Hibernating winter tortoises – information & tips

Many tortoises, such as the Greek tortoise, the Moorish tortoise, and the steppe tortoise, naturally hibernate for three to five months during the cold season.

During this time, the metabolism and the cardiovascular system are reduced to a minimum.

That makes sense because the turtles would have little food in winter and would have problems maintaining their body temperature in the cold.

In the wild, reptiles spend their rigour in caves or holes in the ground.

Winter hibernation is by no means just a necessary evil for turtles that can be easily avoided when keeping them in the terrarium.

Because the rest period in winter has a positive effect on the turtles’ physical development and is an important part of the natural annual cycle.

Beginners in turtle keeping often do not dare to put their animals “cold” for a few months.

The worries are not completely unfounded because things can actually go wrong during the “winter break” if it is not carried out properly.

The most important rule: 

Only a healthy tortoise may be put into winter hibernation.

Therefore, you should have the reptile examined in advance by a specialist veterinarian who, for example, examines the faeces for endoparasites.

The reptiles must be gradually prepared for winter rigour by slowly lowering the temperature.

The tortoises spend the winter rigour at temperatures between four and six degrees.

If it gets colder, it can quickly become life-threatening for the reptiles.

But temperature fluctuations upwards should also be avoided. Otherwise, the metabolism will start up again.

Many turtle keepers overwinter their animals in a specially placed refrigerator because the temperature can be controlled and monitored more easily than in a basement or an open-air enclosure.

The refrigerator must be ventilated from time to time.

For example, the turtles lie in a slightly damp substrate covered with a layer of damp leaves.

The substrate consists of a slightly damp garden soil/sand mixture, in which the turtle burrows and the top layer of damp leaves.

During frigid winter, the turtles should be checked and weighed every few weeks.

One guideline says that your tortoise must lose no more than 10 to 15 per cent of its weight during winter conditions.

If this does happen, the turtle should be woken up by slowly increasing the temperature.