Is My Tortoise Hibernating Or Dead?

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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What if you notice your tortoise is not moving at all? Of course, you will be scared thinking it is dead. But hey! There is a possibility that the habitat temperature has dropped and the pet has entered hibernation. So, how can you decide whether the tortoise is dead or hibernating?

First, place a feather in front of the tortoise’s nostril. The light feather will move as the pet inhales and exhales. Picking up the creature and pinching its rear legs are also viable ideas. The hibernating tortoises will kick back due to the pain, while the dead one will stay unresponsive.

Why do tortoises die during hibernation? What are we doing wrong? Can we save the pets on our own? Catch the answers below.

Hibernating Or Dead? Ultimate Trick To Find Out

Newbies often do not understand the severity hibernation can cause to the tortoises. It is a stressful process for the pets. In fact, a minor mistake may cost the tortoises their life.

Yes, death during hibernation is not uncommon. It is why the owners should check on the tortoises regularly. But how will you know whether the tortoise is hibernating or dead? I have the perfect tricks for you.

But first, remember one thing.

You can not disturb the hibernating tortoise every day to see whether it is breathing. Instead, go for the visual examination. See if the tortoise moves a little or wakes up for a drink.

In most cases, the hibernating tortoises come out of their sleep for water and make little movements. Of course, they spend the majority of their hours sleeping.

Only adopt extreme measurements if you see no sign of life in the hibernating tortoises. Some tips for interpreting the situation are,

1. Pick Up The Tortoise

The safest way to check on the hibernating tortoise is to pick it up. The snoozing tortoises will stay tucked into the shell. On the contrary, a dead tortoise will drop its head and limb once you pick it up.

2. The Poking Therapy

Pinch or pull the rear legs of the tortoise. If not dead, the pet will flinch and move away its leg. Otherwise, there is a chance that the tortoise is deceased. Some owners poke on the eyelids to get a reaction from the pet.

3. The Feather Technique

This feather method is perfect if you do not want to disturb the tortoise. Collect a feather and hold it in front of the pet’s nostril. You can see the feather move as the tortoise inhales and exhales.

4. Soak In A Bath

I do not recommend this method at all. It is an extreme step that can cost the tortoise’s life. So, proceed further at your own will.

Prepare a lukewarm water bath and soak the pet. As the tortoise is in a sleep-like state due to the cold, the warmness will wake it up. If you see no response from the pet, consider it dead.

When you wake up a hibernating tortoise, you need to increase the temperature gradually. The sudden change can shock the pet and may cause its death.

5. Tail Pressure

The part between the tail and anal vent is very sensitive for tortoises. So, if you apply slight pressure on the area, the pet will react instantaneously. No response indicates that the tortoise is dead.

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How To Tell If A Tortoise Is Dead?

The last thing you want is to disturb a hibernating tortoise. It can interrupt the pet’s sleep cycle and damage its health. So, the experienced owners simply look for the signs of death instead of life.

For example, a dead tortoise can not keep its head and limbs retracted inside the shell. Well, the muscles will be stiff for the first 3 – 4 hours, but then they will start loosening up.

Dead tortoises often have sunken eyes. If the death goes unnoticed, the body starts decomposing, spreading a foul odor.

Why Do Tortoises Die During Hibernation?

Yes, hibernating is a natural process for the wild tortoises. These reptiles can sense the approaching winter and prepare themselves for the sleeping state.

But when in captivity, the surrounding of the pet tortoises is more or less artificial. Therefore, owners often have a significant role to play in a successful hibernation.

For example, preparing the tortoise for hibernation and creating a suitable environment. Any mistake in the process can harm the pet permanently.

Common causes of death in hibernating tortoises are,

1. Unfit Tortoise

As mentioned, hibernation is a stressful process for any tortoise. Why?

Well, hibernation can last for up to 3 months. During this time, the tortoises do not eat and barely drink. So, the creatures solely depend on their stored energy from before hibernation.

While the strong adult tortoises eat healthily and can store sufficient energy, the scene is quite the opposite for the weak pets. Their digestion and metabolism system are not sound.

It means they have no accumulated energy to spend during hibernation. So, if you force the weak tortoises to hibernate, there is a high chance that the pets will not make it.

Likewise, baby tortoises are also low in nutrients and energy. No wonder why experts strongly discourage putting the hatchlings in hibernation.

2. Sickness Matters

Hibernating sick tortoises is highly discouraged. These tortoises are already weak and spend a chunk of their energy on healing illnesses. During this illness, the pets require a proper diet and nutritional supplements to bounce back to regular life.

Hibernating the ill tortoises restricts their meals. So, the creatures run low on nutrition. As a consequence, their health condition breaks down. No wonder why a sick tortoise can never survive the brumation.

Even if the pet somehow manages to pull off the hibernation, it will face permanent organ damage afterward.

3. Improper Hibernating Environment

How will the tortoises survive hibernation if the temperature is not right? Most owners think the creatures require a subzero temperature to brumate. But hey! The tortoises will freeze to death if the temperature falls below 0C or 32F.

The ideal hibernating temperature for tortoises is below 50 – 55F though the pets slow their metabolism below 60F. For deeper sleep, drop the temperature below 5C or 40F.

You can not decrease the temperature to 40F at once in captive hibernation. Instead, gradually drop the temperature, allowing the tortoises to adopt the changes.

Humidity is also a crucial part of hibernating the tortoises. Yes, owners suggest a dry surrounding in a hibernation n pod. But a certain moisture level is still necessary as the metabolism is only slowed down, not stopped altogether. So, the tortoises need water to operate their vital organs.

Lack of water causes dehydration in the hibernating tortoises. It can lead to physical complexities during the post-brumation period. In fact, the pets may face a miserable death.

4. Lack In Preparation

As mentioned again and again, you can not send your tortoise into hibernation unprepared. For example, not starving the pet beforehand can be proven deadly.

As the metabolism slows down, it will take months for the tortoises to break down the leftovers. Hence, the food scraps will rot, leading to chronic gastrointestinal tract disease. In most cases, the tortoises bloat abnormally and die.

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5. Unnecessary Disturbance

Well, of course, you must check on the hibernating tortoise regularly. But does it mean waking the tortoise up for proper inspection? A big NO!

See, during the hibernation period, tortoises enter a low energy consumption mode. So, the creatures nearly shut down their organs and responsive functions. In short, the tortoises spend their stored energy to survive the 3 winter months.

When you wake the tortoise up, you interrupt the cycle. You make the pet waste its limited energy storage to respond to your signals. Frequent disturbances like these can harm the tortoise and even lead to death.

Why Do Tortoises Hibernate?

I guess we all know why tortoises hibernate. In brief, tortoises are ectothermic creatures who depend on external sources to warm up their bodies. So, when the temperature drops, these creatures activate a biological response to adapt to the weather.

As a coping mechanism, the tortoises slow their metabolism and drop their heart rate. Likewise, their energy and oxygen consumption also fall, making them idle and inactive. It appears that the tortoises are in a deep sleep. It is called hibernation.

How To Avoid Tortoise Death Due To Hibernation?

During hibernation, tortoises eat nothing or participate in no daily activities. So, their only survival source is the stored energy from before. No wonder why hibernation is such a stressful task.

Though hibernation goes smoothly in the wild, it can be critical in captivity. Hence the death rate of brumating is so scary. The owners often make mistakes in the preparation and hibernation stages.

I have already talked about the causes of tortoises’ death in hibernation. Of course, reversing the mistakes can minimize the death risk.

Let’s see how to hibernate the tortoise healthily.

1. The Selection

You can not just brumate any tortoise. As said earlier, weak, sick and hatchlings are not fit for the process. Therefore, go with a healthy adult who will easily survive hibernation.

2. A Healthier Diet

Well, tortoises depend on the stored energy during hibernation. Right? A healthy tortoise can accumulate more energy than the weak one.

So, you better feed the selected tortoise a balanced meal so that it can maintain its physique. Remember, a healthy diet prior to hibernation is of no use. Instead, prepare the tortoise at least 1 year before.

3. Weight Measure

One of the common signs of an underlying sickness of tortoises is drastic weight loss. Thus, you should weigh the tortoise weekly or monthly to track its health.

4. Regular Checkups

Consult a vet and consider whether your tortoise is suitable for hibernation. The experts sometimes prescribe supplements to keep up the good health of the tortoise.

5. Starving Stage

You can not allow your tortoise to enter hibernation with a full tummy. Because of the slowed metabolism, the tortoise will not digest food as fast as before. Therefore, the meal leftovers will rot in the tract and cause physical complexities for the tortoise.

Starving the tortoise intentionally 4 -6 weeks prior to hibernation is suggested. Make sure the pet poops out its last bite. Soaking the tortoise in warm water twice or thrice a week will help the pet clear its gut.

In any case, do not deprive the tortoise of water. Dehydration is life-threatening for the pet.

6. Temperature Drop

Usually, tortoises slow their activities as the temperature falls below 60F. But it is not enough for the creatures to shut their metabolism and enter hibernation mode. Generally, temperatures below 55F and 40F are suitable for light and deep hibernations for tortoises.

Of course, you can not drop the enclosure temperature directly from 85F to 40F. It will have a severe impact on the pet’s health. Instead, decrease the temperature gradually, 5F at a time, and let the tortoise adjust to the change.

7. Hibernation Setup

Tortoises hibernate under the dry leaf dump or in a burrow in the wild. You can replicate the environment in the outdoor pen. But it is still risky due to the uncontrollable weather and fear of predators.

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So, you better build a setup indoors. 2 methods are widely popular to hibernate pet tortoises. Such as,

  • Fridge method
  • Box method

Fridge Method:

This technique suggests placing the tortoise in the fridge during the cold season. I discourage you from putting your tortoise in the running refrigerator where you keep your food.

It is because the pets carry salmonella bacteria which can contaminate your meals. Besides, every time you open the fridge, the temperature falls. Here is the ideal way to hibernate your tortoise in the refrigerator,

  • Take a wood, plastic, or cardboard container larger than the tortoise. Plastic boxes are preferred as they are easier to clean.
  • Drill several air holes into the box for ventilation purposes.
  • Fill the container with suitable substrates, for example, sterilize dirt, aspen shavings, etc. The bedding height should be enough for the tortoises to burrow.
  • Recheck the fridge setting before putting the tortoise in hibernation. We only require a stable temperature between 37 – 44F.
  • A temperature below 37F will freeze the tortoise to death. Likewise, temperatures above 50 – 55F start waking the pet up.
  • The fridge should not be in a colder part of the house. This can lower the inside temperature. Thus, keeping the refrigerator in a temperature-controlled room, e.g., an office or living room, is wiser.
  • The refrigerator environment is usually dry. So, keep 2 water bottles of 2 liters to keep the surrounding of the tortoise moist and humid.
  • Now, your tortoise is all set for hibernation. Put the tortoise in the box and place it in the fridge. There is water in case the pet wakes up for a drink.
  • Check on the tortoise twice or thrice a week without disturbing the sleep. Make sure the refrigerator temperature is in the suitable range.
  • Keep the fridge door open thrice or four times a week for a few minutes. This will allow airflow in the refrigerator.

Box Method:

This technique is more natural than the fridge method. Here, you need to put the tortoise in a box and place it in a shed, basement, or garage. The temperature in these areas should not drop drastically and stay within 37 – 44F.

To build the hibernation setup, collect 2 boxes of different sizes. One box should fit inside the other one.

The inner container will accommodate the tortoise. So, fill it with sterilized dirt or similar bedding. Fit the box inside the larger one. Cover the gap between the 2 walls with shredded papers for insulation.

Of course, both boxes must contain holes for ventilation.

8. Dead Or Alive?

Tortoises dying in hibernation is nothing new. So, you must check on the pet regularly. Of course, do not wake the tortoise up in the process.

If you suspect anything bad, adopt the Feather method to see whether the tortoise is breathing.

9. It’s Time To Wake Up!

As the winter ends, you need to start waking the tortoises up. Well, increasing the temperature suddenly to 80 – 90F will not help. Instead, gradually warm the environment and offer the pets a lukewarm soak.

Soon the tortoises will open their eyes, ending the month-long hibernation. You can then place the pets under the heating lamp for proper warmth.

10. Post Hibernation Care

A tortoise out of hibernation is definitely dehydrated and low in immunity. So, provide the pet with warm soaks and a shallow water source. Moreover, add nutritious items to the meals to build immunity.

I suggest you take the tortoise to a vet for a thorough checkup.

Before You Go…

A tortoise does not give up on its life so easily. Instead, the innocent pet drops hints of sickness and cries out for help. Picking up those signs will let you save your lovely tortoise from an early death. Find the 10 signs of a dying tortoise from the attached article below.

10 Signs Of Your Tortoise Dying With Treatments

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About Author

Muntaseer Rahman started keeping pet turtles back in 2013. He also owns the largest Turtle & Tortoise Facebook community in Bangladesh. These days he is mostly active on Facebook.

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