Tortoises don’t technically hibernate; they brumate. A tortoise will reduce its activity to almost zero, hold still, and avoid eating. It’ll still wake up at times for water, but any movement will be limited.
To check if a tortoise is dead or brumating, prod it to see if it responds. Put a feather near its nostrils to check for signs of breathing or press around its belly to detect lung movements.
If there’s moved substrate or burrowing, it’s brumating; if it begins to smell, it’s dead.
Some tortoise species don’t brumate, such as the leopard tortoise, African spurred tortoise, red foot tortoise, and hinge back tortoise.
They may be very sick or dead if they exhibit signs that seem like hibernation. Tortoises are less likely to die during brumation if you prepare them in advance.
Is My Tortoise Dead or Hibernating?
Don’t wake up your tortoise during brumation if you can avoid it. However, it can sometimes be necessary. For example, if you can’t find any signs of them waking up during brumation.
Here are some ways to check if a tortoise is dead or hibernating:
1/ Signs of Movement
Most tortoises wake up occasionally to drink water while brumating.
Also, tortoises may wake up and dig deeper into their burrows, especially if the surrounding temperatures have become colder.
If you notice signs of this movement in your tortoise’s enclosure, it’s likely brumating. The tortoise may rarely move, so it’s easy to miss this activity. You’ll need to look for evidence, such as:
- A change in the water bowl’s level
- Moved bedding or soil
- Deeper burrows
2/ Lung Muscle Movement
Any movement of the lungs is an indication that your tortoise is breathing. Like other animals, tortoises expand their lungs when breathing in and contract them when air is expelled.
Check the area between the front limbs and the neck and between the rear limbs and the anal area. Your tortoise may have died if you don’t see any signs of breathing movement.
3/ Breathing Through The Nostrils
Tortoises breathe through the nostrils. Therefore, if you hold a feather in front of the nostrils, it should move when the tortoise exhales. If the feather doesn’t move, your tortoise may be deceased.
4/ Poke the Tortoise
You can gently poke the tortoise to see if it moves.
This is usually best if the tortoise is lying motionless with its limbs and head stretched out. That’s a common position for a dead tortoise, and a slight nudge is a quick way to lessen your fears.
The tortoise may resist poking by moving away from you and attempt to retreat into the shell or hiss when disturbed. So, if you notice that your tortoise isn’t reacting, it may be dead.
Of course, check for other signs because it’s unwise to wake up a brumating tortoise early.
5/ Apply Pressure to the Tail Area
You can apply pressure to the tortoise’s tail area, specifically the part between the tail and the anal vent. Most tortoises will respond to this contact by escaping or making noises.
This vent area is sensitive to touch as it borders the cloaca, so some tortoises may react by extending their heads. It may be dead if you notice your tortoise remains motionless.
6/ Muscle Control
You can pick up the tortoise, hold it in your hands, and watch for body movements.
If it can control its muscles, it’s alive; if it can’t, it’s dead. For example, its legs shouldn’t hang limp. Also, if you lift its head, it shouldn’t sag and wobble.
7/ Flip Your Tortoise on Its Back
Tortoises don’t enjoy being on their backs, so they’ll flail their way back to a stable position. If all else fails, put your tortoise on its back. Never drop it or rock it, but set it down. The tortoise should react by:
- Retreating into its shell
- Stretching its limbs
- Desperately trying to regain its usual position
If it doesn’t respond and remains motionless, your tortoise may not be alive.
What Does A Dead Tortoise Look Like?
Like all creatures, tortoises begin to decay when they die.
According to Biological Sciences, tortoises can decompose over a 2-week to 3-month period, depending on their surrounding environment.
The appearance can vary if there’s little bacteria or insect life to begin the decomposition process.
The signs of a dead tortoise include the following:
1/ Non-Retracted Head and Limbs
Tortoises usually hide their heads and limbs inside their shells during hibernation.
However, a dead tortoise usually has its head and limbs outside the shell. The limbs become stiff 3-4 hours later. Body stiffness will cease after the muscles loosen. Then, it’ll start to decompose.
2/ Sunken Eyes
The condition of the eyes may tell whether a tortoise is dead or not, as tortoises will have sunken eyes and swollen eyelids when deceased.
However, sunken eyes may result from dehydration. If your tortoise has sunken eyes and isn’t moving, check if it’s dehydrated and able to move. If not, it’s likely passed away.
3/ Bad Smell
A foul smell is often produced when bacteria and microorganisms feed on the animal’s body tissues. This leads to decomposition and should produce a strong, slightly sweet smell.
A dead tortoise may take 2-3 days before emitting an unpleasant odor. However, a foul smell may occur if your tortoise has shell rot due to illness.
Here’s some advice on disposing of a dead tortoise.
When Do Tortoises Come Out of Hibernation?
Wild tortoises can hibernate for 4-6 months. However, for pet tortoises, the recommended hibernation period should be shorter.
Brumation is 2-3 months for small tortoises and 4 months for large tortoises. According to Tortoise Trust, hibernation should last less than 20 weeks (5 months).
Can a Tortoise Die In Hibernation?
A tortoise can die in hibernation, although this mostly occurs in wild tortoises because pet tortoises live under controlled environmental conditions where:
- Temperatures are regulated
- Food and water are provided
- Most diseases are avoided
Even still, tortoises may die if care isn’t taken during brumation.
Death at this time can be the result of various factors, including:
Illness or Injury
If you notice your tortoise preparing for brumation, or the time of year is right, give it a check-up.
Ensure that your tortoise is free of illnesses or injuries to minimize the risk of dying. If you notice illness, isolate them from the enclosure and contact a vet.
Below is a pre-hibernation health checklist for pet tortoises:
- Does the tortoise have any physical injuries?
- Are the eyes clear without discharge?
- Is the tortoise experiencing a loss of appetite?
- Does the tortoise breathe without a running nose or wheezing sound?
- Is there any swelling on the tail or feet?
- Does it have a discolored mouth?
- Is there any discharge from the ears?
- Are there signs of diarrhea, or are the feces firm?
Tortoises can die if they hibernate on a full stomach because digestion occurs slowly due to their metabolism. Undigested food may ferment and produce toxic substances, causing a stomach infection.
Tortoises should be fed five days a week and left unfed for two days (known as starve days) to allow their digestive system to clear up.
In preparation for hibernation, you should reduce this gradually by providing frequent but small amounts of food and enough water to prevent dehydration.
However, this depends on the type of tortoise. According to the British Chelonia Group, some tortoise species can survive without food for months but just days without water.
Under natural conditions, tortoises hibernate in winter when the temperatures range below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. To conform to the natural surroundings, you should regulate the surrounding temperature during hibernation. A drop in temperature below 35 degrees Fahrenheit can lead to freezing.
Reptiles are cold-blooded animals (ectothermic), so they can’t maintain their internal body temperature. Freezing temperatures may cause a further decrease in their body temperature.
Use a thermometer to check the temperature of the tortoise’s enclosure to prevent freezing. Pour some dry, well-drained topsoil inside the hibernation box and cover it using leaves to reduce heat loss.
Tortoises experience a slowed metabolism and don’t require food during hibernation. However, tortoises require water to keep hydrated and wash away toxins from the body.
Before hibernating, provide a regular supply of fresh, clean water for your pet tortoise to drink. Your tortoise should also have frequent water baths to prevent the shell from peeling or cracking.
Tortoises may be inactive and defenseless when hibernating, which means they’re prone to attack by predators. Common threats include:
- Rodents such as mice
These animals can cause death or injury due to lost limbs or cracked shells. A tortoise should hibernate in an enclosed box within a secure area to reduce the risk of attack. You can use a wire mesh to shield the box from predators.
If you know your tortoise is old, there’s a higher chance of it dying while brumating, leaving you wondering if your tortoise is sleeping or has died.
Regardless, you can check for movement, reactions, and breathing.