Safely Hibernating Turtles And Tortoises

It Depends on Where You Live

It's that time of year when your good shelled friends are going down for winter hibernation...skinny or sick animals should not hibernate nor should African and warm weather tortoises like Leopards, Elongatas, Sulcatas, Redfoots, etc.  For them, you must provide consistent warm temperatures with a Kane heat pad available from  I do not recommend hibernating any animal under three years of age. 

Hibernate deserts, Russians and others in your house in a cool room (under your bed is fine). In california and other south western states without drastic temperature drops, we suggest safe, off the ground concrete houses using radiant heat panels above and Kane heat panels for the flooring.  Doors must be shut at night and that way, everyone can hibernate outside.  If you cannot provide this kind of shelter, bring them in.  If it rains a lot (especially with El Nino on the way), tortoises can drown in outside burrows and box turtles like to screw themselves way down in the dirt. Better bring them in.

For those of you who are turtle parents in California, you probably join me in feeling our poor turtles are totally confused this winter.  Some have not even hibernated thanks to the incredibly warm fall throughout the state.  Many of our turtles stumble out looking dazed and confused.  Shall I eat?  Sleep?  Bite my favorite female? 

It's worrisome because everyday when they sunbathe but don’t eat, they are burning body fat. So I offer food and hope for the best.  But not only is this tough on them, but what about us!!!  I need four months to recuperate from turtle care.  Plus we have all the sulcatas roaming around and since they don't hibernate…well you get the picture. 

The rest of the world is experiencing the opposite and some are worried about outside hibernation.  Here's what we hear from Indiana…"Our winters are typical Midwest winters, most of the time.  What are your thoughts on that?  A friend puts about 18+ inches of leaves on top of them and the lid of her turtle pen smashes them pretty compact.  She said they still bury about six inches but come spring with 50 - 60 degrees out pops their heads.  She even found three hatchlings."  Well going back to our article on "wild animals," unless they are sick or too small, or unless your instincts tell you differently, we think that they should do what they do normally. 

As for California, we suggest hibernating California deserts in the house.  Put them in a bankers box with shredded newspaper. Cover it.  Put this in the garage or a cool closet.  Touch gently on back foot once a month to make sure all is well and that they have not wet themselves. This practice is recommended because so many of the tortoises are captive. In the desert, they know what to do, but in captivity so many have respiratory problems that can be exacerbated by rain and cold. They can even drown in their burrows.

We have our neighbors dump leaves over our fence because this makes a fabulous hibernation spot - a big, bad pile of leaves that all the turtles love to hide in - it stays warm and dry underneath. With El Nino predicted this winter, however, we will not be hiberating anyone outside.  They all have concreate waterproof housing and we will make sure they stay in with the doors shut on bad days.

In the summer, however, the pile of leaves becomes a fantastic place to lay eggs.  We highly recommend this.  Everyone loves it…Russians, Mediterranean, Eastern and Eestern box, Asian.

Our basics are these, however:  Do not allow any of your California desert tortoises to hibernate outside - it is too wet.  Soak them first to get the poop out.  Make sure that they have voluntarily not eaten for a couple of weeks.  Shred newspaper into a box (we like the banker's boxes from office supply stores best).  Put the tortoise on the newspaper and throw some more shredded stuff on top.  Cover. Put it in the coldest room of the house or the garage if you do not have rats. Touch the back foot once a month to make sure all is well, and make sure that you do not hear wheezing or feel wet.  When the scratching doesn't stop it is time to get up.  Hibernation usually takes place from October/November through April/May - but it is different with each tortoise and in each climate. 

Some people like to hibernate their tortoises under the couch or bed.  Box turtles cannot be hibernated in boxes because of the dryness.  We hibernate all our box turtles outside.  Water turtles hibernate under water.  Ours have been slow to go down this year, and are still sunning themselves.

When your animals wake up make sure that you soak them thoroughly.  Some will not eat for a week or two and that is ok.  But if not eating continues or if you see a runny nose, please go to the vet.

We get lots and lots of inquiries about the best way to hibernate and just general info about it.  Here are some of the basics, but you can also get good info off the internet if you go to the Tortoise Trust site:


About Us

American Tortoise Rescue is a nonprofit founded in 1990 for the protection of all species of turtles and tortoises. We have rescued more than 3,000 since our inception. Foundlings that cannot be adopted because of ill health remain in the care of ATR for the remainder of their lives. ATR acts as a clearinghouse for information about turtle care. We work to abolish “live market” slaughter of turtles in the US, the cruel importation and exploitation of a variety of species and protecting the desert tortoise.

Documents & Links

Quick facts

Don't hibernate certain tortoises like Sulcatas, Leopards and Redfoots.
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Hibernate desert tortoises in the house or garage.
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Never let a tortoise hibernate in aburrow. It might collapse in the rain.
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