If you are looking to keep a Russian tortoise as a pet, then you’ll likely want to know whether or not they hibernate. Besides, it can have a big impact on ownership and how you look after, care for and plan ahead. This is what you need to know about this particular species.
So, do Russian tortoises hibernate? Russian tortoises do hibernate, and they are naturally inclined to do so in the winter months. In the wild, they will typically do so from October through to March. In captivity, Russian tortoises will likely hibernate for 3-12 weeks (depending on age) but can enter the state at any time if conditions are not adequate.
Hibernation is considered somewhat essential for this species, and owners who attempt to prevent it should do so in accordance with the advice and support of an expert or vet.
Signs that a Russian tortoise is hibernating include slower breathing, a lower temperature, a low appetite, and a general lack of movement.
As you can probably imagine, while tortoises are generally slow anyway, it’s quite a contrast to what you would typically expect.
Hibernation is in many ways, a natural cycle among many animals.
It’s a survival mechanism that they inherently and instinctively enter to survive harsher conditions.
As such, in order to preserve energy, hibernation is all about safely reducing the metabolic rate and being in a state of minimal movement and activity for preservation purposes.
Its no surprise really; depending on where you are in the world temperatures can plummet; and a lack of resources and food go hand in hand with the colder seasons.
Hibernation therefore typically lasts for weeks, although has been known to go on for months.
It is therefore highly seasonal and many, but not all, species of tortoises will go through it irregardless of whether they are in the wild or kept in captivity.
Rest assured that this type of inactivity is entirely normal.
Even if can be worrying – especially the first time you and your tortoise go through it together!
Besides, it can be challenging at first to differentiate hibernation from poor health!
The best way to understand the difference between a hibernating tortoise and suffering, or potentially dead tortoise, is to learn to observe the changes and preparations a tortoise goes through for this state.
You’ll likely notice your tortoise slowing down a few weeks before the start of winter, their body temperature will lower, along with their heart rate and breathing.
If you were to pick up a Russian tortoise in hibernation, you would soon notice that they have good muscle tone.
If the head and legs droop, then that is however a time for concern and could mean they are deceased or in need of some immediate veterinary assistance.
Nevertheless, so long as you care for your tortoise year-round, meet their needs, and ensure they have everything they need, hibernation is something that you can safely go through together.
Let us now take a closer look at this state – so that you can set your expectations and plan accordingly.
We will be looking at when, how long for, and what is typically involved with this unique process.
When Do Russian Tortoises Hibernate?
In the wild, Russian tortoises can hibernate anytime between October to March; some will even begin hibernating in October and may not wake up until April or May.
It’s understandable why wild tortoises hibernate for so long, as they are exposed to harsher temperatures, and food and water are scarce.
In captivity, Russian tortoises will hibernate for a shorter period, but you will find them starting the hibernation process the moment the conditions are not to their liking.
It is generally recommended that you start to consider hibernation during Autumn. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, this is some time around August.
There are some things you will need to do.
Firstly, it comes strongly advised to get your tortoise examined by a vet around this time to ensure that they are healthy enough to safely enter hibernation.
Secondly, you must consider diet in the weeks leading up to hibernation, and reduce food supply accordingly.
The digestive tract must be empty during this time or otherwise the food will rot during, which can result in severe illness and even death for your Russian tortoise.
To help ensure they have an empty digestive tract, you can fill a container with water (chin-deep for your tortoise).
Place your tort inside will enable them to remain hydrated while also helping them to eliminate waste.
You can and should do this multiple times to ensure that all waste is safely expelled.
It is also advised to record any weight loss during hibernation – too much can suggest there is something wrong and can even indicate and result in further health risks and conditions.
The enclosure must be conducive to hibernation, and you will need a good quality substrate that includes cypress mulch, peat moss, or fir bark.
The temperature must be between 4 and 10 degrees Celsius for a minimum of two to three months.
The enclosure should be in a calm and peaceful area of your home, far away from any other pets, animals, or small children who might be too curious to leave your tortoise alone.
How Long Do Russian Tortoises Hibernate?
The length of time a Russian tortoise hibernates will depend on three main factors; whether they are in the wild or being kept in captivity, their age, and the respective conditions.
That being said, wild Russian tortoises generally hibernate for five months. Although, some have been known to hibernate for as long as 9 months if the weather and conditions permit.
In captivity, it’s another story altogether. They spend much less time in this state.
For a pet tortoise, you can expect hibernation to last between 3-12 weeks. It should never exceed this length of time.
The exact amount of time they will spend in this period of inactivity will depend on their age:
- A one-year-old tort can hibernate for three weeks,
- A two-year-old for six weeks,
- A three-year-old for ten weeks;
There is even an argument for not letting your tortoise hibernate before they reach the age of one. Although some will stretch this further out to the age of 2-3.
This position argues that the risk of weight loss through this cycle can impact on the health of the tort; especially if they lost more than 15% of their total body weight and if they are especially small to begin with.
Either way, you must examine the condition of your tortoise before they enter hibernation.
During this time of inactivity, the immune system is depressed, and if a tortoise has an unchecked health condition, hibernation can worsen their condition.
It is for this reason, a sick tortoise, or one infected by parasites, should not be allowed to hibernate altogether.
Seeking the advice of your vet is always recommended, but especially in instances where you suspect your tortoise is unwell.
Do Russian Tortoises Need To Hibernate?
In the wild, Russian tortoises need to hibernate to survive the cold and bitter winter months, and hibernation helps them reset their bodies.
The best time for hibernation is thus when outdoor temperatures are between 10-18º Celsius (50-64º Fahrenheit.
Sometimes though, tortoises will hibernate if there is a lack of food, which is usually more common in extreme climates, and should not be an issue for captive tortoises!
When it comes to captive Russian tortoises; it is generally advised that you let them and promote hibernation each year.
Some Russian tortoise keepers choose not to hibernate their pet, but if you choose not to, you should consult your vet.
This period of dormancy is a good thing for tortoises. It encourages natural behaviors that simulate situations in the wild – it is of course have they have evolved. They are still very much wild reptiles, in regards to their biology, after all.
If you do choose to hibernate your Russian tortoise, you will need to ensure you have everything prepared ahead of time.
Check that your Russian tort is healthy and is at a good weight (where they can afford to lose 10-15% safely.
From there, you will want to arrange their environment in such a way that properly mimics what your Russian tortoise would experience in their wild and natural habitat.
If your tortoise is hibernating outdoors, keep in mind that outside temperatures can fluctuate and may not be continuously in a suitable range.
For successful outdoor hibernation, nighttime temperatures should be no lower than -7º Celsius (19.4º Fahrenheit), while daytime temperatures should not exceed 18.3º Celsius (64.5º Fahrenheit).
Also consider that while it is generally safe and expected for a Russian tort to lose 1% of body weight per month of being in hibernation, more than 10% during the entire period can be very unsafe.
How Do I Know If My Russian Tortoise Is Hibernating?
Hibernation is a worrying time for many Russian tortoise owners, especially in the beginning.
Unfortunately, this completely natural process is easily confused with ill health. Many symptoms of health conditions, like lethargy and low appetite, can easily be mistaken.
For this reason, it is easily understandable why an owner would consider not allowing their pet to hibernate. Especially if uninformed about the benefits and consequences of it taking place.
Nevertheless, there are signs and ways you can differentiate hibernation from ill health or even death.
For starts, Russian tortoises will begin hibernating when temperatures become colder.
It’s therefore likely that you will notice changes with the passing of certain seasons.
From there, you should notice specific changes in your Russain tort:
Their metabolism slows right down, which can be observed in a drop in the general body temperature and need/desire to eat and drink.
Breathing and heart rate will drastically slow down too, which while more difficult to observe, are clear other indicators.
Strictly speaking, hibernation is not even the correct term for what we have been talking about here today.
This dormant state for tortoises and other reptiles is actually known as brumation.
This is why you may have seen this other term, or if it is used interchangeably.
Brumation occurs in many other reptiles, like snakes, but it is not theoretically as extreme as hibernation experienced in animals.
For instance, in brumation reptiles are more likely to move from time to time, drink some water, etc. before returning back to their previous lethargic state.
So, this means that you may see your Russian tortoise moving about at times even if you suspect them to be going through this phase.
It isn’t as challenging to wake up a brumating reptile compared to a hibernating animal, although that does not mean that you should.
If you were concerned as to the state of your Russian tort, picking them up would soon notify you of whether they are indeed brumating or deceased.
An alive tortoise will have good muscle tone, regardless of whether its head and legs are within the shell.
Alternatively, if you pick up your tortoise and their head and legs are limp, this is a likely indicator that they have died.
How To Help Your Russian Tortoise Enter Hibernation
Thankfully, all brumating reptiles and tortoises have an internal instinctive clock telling them exactly when the time is right to enter this state.
In a controlled environment like your home, all you can do is to help them transition and ensure they are fully supported.
You should never force hibernation on your tortoise. This is very dangerous if they are not ready or willing, and as previously mentioned very young Russian torts probably should not go through it at all.
When your tortoise is displaying signs of slowing down in preparation for hibernation, you will need to fast them.
Generally, it is recommended that you do so for 2-6 weeks. You should be simultaneously weighing them to prevent too much weight loss.
Beyond this, you should give them a shallow bath in warm water each day to eliminate waste and keep them well-hydrated.
You’ll also want to keep your Russian tort at a temperature of around 12° Celsius (53° Fahrenheit) for the weeks leading up to brumation.
When your tortoise is ready, you can choose to help ease them into hibernation using any one of these two recommended methods:
The Box Method
This method involves keeping your tortoise in a box outdoors, in a shed, or garage.
Whichever location you decide should be free of pests or floods, and temperatures shouldn’t fluctuate often.
You must use two boxes (with holes) for this method, with one box fitting inside the other.
The smaller box should contain the substrate and your tortoise, and the outer box should contain shredded paper for insulation.
The Fridge Method
You can hibernate your tortoise by using a fridge. However, you will need to do this in a separate fridge from the one you store your food, as tortoises carry salmonella on their shells and skin.
Equally, temperatures in food fridges fluctuate a lot, especially every time someone opens the door. This will not suffice even if you were particular about cross-contamination!
For this method, you will require a box a little bigger than your tort; plastic is the preferred material as it is easier to clean.
Thankfully, these tortoises are not too big, so it’s not too difficult to find an appropriately sized box.
The box does require air holes, however, for your tortoise to breathe, and enough substrate for your tortoise to bury themselves.
Ensure that the fridge’s temperature doesn’t drop below 2.7° Celsius (36° Fahrenheit), as your tortoise could then freeze to death.
Equally, temperatures should not exceed 10° Celsius (50° Fahrenheit) as this is too high the other way and may prevent them from being able to hibernate altogether!
Russian tortoises do hibernate. If we are being even more scientifically accurate, however, we would be stating that they brumate.
Either way, this is a dormant state an owner should expect when keeping this species.
There is a correct way to approach and go about it, however; and it’s all about ensuring your tortoise’s needs are met and are supported in the transition.
It is commonly accepted that there are two safe and effective, yet different, methods: the box and the fridge, that we can use to help them along.
Whichever method you use to hibernate your Russian tortoise, try not to worry.
They will eventually wake up.
When they do, you can gently soak them in lukewarm water. This will gradually and safely warm them up and bring them back to a more ‘normal’ way of life.
With this being said, you should never attempt to take your tortoise out of hibernation through exposure under a heat lamp.
This will raise their temperature too quickly, and it will likely send them into stress and shock.
Sadly tortoises do die during hibernation. Thankfully, it is not very common in captive tortoises. Assuming of course they are hibernated correctly.
Where it is most likely to happen is when a tortoise has an undiagnosed illness before going dormant, or if their digestive tract is not thoroughly clean of food.
Otherwise, it could be due to getting too cold or too warm, or it can even be through suffocation or too significant a weight loss.
Thus, if I can leave you with some parting advice and if you are to remember anything from this article, it should be this.
If you have or are soon looking to take in a Russian tortoise, you must research hibernation as much as you can.
You should fully understand the process and what’s involved. Or, at the least, be able to access the information or have a vet/expert on hand to liaise with when the time comes.
Make sure you are well prepared in advance, know what to expect, and optimize your torts environment and habitat for this unique time.
It can be a matter of life or death.
I am a practiced pet owner with decades of experience owning a number of different pets. I am also the main writer and chief editor here at Pet Educate; a site I created to share everything I’ve learned about pet ownership over the years and my extensive research along the way.