If you’re putting a tortoise down to hibernate during the winter months then it’s quite important to ensure that you’re looking after it properly while it sleeps. The good news is that it’s not that hard to take care of a hibernating tortoise.
So, how do you care for a tortoise during hibernation? During hibernation inspect your tortoise for signs of illness, signs of urination (in which case she needs to be soaked to avoid dehydration), monitor the temperature and humidity in the hibernation space every day, and monitor the weight of the tortoise on a weekly basis.
Let’s look at the details for keeping your tortoise safe and healthy during hibernation.
Things You Have To Do To Prepare Your Tortoise For Hibernation
In order to take care of your tortoise during hibernation there are things that you must do prior to their entering hibernation. These will allow you to check on the safety of your tortoise during the hibernation process.
If you miss any of these steps then it’s almost 100% likely that your tortoise will fail a health check after entering hibernation and need to be woken up and potentially, they may even need treatment from a vet.
Give Them A Vitamin A Boost
Hibernation helps a tortoise burn through Vitamin A while they’re out cold and that means you need to ensure they have enough to go through the whole winter without damage. The good news is that you can feed them some carrot or some squash for the 2-3 months before your tortoise starts to fast to ensure they have enough of this vitamin.
Boost Their Fiber Intake
You should also increase their fiber intake a little for the last 1-2 months before they begin to fast, this will help them properly clear their bowels before they start to hibernate.
Fast Them For Up To 6 Weeks Before Hibernation Begins
You must not let a tortoise hibernate if it has any food in the digestive tract at all and that means they need to evacuate every last thing in their bodies. If your tortoise poops while hibernating – their life may be in danger.
Undigested food can cause damage in the following ways:
- It allows bacteria to thrive in the gut and cause a fatal infection in your tortoise
- The food, as it decays, creates gas that is not expelled from the body – this can crush the lungs of the tortoise and essentially suffocate it to death
You should speak to your vet about the exact length of hibernation time for your species of tortoise. Some only need to fast for 2 weeks but some need at least 6 weeks prior to hibernation!
Hydrate Your Tortoise
The best way for a tortoise to survive hibernation is for them to go down for the winter with a full bladder and fully hydrated. So, throughout the fasting process – you should give them daily baths.
Related article: How to clean, bathe, and wash a tortoise SAFELY
Gradually Reduce The Temperature In Their Environment (Starting 4 Weeks Out)
Assuming that your tortoise lives indoors, you also want to start reducing the temperature of their living space over the month before they start to hibernate. That means the temperature should be set to 60 degrees Fahrenheit at the start of the month and then slowly lowered to 55 degrees for the last 3 weeks prior to the hibernation process. Don’t set the temperature any lower, mind you, or they’ll start to hibernate too early.
Weigh Your Pet
The number one way to check on the tortoise’s health during their hibernation is to weigh them – that means you need to weigh them on a regular basis for about 2 months before they hibernate. Weigh them every 2 weeks and then again just before they go down to hibernate. Record their weight somewhere safe.
Prepare The Hibernation Space
We’ve talked about hibernation spaces before, but before you can put your tortoise down to hibernate, you must make sure the space has been adequately prepared.
Related article: How wild tortoises hibernate [according to science]
How To Care For A Tortoise During Hibernation
The good news is that caring for a tortoise during hibernation, assuming that you’ve prepared the tortoise properly, is very easy and straightforward.
There are only 3 tasks that need regular attention while your tortoise is hibernating: you have to physically inspect the tortoise on a weekly basis, you must monitor the temperature in the hibernation space every single day and finally, you need to weigh the tortoise on a weekly basis too.
If you make sure that you do all of these 3 tasks, then your tortoise’s rest should be safe and peaceful.
Last Inspection Before Hibernation
Before your tortoise goes down for hibernation you need to give them a final check. You want to visually inspect the outside of your tortoise and make certain that there are no apparent signs of illness or injury. If there are, you need to treat these problems, and this may require that you visit a vet.
If left untreated then illness or injury might kill the tortoise while it sleeps – so, there’s no good reason to allow them to start hibernation in this state.
You need to be certain that there’s no food left in the tortoise’s digestive system and that they’ve got a full bladder (as best you can ascertain) and that, depending on exactly where your tortoise is hibernating, that you’ve arranged a supply of fresh water (not in the refrigerator).
You should also check that the hibernation spot is appropriate cool. The tortoise won’t hibernate unless the temperature is low enough to trigger the hibernating instinct in your pet.
If your tortoise is hibernating outside, which is not recommended, then you should make sure there’s a supply of bedding and water nearby.
Place The Tortoise In The Hibernation Spot
Once you’re certain that your tortoise is ready to hibernate and that the conditions are right for hibernating then you can put your tortoise in the spot that you’ve prepared for them.
Make Sure To Physically Inspect Your Tortoise Every Week
You must inspect your tortoise weekly, it’s important for you to know that a hibernating tortoise will not be disturbed or bothered by your handling the animal and that such handling simply cannot hurt the animal. However, if you don’t do it – then there’s the potential that you will miss a problem that might kill your tortoise.
Thus, this is a serious responsibility during hibernation. Keep a simple checklist for each week that the tortoise will hibernate with each task outlined on it so that you know that you will get the job done.
You are looking for several things when you go through the inspection:
- Signs of illness or injury. It is possible that you missed symptoms when the tortoise went into hibernation and that the problem has become worse while it hibernates and it’s also possible that the tortoise has become sick or got injured while hibernating, particularly if your tortoise is hibernating outside.
- Signs of predation. It’s an unpleasant reality but rats really seem to enjoy snacking on sleeping tortoises, so you want to ensure that this is not happening. If it is, you need to better secure the hibernation space or wake your tortoise up. Rats can and will kill a hibernating tortoise eventually.
- Signs of urination. If your tortoise has wet itself during hibernation this is a very dangerous thing, it means that they’re risking dehydration. You need to soak the pet immediately in room-temperature water for 2 hours and then return it to the hibernation spot. Make sure they’re dry when they are returned.
- Signs of dry skin. This is also a sign that the pet needs to be given a quick soak (2 hours), dried off and returned to the hibernation spot.
- Signs that the hibernation space is much wetter than it has been. Again, the remedy for this is a quick (2 hours) soak, be dried off and then returned to the environment.
- Signs of defecation. You should clean away any poop and then monitor the health of your animal more closely for a few days as this may have serious health implications.
- Any other signs that may cause concern. For example, if you find discharge from any orifice, the tortoise appears to have breathing difficulties, or you think that either the shell or the skin has textural or color changes. If you think something may be wrong, it’s a very good idea to check with your vet to see if this is going to be a problem.
If there are serious concerns about your tortoise’s health at any point, you may need to wake the tortoise up (see the final section of this article as to how to approach this). Your vet may also instruct you to do this if they have concerns based on your reports of hibernation issues.
Check The Temperature Daily
Your tortoise should be hibernating at a temperature of approximately 40 degrees Fahrenheit. It will remain hibernating safely if it’s 5 degrees hotter or colder. However, if the temperature drops below 35 degrees Fahrenheit then your tortoise may freeze to death.
Yes, tortoises can freeze to death and much more easily than mammals do, you can read all about that here.
On the other hand, if the temperature gets too high then you’ve got another problem. The tortoise is sleeping for a period of months and they’ve got just enough water in their body to survive (that’s why you put them down to hibernate with a full bladder).
When the temperature goes up, the tortoise states to lose water faster than its body is prepared for and if this goes on over a period of time, it will end up dehydrated and that can cause the tortoise to die too.
So, if your tortoise is in a refrigerator, you need to turn the temperature down, if your tortoise is outdoors then you need to move it to somewhere else (ideally, it’s in a hibernaculum – you can’t drag a tortoise out of its burrow if it is hibernating in the room temperature).
It’s important to use an electronic thermometer to measure the temperature of the environment, don’t rely on the thermometer readout in the refrigerator as you can’t be sure that it has been calibrated properly.
Weigh Your Tortoise
A tortoise that is effectively hibernating will have reduced its metabolic rate to a very low level, this means that your tortoise shouldn’t be losing very much weight while it hibernates. So, your tortoise should only lose 0-1.0% of its body weight on a monthly basis.
So, if your tortoise weights 1.5 Kg when it starts to hibernate – it should lose no more than 15 grams of weight in a month.
The reason you weigh your tortoise before it starts hibernating is so that you can compare the weight loss with its original body weight.
Now, if you find that your tortoise is losing more weight than it should – don’t panic, in the first instance this should mean that you give your tortoise a 2 hour room temperature warm bath, dry him off and then pop him back in the hibernation space.
The most likely explanation of your tortoise’s weight loss is water loss. So, after the bath, make sure you’re keeping a close eye on the temperature of the space that they’re in and you’re adjusting it to stay within the safe range for hibernation.
However, if your tortoise is losing weight constantly and it’s not staying on following a bath, you’re going to have to wake your tortoise up because something is wrong.
What To Do If You Have To Wake Your Tortoise Early From Hibernation
If your tortoise looks like it is not doing well with hibernation, do not be scared to wake her up gently.
Remove Them From The Cold
You need to remove the tortoise from the cold hibernation space and then allow them to gradually warm up to about 60 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the ideal waking temperature.
Gradually Increase The Temperature
Then over the next 2-3 days you want to gradually increase the temperature in their living space to about 70 degrees Fahrenheit and they’ll be ready to actively participate in life. Don’t rush this process though as you risk dehydrating them. Leave at least one basking spot available at a higher temperature though, this will allow the tortoise to decide if it needs more heat if it is feeling cold.
You need to continue to give them regular 20 minute soaks for the next week or so. This allows them to fully hydrate and flush out their kidneys properly. If they don’t react to a soak and aren’t drinking – take them straight to the vet.
After 2 days at room temperature, it’s time to offer your tortoise some food. If they don’t start eating after a week – they need to go to the vet.
Consider Taking Them To The Vet
If you woke them up because of anything other than dehydration or evidence of poop in their hibernation environment and if the problem doesn’t go away when they awake, you need to take them to the vet.
As you can see, looking after a tortoise during their hibernation period is not too complicated but it is important to make sure that if you identify a problem with their health that you wake them up safely and remedy the problem.