Yes, it’s that time of the year again when tortoise owners start to get excited at the prospect of spending time with their shelled pal again. Hibernation (many people prefer the word brumation for reptiles) is an important part of many species of tortoises life. For those species that naturally hibernate it is best to obey mother nature and allow them to hibernate – these species include Horsfields, Spur-thighed (not to be confused with the much larger African Spurred) and Hermanns tortoises. Commonly kept species that must not hibernate include Red Foot and African Spurred (commonly called Sulcata) tortoises. To not hibernate the likes of Horsefields and Hermanns tortoises will likely create health complications throughout their lives. However, hibernating a tortoise is a complex issue, and even waking them up isn’t as straight forward as many think.
When should I wake my tortoise? In the wild they hibernate naturally for around three to four months during the winter months. This is completely dictated by low temperature, but there is a inherent built in six sense in a tortoise that seems to tell them when hibernation is approaching – even if they experience unusually warm weather prior to hibernation. There is no such six sense for them waking – once in a full deep hibernation the main thing that dictates them waking up or having bouts of activity is the temperature. During hibernation most keepers have a controlled temperature for their tortoises of around 4-8C, depending on species. Once this temperature raises above 10C it is almost certain a healthy tortoise will start to become active – even lower for Horsfields, I’ve seen them active above 5-6C. During hibernation the tortoise should have been regularly checked for health, if at any point signs of urea are noticed the tortoises is (or has been) active and it will likely be safer to wake the tortoise up from his slumber. If the tortoise has not become active after around three months of hibernation, and a steady 4-8C has been maintained its time to artificially raise the temperature.
How do I raise the temperature to wake my tortoise up? We do this over a period of around two or three days and start by moving the tortoise in his hibernation box to a slightly warmer place every day. By day three we aim to have him at a cool room temperature. Whilst being in this warming up period we maintain darkness until the tortoise has fully woke and is active. Once at room temperature we provide lighting, a T5 UVB tube is utilised, often in a vivarium. We usually provide a Reptile Systems or Zoo med T5 tube.
What else do I need to do? One of the most important things you need to do once your tortoise wakes up and becomes active is getting him to drink. This will flush out any toxins that have built up during the inactive period. Hydration is critical, and we often utilise a powdered hydration electrolyte aid such as Vetarks Reptoboost. The best way of getting them to drink is to place them in a shallow amount of tepid water, making sure their head is well above the water. We splash the water over their shells and heads, and they generally quickly get the idea it is time to drink. Don’t worry too much if they drink for long periods, maybe as long as five minutes in one go! Sometimes they will have their heads submerged, just keep a watch on this and don’t allow them to submerge longer than a few minutes. Once they have finished drinking we remove any build-ups or discharge from around their eyes and anus with a cotton bud and give them a general spruce up. We will repeat the bathing everyday for around a week, allowing them to drink plenty. The whole period of starting to warm them up, through the bathing, then onto feeding and normal temperatures is around a week. We offer food after around day 3-4 after gradually increasing their temperature – most tortoises will be eating normally by (at the latest) day seven – if not seek the advice of a vet. By this time the temperature should be back to their normal summer temperature – around 28C for Horsfields and around 32C for Hermanns and Spur-thighed (all measured under their basking area).
Are there any tell-tale signs that my tortoise isn’t well after hibernation? Yes, there are plenty – but don’t worry most tortoises (if hibernated correctly) will be fit and healthy and be like the proverbial spring chicken.
Here are the top indications of a poorly tortoise;
• Inactivity – sat in a corner with no interest in life. Often in the cool end of their enclosure.
• Not feeding within a week.
• Lumps, bumps and pinkness of the skin – especially under the shell.
• Eyes shouldn’t be closed all the time, and be free of discharge.
• Nose should be clear of discharge or blockage.
• Check the anus and tail area for signs of prolapse, discharge or unusual smell.
• Check for ear abscesses.
• Check mouth for signs of rot which would look like a yellow or white cheesy matter.
Do not delay seeking veterinary advice at the first signs of ailment!