Tips for the winterising and hibernation of tortoises

The annual winter hibernation of European and Mediterranean tortoises is a natural occurrence that should be made part of their keeping. Hibernation begins in October/November and continues until March/April.

Although hibernation is important for the proper keeping of tortoises, one should refrain from hibernating a tortoise if it is ill or unfit, or if hibernation cannot be properly carried out, because these problems bring the risk that hibernation may do the animals more harm than good.

Preparation for hibernation
Proper hibernation involves preparation, which is especially essential when working with hatchlings less than one year old but also for tortoises kept in an indoor vivarium.
Before hibernation, the animals should be checked for worms and treated accordingly. Worm treatments should be administered when the animal’s metabolic rate is still high, in about early August. Well-kept animals will show decreased activity at the beginning of autumn.

This is when the animals begin to prepare for hibernation, when they will live off their reserves, and so tortoises should be well nourished – but not too fat – when hibernated. Feeding should be stopped in preparation for hibernation so that the intestinal tract will empty. Warm baths can assist this process. Care must be taken, however, that the tortoise does not catch a cold.

We recommend feeding it Testudo Original to lower its metabolism before the hibernation period. Testudo Original is extremely low in protein, which is beneficial to the liver and kidneys and thus helps to purge the body.

Tortoises may be hibernated outdoors, in the basement or even in a refrigerator.
Healthy tortoises that live outdoors will hibernate naturally, taking their cues from the shorter days, the lower position of the sun, dropping temperatures and higher humidity. They stop eating, drink less, empty their guts and sun themselves more often. Tortoises living outdoors should be provided with a shelter where they can burrow into the ground. This shelter must keep out wild rodents so that the tortoises are protected from possible injuries. For this natural method one need not worry about the surrounding temperature and humidity, however a rise in temperature may wake the animals, which will then have difficulties if it drops again. It is therefore recommended that an additional source of heat be provided. Regular checks are also more difficult to carry out with this method of hibernation.

If tortoises are hibernated in the basement, feeding should be stopped in preparation at initially constant temperatures and the animal should be regularly bathed in warm water (about 30 °C). This will encourage the tortoise to drink, which will help empty its stomach. Afterwards, the tortoise is kept for a few days at room temperature, and then placed in a hibernation box and brought to the frost-proof basement (4-6 °C). Here, too, it is important that the tortoise’s box in the basement be protected from rodents and other gnawing creatures, for example with barbed wire.

If no other option is available, tortoises can also be kept in the refrigerator. This should be maintained at 4-6 °C. After the tortoise is prepared for hibernation in the same way as it would be for the basement, it should be placed in a plastic box for hibernation in the refrigerator. A container with a little bit of water should be placed on the bottom shelf to help maintain a consistent humidity. Alternatively, for hibernation in the refrigerator the tortoise can be kept in a sturdy cardboard box or plastic container that allows for air circulation and which is filled with sphagnum moss or beech leaves. The refrigerator should be opened once a week to provide fresh air and the sphagnum moss or beech leaves should moistened.

During hibernation one should also do a regular visual inspection of the tortoise, including weighing it, as well as check the humidity, temperature and darkness levels. If a tortoise loses considerably more than 10% of its body weight, hibernation must be interrupted and the animal must be checked by a veterinarian. If the tortoise wakes early, it should by no means continue to be kept at a cool temperature, but rather should be allowed to enter the post-hibernation stage.

  • Meyer, M.: PraxisRatgeber Schildkrötenernährung. Chimaira Buchhandelsgesellschaft mbH, 2001
  • Gabrisch, Zwart: Krankheiten der Heimtiere. Schlütersche Verlagsgesellschaft mbH & Co.KG, Hannover, 2015 

Dr. med. vet. Katharina BoesAugust 2015 

(* The references refer to the technical content of the text and not to the product recommendations.)