Hibernation is a very important stage in a tortoise’s year. It is important you know what to do to help them regarding their housing and temperate control so they can remain safe. Hibernation is a natural part of a tortoise’s lifecycle and you will need to try to match the conditions in nature as much as possible.
What is Hibernation?
Tortoises are used to warmer climates and so in the winter months, they must sleep to avoid the cold weather. This is called hibernation. They are not asleep as they would be at night, but instead they cannot be awoken and all their activity slows down completely. It is an important step for a tortoise every year and it is important to replicate their natural behaviour to keep them healthy.
Does my Tortoise Hibernate?
The main thing to check is whether the species of tortoise you have naturally hibernates. If you try to hibernate a species of tortoise that is not meant to hibernate then this will not end well for your tortoise and it will most likely die. Generally, Mediterranean tortoises DO hibernate and tropical tortoises DO NOT hibernate. It is important that you find this out for the specific species and subspecies of tortoise you have as they may need different things. If you are unsure, please contact a vet.
Usually, you do not hibernate your tortoise until they are 2 or 3 years old, or at least hibernate them for a shorter amount of time. There are two things you must consider before going through hibernation, your tortoise’s weight and its health. If they are showing any sign of illness or injury they must not hibernate. Again, it is best to consult a vet if you are unsure.
- Try to hibernate a tortoise which is ill or underweight
- Put your tortoise in too cold an environment
- Put your tortoise in too warm an environment (Ideal temperate is 3-7 degrees)
- Let your tortoise hibernate outside without monitoring them correctly
- Leave your tortoise anywhere it can be found by predators
- Allow your tortoise to dehydrate before hibernation
- Feed your tortoise too much before hibernation
Preparing for Hibernation
Before your tortoise hibernates, you will have to reduce the amount of food it eats. For a few weeks, reduce the amount of food you give your tortoise by feeding it smaller portions slightly more often. Then four weeks before, stop the feeding altogether and gradually reduce the amount of light and heat. Continue to provide the tortoise with water and give them regular baths to keep them hydrated. After this, they will be ready to hibernate.
The Natural Method
This is obviously the most natural method of hibernation for your tortoise, but is not recommended in the UK due to changes in weather and difficulty in monitoring your tortoise. The method requires your tortoise to bury themselves in some kind of soil that can protect them from weather and maintain a good climate. If this is the method to be used in the UK, this must be within a greenhouse.
The Box Method
This is the most common method which involves putting your tortoise in a small box (tight fitting) with some insulation such as soil or newspaper and then put this box inside a larger box which is stuffed with newspaper or some other insulation material. You could also use a large polystyrene box which will provide excellent insulation. You must make sure that you monitor temperatures throughout the hibernation with a thermometer. If you can place the probe within the box and the readings outside then you do not have to disturb the tortoise to check the temperature.
The Fridge Method
Strangely, this method requires you to put your tortoise in the fridge (inside a box half full with soil as in the box method) but will actually provide you with more control. The fridge is used to control the temperature (at 5C) and you can monitor this using the fridge thermometer. You must remember to circulate air in the fridge by use of an air pump or by opening the fridge a few times every day.
Waking your Tortoise Up
When it is the end of the hibernation, you will have to gradually bring it out of sleep. Put the tortoise in a room temperature area for a few hours so its temperature rises slowly. Then make sure it is healthy and put them somewhere warm and light so it can wake up. Make sure your tortoise drinks something within a few hours. If they are not drinking, putting them in a bath will have a similar effect. If they are having trouble with eating and drinking, please visit your vet for health checks.