Mark's Guide to Tortoise Care & Hibernation
Animal House Bridport is here to help as the days get colder and your tortoise gets ready to go through its yearly hibernation.
We want to help you in this article by taking the worry away and making sure your tortoise survives its sleep and wakes up happy, healthy and ready to enjoy another summer.
Do you have the right tortoise for hibernation?
There are 4 Mediterranean species that require hibernation.
The marginated tortoise (Testudo marginata) is a species of tortoise in the family Testudinidae. The species is endemic to Greece, Italy, and the Balkans in Southern Europe. It is the largest European tortoise. The marginated tortoise is herbivorous.
Mediterranean Spir-thighed/Common Tortoise
The Spir-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca), also known commonly as the Greek tortoise, or the common tortoise, is a species of tortoise in the family Testudinidae. The common tortoise's geographic range includes North Africa, southern Europe, and Southwest Asia. It is a very long-lived animal, achieving a lifespan of upwards of 125 years, with some unverified reports of up to 200 years.
The Russian tortoise (Agrionemys horsfieldii), also commonly known as the Afghan tortoise, the Central Asian tortoise, Horsfield's tortoise, and the steppe tortoise, is a threatened species of tortoise in the family Testudinidae. The species is endemic to Central Asia. Human activities in its native habitat contribute to its threatened status.
Hermann's tortoise (Testudo hermanni ) can be found throughout southern Europe. The western population (T. h. hermanni ) is found in Spain, France, Balearic islands, Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily & Italy. The eastern population (T. h. boettgeri ) inhabits Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Turkey & Greece, while T. h. hercegovinensis populates the coasts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro.
If you have any of these types of tortoise then you need to prepare your tortoise for its winter hibernation. To do this we will walk you through 4 easy steps:
Before a tortoise goes into hibernation you must make sure the tortoise is in good condition, has built up sufficient reserves of body fat which in turn stores energy and water. This will allow the tortoise to survive hibernation. Without fat and water tortoises die of starvation or dehydration, so your tortoise should be weighed regularly with digital scales for accuracy. Any loss in weight could be a danger sign that your tortoise is not as healthy as it should be.
Adequate reserves of body fat are vital for tortoises in hibernation; they live off these reserves whilst asleep, and if the reserves run out too soon then the animal's body will begin to use up the fat contained within the muscles and internal organs, eventually these too will become exhausted and the tortoise will simply die in hibernation.
Your tortoise should be wormed every year in the spring which makes sure your tortoise has a healthy gut and is safe to survive its hibernation.
Before hibernation the tortoise must be checked for any wounds that may have happened during its adventures round your home or garden. If you are having your tortoise chipped then make sure this is done in the spring so that any wounds have healed by the time the tortoise needs to hibernate.
Fasting is a vital part of pre-hibernation. We would recommend keeping the tortoise above 55º F (13º C) for at least 2 weeks after its last meal to allow time for food in the tortoises digestive tract to be processed properly. The most dangerous thing to do is to put a tortoise into hibernation immediately after keeping it somewhere warm where it feeds normally. If this occurs, the digestive tract will contain large quantities of semi-digested food and the tortoise is in grave danger. In essence, the food can ‘rot’ internally producing dangerous gasses and toxins.
To make sure the tortoises digestive tract is empty, you can give your tortoise warm baths every day during the fasting period. It not only raises the metabolism, it allows the tortoise to take in needed fluids and helps it pass any remaining food stored in the digestive tract and releases any faeces. If done on a regular basis, you will know that once the tortoise stops passing faeces, then the animals stomach should be clear.
Cooling the tortoise
When preparing your tortoise to enter hibernation, the tortoises body temperature must be gradually reduced to make sure that it is not a shock for the animal. Find a number of cooler places round the house that will allow the tortoise to get acclimatised to the reduced temperature and begin the hibernation process.
The final weighing
The most important thing to do before your tortoise goes into hibernation is to do a final weigh and measure of your tortoise and write down this information and keep it safe for your reference. You will need this information during the hibernation process to work out the percentage weight loss of your tortoise.
Getting the box ready
The box should be just bigger than the actual tortoise and should be packed with shredded paper. The box can be cardboard or plastic but make sure you put some air holes in the lid of the box before placing on top. The size of the box means that the tortoise cannot move around and is safe and protected.
Place the smaller box in a slightly bigger box and again fill the bigger box with shredded paper. The reason for 2 boxes is to help with insulation and allows for better temperature control should the power go off. The use of plastic boxes can also help with insulation and temperature control.
During hibernation you want to get your tortoises body temperature as near to 5º C as possible. In the wild it would do this my digging into the soil but in a domestic environment this can be done by the use of a fridge.
A Fridge??? Are you serious???
Yes a normal household fridge can be used to keep the tortoises body temperature at 5º C. Do not use any fridge with an inbuilt freezer compartment or beer fridges as they can lower the tortoises temperature too much and cause frost bite during hibernation. Also be careful of using any fridges that are located in sheds or outhouses as these can be effected by outside temperatures and can also cause the tortoise to get frost bite.
There are many fridges on the market that have a digital temperature control which can make it easier and more accurate to regulate the temperature and keep your tortoise safe.
Length of Hibernation
You must decide the length of time to keep your tortoise in hibernation. Our suggestion is not to hibernate a tortoise in years 1 and 2. Use this time to make sure the tortoise gains weight and is healthy. In year 3 hibernate the tortoise for about 4 weeks, year 4 hibernate for 8 weeks and year 5+ hibernate for 12 weeks. The maximum hibernation period is 12 weeks for any tortoise.
Weighing & Visual Records
Before hibernation occurred you did a final weighing of your tortoise. You can now use this weighing process to make sure nothing is going wrong during the hibernation process. By weighing the tortoise every week during hibernation you can keep an eye on the amount of weight the tortoise is losing.
The rule should be that the tortoise can afford to lose 1% of its body weight per month, so in a 500g tortoise it can afford to lose 5g. If any more weight is lost this is a good indication that something is not right. Also getting your tortoise out weekly allows you to keep a visual record of the tortoise which can show up any issues or problems.
If the tortoise has passed some faeces or urine during hibernation it means the tortoise was put into hibernation too early and the gut was not fully cleared. If this happens you should wake your tortoise up straight away. If there are signs of urine then it could indicate that the tortoises kidneys are having problems and you should seek the advice of your vet.
This process should not be difficult. Simply take your tortoise out of the box and allow the tortoise to gradually get up to room temperature. To help this a vivarium can be used. Make sure that the tortoise is bathed everyday and has a good supply of food. By day 7 you should have seen your tortoise eat, drink and go to the toilet. If this has not taken place then check with your vet to make sure the tortoise is healthy.
We hope you find this information useful. If you have any more questions or need advice regarding tortoises then please come and speak to our member of staff Pam, who herself has kept tortoises for many years.
Other sources of information include:
The Tortoise Trust
Northampton Reptile Centre