Overwintering Tortoises

Not all tortoises hibernate, but for those that do we sometimes find that for various reasons decide to keep our tortoises awake during their natural hibernation period.  Underweight tortoises or perhaps newly acquired tortoises will also force the decision to overwinter.

So what should you do once you've made the decision to keep your tortoise awake?

---- STICK TO YOUR DECISION ----

Then guide your tortoise comfortably through the coldest months of the year when it should be hibernating.

Do not let your tortoise just sleep in a corner of its enclosure away from the heat source.  Allowing this will use up the tortoise's vital reserves, which could lead to weight loss and other problems, and the tortoise might not eat as it's body is telling it to go into hibernation mode.

Your tortoise will be trying to ‘wind down’, but the warmth will be preventing it from doing so and it will seek out colder areas of the enclosure.  You should try to keep your tortoise fully awake and eating by making it think it's still summer -- not such an easy task when all the elements are saying winter is upon us and its natural instincts are responding to nature.  The sun is lower in the sky, the weather has turned grey and drab, the humidity levels rise due to the rain or snow taking centre stage.  How on earth are you going to trick your tortoise into thinking it’s mid summer?
Indoor Enclosure

You should supply an indoor area that is large enough, free from draughts and one which will provide the optimal conditions for your species of tortoise.  It should also be quiet and safe from other pets and children. 

Warmth


Basking lamps should be suspended safely to prevent the possibility of fire as well as burns to yourself or the tortoise.  The rest of the enclosure should provide an ambient temperature comparable to a warm summer day.  Don't let temperatures fall below 12°C (54°F) - 15°C (59°F) at night in the room where your tortoise is housed.  A fall in temperature is more likely to happen if you are overwintering the tortoise in an outbuilding, rather than in your house.  It might be necessary to install some form of supplementary heating at night, to prevent the tortoise going into hibernation mode.  There are several options:
  • Suspend a ceramic heat emitter above the sleeping area, and attach it to a thermostat so that when the temperature falls too low it will come on.
    OR
  • Use a tubular heater attached to a thermostat (this must be fixed to the side out of reach so that the tortoise cannot come into contact with it).

    OR
  • If the tortoise is in your house, keep the central heating on low in that room during the night.

Light

Site the tortoise enclosure where it can receive plenty of natural light through windows.  If required, create the feeling of extra light by adding additional light bulbs.

Humidity


There is a danger that the atmosphere could become too dry in these conditions, so try and provide some humidity by ensuring there are lots of plants in the room, water dishes in the enclosure, and the substrate surface is lightly misted with water on a daily basis.  

UVB


UVB can be provided by either a combined heat/UVB flood bulb or by a UVB tube (plus a separate heat bulb for basking).  In both cases use reflectors to channel the UVB down towards the tortoise and also to protect human eyes from harmful UV rays.

  It is important to check the manufacturer's instructions to determine the height at which the bulb or tube needs to be suspended.  Remember that the distance recommended from the bulb is to the top of the tortoise's shell and not to the floor.  

Consider purchasing a new UVB lamp if yours is nearing the end of its life.  Tubes or bulbs need to be replaced after 6 or 12 month's use, depending on the number of hours used.  Information relating to life span of UVB output can be found on the original packaging.

Feeding and Drinking

Get the tortoise up every day and don’t allow it to go straight to the coolest area.  Put it under the basking lamp to help keep its core body temperature up, as this will enable it to eat properly and digest its food.  Once your tortoise gets used to this routine it should start to accept it and resist the strong pull of hibernation.   

Keep your tortoise on a healthy diet and don’t overfeed.  Some species are prone to overeating, and it is important to control the food intake over what would have been the hibernation period.  Some people advise feeding every other day whilst others suggest feeding daily but reducing the amount of food offered.  Make sure fresh drinking water is always available.

Bathing

Give your tortoise a warm bath daily to keep it fully hydrated, and if these soaks last for around 20 minutes it might urinate and defaecate in the water, which will help to keep the enclosure clean.  Keep the water warm by constantly testing it and changing the water when it starts to cool down.  Once your tortoise has lost the urge to hibernate bathing can be resumed at the normal frequency.

During the winter period aim to keep the tortoise active by providing a setup that gives interesting textures to walk on and around, and prevents the tortoise from easily seeing from one end of the enclosure to the other.

To summarise:

  1. Keep the tortoise indoors in a warm room.
  2. Maintain adequate heat levels, day and night, to keep the tortoise's core body temperature up.
  3. Provide sufficient bright light so that the tortoise experiences the same levels as it would outdoors in summer.
  4. Provide adequate hydration.
  5. Provide a healthy and varied diet.
© The Tortoise Table 2016