As the proud owner of a tortoise, we’re sure you’ll agree they’re not the easiest pet to keep. They’re surprisingly mischievous critters – determined escape artists with an iron will and a desire to see what lies beneath their garden fence. But many will recognise a handful of their favourite people and, on a practical note, they don’t shed hair so, go figure – they’re an increasingly popular pet. But what you have to contend with when you have European or Russian tortoises in tow on the cusp of autumn is the often misunderstood subject of hibernation. So today, we’re putting the spotlight on our ancient reptile friends and setting the record straight on how to hibernate your tortoise with the help of our trusted Pets at Home vet, Dr Karlien Heyrman.
Isn’t hibernation for wild animals?
Tortoises have been around long before us humans decided to add them to the family, so hibernation is part and parcel of having a tortoise at home. In the big wide world, hibernation is a way to survive the cold winters without having to forage for food or move somewhere warmer. It's a natural instinct that's hard to shake off so read on for some top tips on how to hibernate your tortoise.
How do you know when to hibernate your tortoise?
“I always recommended popping to your favourite reptile vet in mid-August to have your tortoise health checked a couple of months before their hibernation begins. Only fit and healthy tortoises should go into hibernation, so your vet will be able to flag any potential issues and advise you of the best way to prepare your pet,” suggests Karlien. (If you didn’t pop along to your vet in August, it’s still wise to do it in September to get their advice).
If your vet thinks your tortoise might not be on top form and ready for their seasonal slumber, they can be overwintered – this means keeping them awake during their natural hibernation period – with artificial heating and lighting. “There’s no evidence to show that missing one hibernation cycle will have any ill effect on their health,” Karlien reassures.
Your vet can also advise on the time frame for their fasting period as your tortoise will need to go on a strict diet between two to six weeks before hibernation begins – more on this later on. Karlien adds: “Some people also choose to use this no-feeding period to worm their tortoise with the help of their vet.”
How do I stop my tortoise going into early hibernation?
In the words of Karlien: “Cooler temperatures, less light and shorter days all signal the start of winter and play their part in stimulating the start of hibernation in your tortoise.”
But as UK-dwellers, we are all too familiar with our unpredictable climate. “To prevent early-onset hibernation, you’ll need to provide artificial lighting and heating to encourage continued feeding until early autumn. The further north you live, the more likely this problem will occur, so get your heat lamps at the ready!”
How long should you hibernate your tortoise?
“Hibernation can range from three weeks all the way up to fourteen, usually between November and February. How long your tortoise hibernates really depends on their age. Some people think it’s best not to hibernate before they turn four years old since a tortoise shouldn’t lose more than 10% of its body weight during hibernation. The smaller the tortoise, the more likely this weight loss will have a negative impact on their health.”
How will you know when to hibernate your tortoise?
“Prior to hibernation, your tortoises should naturally lower their food intake as temperatures drop so enforced starvation is not recommended,” says Karlien. So if you don’t see a noticeable slow-down in food consumption – who can blame them? – pop back to your vet for their advice.
How do I prepare my tortoise for hibernation?
“The fasting period is essential as it takes between two to four weeks for a tortoise’s gut to empty. Not feeding in the weeks leading up to the main event and gradually lowering the ambient temperature to around 12 - 15C helps your tortoise digest any food sitting in their stomach and intestines before hibernation. Otherwise, the food will go off in the digestive system while they’re sleeping – yuck – which can cause bacterial infection and more serious consequences which can be deadly.
“Water should still be provided during this fasting period so you can treat your tortoise to a daily bath for twenty minutes to ensure good hydration as well as encouraging defecation and urination.”
If you decide to have your hibernation area in the great outdoors, you must also make sure the hibernation area is secure. “You need to protect your tortoise from the elements and potential predators such as rodents and foxes,” Karlien warns.
How do I know my tortoise is healthy during hibernation?
Whilst your tortoise is snoozing away, you’ll need to check on them – but make sure you don’t raise the temperature. “Your tortoise’s hibernation temperature should be monitored and kept lower than 10C but above 3C to prevent tissue damage that can be caused by freezing.”
You’ll need to consider how you’re going to monitor temperatures and have a plan in place of what to do should the temperature either drop or rise too high whilst hibernating by consulting your experienced reptile vet.
Twice-weekly weight checks are recommended and at each weight check, you should be on the lookout for signs of significant movement or urination. "If either has occurred, the tortoise should be woken immediately by gradually warming them up – but if you find yourself in this situation I’d recommend speaking to a vet," says Karlien.
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