Although it is hard to believe here in Southern California, winter is coming. Winter is the time when many species
of turtle and tortoises will hibernate in the wild (actually the more correct term is "brumate", reptiles don't
undergo the same physiological changes that occur when mammals hibernate).
Hibernation usually coincides with shorter day lengths and the onset of cooler weather when the lack of suitable
food sources and the climatic conditions are not conducive for normal reptile behavior.
During hibernation the body processes slow down. Digestion ceases, the circulation is reduced, and the immune and
other defense systems slow or stop. Because of these changes disease can develop unchecked, and even mild or minor
complaints can turn into major problems for turtles and tortoises. For this reason the Club advocates that you should
NEVER HIBERNATE SICK OR INJURED TURTLES OR TORTOISES!
Hibernation needs vary according to the type of turtle. Some care recommendations (taken from the CTTC care-sheets)
for different types of turtle are given below. If you need more information contact CTTC Officers, they will be able
to refer you to someone who can help.
Desert and Texas Tortoises
Usually by the end of October, desert tortoises will eat less, bask less, and appear sluggish. A suitable
hibernation place may have to be provided. Some tortoise owners use a dog house insulated with a thick layer of dry
soil, leaves, or shredded newspaper. The entrance should be covered with a tarp to protect it from flood or rain. Many
keepers prefer to "store" their pets in the garage. The tortoise is placed in a stout cardboard box, that is deep
enough that it cannot climb out, and is covered with insulating layers of newspaper. The box is placed up off the
cement floor in an area free from drafts or rats. If the box is placed in your garage, remember not to run automobile
engines because of the risk of poisoning from the fumes. A cool closet is also a safe place for hibernation.
Some tortoises will build a burrow, and in some areas may successfully hibernate themselves. However, before
allowing this, consider the location of the burrow. If there is a significant risk of flooding from heavy rainfall do
not allow your pet to hibernate there.
Hibernating tortoises should be checked periodically. A sleeping tortoise will usually respond if its foot is
touched. If the tortoise should waken, encourage it to return to sleep. When the days begin to warm, around March or
April, the tortoise will become active in its storage box. At this time, a warm bath should be given, and the tortoise
will often take a long steady drink. Within a week or two it should resume its normal activity of eating, exercising
It is important that a tortoise be plump and in good health before hibernating; otherwise, it may not survive the
winter. By the end of the summer, a well fed tortoise will form fat reserves around its shoulders and legs.
If for some reason you do not wish your tortoise to hibernate, it must be brought indoors and kept at a warm temperature (75-85° F) for it to remain active. It will require room for exercising and regular feedings. Many tortoise keepers believe that it is better to keep hatchling tortoises active for their first one or two winters.
Turtles kept indoors in heated enclosures will stay active all year, although they may eat less in the winter.
Turtles kept outdoors in Southern California will become less active and will stop feeding during the coldest part of
the winter. Some may leave the water and burrow into piles of leaves and vegetation. Others will settle down in
leaves, mud and other detritus at the bottom of the pool. Most turtles native to the USA can pass the winter quite
safely in this fashion.
In the fall, as the days become shorter, box turtles will begin to eat less, bask less, and appear sluggish. Some
will bury themselves under roots of plants or dig down into the dirt. To aid in the protection of the animal, dry
leaves and dry grass clippings may be put over the buried turtle. Some keepers prefer to provide a suitable area for
hibernation such as a dog kennel with a floor of loose soil or dry leaves. In either case, the turtle should be
checked periodically. As box turtle do require slight moisture, an occasional rain will cause no harm, but the turtle
should be protected from freezing and flooding.
Box turtles reemerge from March through May depending on the climate.
Unlike desert tortoises, box turtles should not be allowed to hibernate in a dry box. They may die from dehydration.
Box turtles kept indoors and warm during the winter may not hibernate, but may reduce their food intake for a short
period. Some box turtles insist on hibernating. These may be given moist sphagnum moss to burrow into and should be
moved into a cooler area such as a closet or unheated room for about 6-8 weeks or so, but care should be taken to make
sure that the substrate remains moist and does not dry out.
As with other turtles, sick and weak box turtles should not be allowed to hibernate. A box turtle that has not
stored sufficient fat may not live through hibernation.
Turtles and tortoises from temperate climates such as Europe may hibernate. However, do not try to hibernate
species from tropical climates! IF YOU HAVE ANY DOUBTS ABOUT HIBERNATION NEEDS OF A TURTLE OR TORTOISE DON'T
HIBERNATE IT! Some tropical species escape the summer heat by hiding and entering a state of dormancy
(estivation). If this happens, soak the animal in a shallow pool of warm water and increase the humidity by regularly
misting or spraying the living area.
Originally published Tortuga Gazette 28(10): 8, October 1992