Tips on how to help your tortoise hibernate

Tips on how to help your tortoise hibernate

Did you know that not all tortoises hibernate?

Firstly it’s important to know your species of tortoise and whether your tortoise should hibernate.

Tortoises’ need to be in a healthy condition, the right size and a healthy weight for hibernation. Before hibernating your tortoise, carry out the following checks;

  • Eyes – for any inflammation or discharge.
  • Nose – for any signs of discharge.
  • Ears – for any abscesses and that the ears are lying flat or slightly rounded. The ears are found behind the jaw bone and look like large scales.
  • Mouth – for any problems including mouth rot which looks like a yellow discharge inside the mouth.
  • Shell – for any damage, any fluid under shell or for any smells which could indicate shell rot.
  • Tail – for inflammation or infection.
  • Legs – for any abscesses or lumps.
  • You can choose for your tortoise to have a yearly health check with the vet before hibernation to ensure your tortoise is suitable for hibernation each year.

Provided you have followed any advice on hibernation given by your vet, British Pet Insurance can provide Insurance cover on tortoise problems resulting from hibernation.

The hibernation process

When we start to get shorter, cooler days, tortoises start to initiate the hibernation process, where they become less active and do not want to feed. If this change in the season occurs too early or tortoises are not in a healthy condition to hibernate, provide UV and a light environment until the appropriate time for hibernation starts or throughout the winter.

During the initial hibernation period tortoises should be kept at a temperature above 13 degrees Celsius and not offered food for at least two weeks (this depends upon the size of the tortoise). After they have stopped eating to allow the tortoise to digest any food previously eaten.

Your tortoise will now become less and less active and will rarely venture out of its bed, at this point your tortoise is ready for hibernation. To hibernate your tortoise, it needs to be kept at a constant temperate of around five degrees Celsius.

Where should I let my tortoise hibernate?

There are various different environments to hibernate your tortoise. Each environment has different positives and negatives.

Hibernation in a box

This involves keeping your tortoise in a box with some substrate or bedding (not hay or straw), air holes and a thermometer during its hibernation period. Depending upon where you choose to keep your box, it can result in fluctuations in temperature. If kept in a box outside, you need to ensure the temperature does not drop below freezing which can be fatal for a tortoise and the same if you keep your tortoise box inside, you need to ensure he temperature does not rise above ten degrees Celsius.

Hibernation in a fridge

This involves keeping your tortoise in a plastic container (to prevent water access) with small air holes for air circulation, which contains a substrate of soil and sand. The fridge should be kept in a home environment instead of an outbuilding because even being in a fridge it can be influenced by external temperatures. Within the fridge, it is best to place your tortoise in the centre and not near the sides as these can contain moisture and cooling pipes which mean the temperature and moisture level is not as intended. The fridge door needs to be opened every couple of days to release any CO2 and to ensure an even temperature is kept, it is good to fill any spare space with bottles of water. A potential problem with this method is power loss to the fridge, so the even temperature cannot be maintained.

During hibernation

Whichever method you use, it is good practice to have a thermometer next to the tortoise and on the outside of the container or box, which is checked regularly to ensure the temperature remains at around five degrees Celsius.

If you are unsure at all about which environment is best for your tortoise or any of the practices mentioned here, it is best to contact a tortoise specialist.

Whilst your tortoise is in hibernation you should keep an eye out for the following, if anyone of these occur immediately seek advice about stopping hibernation:

  • Body weight loss of more than 1%
  • Urination during hibernation

How long should I let my tortoise hibernate for?

Depending upon the size of your tortoise determines the length of time your tortoise should be hibernated for. Tortoises should be hibernated for at least 6 weeks and for no more than 12 weeks. You may need to change the environment of your tortoise slowly to start to wake your tortoise after this time frame has elapsed.

How to wake your tortoise up

When the time occurs for your tortoise to come out of hibernation, this needs to be done gradually. Move your tortoises’ hibernation box / container to a room at normal heat. After a few hours, remove your tortoise from its box and place it in a warm (over twenty five degrees celsius) bright (150 watt reflector lamp held 40 centimetres over the tortoise) environment.

Your tortoise will then need assistance with drinking and feeding to begin with. To rehydrate your tortoise, it is best to give a shallow bath. If you place your tortoise in a shallow bowl filled with lukewarm water up to the tortoise’s chin, place a few droplets of water around the shell and head of the tortoise and the tortoise should start to drink. If your tortoise does not feed within one week of waking from hibernation, contact a vet immediately.

If your tortoise does not awake as expected or if there are any concerns about your tortoise’s health contact a tortoise veterinary specialist immediately as there may be an underlying problem.

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