One of the main things to remember about hibernation in tortoises is that not all of them do! The Spur-Thighed tortoise, Desert, Russian, Horsfield, Hermann’s, Marginated tortoise do hibernate. For those that do hibernate, health problems after they are starting to wake up are very serious. During hibernation your tortoise is extremely vulnerable, they are less able to fight infections so if they do catch any, these have more likelihood to take hold. It is very important that if you suspect something is wrong when your tortoise comes out of hibernation to not delay in getting them to a specialist vet.
DON’T hibernate an underweight or sick tortoise.
DO make sure to complete a pre-hibernation check list.
Post-hibernation anorexia is one of the most common issues for tortoise coming out of hibernation. This period is crucial for tortoises and as an owner, you need to make sure you keep on top of it and are aware of what is happening to your tortoise as they start to wake back up again. It will come as no shock that our summers are becoming more and more unpredictable as the years go on and this is having knock on effects on our wildlife and pets, with tortoises being no exception to this. Due to the unpredictability of the weather, tortoises are finding it harder to build up the reserves of energy they need to hibernate properly without waking up with issues. It’s due to this that you absolutely must perform a hibernation check list – as our summers are changing, it means you cannot solely rely on last years hibernation check list, so do this yearly.
Water. Water at this point is more important than food. Your tortoise is going to be parched (to put it lightly), so the most important thing you do is make sure that they get some water to help the dehydration. During hibernation your tortoise will have a build-up of toxins, so to flush away those toxins, giving them water helps their kidneys cleanse this. If you are having issues with getting your tortoise to drink, try placing them in a shallow bowl with about an inch of tepid water (less if you have a very small tortoise). Doing this can help stimulate the drinking response and is recommended more than simply putting a water dish in front of them.
You will need to make sure they are kept warm, if it helps them it may be an idea to purchase a basking lamp to do this. Making sure the temperature is between 22–25°C will really help your tortoise, and this temperature will help to speed up their digestive system which will have remained inactive during their hibernation. The glycogen which was stored in their liver will be released into their blood stream once they start waking up and will give them extra energy to aid with their waking. You must make sure you feed them before this is depleted or you will notice your tortoise becoming sluggish. You can artificially boost this by adding glucose into their water. Also, make sure this isn’t continued for too long otherwise they will be faced with blood-sugar levels that are too high. This is just for the process as they wake up.
If your tortoise hasn’t eaten in the first week of waking up from hibernation, then there is a problem. Make sure to not delay in contacting your vet as there is a high possibility of a health or husbandry problem.
Frozen temperatures will end up killing most tortoises. It can happen that your tortoise can freeze without dying if they experience secondary freezing, though this is rare and the likelihood that they experience some psychical damage is very high. Of the issues that can arise from this happening to your tortoise, the most common is their eyes freezing. You will notice if this has happened to your tortoise as they will behave differently. It’s possible they may not move around as much, bump into objects, react to visual provocations, not feeding themselves or turning in circles and holding its head in unusual positions or angles. If you suspect this, take your tortoise to the vet and ask them to perform an ophthalmic test.
If you notice your tortoise isn’t eating during their post-hibernation wake up, there are a few steps you can take to try and get them eating again. You can hand feed them - your tortoise will not mind this as much as, say, your cat or dog. You can encourage them to feed by holding their food in front of them, you also have the option to syringe feed, and then if the previous two option didn’t work you can try stomach-tube feeding. This is more invasive but as highlighted previously, your tortoise will mind this less than you may think and if it can help to get them eating, then it is better in the long run. You do need to be careful with this and many people prefer to opt for a vet visit so a trained professional can administer it than doing it at home by hand. If you do decide to do this from home, make sure you thoroughly read up about tube feeding your tortoise or you could end up damaging them.
These are guidelines only and it is always recommended if you’re not sure to consult your veterinary professional.
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