It can be terrifying to walk into your room to find your tortoise buried in the dirt and not moving. Your first thought might be that your sweet baby just died! But don’t panic. Many reptiles and mammals go into a deep sleep when it gets cold outside. This is called hibernation.
Sometimes it can be hard to tell if they are dead or just hibernating, so your concern is not unusual. Before we look at the signs for whether a tortoise is in hibernation or has actually died, let’s understand how they hibernate, why they do it and what we can do to help. With this details at hand, it will be easy to tell whether a tortoise is dead or hibernating.
What is Hibernation?
Hibernation is vital to a healthy, long-lived tortoise. It’s crucial to note that not all torts go into hibernation. The Russian tortoise is one species that does hibernate, whereas the leopard tortoise does not need to go into hibernation. Believe it or not, some people do not hibernate any of their tortoises at all; it’s mostly a matter of preference and what you feel is best for your tortoise.
When a tortoise goes into hibernation, they will slow their metabolism down to almost nothing. That makes it appear as if he isn’t alive. His breathing will slow, hie heart rate will drop, his temperature will plummet, and he’ll stop eating and drinking. It really does look like death, but don’t worry. This total inactivity is perfectly normal.
Now that we’ve set your mind at ease a bit, it’s time for a little science. Hibernation isn’t an entirely accurate term for what torts do. It’s actually more accurate to say that tortoises, along with many other reptiles, brumate. Brumation is a set of different physiological changes than hibernation. Of course, you can still call it hibernating and nobody will think any less of you.
The best way to tell if your tortoise is hibernating or dead is to be involved with his hibernation preparations. By understanding how tortoise hibernation works and taking steps to prepare your tortoise for hibernation, you’ll already know your tortoise is safe and healthy while he sleeps. We’ll go over that in detail here, plus help those tortoise-keepers whose torts went into brumation all on their own. Is that tortoise hibernating or dead? We’ll help you figure it out!
Why Do Tortoises Hibernate?
There’s no real answer for this, mainly because some tortoises don’t even hibernate! But for those that do, hibernation is a way for them to reset their bodies. It lets them know when the seasons are changing. They may also hibernate due to lack of food or colder temperatures, which is not really an issue for a captive tortoise.
Oftentimes after hibernation, tortoises will seek out mates and begin the courting ritual. It’s like taking a great nap to gather strength for when it’s time to wake up and make some babies.
How Does Your Tortoise Know When To Hibernate?
Your pet tortoise comes with a built in clock. He just knows when it is the right time for hibernation. In captivity, with a controlled environment, it’s your job to help your tortoise into hibernation.
In the wild, generally, a tortoise’s hibernation period lasts from November or October and waking in April or May. This can vary greatly though, so it’s important to learn as much as you can about your pet tortoise’s species and hibernation needs.
So if you have a tortoise species that needs to hibernate, and you feel they are healthy enough to do so, read on to learn how you can do this safely, and give your tortoise the best life possible!
Should You Hibernate Your Tortoise?
This is up to you and your vet, so take the time to talk it through with your vet team. Some keepers like to hibernate their tortoises to encourage natural behaviors that mimic situations in the wild. This seems like the best choice, if you ask us. Tortoises are essentially wild animals still, so it’s up to us humans to help keep our pets happy and comfortable.
If you chose to hibernate your tortoise, then make sure you are prepared for all outcomes. Make sure your tortoise is healthy and a good weight first. Find out the actual hibernation times for your species. Make sure you have the right environment and have done your best to mimic what your tort would experience in the wild.
How Long Does Hibernation Last?
How long you hibernate your tortoise depends on his age and how much body weight he can afford to lose. A tortoise can only stand to lose about ten percent of its total body weight. Any more than ten percent and this can be detrimental to the tortoise’s health. Always seek the advice of your exotics vet on how long (or if you even should) hibernate your tortoise.
Never hibernate a tortoise for more than twelve weeks, however. In general, a one-year-old tortoise could hibernate for three weeks, a two-year-old tortoise for six weeks, and a three-year-old tortoise would hibernate for ten weeks. But, again, this also depends on the condition of the tortoise and its species.
How Can You Help A Tortoise Hibernate?
It actually isn’t too hard to help your tortoise ease into hibernation. Even so, there are things to keep in mind. It will be quite the daunting task for a newer tortoise owner, and some people recommend you wait a year or two with a new tortoise to get used to each other. That’s sound advice, if you ask us. A delayed hibernation isn’t likely to hurt your tortoise, but a forced hibernation definitely can.
It is also suggested that very young tortoises should not be put through hibernation. They should wait a few winters to put on enough body weight to survive. This is, as always, something you should discuss with your vet. Some hibernating species never get very big at all, and let’s face it… not everything you read on tortoise forums is good advice. Your vet will know best.
Most tortoises will start their hibernation in November. That means you should start monitoring and keeping check on your tortoise around August. If your tortoise is not healthy enough during this time, then it should not be put into hibernation.
First, check with your exotics animal vet for essential health checkups. If they get the all clear then you can start the pre-hibernation process. And if you feel uncomfortable with hibernating your tortoise, that is okay, too! It’s a scary new process and not every tortoise-keeper is cut out for it.
Here are a few other interesting things about tortoises and hibernating. Getting all the facts may help ease your mind. Maybe these things will even get you a little excited about trying to help your little friend get a great nap.
Pre-Hibernation for Tortoises
This process will take some time, like everything else about our slow buddies. You need to fast your tortoise for two to six weeks depending on its size. Fasting is when you do not give the tortoise any food. Weigh your tortoise often and keep a record. You don’t want him to lose too much weight.
To help clear his gut of any remaining fecal mater, give your tortoise warm baths every day in a shallow dish of water. This encourages him to pass feces and drink a lot, which will help clear out his stomach. You don’t want to hibernate a tortoise with a full belly or intestines. Bacteria can build up and make him sick!
Keep your tortoise in a temperature of 53.6 degrees Fahrenheit. This will keep the tortoise warm enough to where he can still digest the last meal he had, but it’ll be chilly enough to signal his body that brumation time is near. Keep your tortoise at this temperature for three weeks
If you rush this part, you are very likely to kill your tortoise. Scary, we know, but it’s very important to think about this. Making sure its gut is clear and the last meal is fully digested is critical to his health. If this is not done then during hibernation the remaining food in the tortoises gut could rot, or they can defecate while hibernating and become ill.
There are several tortoise-weighing guides available. Two of these are the Jackson ratio, which should only be used for the spur-thighed tortoise and Hermans tortoises. The other is Mcintyre ratio, which can be used for the Horsfeild tortoise, also called Russian tortoises. Keep in mind these are only basic guides that give you a rough estimate. Your breeder and vet can guide you for your specific tortoise.
Hibernation in Tortoises
Now that you have gone through all the necessary pre-hibernation steps, your tortoise is now ready to hibernate. There are two methods to helping a tortoise hibernate. Both methods should be gradually introduced; you do not want to place your tortoise in a cold location right away. Over the course of a week or two, slowly decrease the temperature until it is at the correct level for a safe and secure sleep.
The Fridge Method
Believe it or not, one way to hibernate a tortoise is in the fridge! No, we’;re not joking. This has to be a separate fridge from your food though. Never put your pet tortoise to hibernate in the food fridge because he could be carrying salmonella on his shell or skin. We covered salmonella in torts in another article, if you’d like to learn more about that. Plus, if you try to hibernate your tort in the family food fridge, the temperature will fluctuate every time someone opens the door to get a snack. That can be dangerous for your tort.
To do this method, you will need a box that is a little bigger than your tortoise. Don’t worry, he won’t care if it looks cramped. Think about how small your bed is compared to the rest of your house. The box can be wood, cardboard, or plastic. Plastic is generally preferred because it’s easy to clean and sanitize.
Make sure the box has a few air holes in it so your tortoise does not suffocate. Fill the container with substrate. There are a few options here. Some people like to use shredded paper, others will use aspen shavings or sterilized dirt. Whatever you pick, be sure there is enough for the tortoise to bury itself.
Prior to hibernating your tortoise in the fridge, be sure to check that the fridge’s temperature remains stable. You can add a few two-liter bottles of water inside the fridge to help with this. Your tortoise should be kept in a temperature of about 37 degrees Fahrenheit to 44 degrees.
Be sure the temperature never drops below 37 degrees; your tortoise may freeze to death or become ill.
Likewise, never have the temperature reach 50 degrees Fahrenheit as your tortoise will start using up its energy that it needs to hibernate.
Where you place your tortoise fridge is also important. The fridge should not be placed in a cold area of your house. This can make the temperature inside drop too low. Instead, place it in a room with temperature control, like a back room, a home office, or your bedroom.
Frequently check on your tortoise and check the temperature of his fridge. Open the door of the fridge for a few minutes three or four times a week to allow air flow so your tortoise wont suffocate.
The Box Method
Another way to hibernate your tortoise is the box method. This usually involves keeping the tortoise in a secure box outside, in the garage, or in a shed.
Make sure the shed or wherever it is you are putting the tortoise does not have any flooding or pest issues. You also need to ensure no other animals will be able to reach your tortoise. You will also have to make sure this area does not fluctuate in temperatures often.
You will need two boxes for this method. One box needs to fit the tortoise snugly. It should have some holes in the top so he can breath. Fill this box with a substrate like sterilized dirt. The other box needs to fit this box inside. Holes should be in the top of this one too. The outer box may be filled with shredded paper for insulation.
Both of these boxes must keep a temperature of 37 to 44 degrees Fahrenheit. Same as the previous method.
Time To Wake Up
Once the hibernation period is over, regardless of what method you chose, your tortoise will eventually have to wake up. To do this, all you need to do is gently soak your tortoise in lukewarm water and gradually warm them up.
Never take a tortoise out of hibernation and put them right under a heat lamp. This will raise her temperature too quickly and may send them into shock.
Is A Tortoise Dead Or Hibernating? Here’s How To Tell.
Many species of tortoises need to hibernate in the wild. They do this all on their own and most wake up just fine. But what if your pet tortoise went into hibernation all on his own? How can you tell if he’s sleeping or dead? How can we be sure they are okay?
The worry is natural, but try to remain calm. Here are some ways to check if your tortoise is hibernating or dead.
One way to check on your tortoise is to simply pick him up. If he retains muscle control, then he is fine. That means even if his head and limbs are still tucked in his shell, he’s got control and he’s just snoozing. But if the tortoise’s legs and head droop and wobble, then the tortoise is likely deceased.
Next, you can poke or gently wiggle his legs. If they are resisting and moving away from you, then your tortoise should be fine. If she doesn’t respond or she feels flaccid and loose when you poke her, she may have passed away.
Another way to tell without disturbing the tortoise is to hold up a feather to the tortoises nose. No, we don’t want you to play tickle time with her. Just watch for any movement in the feather. If the tortoise is breathing, the feather should just barely move. This method works best in a breeze-free area.
Essentially, if your tortoise does not seem to be breathing or he is droopy, floppy, and unresponsive, then your tortoise is most likely dead.
Why Did My Tortoise Die During Hibernation?
While more common in the wild, tortoises can in fact die during hibernation. It’s a sad thing to experience, but it can happen for a variety of reasons. An undiagnosed illness before hibernation may be a cause. Perhaps his gut wasn’t completely clean and the food left in his intestines made him sick. He may have been injured, gotten too cold, became too warm and used up his stored energy too soon, or he may have suffocated.
As long as you do your research and make sure your tortoise was prepared for hibernation, then you can help prevent death and illness during hibernation time.
Of course if you are not comfortable putting your tortoise into hibernation, then don’t. We have not found any conclusive information that you absolutely have to hibernate your pet tortoise. There are benefits to it, such as maintaining a more realistic way of life as if they were in the wild and keeping their bodies on a more natural cycle. But if it’s stressing you out or you’re not certain you can handle the responsibility of prep and maintenance, skip it.
Just talk with your exotics vet before you attempt to hibernate a pet tortoise.
If done wrong, then there is a chance of death or illness when hibernating a tortoise. When done correctly, most torts come out of their hibernation refreshed and happy. If you’re worried your tortoise may have passed away during hibernation, check on the tortoise frequently by checking for breathing and if the tortoise’s limbs are responsive. Good luck to you and we wish a very happy hibernation to your tiny tanky buddies!