How to

12 October 2016

Preparing a Tortoise for Winter Hibernation

I bet you didn’t know that tortoises hibernate. Tortoise-owners in cold regions are all too familiar with their shelled compatriots retiring to the dark safety of their shells, shunning the cold and all human interactions. Once summer draws to a close and temperatures begin to drop, the idea of hibernation is forefront in the minds of pets and owners.  Being educated on the ins-and-outs of hibernation is extremely important … a life or death situation.

Tortoises must be prepared for hibernation in order to come out of it healthy and able. Sufficient body fat reserves provide a place for vitamins and water to collect. If body fat and water stores are deficient, a tortoise can die from starvation or dehydration. Like any animal that undergoes hibernation, a tortoise survives off of the food and water their body reserves for the event. If the reserves are exhausted too soon, the body’s next option is to live off of the organs and muscles. This too can lead to death.

The road to hibernation is fraught with terror at the multitude of circumstances which must be met and uncertainty that your beloved companion will awake. The time leading up to prime hibernation time, late summer or early autumn, will be the prime time to prepare your scaly friend for survival.

Hibernation Triggers
  • Lowered temperatures, cooler peak temperature
  • Shortened days
  • Reduced daylight intensity

Fasting Before the Long Sleep

A lessened interest in food, known as the hibernation induction period, is to be expected directly before hibernation. In fact, this fasting period is essential, and can last for 3 to 6 weeks. Once a tortoise has consumed its final meal, it should be kept at 55°F (13°C) in order to allow the remaining food to be fully digested and expelled. Basically, make sure your tortoise is food-free before he takes the big nap. If a tortoise enters hibernation mode with residual food in its digestive tract, the food will rot, effusing harmful gasses and toxins.

During the fast, your tortoise should not be offered food but it should indulge in water 3 to 4 times a week. The fasting period changes based on the size of the tortoise. Larger ones require up to 6 weeks to digest their last meal whereas small ones take a mere 3 weeks. A good ground rule to follow with smaller tortoises is to ensure a 3 week minimum fasting period. Worth noting is that estimated time periods for fasting are dependent on the temperature. Lowered temperatures slow down digestion and higher temperatures expedite it.

Late summer to early autumn is the optimal time for fasting to begin. Much earlier than that, mid-summer say, is too soon to begin fasting. Unusually low summer temperatures can trigger fasting. At this point, the solution is to encourage regular meals. Tortoises are drawn to food when there is adequate daylight and warmth, so providing artificial warmth and light are vital. A basking light will solve that.  If not nipped in the bud, a tortoise can be underweight for hibernation. Overwintering is the only option at this point as forcing an underweight tortoise into hibernation can lead to certain death.

Pre-Sleep Health Check

Depending on the type of tortoise you have, there are different ways to measure its health before hibernation. The tortoise should be a healthy weight for its breed and age. Hermann’s and Mediterranean Spur-thighed tortoises can be measured using the Jackson Ratio graph, but for other varieties you will need to check online for average weights. Smaller, Mediterranean varieties of tortoise are not meant to hibernate for extended periods of time. Additionally, certain species of tortoises do not hibernate at all, including Egyptian, Tunisian, and all tropical varieties. An unhealthy tortoise will not survive hibernation, so if you even remotely suspect an illness, do not hibernate it. Instead, keep it warm and well-lit throughout the cold months.

Warning signs to look out for include:

  • Eyes: swelling or discharge
  • Nose: discharge (look specifically for Runny Nose Syndrome)
  • Tail: inflammation or internal infection (a strong smell may indicate a cloactitis leak)
  • Shell: fluid under shell, soft areas, or bad smell (indicative of shell rot)
  • Legs: lumps, swelling, abscesses (can lead to loss of a limb)
  • Ears: abscesses
  • Mouth: abnormalities (mouth rot appears as a yellow substance, a reddish tinge, or blood spots)
Take special care when preparing your shelled friend for his long, necessary sleep. As you are the caretaker, it falls to you to make sure your tortoise is fit to enter hibernation. 

Jacqui Litvan

Jacqui Litvan, wielding a bachelor's degree in English, strives to create a world of fantasy amidst the ever-changing landscape of military life. Attempting to become a writer, she fuels herself with coffee (working as a barista) and music (spending free time as a raver).