Tortoises are not native to the UK, and have very specific environmental needs to keep them healthy. As the great British weather is not suitable for tortoises to live outside all year round, you need to provide them with the right temperature and humidity for them to thrive. Sadlyone of the main causes of health problems and death in pet tortoises is inadequate hibernation.
Does my tortoise need to hibernate?
Not all species of tortoise hibernate, so do your research and find out whether your tortoise is a hibernating or non-hibernating species first. Even some hibernating species of tortoise should not be hibernated for a variety of reasons, such as if your tortoise is underweight or has an illness.
It’s a good idea to take your tortoise to the vet for a health check before you decide if your pet should hibernate – particularly if you’ve recently got your tortoise and are unsure if your pet has any underlying health issues.
Preparing your tortoise for hibernation
Good preparation is essential when hibernating a tortoise. You must have the correct equipment and help your tortoise to prepare. Before hibernating, tortoises should not be fed for a period of time.
The length of hibernation time depends on your tortoise’s size in comparison to the mature adult size for the species. Check with your vet for guidance.
Before beginning hibernation, tortoises should be kept in an ambient temperature of 13C to make sure that their food is properly digested. Undigested food can ferment in their stomachs during hibernation and make them very unwell, so this is an important step.
Bathing your pet regularly in shallow, lukewarm water will help digestion, and help keep them hydrated too.
The length of time a tortoise takes to digest their food depends on their size. As before, ask your vet for advice.
Once your tortoise has digested their food, you can drop the temperature to their hibernation temperatures of around 5C +/- two degrees. Gradually reduce your pet’s daylight hours throughout the preparation period.
Hibernation housing dos and don’ts
It’s really important to make sure your tortoise has a suitable environment to hibernate in. If you can’t accurately control the temperature of your tortoise’s hibernation housing then you could be putting your pet at serious risk.
Double-boxed tortoise containers with bedding or substrate and ventilation holes are often used and placed in sheds, outhouses and attics – this is not ideal. Near-freezing temperatures can cause serious health problems and even death, and a temperature that is too high will wake your tortoise early. It is also not unheard of for rats to breach the boxes and eat the tortoises, so security is essential.
Using a new refrigerator with thermometers and a container with substrate is the best way to monitor a tortoise. This will be more expensive to begin with, but this housing will help you to make sure your pet stays happy, healthy and safe.
Weigh your tortoise at least monthly and wake them up early if they are losing more than one per cent of their body weight monthly.
The time a tortoise should be hibernated for depends on their size. Small tortoises should be hibernated for around 8 to 10 weeks, and even the very largest tortoises should not be hibernated for more than 16 weeks.
Spring temperatures in the UK are not high enough for a tortoise to live outside so for the recovery from hibernation and for the rest of the cooler months, your tortoise will need to live indoors with adequate heating and lighting.
Immediately after hibernation your tortoise should be warmed to the appropriate temperature for its species, bathed regularly and offered food. If a tortoise does not eat after a week, you must contact a vet who has experience with tortoises.
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