Tom's Brumation Thread

Sagewomyn

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We had a member here named Terry Allan Hall who passed away a few years back. He had several species of Testudo and he never brumated any of them for 20 years. He got babies from them every year.

If there are any species that MUST brumate, I don't know about them. Since I always brumate the temperate species, I have not tried to not brumate anything. I have done DTs, all the Testudo, and Chersina.
Do I use a ceramic oil heater or just a ceramic heater? It's starting to get cold so I need to get a heater in there. I won't bug you anymore tonight.
 

Tom

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Do I use a ceramic oil heater or just a ceramic heater? It's starting to get cold so I need to get a heater in there. I won't bug you anymore tonight.
Radiant oil heaters are good for warming whole rooms. A ceramic heating element is good for just heating an area of the enclosure.
 

Sagewomyn

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Radiant oil heaters are good for warming whole rooms. A ceramic heating element is good for just heating an area of the enclosure.
Tom,
By an element, do mean a regular heater or the ceramic heating bulb?
Sagewomyn
 

GusBus

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Every fall we get bombarded here on the forum with all sorts of questions and problems regarding hibernation and tortoises "slowing down" for winter. The purpose of this thread is to talk about all aspects of this subject, to dispel some of the myths and mysteries, and give a "how to" list of instructions for people who want to do it. Hopefully, this thread will answer the vast majority of questions that we commonly encounter, but further questions are welcome, and more detailed explanation is always available for the asking.

Hibernation? Mammals hibernate. Its a process that involves burning fat stores to survive cold weather. I've been misusing the term for decades and didn't really care because everyone knew I meant. @Markw84 was kind enough to explain it in more detail and correct my ignorant mistake after all these years. Reptiles, including our temperate species of tortoises, do NOT hibernate. They brumate. Brumation involves different bodily processes than hibernation. Its a fascinating subject and I encourage anyone interested to dive deeper into it, but "brumation" is the correct term for what our tortoises do.

Tropical species like sulcatas, red foots, and star tortoises for example, do NOT brumate. Leaving one of these outside without a temperature controlled shelter during a North American winter is cruel and often fatal if temps drop low enough for long enough. You can get away with it in some cases in south Florida and parts of Arizona, but it is not "good" for these animals to drop below certain temperatures, even if they can "survive" these un-naturally low temperatures. I have seen countless tortoises die this way because ignorant people tell other ignorant people that "Its fine... I've been doing it for years..", and then they have no explanation for why the tortoise died. I'll end this paragraph with this: Keep tropical tortoise species at tropical temperatures. Enough said.

On to temperate species... What does temperate mean? Stolen from "Wikipedia":
In geography, the temperate climates of Earth occur in the middle latitudes (23.5° to 66.5° N/S of Equator), which span between the tropics and the polar regions of Earth. These zones generally have wider temperature ranges throughout the year and more distinct seasonal changes compared to tropical climates, where such variations are often small and usually only have precipitation changes.

I learned about the difference between tropical animals and temperate animals back in grade school, high school, college, and in my pet store jobs too. If no one previously introduced you to these terms and concepts, well... you're welcome! :) No part of the USA is in the tropics. Not even the southern most of the Florida keys, and certainly not Chula Vista here in Southern CA, nor the Southern tip of Texas reaching down so low. I was in Ft. Meyers FL two years ago in March and when I came outside one morning during an unusual cold spell, the overnight temperature had dropped to 49 degrees. That is not tropical! The temperature there hardly ever gets that low, but it happens and the tortoise keepers there know how to work around it. Phoenix Arizona feels like you are living inside an oven in summer time, but even there it occasionally drops down to freezing overnight during the odd winter cold spell.

How does this relate to our tortoises? Many of the tortoise species we keep are not native to areas within the tropics. These are the "temperate" species, and the subject of this thread. Russians, all the hermanni, most of the greeks (arguably all of them...), Chersina, Chaco tortoises, and all of the North American Gopherus species. These species all experience four seasons in their native ranges. The temperature extremes certainly vary between say Russian tortoises from Kazakhstan at one extreme and Tunisian Greeks from Northern Africa at the other. Most of these species brumate in the wild in winter time. It is my opinion, based on my years of keeping all sorts of tortoises and other reptiles from all over the world, that species that brumate in the wild should also be brumated in our captive environments. I find this yields the best results, maintains good health, and is most "natural" for these species.

But what if I don't want to brumate my tortoise, for any reason? You don't have to. As far as we can tell, it does no harm to them, and it doesn't stop reproduction or shorten their lifespans. As far as we know... There have been forum members who kept their temperate species up, eating and awake all winter for many years in a row with no apparent ill effect. If there is some detriment to not brumating these species, it remains hidden to me. Having said that... Your tortoise may have other ideas, and even with your best efforts, they somehow "know" it is winter and that they should be "asleep". We don't know how they know this, but they know. Some of them are in windowless basements with full spectrum bright lighting, including strong summer-like UVB levels, and temperatures are maintained unchanged, but they still somehow know what time of year it is outside.

Here are steps to take if you don't want to brumate your temperate species:
1. Add bright LED lighting in the 5000-6500K color range. Lots of it. Make it look like daytime outside looks.
2. Set light timers to be on for 13-14 hours.
3. Bump all ambient temperatures up a bit.
4. Keep night temps warmer. Shoot for no lower than the 70s over night.
5. Pull the tortoise out of hiding and soak it often. Don't let it stay hidden in a cool hide box all day.
6. I usually run HO UV tubes for 2-3 hours mid day. To keep a tortoise up, I might bump them up to 6-8 hours a day.

Sometimes these efforts fail, and the tortoise is just determined to remain dormant, not eat, and sleep away the winter months. In that case, you may decide to switch tactics and brumate the tortoise.

Many people are afraid of brumation. There are lots of horror stories and many tortoises die during the process when it is not done correctly. It is my observation that in almost all of these cases, people did one thing or another wrong to cause the problem. I myself have brumated dozens of reptiles over dozens of years and had only one problem. The one time I had a problem it was because I broke my own rules and followed the advice of someone who didn't understand my climate, and I let my Argentine tegus hibernate on their own outside. This was a mistake because my winters are not cold enough, and not consistently cold at all. We have spells in January with warm sunny temps the 80s regularly. These warm spells wreak havoc with animals that are supposed to be brumating. When done correctly, I have a 100% success rate. That is not coincidence or luck. That is the result of understanding the basics of the process and following a few simple steps. The reason so many tortoises die and we hear so many sad stories is because most people leave them outside to fend for themselves during the wind down time, regardless of current weather and temperatures, OR the other big one is people letting them brumate outside subject to the cruel whims of Mother Nature through a harsh frozen winter. There are some climates that get cold and stay cold outside, but not anywhere in the Southern United States. Here are some issues with brumating them outdoors in their enclosures:
1. Temperature fluctuation, temps too cold, and temps too warm, are all major problems. Wild weather swings can kill them. In my area we can have night temps in the 20s, and two days later hit a high of 90 degrees in January.
2. Rats. A dormant tortoise can literally be chewed to the bone.
3. Ants in some areas. Ants go underground to escape the cold too. They still need food when they are down there. A cold sleeping tortoise is ant food.
4. Flooding from rain or melting snow. Many a tortoise has drowned in cold water in ts shelter or burrow.
5. Burrow collapse. In cold weather, the tortoise will not have the energy to dig out and they can suffocate.
6. Predators. Food is scarce in winter. Raccoons, coyotes and others can sniff out tortoises as food sources.
7. Pet dogs. Many people let the dog out into the back yard for potty breaks and due to the cold weather, they stay inside. Next to dehydration, dogs are the number one killers and maimers of tortoises. A dog can find, dig up, and demolish a tortoise in seconds.

None of these things can happen to them indoors in controlled conditions, or outdoors in some sort of structure with the correct set up. For my way of doing it, the temperatures and conditions are completely controlled. The weather isn't much of a factor. With all the things that can go wrong, and all the uncertainty, I don't know why anyone would leave the tortoise to its own devices outside. Many people do though. Some people who are skilled and experienced at it, and know their own area and climate well, have the ability to make it work year after year. Until it doesn't work one year. Most of the people who do it this way will have lots of stories about the ones they lost. I don't lose any of them. I only have one sad story and its because I did it 'their way" that one time.

I'm frequently asked: How do they survive in the wild? 1. Many don't. 2. Your back yard is not the wild. In the wild tortoises have hundreds of square miles of territory to scout out and look for just the right conditions to dig in and survive the winter. They need the right soil type, the right slope, a slope facing the right direction, the right vegetation, etc... Many tortoise species, like our CA desert tortoises make long deep burrows and stay way down underground where temperatures are cool and stable, unlike the surface.

Another big point of contention is the age or size at which a tortoise should first brumate. Many sources say don't do it for the first year, or the first three years, or the first five years. Why not? They all do it in the wild. Winter happens in the wild every single year, even the year they hatch. Again, if left outside in some sort of above ground shelter or burrow, they are not likely to survive. If prepared for brumation correctly, kept at the correct temperature, and brought out of brumation correctly, they all survive and thrive. I do this with all temperate baby lizards, snakes, turtles and tortoises their first year and every year. Bert Langerwurf, "The Lizard King", told me, "if you don't hibernate Argentine tegus their first year and every year, they will never reproduce." I never tested this theory, but he did and firmly believed it. Failure to brumate doesn't seem to stop our beloved tortoise species from reproducing, but I have to believe it does have endocrinological effects. I don't skip brumation for any temperate reptile unless I have some reason to suspect they are unhealthy or unfit for it in some way. I don't see bruamtion as some big monumental scary thing. Its just a normal easy annual process that all temperate reptiles engage in to survive a cold winter.

FIRST AND FOREMOST: MAKE A DECISION!
Either you are going to brumate your tortoise, or you are not. This is a deliberate process, not something that just sort of happens. Either way is fine, but some limbo area in between is NOT fine. Many times the tortoise slows down, gets less active, stops eating, and people just leave them sitting there in an indoor enclosure at room temperature. This is not okay. This is not brumation. Likewise, leaving them outside to fend for themselves as winter approaches is not okay either. The weather can and does change drastically day by day in Fall. It could be too warm or too cold, If they are just sitting outside subjected to these extremes while trapped in our small enclosures. It can be disastrous in many ways. We have brought these animals into our captive environments and we must help them to survive and thrive in these foreign environments. Either wake that tortoise up using the steps listed a few paragraphs earlier in this thread, or follow these next steps and begin the process of preparing the tortoise for brumation. YOU decide if your tortoise is going to brumate, or not, and plan accordingly. Make this decision by late summer and start taking the right steps for which ever way you want to go.

How to prepare a tortoise for brumation:
1. Bring them down gradually. I find about one month to be just right to get them ready for a winter slumber. It could be condensed into two or three weeks, or extended to six weeks, but somewhere around four weeks works best in my experience.
2. Make sure their gut is empty BEFORE dropping temps or shortening days. Two weeks of no food with the normal warm temps should do it. This should illustrate why letting them do this on their own outside isn't safe. They need to be fasted for two weeks while the temperatures and light duration stays "normal". What happens if the weather turns cold three days into the fast? What happens if there is a warm spell and they keep eating outside while we want them to be fasting? We have to have control of the lighting and temperatures to some degree. Indoors is the obvious solution, but a temperature controlled night box with a heat lamp outside can make it work too. If we control the temperatures, it does't matter what the weather does. I set my night boxes to stay around 65F overnight for these first two weeks of fasting. If the weather is warm and sunny, they control their own basking temperature. If the weather is cold and overcast, I set the basking light inside the night box on its timer, so they can warm up to operating temperature, digest the food in their gut, and get it moving out. After two weeks of fasting at warm temps, I start dropping the thermostat setting every other day and running the basking lamps less and less each day. After two weeks of cooling which comes after two weeks of fasting at warmed temps, they are ready to be placed into their brumation container and dropped to the correct temperature for the species.
3. Make sure they are well hydrated by soaking them frequently in the days and weeks before and after brumation. Soak early and often. This goes for all species.
4. Make sure the temperature is consistent and cold enough for the entire brumation time. 38-39F for Russians, 49-50F for DTs. 45ish for Greeks, hermanni and Chersina. How do you do this outside? Everywhere in North America and Europe has highly variable temperatures all winter long.
5. Don't let them brumate outside in a self dug burrow in your backyard. NOT safe! Don't do it in your basement, unless the temps are stable and correct for your species. What about in the closet? Does your closet in your house stay a consistent 38-45 degrees all winter long? Mine sure doesn't. Use a thermometer.

More notes to consider:
1. How long to brumate? In most cases, 8 weeks is enough and 16 weeks is not too long. I tend to go shorter for babies, and longer for larger adults, but this varies. On average, I do 12-14 weeks for adult animals. There is a wide margin of error available here. There is no "set" time for this.
2. When do I start this process? This may vary with your climate, but I usually feed them up good and soak frequently in October, and begin the fast in November. Keep soaking during the fast. I finish the cooling process and start the actual brumation around the beginning of December. It is okay to deviate from this general timeline. You should be controlling the temperature through al of this.
3. When do I bring them out of brumaton? Mine sleep all December, January, and February. I start watching for a long warm sunny spell in the 10 day forecast in March. If it stays cold longer than usual, I might leave them until we get closer to April. If we have a warm February and March is warm and sunny early on, I wake them earlier. I let the weather influence this decision, but I still control the temperatures throughout.
4. What sort of container do I brumate them in? I like plastic shoe boxes. I use some of whatever substrate they are already used to, and I keep if very lightly damp. Not wet, but not dry and dusty either. I make the substrate 3-4 inches deep. You can drill holes around the top, but this isn't necessary as they are not air tight.
5. How do I keep the temperature constant and consistent? Use a fridge. Full size fridges are the best way and most reliable. Mini fridges tend to not hold a consistent temp very well. Your thermometer will be your guide. A few years ago, I had an observation with my Chersina's outdoor insulated night box. Much like my swimming pool in winter, the well insulated night box remained at a stable temperature that was an average of the day time high and night time low. 65 degree days and 35 degree nights held a box temp of 48-50 with little change day to day. I let my Chersina brumate outside the last few years this way and it worked very well. During winter warm spells I had to put some ice bottles in the box a few times, far from the tortoise and where they couldn't be reached, but the temp stayed very consistent even when we had these hot spells or cold spells too. There are many variables involved and ultimately your thermometers are the only way to get a reliable answer on whether or not something like this will work for you and your tortoise, but it CAN work for some people. For someone who lives where it is much colder than here, a heat source could be set to 40-45 degrees, depending on the needs of your species, so that the insulated night box never gets too cold. A well built insulated box protects them from temperature extremes, predators, inclement weather, and you don't have to buy or run a fridge. If you can get the right temperatures, this method can work for you. If not, the fridge method always works.
6. Fridges are not air tight, and neither are plastic shoe boxes. Your tortoise will not suffocate.
7. I don't weigh them or mess with them much during brumation. You can if you want to. I prefer to leave them alone.
8. How do I bring the tortoise out of brumation? When I see that March warm spell coming, I begin adjusting the thermostat up a couple of degrees each day. Usually the tortoise will start to move around within a few days. When I see tortoise activity as the temperature is slowly coming up, I'll move them into their night box at a similar temp to where they were in the fridge, and the next day I'll look for activity. If they are awake, I'll turn the heat lamp on and give them the opportunity to bask for a bit, and give them a lukewarm soak. I don't want to shock them with "hot" water, so this first soak is on the cool side, but they have to be active and moving first. I don't want a torpid sleepy tortoise to drown! They tend to come out of brumation quickly. After a day or two, mine are usually rearing to go. If all looks good, I will set the basking lamp to come on the next morning, and then on next morning, I go in and set the ambient temp back to 60-65 to keep it warmer over night. This is not scientific. I do it by "feel" and by observing the tortoise's behavior. If they are moving slow and not with it, I do things gradually and take several days to warm them back up. If they are wide awake and ready to resume living, I let them. I usually offer food within two or three days of coming out of the brumation chamber, and they almost always eat it right away, as long as temps have been warm enough and they've had time to "wake".
9. What if I decided not to brumate, but my tortoise had other ideas and is insistent? That is okay. Do the two week fast and soaks with the warm temps and basking lamps still on, followed by the two week cooling period, and then brumate them for as long as you can. Even 4 weeks of brumation will often "re-boot" their brain and get them going again after a suitable gradual warm up. You may also decide to wait to wake them until well into April to give them more time since you started late. All of the above is fine and works.
10. What if I decided to brumate, but this darn tortoise just refuses and keeps scratching at the sides of the brumation container? This is okay too. Wake him up and keep him up all winter. Have an indoor enclosure set up with the correct heating and lighting, or if you live in a mild climate like mine, gradually bump the night box temp back up and kick on the heat lamp if the weather is not cooperating.

While I have kept brumating species awake through winter and I know others have successfully done it too, it is my opinion that species that brumate in the wild should also brumate in captivity. It just needs to be done correctly. Leaving them outside to figure it out and deal with the rigors of winter in the small spaces (like backyards) that we stick them in, is not my idea of doing it "correctly". I know far too many that have died this way. Don't let these horror stories from people who did not properly prepare, or brumate their animals in a safe, controlled way, scare you. Brumation is totally natural and totally safe when a few simple guidelines are observed.

For review, here is the correct care info for the temperate species we are discussing. You can see pics of the type of "night box" I mentioned here:

As always, questions and conversation are welcome.
Hello, thank you for all the helpful information here. So great! I do have a couple of questions. My tortoise has not brumated in 2 years. It's end of August (as you all know) and my DT is really starting to slow down. He sometimes won't even eat in a day and will burrow in his outdoor enclosure and indoor enclosure. Here in Colorado (yes he has papers) it has been a strange summer of extreme heat and cold. For example, all last week we had 95 degree days and now the temp is dropping where it won't get above 65-70 (nights around 45-50). I keep him inside to avoid the extreme temp highs/lows but put him outside (days only) when the weather is above 80. I am pretty sure his 45+ body can feel all the pressures, rains, humidities, etc. Anyway, I am really worried to let him brumate this early especially because it's been 2 years but I would think he also knows what he is doing. Thoughts? Ideas? Opinions? Experiences? All welcome. Thank you so much!
 

Tom

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Hello, thank you for all the helpful information here. So great! I do have a couple of questions. My tortoise has not brumated in 2 years. It's end of August (as you all know) and my DT is really starting to slow down. He sometimes won't even eat in a day and will burrow in his outdoor enclosure and indoor enclosure. Here in Colorado (yes he has papers) it has been a strange summer of extreme heat and cold. For example, all last week we had 95 degree days and now the temp is dropping where it won't get above 65-70 (nights around 45-50). I keep him inside to avoid the extreme temp highs/lows but put him outside (days only) when the weather is above 80. I am pretty sure his 45+ body can feel all the pressures, rains, humidities, etc. Anyway, I am really worried to let him brumate this early especially because it's been 2 years but I would think he also knows what he is doing. Thoughts? Ideas? Opinions? Experiences? All welcome. Thank you so much!
Read this thread. It explains and shows with pics how to solve all of these problems you just mentioned and give your tortoise the optimal environment year round in spite of whatever Mother Nature throws at us. You need a temperature controlled, insulated night box:
 

GusBus

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Read this thread. It explains and shows with pics how to solve all of these problems you just mentioned and give your tortoise the optimal environment year round in spite of whatever Mother Nature throws at us. You need a temperature controlled, insulated night box:
Hi there,

Thank you for the link and info, again. I do have a temperature controlled night box and I actually read your forum before and followed all your guidance. It really turned our precious tortoise around and we were relieved. I guess my question is, do I just let him brumate early? I’m of course a little scared since the vet told me he should not over the last 2 years but that’s all he has done the past 45 years. I think his body wants to. Is September too early for brumation?
 

Tom

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Hi there,

Thank you for the link and info, again. I do have a temperature controlled night box and I actually read your forum before and followed all your guidance. It really turned our precious tortoise around and we were relieved. I guess my question is, do I just let him brumate early? I’m of course a little scared since the vet told me he should not over the last 2 years but that’s all he has done the past 45 years. I think his body wants to. Is September too early for brumation?
I would not let him brumate. I would adjust the temps up in the night box a bit to maybe around 70-72 at night, and use the basking bulb to heat the whole box up into the 80s or low 90s each day. He can also bask to get even warmer than ambient with the heat lamp, which is what they would do here in the morning under the hot summer sun.

I would not start brumation in August. No way no how. Too early. I don't even start the month long fast until late October or early November, and then put them down for brumation late November or early December. This allows me to warm them back up once we get a warm sunny spell any time in March.
 

GusBus

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Read this thread. It explains and shows with pics how to solve all of these problems you just mentioned and give your tortoise the optimal environment year round in spite of whatever Mother Nature throws at us. You need a temperature controlled, insulated night box:
Perfect. That’s what I was looking for :) thank you so much!
 

AbeTheRussianTort

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Every fall we get bombarded here on the forum with all sorts of questions and problems regarding hibernation and tortoises "slowing down" for winter. The purpose of this thread is to talk about all aspects of this subject, to dispel some of the myths and mysteries, and give a "how to" list of instructions for people who want to do it. Hopefully, this thread will answer the vast majority of questions that we commonly encounter, but further questions are welcome, and more detailed explanation is always available for the asking.

Hibernation? Mammals hibernate. Its a process that involves burning fat stores to survive cold weather. I've been misusing the term for decades and didn't really care because everyone knew I meant. @Markw84 was kind enough to explain it in more detail and correct my ignorant mistake after all these years. Reptiles, including our temperate species of tortoises, do NOT hibernate. They brumate. Brumation involves different bodily processes than hibernation. Its a fascinating subject and I encourage anyone interested to dive deeper into it, but "brumation" is the correct term for what our tortoises do.

Tropical species like sulcatas, red foots, and star tortoises for example, do NOT brumate. Leaving one of these outside without a temperature controlled shelter during a North American winter is cruel and often fatal if temps drop low enough for long enough. You can get away with it in some cases in south Florida and parts of Arizona, but it is not "good" for these animals to drop below certain temperatures, even if they can "survive" these un-naturally low temperatures. I have seen countless tortoises die this way because ignorant people tell other ignorant people that "Its fine... I've been doing it for years..", and then they have no explanation for why the tortoise died. I'll end this paragraph with this: Keep tropical tortoise species at tropical temperatures. Enough said.

On to temperate species... What does temperate mean? Stolen from "Wikipedia":
In geography, the temperate climates of Earth occur in the middle latitudes (23.5° to 66.5° N/S of Equator), which span between the tropics and the polar regions of Earth. These zones generally have wider temperature ranges throughout the year and more distinct seasonal changes compared to tropical climates, where such variations are often small and usually only have precipitation changes.

I learned about the difference between tropical animals and temperate animals back in grade school, high school, college, and in my pet store jobs too. If no one previously introduced you to these terms and concepts, well... you're welcome! :) No part of the USA is in the tropics. Not even the southern most of the Florida keys, and certainly not Chula Vista here in Southern CA, nor the Southern tip of Texas reaching down so low. I was in Ft. Meyers FL two years ago in March and when I came outside one morning during an unusual cold spell, the overnight temperature had dropped to 49 degrees. That is not tropical! The temperature there hardly ever gets that low, but it happens and the tortoise keepers there know how to work around it. Phoenix Arizona feels like you are living inside an oven in summer time, but even there it occasionally drops down to freezing overnight during the odd winter cold spell.

How does this relate to our tortoises? Many of the tortoise species we keep are not native to areas within the tropics. These are the "temperate" species, and the subject of this thread. Russians, all the hermanni, most of the greeks (arguably all of them...), Chersina, Chaco tortoises, and all of the North American Gopherus species. These species all experience four seasons in their native ranges. The temperature extremes certainly vary between say Russian tortoises from Kazakhstan at one extreme and Tunisian Greeks from Northern Africa at the other. Most of these species brumate in the wild in winter time. It is my opinion, based on my years of keeping all sorts of tortoises and other reptiles from all over the world, that species that brumate in the wild should also be brumated in our captive environments. I find this yields the best results, maintains good health, and is most "natural" for these species.

But what if I don't want to brumate my tortoise, for any reason? You don't have to. As far as we can tell, it does no harm to them, and it doesn't stop reproduction or shorten their lifespans. As far as we know... There have been forum members who kept their temperate species up, eating and awake all winter for many years in a row with no apparent ill effect. If there is some detriment to not brumating these species, it remains hidden to me. Having said that... Your tortoise may have other ideas, and even with your best efforts, they somehow "know" it is winter and that they should be "asleep". We don't know how they know this, but they know. Some of them are in windowless basements with full spectrum bright lighting, including strong summer-like UVB levels, and temperatures are maintained unchanged, but they still somehow know what time of year it is outside.

Here are steps to take if you don't want to brumate your temperate species:
1. Add bright LED lighting in the 5000-6500K color range. Lots of it. Make it look like daytime outside looks.
2. Set light timers to be on for 13-14 hours.
3. Bump all ambient temperatures up a bit.
4. Keep night temps warmer. Shoot for no lower than the 70s over night.
5. Pull the tortoise out of hiding and soak it often. Don't let it stay hidden in a cool hide box all day.
6. I usually run HO UV tubes for 2-3 hours mid day. To keep a tortoise up, I might bump them up to 6-8 hours a day.

Sometimes these efforts fail, and the tortoise is just determined to remain dormant, not eat, and sleep away the winter months. In that case, you may decide to switch tactics and brumate the tortoise.

Many people are afraid of brumation. There are lots of horror stories and many tortoises die during the process when it is not done correctly. It is my observation that in almost all of these cases, people did one thing or another wrong to cause the problem. I myself have brumated dozens of reptiles over dozens of years and had only one problem. The one time I had a problem it was because I broke my own rules and followed the advice of someone who didn't understand my climate, and I let my Argentine tegus hibernate on their own outside. This was a mistake because my winters are not cold enough, and not consistently cold at all. We have spells in January with warm sunny temps the 80s regularly. These warm spells wreak havoc with animals that are supposed to be brumating. When done correctly, I have a 100% success rate. That is not coincidence or luck. That is the result of understanding the basics of the process and following a few simple steps. The reason so many tortoises die and we hear so many sad stories is because most people leave them outside to fend for themselves during the wind down time, regardless of current weather and temperatures, OR the other big one is people letting them brumate outside subject to the cruel whims of Mother Nature through a harsh frozen winter. There are some climates that get cold and stay cold outside, but not anywhere in the Southern United States. Here are some issues with brumating them outdoors in their enclosures:
1. Temperature fluctuation, temps too cold, and temps too warm, are all major problems. Wild weather swings can kill them. In my area we can have night temps in the 20s, and two days later hit a high of 90 degrees in January.
2. Rats. A dormant tortoise can literally be chewed to the bone.
3. Ants in some areas. Ants go underground to escape the cold too. They still need food when they are down there. A cold sleeping tortoise is ant food.
4. Flooding from rain or melting snow. Many a tortoise has drowned in cold water in ts shelter or burrow.
5. Burrow collapse. In cold weather, the tortoise will not have the energy to dig out and they can suffocate.
6. Predators. Food is scarce in winter. Raccoons, coyotes and others can sniff out tortoises as food sources.
7. Pet dogs. Many people let the dog out into the back yard for potty breaks and due to the cold weather, they stay inside. Next to dehydration, dogs are the number one killers and maimers of tortoises. A dog can find, dig up, and demolish a tortoise in seconds.

None of these things can happen to them indoors in controlled conditions, or outdoors in some sort of structure with the correct set up. For my way of doing it, the temperatures and conditions are completely controlled. The weather isn't much of a factor. With all the things that can go wrong, and all the uncertainty, I don't know why anyone would leave the tortoise to its own devices outside. Many people do though. Some people who are skilled and experienced at it, and know their own area and climate well, have the ability to make it work year after year. Until it doesn't work one year. Most of the people who do it this way will have lots of stories about the ones they lost. I don't lose any of them. I only have one sad story and its because I did it 'their way" that one time.

I'm frequently asked: How do they survive in the wild? 1. Many don't. 2. Your back yard is not the wild. In the wild tortoises have hundreds of square miles of territory to scout out and look for just the right conditions to dig in and survive the winter. They need the right soil type, the right slope, a slope facing the right direction, the right vegetation, etc... Many tortoise species, like our CA desert tortoises make long deep burrows and stay way down underground where temperatures are cool and stable, unlike the surface.

Another big point of contention is the age or size at which a tortoise should first brumate. Many sources say don't do it for the first year, or the first three years, or the first five years. Why not? They all do it in the wild. Winter happens in the wild every single year, even the year they hatch. Again, if left outside in some sort of above ground shelter or burrow, they are not likely to survive. If prepared for brumation correctly, kept at the correct temperature, and brought out of brumation correctly, they all survive and thrive. I do this with all temperate baby lizards, snakes, turtles and tortoises their first year and every year. Bert Langerwurf, "The Lizard King", told me, "if you don't hibernate Argentine tegus their first year and every year, they will never reproduce." I never tested this theory, but he did and firmly believed it. Failure to brumate doesn't seem to stop our beloved tortoise species from reproducing, but I have to believe it does have endocrinological effects. I don't skip brumation for any temperate reptile unless I have some reason to suspect they are unhealthy or unfit for it in some way. I don't see bruamtion as some big monumental scary thing. Its just a normal easy annual process that all temperate reptiles engage in to survive a cold winter.

FIRST AND FOREMOST: MAKE A DECISION!
Either you are going to brumate your tortoise, or you are not. This is a deliberate process, not something that just sort of happens. Either way is fine, but some limbo area in between is NOT fine. Many times the tortoise slows down, gets less active, stops eating, and people just leave them sitting there in an indoor enclosure at room temperature. This is not okay. This is not brumation. Likewise, leaving them outside to fend for themselves as winter approaches is not okay either. The weather can and does change drastically day by day in Fall. It could be too warm or too cold, If they are just sitting outside subjected to these extremes while trapped in our small enclosures. It can be disastrous in many ways. We have brought these animals into our captive environments and we must help them to survive and thrive in these foreign environments. Either wake that tortoise up using the steps listed a few paragraphs earlier in this thread, or follow these next steps and begin the process of preparing the tortoise for brumation. YOU decide if your tortoise is going to brumate, or not, and plan accordingly. Make this decision by late summer and start taking the right steps for which ever way you want to go.

How to prepare a tortoise for brumation:
1. Bring them down gradually. I find about one month to be just right to get them ready for a winter slumber. It could be condensed into two or three weeks, or extended to six weeks, but somewhere around four weeks works best in my experience.
2. Make sure their gut is empty BEFORE dropping temps or shortening days. Two weeks of no food with the normal warm temps should do it. This should illustrate why letting them do this on their own outside isn't safe. They need to be fasted for two weeks while the temperatures and light duration stays "normal". What happens if the weather turns cold three days into the fast? What happens if there is a warm spell and they keep eating outside while we want them to be fasting? We have to have control of the lighting and temperatures to some degree. Indoors is the obvious solution, but a temperature controlled night box with a heat lamp outside can make it work too. If we control the temperatures, it does't matter what the weather does. I set my night boxes to stay around 65F overnight for these first two weeks of fasting. If the weather is warm and sunny, they control their own basking temperature. If the weather is cold and overcast, I set the basking light inside the night box on its timer, so they can warm up to operating temperature, digest the food in their gut, and get it moving out. After two weeks of fasting at warm temps, I start dropping the thermostat setting every other day and running the basking lamps less and less each day. After two weeks of cooling which comes after two weeks of fasting at warmed temps, they are ready to be placed into their brumation container and dropped to the correct temperature for the species.
3. Make sure they are well hydrated by soaking them frequently in the days and weeks before and after brumation. Soak early and often. This goes for all species.
4. Make sure the temperature is consistent and cold enough for the entire brumation time. 38-39F for Russians, 49-50F for DTs. 45ish for Greeks, hermanni and Chersina. How do you do this outside? Everywhere in North America and Europe has highly variable temperatures all winter long.
5. Don't let them brumate outside in a self dug burrow in your backyard. NOT safe! Don't do it in your basement, unless the temps are stable and correct for your species. What about in the closet? Does your closet in your house stay a consistent 38-45 degrees all winter long? Mine sure doesn't. Use a thermometer.

More notes to consider:
1. How long to brumate? In most cases, 8 weeks is enough and 16 weeks is not too long. I tend to go shorter for babies, and longer for larger adults, but this varies. On average, I do 12-14 weeks for adult animals. There is a wide margin of error available here. There is no "set" time for this.
2. When do I start this process? This may vary with your climate, but I usually feed them up good and soak frequently in October, and begin the fast in November. Keep soaking during the fast. I finish the cooling process and start the actual brumation around the beginning of December. It is okay to deviate from this general timeline. You should be controlling the temperature through al of this.
3. When do I bring them out of brumaton? Mine sleep all December, January, and February. I start watching for a long warm sunny spell in the 10 day forecast in March. If it stays cold longer than usual, I might leave them until we get closer to April. If we have a warm February and March is warm and sunny early on, I wake them earlier. I let the weather influence this decision, but I still control the temperatures throughout.
4. What sort of container do I brumate them in? I like plastic shoe boxes. I use some of whatever substrate they are already used to, and I keep if very lightly damp. Not wet, but not dry and dusty either. I make the substrate 3-4 inches deep. You can drill holes around the top, but this isn't necessary as they are not air tight.
5. How do I keep the temperature constant and consistent? Use a fridge. Full size fridges are the best way and most reliable. Mini fridges tend to not hold a consistent temp very well. Your thermometer will be your guide. A few years ago, I had an observation with my Chersina's outdoor insulated night box. Much like my swimming pool in winter, the well insulated night box remained at a stable temperature that was an average of the day time high and night time low. 65 degree days and 35 degree nights held a box temp of 48-50 with little change day to day. I let my Chersina brumate outside the last few years this way and it worked very well. During winter warm spells I had to put some ice bottles in the box a few times, far from the tortoise and where they couldn't be reached, but the temp stayed very consistent even when we had these hot spells or cold spells too. There are many variables involved and ultimately your thermometers are the only way to get a reliable answer on whether or not something like this will work for you and your tortoise, but it CAN work for some people. For someone who lives where it is much colder than here, a heat source could be set to 40-45 degrees, depending on the needs of your species, so that the insulated night box never gets too cold. A well built insulated box protects them from temperature extremes, predators, inclement weather, and you don't have to buy or run a fridge. If you can get the right temperatures, this method can work for you. If not, the fridge method always works.
6. Fridges are not air tight, and neither are plastic shoe boxes. Your tortoise will not suffocate.
7. I don't weigh them or mess with them much during brumation. You can if you want to. I prefer to leave them alone.
8. How do I bring the tortoise out of brumation? When I see that March warm spell coming, I begin adjusting the thermostat up a couple of degrees each day. Usually the tortoise will start to move around within a few days. When I see tortoise activity as the temperature is slowly coming up, I'll move them into their night box at a similar temp to where they were in the fridge, and the next day I'll look for activity. If they are awake, I'll turn the heat lamp on and give them the opportunity to bask for a bit, and give them a lukewarm soak. I don't want to shock them with "hot" water, so this first soak is on the cool side, but they have to be active and moving first. I don't want a torpid sleepy tortoise to drown! They tend to come out of brumation quickly. After a day or two, mine are usually rearing to go. If all looks good, I will set the basking lamp to come on the next morning, and then on next morning, I go in and set the ambient temp back to 60-65 to keep it warmer over night. This is not scientific. I do it by "feel" and by observing the tortoise's behavior. If they are moving slow and not with it, I do things gradually and take several days to warm them back up. If they are wide awake and ready to resume living, I let them. I usually offer food within two or three days of coming out of the brumation chamber, and they almost always eat it right away, as long as temps have been warm enough and they've had time to "wake".
9. What if I decided not to brumate, but my tortoise had other ideas and is insistent? That is okay. Do the two week fast and soaks with the warm temps and basking lamps still on, followed by the two week cooling period, and then brumate them for as long as you can. Even 4 weeks of brumation will often "re-boot" their brain and get them going again after a suitable gradual warm up. You may also decide to wait to wake them until well into April to give them more time since you started late. All of the above is fine and works.
10. What if I decided to brumate, but this darn tortoise just refuses and keeps scratching at the sides of the brumation container? This is okay too. Wake him up and keep him up all winter. Have an indoor enclosure set up with the correct heating and lighting, or if you live in a mild climate like mine, gradually bump the night box temp back up and kick on the heat lamp if the weather is not cooperating.

While I have kept brumating species awake through winter and I know others have successfully done it too, it is my opinion that species that brumate in the wild should also brumate in captivity. It just needs to be done correctly. Leaving them outside to figure it out and deal with the rigors of winter in the small spaces (like backyards) that we stick them in, is not my idea of doing it "correctly". I know far too many that have died this way. Don't let these horror stories from people who did not properly prepare, or brumate their animals in a safe, controlled way, scare you. Brumation is totally natural and totally safe when a few simple guidelines are observed.

For review, here is the correct care info for the temperate species we are discussing. You can see pics of the type of "night box" I mentioned here:

As always, questions and conversation are welcome.
Tom, we got a brand new Samsung refrigerator for regular produce. I am sorry for this stupid question, but, can I put the tort box in this regular refrigerator with other things? Or does it need a completely separate fridge?
Also, I read in this forum also, that the tort needs to be checked weekly, will that annoy him from resting? Can we open the fridge at all?
I apologize for such stupid questions. I am very nervous about this.
 

Tom

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Tom, we got a brand new Samsung refrigerator for regular produce. I am sorry for this stupid question, but, can I put the tort box in this regular refrigerator with other things? Or does it need a completely separate fridge?
Also, I read in this forum also, that the tort needs to be checked weekly, will that annoy him from resting? Can we open the fridge at all?
I apologize for such stupid questions. I am very nervous about this.
Hey. Not stupid at all. I use a full size fridge full of other stuff too. Its my garage fridge and we are in there at least every few days to get something. It has never seemed to bother them. I usually have it stuffed full of drinks. The more stuff you get in there the more stable the temp will be and the more efficiently the fridge will operate.

Also, modern fridges have air holes underneath and in the back so that they don't seal shut with vacuum pressure. Your tortoise will not suffocate. They need very little oxygen when in brumation anyway, but there is plenty of air movement and oxygen in there. I incubate all my eggs in a converted stand-up freezer, and I've never added any sort of ventilation other than what I found was already there when I took the compressor and the "guts" out of it. I was nervous at first, so I lit one of my wife's candles and put it in there with the door shut. A flame uses a lot of oxygen compared to a tortoise, and the flame never went out. That was all the convincing I needed. Eggs use a fair amount of oxygen toward the end of incubation too, and even with 100s of eggs incubating in there, I get 100% hatch rates and zero problems. I bring all this up because many people are concerned about this. Old fridges from the 1950s were air tight and had latches that could not be opened from the inside. A few little kids suffocated and died when they got trapped inside old discarded fridges. This can't happen with newer fridges, but many old people like me remember the days when we were warned never to get into an old fridge because we would die. I, of course, being the curious young man that I was had to test this out. I got into several old fridges, with trusted friends standing by to help if needed, and each time I was easily able to push the door open from inside. I couldn't understand how anyone could get stuck inside. I could also breathe easily for several minutes. Its because by the 70s, when I was testing this theory, refrigerator doors no longer had those latches on them that were common in the 50s and early 60s. Anyhow... Your tortoise won't suffocate, and its fine to have food and drinks in there with the tortoise. Non-tortoise keeping friends might think you are weirder than they already think you are if they discover your brumating tortoise in your fridge under the salad fixin's, but I've never cared much about what other people think of how weird I am. If the container will fit, I like to keep the cold tortoises inside one of the veggie drawers too, and I usually cover them with a black towel to keep it dark too.
 

Mortimus

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Hi Tom, sorry to jump in on this thread after it's been quite for a couple of weeks but thought it better than starting a new thread. I just have a few questions.

I am planning to brumate Mort, my Greek Spur Thigh, in a fridge for the first time this year. I have done what I usually do (we used to brumate her in a garage where we could control the temperature to a certain extent) and stopped feeding her 10 days ago, bathing her regularly and then in the past couple of days have reduced the temperature for her. My plan is to put her in the fridge on Thursday or Friday this week as I am away for two nights at the weekend so thought it was the ideal time as I wouldn't have to get anyone to look after her as such.

However, after reading your wonderful thread, I'm concerned that I've not allowed enough time between stopping food and beginning brumation. She last emptied her bladder four or five days ago, and opened her bowels at around the same time, so I was assuming her stomach would be empty now. Do you think I should start warming her up again and keeping her going another few weeks just to be extra certain? She used to belong to an elderly relative who, sadly, would just put her in a cardboard box in a back room in September and get her out again in the spring, so I'm not sure if I'm worrying too much about it all given that Mort lived for decades without any kind of proper brumation prep, however unideal that was.

Lastly, she's a large tortoise and, although I have a box that she will fit into quite comfortably, I've read elsewhere that there should be enough room for the tortoise to turn around during brumation. Is this true? I didn't think they were at all active during brumation, but if she needs to turn around in her box I'm going to have to give up on the fridge idea as there's simply not enough room.
 

Lynn1957

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Every fall we get bombarded here on the forum with all sorts of questions and problems regarding hibernation and tortoises "slowing down" for winter. The purpose of this thread is to talk about all aspects of this subject, to dispel some of the myths and mysteries, and give a "how to" list of instructions for people who want to do it. Hopefully, this thread will answer the vast majority of questions that we commonly encounter, but further questions are welcome, and more detailed explanation is always available for the asking.

Hibernation? Mammals hibernate. Its a process that involves burning fat stores to survive cold weather. I've been misusing the term for decades and didn't really care because everyone knew I meant. @Markw84 was kind enough to explain it in more detail and correct my ignorant mistake after all these years. Reptiles, including our temperate species of tortoises, do NOT hibernate. They brumate. Brumation involves different bodily processes than hibernation. Its a fascinating subject and I encourage anyone interested to dive deeper into it, but "brumation" is the correct term for what our tortoises do.

Tropical species like sulcatas, red foots, and star tortoises for example, do NOT brumate. Leaving one of these outside without a temperature controlled shelter during a North American winter is cruel and often fatal if temps drop low enough for long enough. You can get away with it in some cases in south Florida and parts of Arizona, but it is not "good" for these animals to drop below certain temperatures, even if they can "survive" these un-naturally low temperatures. I have seen countless tortoises die this way because ignorant people tell other ignorant people that "Its fine... I've been doing it for years..", and then they have no explanation for why the tortoise died. I'll end this paragraph with this: Keep tropical tortoise species at tropical temperatures. Enough said.

On to temperate species... What does temperate mean? Stolen from "Wikipedia":
In geography, the temperate climates of Earth occur in the middle latitudes (23.5° to 66.5° N/S of Equator), which span between the tropics and the polar regions of Earth. These zones generally have wider temperature ranges throughout the year and more distinct seasonal changes compared to tropical climates, where such variations are often small and usually only have precipitation changes.

I learned about the difference between tropical animals and temperate animals back in grade school, high school, college, and in my pet store jobs too. If no one previously introduced you to these terms and concepts, well... you're welcome! :) No part of the USA is in the tropics. Not even the southern most of the Florida keys, and certainly not Chula Vista here in Southern CA, nor the Southern tip of Texas reaching down so low. I was in Ft. Meyers FL two years ago in March and when I came outside one morning during an unusual cold spell, the overnight temperature had dropped to 49 degrees. That is not tropical! The temperature there hardly ever gets that low, but it happens and the tortoise keepers there know how to work around it. Phoenix Arizona feels like you are living inside an oven in summer time, but even there it occasionally drops down to freezing overnight during the odd winter cold spell.

How does this relate to our tortoises? Many of the tortoise species we keep are not native to areas within the tropics. These are the "temperate" species, and the subject of this thread. Russians, all the hermanni, most of the greeks (arguably all of them...), Chersina, Chaco tortoises, and all of the North American Gopherus species. These species all experience four seasons in their native ranges. The temperature extremes certainly vary between say Russian tortoises from Kazakhstan at one extreme and Tunisian Greeks from Northern Africa at the other. Most of these species brumate in the wild in winter time. It is my opinion, based on my years of keeping all sorts of tortoises and other reptiles from all over the world, that species that brumate in the wild should also be brumated in our captive environments. I find this yields the best results, maintains good health, and is most "natural" for these species.

But what if I don't want to brumate my tortoise, for any reason? You don't have to. As far as we can tell, it does no harm to them, and it doesn't stop reproduction or shorten their lifespans. As far as we know... There have been forum members who kept their temperate species up, eating and awake all winter for many years in a row with no apparent ill effect. If there is some detriment to not brumating these species, it remains hidden to me. Having said that... Your tortoise may have other ideas, and even with your best efforts, they somehow "know" it is winter and that they should be "asleep". We don't know how they know this, but they know. Some of them are in windowless basements with full spectrum bright lighting, including strong summer-like UVB levels, and temperatures are maintained unchanged, but they still somehow know what time of year it is outside.

Here are steps to take if you don't want to brumate your temperate species:
1. Add bright LED lighting in the 5000-6500K color range. Lots of it. Make it look like daytime outside looks.
2. Set light timers to be on for 13-14 hours.
3. Bump all ambient temperatures up a bit.
4. Keep night temps warmer. Shoot for no lower than the 70s over night.
5. Pull the tortoise out of hiding and soak it often. Don't let it stay hidden in a cool hide box all day.
6. I usually run HO UV tubes for 2-3 hours mid day. To keep a tortoise up, I might bump them up to 6-8 hours a day.

Sometimes these efforts fail, and the tortoise is just determined to remain dormant, not eat, and sleep away the winter months. In that case, you may decide to switch tactics and brumate the tortoise.

Many people are afraid of brumation. There are lots of horror stories and many tortoises die during the process when it is not done correctly. It is my observation that in almost all of these cases, people did one thing or another wrong to cause the problem. I myself have brumated dozens of reptiles over dozens of years and had only one problem. The one time I had a problem it was because I broke my own rules and followed the advice of someone who didn't understand my climate, and I let my Argentine tegus hibernate on their own outside. This was a mistake because my winters are not cold enough, and not consistently cold at all. We have spells in January with warm sunny temps the 80s regularly. These warm spells wreak havoc with animals that are supposed to be brumating. When done correctly, I have a 100% success rate. That is not coincidence or luck. That is the result of understanding the basics of the process and following a few simple steps. The reason so many tortoises die and we hear so many sad stories is because most people leave them outside to fend for themselves during the wind down time, regardless of current weather and temperatures, OR the other big one is people letting them brumate outside subject to the cruel whims of Mother Nature through a harsh frozen winter. There are some climates that get cold and stay cold outside, but not anywhere in the Southern United States. Here are some issues with brumating them outdoors in their enclosures:
1. Temperature fluctuation, temps too cold, and temps too warm, are all major problems. Wild weather swings can kill them. In my area we can have night temps in the 20s, and two days later hit a high of 90 degrees in January.
2. Rats. A dormant tortoise can literally be chewed to the bone.
3. Ants in some areas. Ants go underground to escape the cold too. They still need food when they are down there. A cold sleeping tortoise is ant food.
4. Flooding from rain or melting snow. Many a tortoise has drowned in cold water in ts shelter or burrow.
5. Burrow collapse. In cold weather, the tortoise will not have the energy to dig out and they can suffocate.
6. Predators. Food is scarce in winter. Raccoons, coyotes and others can sniff out tortoises as food sources.
7. Pet dogs. Many people let the dog out into the back yard for potty breaks and due to the cold weather, they stay inside. Next to dehydration, dogs are the number one killers and maimers of tortoises. A dog can find, dig up, and demolish a tortoise in seconds.

None of these things can happen to them indoors in controlled conditions, or outdoors in some sort of structure with the correct set up. For my way of doing it, the temperatures and conditions are completely controlled. The weather isn't much of a factor. With all the things that can go wrong, and all the uncertainty, I don't know why anyone would leave the tortoise to its own devices outside. Many people do though. Some people who are skilled and experienced at it, and know their own area and climate well, have the ability to make it work year after year. Until it doesn't work one year. Most of the people who do it this way will have lots of stories about the ones they lost. I don't lose any of them. I only have one sad story and its because I did it 'their way" that one time.

I'm frequently asked: How do they survive in the wild? 1. Many don't. 2. Your back yard is not the wild. In the wild tortoises have hundreds of square miles of territory to scout out and look for just the right conditions to dig in and survive the winter. They need the right soil type, the right slope, a slope facing the right direction, the right vegetation, etc... Many tortoise species, like our CA desert tortoises make long deep burrows and stay way down underground where temperatures are cool and stable, unlike the surface.

Another big point of contention is the age or size at which a tortoise should first brumate. Many sources say don't do it for the first year, or the first three years, or the first five years. Why not? They all do it in the wild. Winter happens in the wild every single year, even the year they hatch. Again, if left outside in some sort of above ground shelter or burrow, they are not likely to survive. If prepared for brumation correctly, kept at the correct temperature, and brought out of brumation correctly, they all survive and thrive. I do this with all temperate baby lizards, snakes, turtles and tortoises their first year and every year. Bert Langerwurf, "The Lizard King", told me, "if you don't hibernate Argentine tegus their first year and every year, they will never reproduce." I never tested this theory, but he did and firmly believed it. Failure to brumate doesn't seem to stop our beloved tortoise species from reproducing, but I have to believe it does have endocrinological effects. I don't skip brumation for any temperate reptile unless I have some reason to suspect they are unhealthy or unfit for it in some way. I don't see bruamtion as some big monumental scary thing. Its just a normal easy annual process that all temperate reptiles engage in to survive a cold winter.

FIRST AND FOREMOST: MAKE A DECISION!
Either you are going to brumate your tortoise, or you are not. This is a deliberate process, not something that just sort of happens. Either way is fine, but some limbo area in between is NOT fine. Many times the tortoise slows down, gets less active, stops eating, and people just leave them sitting there in an indoor enclosure at room temperature. This is not okay. This is not brumation. Likewise, leaving them outside to fend for themselves as winter approaches is not okay either. The weather can and does change drastically day by day in Fall. It could be too warm or too cold, If they are just sitting outside subjected to these extremes while trapped in our small enclosures. It can be disastrous in many ways. We have brought these animals into our captive environments and we must help them to survive and thrive in these foreign environments. Either wake that tortoise up using the steps listed a few paragraphs earlier in this thread, or follow these next steps and begin the process of preparing the tortoise for brumation. YOU decide if your tortoise is going to brumate, or not, and plan accordingly. Make this decision by late summer and start taking the right steps for which ever way you want to go.

How to prepare a tortoise for brumation:
1. Bring them down gradually. I find about one month to be just right to get them ready for a winter slumber. It could be condensed into two or three weeks, or extended to six weeks, but somewhere around four weeks works best in my experience.
2. Make sure their gut is empty BEFORE dropping temps or shortening days. Two weeks of no food with the normal warm temps should do it. This should illustrate why letting them do this on their own outside isn't safe. They need to be fasted for two weeks while the temperatures and light duration stays "normal". What happens if the weather turns cold three days into the fast? What happens if there is a warm spell and they keep eating outside while we want them to be fasting? We have to have control of the lighting and temperatures to some degree. Indoors is the obvious solution, but a temperature controlled night box with a heat lamp outside can make it work too. If we control the temperatures, it does't matter what the weather does. I set my night boxes to stay around 65F overnight for these first two weeks of fasting. If the weather is warm and sunny, they control their own basking temperature. If the weather is cold and overcast, I set the basking light inside the night box on its timer, so they can warm up to operating temperature, digest the food in their gut, and get it moving out. After two weeks of fasting at warm temps, I start dropping the thermostat setting every other day and running the basking lamps less and less each day. After two weeks of cooling which comes after two weeks of fasting at warmed temps, they are ready to be placed into their brumation container and dropped to the correct temperature for the species.
3. Make sure they are well hydrated by soaking them frequently in the days and weeks before and after brumation. Soak early and often. This goes for all species.
4. Make sure the temperature is consistent and cold enough for the entire brumation time. 38-39F for Russians, 49-50F for DTs. 45ish for Greeks, hermanni and Chersina. How do you do this outside? Everywhere in North America and Europe has highly variable temperatures all winter long.
5. Don't let them brumate outside in a self dug burrow in your backyard. NOT safe! Don't do it in your basement, unless the temps are stable and correct for your species. What about in the closet? Does your closet in your house stay a consistent 38-45 degrees all winter long? Mine sure doesn't. Use a thermometer.

More notes to consider:
1. How long to brumate? In most cases, 8 weeks is enough and 16 weeks is not too long. I tend to go shorter for babies, and longer for larger adults, but this varies. On average, I do 12-14 weeks for adult animals. There is a wide margin of error available here. There is no "set" time for this.
2. When do I start this process? This may vary with your climate, but I usually feed them up good and soak frequently in October, and begin the fast in November. Keep soaking during the fast. I finish the cooling process and start the actual brumation around the beginning of December. It is okay to deviate from this general timeline. You should be controlling the temperature through al of this.
3. When do I bring them out of brumaton? Mine sleep all December, January, and February. I start watching for a long warm sunny spell in the 10 day forecast in March. If it stays cold longer than usual, I might leave them until we get closer to April. If we have a warm February and March is warm and sunny early on, I wake them earlier. I let the weather influence this decision, but I still control the temperatures throughout.
4. What sort of container do I brumate them in? I like plastic shoe boxes. I use some of whatever substrate they are already used to, and I keep if very lightly damp. Not wet, but not dry and dusty either. I make the substrate 3-4 inches deep. You can drill holes around the top, but this isn't necessary as they are not air tight.
5. How do I keep the temperature constant and consistent? Use a fridge. Full size fridges are the best way and most reliable. Mini fridges tend to not hold a consistent temp very well. Your thermometer will be your guide. A few years ago, I had an observation with my Chersina's outdoor insulated night box. Much like my swimming pool in winter, the well insulated night box remained at a stable temperature that was an average of the day time high and night time low. 65 degree days and 35 degree nights held a box temp of 48-50 with little change day to day. I let my Chersina brumate outside the last few years this way and it worked very well. During winter warm spells I had to put some ice bottles in the box a few times, far from the tortoise and where they couldn't be reached, but the temp stayed very consistent even when we had these hot spells or cold spells too. There are many variables involved and ultimately your thermometers are the only way to get a reliable answer on whether or not something like this will work for you and your tortoise, but it CAN work for some people. For someone who lives where it is much colder than here, a heat source could be set to 40-45 degrees, depending on the needs of your species, so that the insulated night box never gets too cold. A well built insulated box protects them from temperature extremes, predators, inclement weather, and you don't have to buy or run a fridge. If you can get the right temperatures, this method can work for you. If not, the fridge method always works.
6. Fridges are not air tight, and neither are plastic shoe boxes. Your tortoise will not suffocate.
7. I don't weigh them or mess with them much during brumation. You can if you want to. I prefer to leave them alone.
8. How do I bring the tortoise out of brumation? When I see that March warm spell coming, I begin adjusting the thermostat up a couple of degrees each day. Usually the tortoise will start to move around within a few days. When I see tortoise activity as the temperature is slowly coming up, I'll move them into their night box at a similar temp to where they were in the fridge, and the next day I'll look for activity. If they are awake, I'll turn the heat lamp on and give them the opportunity to bask for a bit, and give them a lukewarm soak. I don't want to shock them with "hot" water, so this first soak is on the cool side, but they have to be active and moving first. I don't want a torpid sleepy tortoise to drown! They tend to come out of brumation quickly. After a day or two, mine are usually rearing to go. If all looks good, I will set the basking lamp to come on the next morning, and then on next morning, I go in and set the ambient temp back to 60-65 to keep it warmer over night. This is not scientific. I do it by "feel" and by observing the tortoise's behavior. If they are moving slow and not with it, I do things gradually and take several days to warm them back up. If they are wide awake and ready to resume living, I let them. I usually offer food within two or three days of coming out of the brumation chamber, and they almost always eat it right away, as long as temps have been warm enough and they've had time to "wake".
9. What if I decided not to brumate, but my tortoise had other ideas and is insistent? That is okay. Do the two week fast and soaks with the warm temps and basking lamps still on, followed by the two week cooling period, and then brumate them for as long as you can. Even 4 weeks of brumation will often "re-boot" their brain and get them going again after a suitable gradual warm up. You may also decide to wait to wake them until well into April to give them more time since you started late. All of the above is fine and works.
10. What if I decided to brumate, but this darn tortoise just refuses and keeps scratching at the sides of the brumation container? This is okay too. Wake him up and keep him up all winter. Have an indoor enclosure set up with the correct heating and lighting, or if you live in a mild climate like mine, gradually bump the night box temp back up and kick on the heat lamp if the weather is not cooperating.

While I have kept brumating species awake through winter and I know others have successfully done it too, it is my opinion that species that brumate in the wild should also brumate in captivity. It just needs to be done correctly. Leaving them outside to figure it out and deal with the rigors of winter in the small spaces (like backyards) that we stick them in, is not my idea of doing it "correctly". I know far too many that have died this way. Don't let these horror stories from people who did not properly prepare, or brumate their animals in a safe, controlled way, scare you. Brumation is totally natural and totally safe when a few simple guidelines are observed.

For review, here is the correct care info for the temperate species we are discussing. You can see pics of the type of "night box" I mentioned here:

As always, questions and conversation are welcome.
Thank you very much! Appreciate this 😊
 

LisaGG

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Every fall we get bombarded here on the forum with all sorts of questions and problems regarding hibernation and tortoises "slowing down" for winter. The purpose of this thread is to talk about all aspects of this subject, to dispel some of the myths and mysteries, and give a "how to" list of instructions for people who want to do it. Hopefully, this thread will answer the vast majority of questions that we commonly encounter, but further questions are welcome, and more detailed explanation is always available for the asking.

Hibernation? Mammals hibernate. Its a process that involves burning fat stores to survive cold weather. I've been misusing the term for decades and didn't really care because everyone knew I meant. @Markw84 was kind enough to explain it in more detail and correct my ignorant mistake after all these years. Reptiles, including our temperate species of tortoises, do NOT hibernate. They brumate. Brumation involves different bodily processes than hibernation. Its a fascinating subject and I encourage anyone interested to dive deeper into it, but "brumation" is the correct term for what our tortoises do.

Tropical species like sulcatas, red foots, and star tortoises for example, do NOT brumate. Leaving one of these outside without a temperature controlled shelter during a North American winter is cruel and often fatal if temps drop low enough for long enough. You can get away with it in some cases in south Florida and parts of Arizona, but it is not "good" for these animals to drop below certain temperatures, even if they can "survive" these un-naturally low temperatures. I have seen countless tortoises die this way because ignorant people tell other ignorant people that "Its fine... I've been doing it for years..", and then they have no explanation for why the tortoise died. I'll end this paragraph with this: Keep tropical tortoise species at tropical temperatures. Enough said.

On to temperate species... What does temperate mean? Stolen from "Wikipedia":
In geography, the temperate climates of Earth occur in the middle latitudes (23.5° to 66.5° N/S of Equator), which span between the tropics and the polar regions of Earth. These zones generally have wider temperature ranges throughout the year and more distinct seasonal changes compared to tropical climates, where such variations are often small and usually only have precipitation changes.

I learned about the difference between tropical animals and temperate animals back in grade school, high school, college, and in my pet store jobs too. If no one previously introduced you to these terms and concepts, well... you're welcome! :) No part of the USA is in the tropics. Not even the southern most of the Florida keys, and certainly not Chula Vista here in Southern CA, nor the Southern tip of Texas reaching down so low. I was in Ft. Meyers FL two years ago in March and when I came outside one morning during an unusual cold spell, the overnight temperature had dropped to 49 degrees. That is not tropical! The temperature there hardly ever gets that low, but it happens and the tortoise keepers there know how to work around it. Phoenix Arizona feels like you are living inside an oven in summer time, but even there it occasionally drops down to freezing overnight during the odd winter cold spell.

How does this relate to our tortoises? Many of the tortoise species we keep are not native to areas within the tropics. These are the "temperate" species, and the subject of this thread. Russians, all the hermanni, most of the greeks (arguably all of them...), Chersina, Chaco tortoises, and all of the North American Gopherus species. These species all experience four seasons in their native ranges. The temperature extremes certainly vary between say Russian tortoises from Kazakhstan at one extreme and Tunisian Greeks from Northern Africa at the other. Most of these species brumate in the wild in winter time. It is my opinion, based on my years of keeping all sorts of tortoises and other reptiles from all over the world, that species that brumate in the wild should also be brumated in our captive environments. I find this yields the best results, maintains good health, and is most "natural" for these species.

But what if I don't want to brumate my tortoise, for any reason? You don't have to. As far as we can tell, it does no harm to them, and it doesn't stop reproduction or shorten their lifespans. As far as we know... There have been forum members who kept their temperate species up, eating and awake all winter for many years in a row with no apparent ill effect. If there is some detriment to not brumating these species, it remains hidden to me. Having said that... Your tortoise may have other ideas, and even with your best efforts, they somehow "know" it is winter and that they should be "asleep". We don't know how they know this, but they know. Some of them are in windowless basements with full spectrum bright lighting, including strong summer-like UVB levels, and temperatures are maintained unchanged, but they still somehow know what time of year it is outside.

Here are steps to take if you don't want to brumate your temperate species:
1. Add bright LED lighting in the 5000-6500K color range. Lots of it. Make it look like daytime outside looks.
2. Set light timers to be on for 13-14 hours.
3. Bump all ambient temperatures up a bit.
4. Keep night temps warmer. Shoot for no lower than the 70s over night.
5. Pull the tortoise out of hiding and soak it often. Don't let it stay hidden in a cool hide box all day.
6. I usually run HO UV tubes for 2-3 hours mid day. To keep a tortoise up, I might bump them up to 6-8 hours a day.

Sometimes these efforts fail, and the tortoise is just determined to remain dormant, not eat, and sleep away the winter months. In that case, you may decide to switch tactics and brumate the tortoise.

Many people are afraid of brumation. There are lots of horror stories and many tortoises die during the process when it is not done correctly. It is my observation that in almost all of these cases, people did one thing or another wrong to cause the problem. I myself have brumated dozens of reptiles over dozens of years and had only one problem. The one time I had a problem it was because I broke my own rules and followed the advice of someone who didn't understand my climate, and I let my Argentine tegus hibernate on their own outside. This was a mistake because my winters are not cold enough, and not consistently cold at all. We have spells in January with warm sunny temps the 80s regularly. These warm spells wreak havoc with animals that are supposed to be brumating. When done correctly, I have a 100% success rate. That is not coincidence or luck. That is the result of understanding the basics of the process and following a few simple steps. The reason so many tortoises die and we hear so many sad stories is because most people leave them outside to fend for themselves during the wind down time, regardless of current weather and temperatures, OR the other big one is people letting them brumate outside subject to the cruel whims of Mother Nature through a harsh frozen winter. There are some climates that get cold and stay cold outside, but not anywhere in the Southern United States. Here are some issues with brumating them outdoors in their enclosures:
1. Temperature fluctuation, temps too cold, and temps too warm, are all major problems. Wild weather swings can kill them. In my area we can have night temps in the 20s, and two days later hit a high of 90 degrees in January.
2. Rats. A dormant tortoise can literally be chewed to the bone.
3. Ants in some areas. Ants go underground to escape the cold too. They still need food when they are down there. A cold sleeping tortoise is ant food.
4. Flooding from rain or melting snow. Many a tortoise has drowned in cold water in ts shelter or burrow.
5. Burrow collapse. In cold weather, the tortoise will not have the energy to dig out and they can suffocate.
6. Predators. Food is scarce in winter. Raccoons, coyotes and others can sniff out tortoises as food sources.
7. Pet dogs. Many people let the dog out into the back yard for potty breaks and due to the cold weather, they stay inside. Next to dehydration, dogs are the number one killers and maimers of tortoises. A dog can find, dig up, and demolish a tortoise in seconds.

None of these things can happen to them indoors in controlled conditions, or outdoors in some sort of structure with the correct set up. For my way of doing it, the temperatures and conditions are completely controlled. The weather isn't much of a factor. With all the things that can go wrong, and all the uncertainty, I don't know why anyone would leave the tortoise to its own devices outside. Many people do though. Some people who are skilled and experienced at it, and know their own area and climate well, have the ability to make it work year after year. Until it doesn't work one year. Most of the people who do it this way will have lots of stories about the ones they lost. I don't lose any of them. I only have one sad story and its because I did it 'their way" that one time.

I'm frequently asked: How do they survive in the wild? 1. Many don't. 2. Your back yard is not the wild. In the wild tortoises have hundreds of square miles of territory to scout out and look for just the right conditions to dig in and survive the winter. They need the right soil type, the right slope, a slope facing the right direction, the right vegetation, etc... Many tortoise species, like our CA desert tortoises make long deep burrows and stay way down underground where temperatures are cool and stable, unlike the surface.

Another big point of contention is the age or size at which a tortoise should first brumate. Many sources say don't do it for the first year, or the first three years, or the first five years. Why not? They all do it in the wild. Winter happens in the wild every single year, even the year they hatch. Again, if left outside in some sort of above ground shelter or burrow, they are not likely to survive. If prepared for brumation correctly, kept at the correct temperature, and brought out of brumation correctly, they all survive and thrive. I do this with all temperate baby lizards, snakes, turtles and tortoises their first year and every year. Bert Langerwurf, "The Lizard King", told me, "if you don't hibernate Argentine tegus their first year and every year, they will never reproduce." I never tested this theory, but he did and firmly believed it. Failure to brumate doesn't seem to stop our beloved tortoise species from reproducing, but I have to believe it does have endocrinological effects. I don't skip brumation for any temperate reptile unless I have some reason to suspect they are unhealthy or unfit for it in some way. I don't see bruamtion as some big monumental scary thing. Its just a normal easy annual process that all temperate reptiles engage in to survive a cold winter.

FIRST AND FOREMOST: MAKE A DECISION!
Either you are going to brumate your tortoise, or you are not. This is a deliberate process, not something that just sort of happens. Either way is fine, but some limbo area in between is NOT fine. Many times the tortoise slows down, gets less active, stops eating, and people just leave them sitting there in an indoor enclosure at room temperature. This is not okay. This is not brumation. Likewise, leaving them outside to fend for themselves as winter approaches is not okay either. The weather can and does change drastically day by day in Fall. It could be too warm or too cold, If they are just sitting outside subjected to these extremes while trapped in our small enclosures. It can be disastrous in many ways. We have brought these animals into our captive environments and we must help them to survive and thrive in these foreign environments. Either wake that tortoise up using the steps listed a few paragraphs earlier in this thread, or follow these next steps and begin the process of preparing the tortoise for brumation. YOU decide if your tortoise is going to brumate, or not, and plan accordingly. Make this decision by late summer and start taking the right steps for which ever way you want to go.

How to prepare a tortoise for brumation:
1. Bring them down gradually. I find about one month to be just right to get them ready for a winter slumber. It could be condensed into two or three weeks, or extended to six weeks, but somewhere around four weeks works best in my experience.
2. Make sure their gut is empty BEFORE dropping temps or shortening days. Two weeks of no food with the normal warm temps should do it. This should illustrate why letting them do this on their own outside isn't safe. They need to be fasted for two weeks while the temperatures and light duration stays "normal". What happens if the weather turns cold three days into the fast? What happens if there is a warm spell and they keep eating outside while we want them to be fasting? We have to have control of the lighting and temperatures to some degree. Indoors is the obvious solution, but a temperature controlled night box with a heat lamp outside can make it work too. If we control the temperatures, it does't matter what the weather does. I set my night boxes to stay around 65F overnight for these first two weeks of fasting. If the weather is warm and sunny, they control their own basking temperature. If the weather is cold and overcast, I set the basking light inside the night box on its timer, so they can warm up to operating temperature, digest the food in their gut, and get it moving out. After two weeks of fasting at warm temps, I start dropping the thermostat setting every other day and running the basking lamps less and less each day. After two weeks of cooling which comes after two weeks of fasting at warmed temps, they are ready to be placed into their brumation container and dropped to the correct temperature for the species.
3. Make sure they are well hydrated by soaking them frequently in the days and weeks before and after brumation. Soak early and often. This goes for all species.
4. Make sure the temperature is consistent and cold enough for the entire brumation time. 38-39F for Russians, 49-50F for DTs. 45ish for Greeks, hermanni and Chersina. How do you do this outside? Everywhere in North America and Europe has highly variable temperatures all winter long.
5. Don't let them brumate outside in a self dug burrow in your backyard. NOT safe! Don't do it in your basement, unless the temps are stable and correct for your species. What about in the closet? Does your closet in your house stay a consistent 38-45 degrees all winter long? Mine sure doesn't. Use a thermometer.

More notes to consider:
1. How long to brumate? In most cases, 8 weeks is enough and 16 weeks is not too long. I tend to go shorter for babies, and longer for larger adults, but this varies. On average, I do 12-14 weeks for adult animals. There is a wide margin of error available here. There is no "set" time for this.
2. When do I start this process? This may vary with your climate, but I usually feed them up good and soak frequently in October, and begin the fast in November. Keep soaking during the fast. I finish the cooling process and start the actual brumation around the beginning of December. It is okay to deviate from this general timeline. You should be controlling the temperature through al of this.
3. When do I bring them out of brumaton? Mine sleep all December, January, and February. I start watching for a long warm sunny spell in the 10 day forecast in March. If it stays cold longer than usual, I might leave them until we get closer to April. If we have a warm February and March is warm and sunny early on, I wake them earlier. I let the weather influence this decision, but I still control the temperatures throughout.
4. What sort of container do I brumate them in? I like plastic shoe boxes. I use some of whatever substrate they are already used to, and I keep if very lightly damp. Not wet, but not dry and dusty either. I make the substrate 3-4 inches deep. You can drill holes around the top, but this isn't necessary as they are not air tight.
5. How do I keep the temperature constant and consistent? Use a fridge. Full size fridges are the best way and most reliable. Mini fridges tend to not hold a consistent temp very well. Your thermometer will be your guide. A few years ago, I had an observation with my Chersina's outdoor insulated night box. Much like my swimming pool in winter, the well insulated night box remained at a stable temperature that was an average of the day time high and night time low. 65 degree days and 35 degree nights held a box temp of 48-50 with little change day to day. I let my Chersina brumate outside the last few years this way and it worked very well. During winter warm spells I had to put some ice bottles in the box a few times, far from the tortoise and where they couldn't be reached, but the temp stayed very consistent even when we had these hot spells or cold spells too. There are many variables involved and ultimately your thermometers are the only way to get a reliable answer on whether or not something like this will work for you and your tortoise, but it CAN work for some people. For someone who lives where it is much colder than here, a heat source could be set to 40-45 degrees, depending on the needs of your species, so that the insulated night box never gets too cold. A well built insulated box protects them from temperature extremes, predators, inclement weather, and you don't have to buy or run a fridge. If you can get the right temperatures, this method can work for you. If not, the fridge method always works.
6. Fridges are not air tight, and neither are plastic shoe boxes. Your tortoise will not suffocate.
7. I don't weigh them or mess with them much during brumation. You can if you want to. I prefer to leave them alone.
8. How do I bring the tortoise out of brumation? When I see that March warm spell coming, I begin adjusting the thermostat up a couple of degrees each day. Usually the tortoise will start to move around within a few days. When I see tortoise activity as the temperature is slowly coming up, I'll move them into their night box at a similar temp to where they were in the fridge, and the next day I'll look for activity. If they are awake, I'll turn the heat lamp on and give them the opportunity to bask for a bit, and give them a lukewarm soak. I don't want to shock them with "hot" water, so this first soak is on the cool side, but they have to be active and moving first. I don't want a torpid sleepy tortoise to drown! They tend to come out of brumation quickly. After a day or two, mine are usually rearing to go. If all looks good, I will set the basking lamp to come on the next morning, and then on next morning, I go in and set the ambient temp back to 60-65 to keep it warmer over night. This is not scientific. I do it by "feel" and by observing the tortoise's behavior. If they are moving slow and not with it, I do things gradually and take several days to warm them back up. If they are wide awake and ready to resume living, I let them. I usually offer food within two or three days of coming out of the brumation chamber, and they almost always eat it right away, as long as temps have been warm enough and they've had time to "wake".
9. What if I decided not to brumate, but my tortoise had other ideas and is insistent? That is okay. Do the two week fast and soaks with the warm temps and basking lamps still on, followed by the two week cooling period, and then brumate them for as long as you can. Even 4 weeks of brumation will often "re-boot" their brain and get them going again after a suitable gradual warm up. You may also decide to wait to wake them until well into April to give them more time since you started late. All of the above is fine and works.
10. What if I decided to brumate, but this darn tortoise just refuses and keeps scratching at the sides of the brumation container? This is okay too. Wake him up and keep him up all winter. Have an indoor enclosure set up with the correct heating and lighting, or if you live in a mild climate like mine, gradually bump the night box temp back up and kick on the heat lamp if the weather is not cooperating.

While I have kept brumating species awake through winter and I know others have successfully done it too, it is my opinion that species that brumate in the wild should also brumate in captivity. It just needs to be done correctly. Leaving them outside to figure it out and deal with the rigors of winter in the small spaces (like backyards) that we stick them in, is not my idea of doing it "correctly". I know far too many that have died this way. Don't let these horror stories from people who did not properly prepare, or brumate their animals in a safe, controlled way, scare you. Brumation is totally natural and totally safe when a few simple guidelines are observed.

For review, here is the correct care info for the temperate species we are discussing. You can see pics of the type of "night box" I mentioned here:

As always, questions and conversation are welcome.
Every fall we get bombarded here on the forum with all sorts of questions and problems regarding hibernation and tortoises "slowing down" for winter. The purpose of this thread is to talk about all aspects of this subject, to dispel some of the myths and mysteries, and give a "how to" list of instructions for people who want to do it. Hopefully, this thread will answer the vast majority of questions that we commonly encounter, but further questions are welcome, and more detailed explanation is always available for the asking.

Hibernation? Mammals hibernate. Its a process that involves burning fat stores to survive cold weather. I've been misusing the term for decades and didn't really care because everyone knew I meant. @Markw84 was kind enough to explain it in more detail and correct my ignorant mistake after all these years. Reptiles, including our temperate species of tortoises, do NOT hibernate. They brumate. Brumation involves different bodily processes than hibernation. Its a fascinating subject and I encourage anyone interested to dive deeper into it, but "brumation" is the correct term for what our tortoises do.

Tropical species like sulcatas, red foots, and star tortoises for example, do NOT brumate. Leaving one of these outside without a temperature controlled shelter during a North American winter is cruel and often fatal if temps drop low enough for long enough. You can get away with it in some cases in south Florida and parts of Arizona, but it is not "good" for these animals to drop below certain temperatures, even if they can "survive" these un-naturally low temperatures. I have seen countless tortoises die this way because ignorant people tell other ignorant people that "Its fine... I've been doing it for years..", and then they have no explanation for why the tortoise died. I'll end this paragraph with this: Keep tropical tortoise species at tropical temperatures. Enough said.

On to temperate species... What does temperate mean? Stolen from "Wikipedia":
In geography, the temperate climates of Earth occur in the middle latitudes (23.5° to 66.5° N/S of Equator), which span between the tropics and the polar regions of Earth. These zones generally have wider temperature ranges throughout the year and more distinct seasonal changes compared to tropical climates, where such variations are often small and usually only have precipitation changes.

I learned about the difference between tropical animals and temperate animals back in grade school, high school, college, and in my pet store jobs too. If no one previously introduced you to these terms and concepts, well... you're welcome! :) No part of the USA is in the tropics. Not even the southern most of the Florida keys, and certainly not Chula Vista here in Southern CA, nor the Southern tip of Texas reaching down so low. I was in Ft. Meyers FL two years ago in March and when I came outside one morning during an unusual cold spell, the overnight temperature had dropped to 49 degrees. That is not tropical! The temperature there hardly ever gets that low, but it happens and the tortoise keepers there know how to work around it. Phoenix Arizona feels like you are living inside an oven in summer time, but even there it occasionally drops down to freezing overnight during the odd winter cold spell.

How does this relate to our tortoises? Many of the tortoise species we keep are not native to areas within the tropics. These are the "temperate" species, and the subject of this thread. Russians, all the hermanni, most of the greeks (arguably all of them...), Chersina, Chaco tortoises, and all of the North American Gopherus species. These species all experience four seasons in their native ranges. The temperature extremes certainly vary between say Russian tortoises from Kazakhstan at one extreme and Tunisian Greeks from Northern Africa at the other. Most of these species brumate in the wild in winter time. It is my opinion, based on my years of keeping all sorts of tortoises and other reptiles from all over the world, that species that brumate in the wild should also be brumated in our captive environments. I find this yields the best results, maintains good health, and is most "natural" for these species.

But what if I don't want to brumate my tortoise, for any reason? You don't have to. As far as we can tell, it does no harm to them, and it doesn't stop reproduction or shorten their lifespans. As far as we know... There have been forum members who kept their temperate species up, eating and awake all winter for many years in a row with no apparent ill effect. If there is some detriment to not brumating these species, it remains hidden to me. Having said that... Your tortoise may have other ideas, and even with your best efforts, they somehow "know" it is winter and that they should be "asleep". We don't know how they know this, but they know. Some of them are in windowless basements with full spectrum bright lighting, including strong summer-like UVB levels, and temperatures are maintained unchanged, but they still somehow know what time of year it is outside.

Here are steps to take if you don't want to brumate your temperate species:
1. Add bright LED lighting in the 5000-6500K color range. Lots of it. Make it look like daytime outside looks.
2. Set light timers to be on for 13-14 hours.
3. Bump all ambient temperatures up a bit.
4. Keep night temps warmer. Shoot for no lower than the 70s over night.
5. Pull the tortoise out of hiding and soak it often. Don't let it stay hidden in a cool hide box all day.
6. I usually run HO UV tubes for 2-3 hours mid day. To keep a tortoise up, I might bump them up to 6-8 hours a day.

Sometimes these efforts fail, and the tortoise is just determined to remain dormant, not eat, and sleep away the winter months. In that case, you may decide to switch tactics and brumate the tortoise.

Many people are afraid of brumation. There are lots of horror stories and many tortoises die during the process when it is not done correctly. It is my observation that in almost all of these cases, people did one thing or another wrong to cause the problem. I myself have brumated dozens of reptiles over dozens of years and had only one problem. The one time I had a problem it was because I broke my own rules and followed the advice of someone who didn't understand my climate, and I let my Argentine tegus hibernate on their own outside. This was a mistake because my winters are not cold enough, and not consistently cold at all. We have spells in January with warm sunny temps the 80s regularly. These warm spells wreak havoc with animals that are supposed to be brumating. When done correctly, I have a 100% success rate. That is not coincidence or luck. That is the result of understanding the basics of the process and following a few simple steps. The reason so many tortoises die and we hear so many sad stories is because most people leave them outside to fend for themselves during the wind down time, regardless of current weather and temperatures, OR the other big one is people letting them brumate outside subject to the cruel whims of Mother Nature through a harsh frozen winter. There are some climates that get cold and stay cold outside, but not anywhere in the Southern United States. Here are some issues with brumating them outdoors in their enclosures:
1. Temperature fluctuation, temps too cold, and temps too warm, are all major problems. Wild weather swings can kill them. In my area we can have night temps in the 20s, and two days later hit a high of 90 degrees in January.
2. Rats. A dormant tortoise can literally be chewed to the bone.
3. Ants in some areas. Ants go underground to escape the cold too. They still need food when they are down there. A cold sleeping tortoise is ant food.
4. Flooding from rain or melting snow. Many a tortoise has drowned in cold water in ts shelter or burrow.
5. Burrow collapse. In cold weather, the tortoise will not have the energy to dig out and they can suffocate.
6. Predators. Food is scarce in winter. Raccoons, coyotes and others can sniff out tortoises as food sources.
7. Pet dogs. Many people let the dog out into the back yard for potty breaks and due to the cold weather, they stay inside. Next to dehydration, dogs are the number one killers and maimers of tortoises. A dog can find, dig up, and demolish a tortoise in seconds.

None of these things can happen to them indoors in controlled conditions, or outdoors in some sort of structure with the correct set up. For my way of doing it, the temperatures and conditions are completely controlled. The weather isn't much of a factor. With all the things that can go wrong, and all the uncertainty, I don't know why anyone would leave the tortoise to its own devices outside. Many people do though. Some people who are skilled and experienced at it, and know their own area and climate well, have the ability to make it work year after year. Until it doesn't work one year. Most of the people who do it this way will have lots of stories about the ones they lost. I don't lose any of them. I only have one sad story and its because I did it 'their way" that one time.

I'm frequently asked: How do they survive in the wild? 1. Many don't. 2. Your back yard is not the wild. In the wild tortoises have hundreds of square miles of territory to scout out and look for just the right conditions to dig in and survive the winter. They need the right soil type, the right slope, a slope facing the right direction, the right vegetation, etc... Many tortoise species, like our CA desert tortoises make long deep burrows and stay way down underground where temperatures are cool and stable, unlike the surface.

Another big point of contention is the age or size at which a tortoise should first brumate. Many sources say don't do it for the first year, or the first three years, or the first five years. Why not? They all do it in the wild. Winter happens in the wild every single year, even the year they hatch. Again, if left outside in some sort of above ground shelter or burrow, they are not likely to survive. If prepared for brumation correctly, kept at the correct temperature, and brought out of brumation correctly, they all survive and thrive. I do this with all temperate baby lizards, snakes, turtles and tortoises their first year and every year. Bert Langerwurf, "The Lizard King", told me, "if you don't hibernate Argentine tegus their first year and every year, they will never reproduce." I never tested this theory, but he did and firmly believed it. Failure to brumate doesn't seem to stop our beloved tortoise species from reproducing, but I have to believe it does have endocrinological effects. I don't skip brumation for any temperate reptile unless I have some reason to suspect they are unhealthy or unfit for it in some way. I don't see bruamtion as some big monumental scary thing. Its just a normal easy annual process that all temperate reptiles engage in to survive a cold winter.

FIRST AND FOREMOST: MAKE A DECISION!
Either you are going to brumate your tortoise, or you are not. This is a deliberate process, not something that just sort of happens. Either way is fine, but some limbo area in between is NOT fine. Many times the tortoise slows down, gets less active, stops eating, and people just leave them sitting there in an indoor enclosure at room temperature. This is not okay. This is not brumation. Likewise, leaving them outside to fend for themselves as winter approaches is not okay either. The weather can and does change drastically day by day in Fall. It could be too warm or too cold, If they are just sitting outside subjected to these extremes while trapped in our small enclosures. It can be disastrous in many ways. We have brought these animals into our captive environments and we must help them to survive and thrive in these foreign environments. Either wake that tortoise up using the steps listed a few paragraphs earlier in this thread, or follow these next steps and begin the process of preparing the tortoise for brumation. YOU decide if your tortoise is going to brumate, or not, and plan accordingly. Make this decision by late summer and start taking the right steps for which ever way you want to go.

How to prepare a tortoise for brumation:
1. Bring them down gradually. I find about one month to be just right to get them ready for a winter slumber. It could be condensed into two or three weeks, or extended to six weeks, but somewhere around four weeks works best in my experience.
2. Make sure their gut is empty BEFORE dropping temps or shortening days. Two weeks of no food with the normal warm temps should do it. This should illustrate why letting them do this on their own outside isn't safe. They need to be fasted for two weeks while the temperatures and light duration stays "normal". What happens if the weather turns cold three days into the fast? What happens if there is a warm spell and they keep eating outside while we want them to be fasting? We have to have control of the lighting and temperatures to some degree. Indoors is the obvious solution, but a temperature controlled night box with a heat lamp outside can make it work too. If we control the temperatures, it does't matter what the weather does. I set my night boxes to stay around 65F overnight for these first two weeks of fasting. If the weather is warm and sunny, they control their own basking temperature. If the weather is cold and overcast, I set the basking light inside the night box on its timer, so they can warm up to operating temperature, digest the food in their gut, and get it moving out. After two weeks of fasting at warm temps, I start dropping the thermostat setting every other day and running the basking lamps less and less each day. After two weeks of cooling which comes after two weeks of fasting at warmed temps, they are ready to be placed into their brumation container and dropped to the correct temperature for the species.
3. Make sure they are well hydrated by soaking them frequently in the days and weeks before and after brumation. Soak early and often. This goes for all species.
4. Make sure the temperature is consistent and cold enough for the entire brumation time. 38-39F for Russians, 49-50F for DTs. 45ish for Greeks, hermanni and Chersina. How do you do this outside? Everywhere in North America and Europe has highly variable temperatures all winter long.
5. Don't let them brumate outside in a self dug burrow in your backyard. NOT safe! Don't do it in your basement, unless the temps are stable and correct for your species. What about in the closet? Does your closet in your house stay a consistent 38-45 degrees all winter long? Mine sure doesn't. Use a thermometer.

More notes to consider:
1. How long to brumate? In most cases, 8 weeks is enough and 16 weeks is not too long. I tend to go shorter for babies, and longer for larger adults, but this varies. On average, I do 12-14 weeks for adult animals. There is a wide margin of error available here. There is no "set" time for this.
2. When do I start this process? This may vary with your climate, but I usually feed them up good and soak frequently in October, and begin the fast in November. Keep soaking during the fast. I finish the cooling process and start the actual brumation around the beginning of December. It is okay to deviate from this general timeline. You should be controlling the temperature through al of this.
3. When do I bring them out of brumaton? Mine sleep all December, January, and February. I start watching for a long warm sunny spell in the 10 day forecast in March. If it stays cold longer than usual, I might leave them until we get closer to April. If we have a warm February and March is warm and sunny early on, I wake them earlier. I let the weather influence this decision, but I still control the temperatures throughout.
4. What sort of container do I brumate them in? I like plastic shoe boxes. I use some of whatever substrate they are already used to, and I keep if very lightly damp. Not wet, but not dry and dusty either. I make the substrate 3-4 inches deep. You can drill holes around the top, but this isn't necessary as they are not air tight.
5. How do I keep the temperature constant and consistent? Use a fridge. Full size fridges are the best way and most reliable. Mini fridges tend to not hold a consistent temp very well. Your thermometer will be your guide. A few years ago, I had an observation with my Chersina's outdoor insulated night box. Much like my swimming pool in winter, the well insulated night box remained at a stable temperature that was an average of the day time high and night time low. 65 degree days and 35 degree nights held a box temp of 48-50 with little change day to day. I let my Chersina brumate outside the last few years this way and it worked very well. During winter warm spells I had to put some ice bottles in the box a few times, far from the tortoise and where they couldn't be reached, but the temp stayed very consistent even when we had these hot spells or cold spells too. There are many variables involved and ultimately your thermometers are the only way to get a reliable answer on whether or not something like this will work for you and your tortoise, but it CAN work for some people. For someone who lives where it is much colder than here, a heat source could be set to 40-45 degrees, depending on the needs of your species, so that the insulated night box never gets too cold. A well built insulated box protects them from temperature extremes, predators, inclement weather, and you don't have to buy or run a fridge. If you can get the right temperatures, this method can work for you. If not, the fridge method always works.
6. Fridges are not air tight, and neither are plastic shoe boxes. Your tortoise will not suffocate.
7. I don't weigh them or mess with them much during brumation. You can if you want to. I prefer to leave them alone.
8. How do I bring the tortoise out of brumation? When I see that March warm spell coming, I begin adjusting the thermostat up a couple of degrees each day. Usually the tortoise will start to move around within a few days. When I see tortoise activity as the temperature is slowly coming up, I'll move them into their night box at a similar temp to where they were in the fridge, and the next day I'll look for activity. If they are awake, I'll turn the heat lamp on and give them the opportunity to bask for a bit, and give them a lukewarm soak. I don't want to shock them with "hot" water, so this first soak is on the cool side, but they have to be active and moving first. I don't want a torpid sleepy tortoise to drown! They tend to come out of brumation quickly. After a day or two, mine are usually rearing to go. If all looks good, I will set the basking lamp to come on the next morning, and then on next morning, I go in and set the ambient temp back to 60-65 to keep it warmer over night. This is not scientific. I do it by "feel" and by observing the tortoise's behavior. If they are moving slow and not with it, I do things gradually and take several days to warm them back up. If they are wide awake and ready to resume living, I let them. I usually offer food within two or three days of coming out of the brumation chamber, and they almost always eat it right away, as long as temps have been warm enough and they've had time to "wake".
9. What if I decided not to brumate, but my tortoise had other ideas and is insistent? That is okay. Do the two week fast and soaks with the warm temps and basking lamps still on, followed by the two week cooling period, and then brumate them for as long as you can. Even 4 weeks of brumation will often "re-boot" their brain and get them going again after a suitable gradual warm up. You may also decide to wait to wake them until well into April to give them more time since you started late. All of the above is fine and works.
10. What if I decided to brumate, but this darn tortoise just refuses and keeps scratching at the sides of the brumation container? This is okay too. Wake him up and keep him up all winter. Have an indoor enclosure set up with the correct heating and lighting, or if you live in a mild climate like mine, gradually bump the night box temp back up and kick on the heat lamp if the weather is not cooperating.

While I have kept brumating species awake through winter and I know others have successfully done it too, it is my opinion that species that brumate in the wild should also brumate in captivity. It just needs to be done correctly. Leaving them outside to figure it out and deal with the rigors of winter in the small spaces (like backyards) that we stick them in, is not my idea of doing it "correctly". I know far too many that have died this way. Don't let these horror stories from people who did not properly prepare, or brumate their animals in a safe, controlled way, scare you. Brumation is totally natural and totally safe when a few simple guidelines are observed.

For review, here is the correct care info for the temperate species we are discussing. You can see pics of the type of "night box" I mentioned here:

As always, questions and conversation are welcome.
@Tom Hi Tom. We are getting ready to brumate our horsfield for the first time and just wondering, when we put him in his container, do we need to cover him in the substrate or just sit him on top of it and let him figure out where he wants to sleep?
 

Tom

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@Tom Hi Tom. We are getting ready to brumate our horsfield for the first time and just wondering, when we put him in his container, do we need to cover him in the substrate or just sit him on top of it and let him figure out where he wants to sleep?
I set them on top. Some of them dig in and some don't.
 

Mortimus

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@Tom I've seen you say you keep other stuff in the fridge with your torts such as drinks etc. But elsewhere I've seen this being discouraged due to possible harmful pathogens coming from the tortoise?!
 

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@Tom I've seen you say you keep other stuff in the fridge with your torts such as drinks etc. But elsewhere I've seen this being discouraged due to possible harmful pathogens coming from the tortoise?!
I find that ridiculous, but people have all sorts of strange ideas in their heads. I don't see how a tortoise contained in a plastic container could contaminate anything. We are talking about sealed bottles and cans here, not open plates of exposed food. I think a person is at bigger risk from their own cellphone, computer keyboard, toilet handle or the chicken on your kitchen counter.

For anyone worried about this, they can make it a dedicated fridge with no human food in it, and fill it with recycled plastic containers full of regular tap water to give it the needed heat inertia.
 

Mortimus

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I find that ridiculous, but people have all sorts of strange ideas in their heads. I don't see how a tortoise contained in a plastic container could contaminate anything. We are talking about sealed bottles and cans here, not open plates of exposed food. I think a person is at bigger risk from their own cellphone, computer keyboard, toilet handle or the chicken on your kitchen counter.

For anyone worried about this, they can make it a dedicated fridge with no human food in it, and fill it with recycled plastic containers full of regular tap water to give it the needed heat inertia.
Thanks @Tom - I did think it seemed a bit odd. One final question, do tortoises normally turn around, or need to turn around, during brumation? Mort is large, so she'll be in a box large enough for her to move around a little, but not turn around. Again, I've read conflicting advice, but if she needs room to turn around then I'm going to have to rethink the fridge idea. I'd appreciate your thoughts.
 

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Thanks @Tom - I did think it seemed a bit odd. One final question, do tortoises normally turn around, or need to turn around, during brumation? Mort is large, so she'll be in a box large enough for her to move around a little, but not turn around. Again, I've read conflicting advice, but if she needs room to turn around then I'm going to have to rethink the fridge idea. I'd appreciate your thoughts.
My brumation containers do allow enough room to turn around, but not enough room to walk.
 

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