hibernation

The amount of time you should allow your tortoise to hibernate depends on its age as follows:

  • 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 people say that you shouldn’t let your tortoise hibernate if it is less than a year old.

Waking your Tortoise from Hibernation

What not to do: set an alarm clock to go off right next to it. Tortoises need to be woken up gradually and with care.

Get your tortoise out of its box and place it in a warmer space. Allow 2 to 3 hours for your tortoise to naturally warm up. Then put your tortoise somewhere warm and bright until it is fully awake.  This should take 30 minutes to an hour. Once it is fully awake, put some water down for it.
You must make sure your tortoise drinks within the first few hours of waking up from hibernation.

Sometimes getting a tortoise to drink is difficult so put it in a shallow bath of lukewarm water which should stimulate a response. Once your tortoise is drinking, you can offer it food. It is important that your tortoise eats within the first week after hibernation. If you are unsure of its health then give your vets a quick call for clarification – they should be more than happy to provide advice over the phone.

Do Tortoises Have to Hibernate?

So, do tortoises HAVE to hibernate?

Hopefully, having read the above, you agree that they do and you now know how to hibernate one safely.

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