Mediterranean tortoises - that is Hermann's, Spur Thighed and Marginated species and Russian (Horsfield) tortoises are predisposed to hibernating.
For tortoises in captivity, hibernation promotes their wellbeing and longevity.
Nine Lives Vet Emily and Anne from Tortoise BnB, have put together the following guidelines to help you hibernate your tortoises at home in their own environment.
If you don't feel confident, or you're going away during the winter, then Tortoise Bnb provides a full hibernation service that includes, 'wind down' and 'wake up.' See Hibernation Service
Guidelines for Safe Hibernation
Fridge hibernation for tortoises is the safest and easiest way to go. These guidelines are intended for those using fridge hibernation only.
Latest veterinary advice is to hibernate tortoises for no more than 3 - 3.5 months. At Tortoise Bnb we recommend 6 weeks for a first timer, increasing in annual steps to a maximum of 14 weeks. This means that every tortoise will need a temporary indoor enclosure with heat and UV light to get them through the autumn and before going outdoors for the spring and summer.
Outdoor tortoises are sensitive to the shortening days and will start to wind down naturally. If, for some reason, your tortoise is not outside every day, you will need to ‘create autumn’ by reducing their lamp time gradually – see details below.
GET ORGANISED EARLY
In August arrange a health check with a specialist tortoise vet. Take a faeces sample for the vet to examine for worms and get your tortoise wormed if necessary. Be prepared to ‘overwinter’ your tortoise if it is not fit enough to endure hibernation.
To fridge hibernate you will need the following:
1. A larder fridge – i.e. no ice box. Switched on for a month before the start of hibernation to monitor that the temperature is stable. The temperature should be at about 5 deg.C – no lower than 3 (danger of blindness and frost bite) and no higher than 8. (your tortoise will start to wake)
2. A lidded plastic container large enough for your tortoise to turn round in. Make some small holes in the lid for ventilation.
3. A bag of sterile topsoil – without fertilizer - available from most garden centres and DIY stores. Put a layer in the container – about 5 -10 cm. deep
4. A fridge thermometer – with a display visible from outside the fridge and a probe that can be placed in the box with the tortoise.
5. Weighing scales.
6. Glass or plastic bottles full of tap water stacked in the fridge and the polystyrene packing from round the outside of the fridge, or similar, to line the inside of the fridge. These help to stabilise the temperature in the fridge.
Will start to wind down from early September, as the day length shortens. You will need to provide some heat in their house to keep them warm at night. An electric greenhouse heater with a thermostat is a safe and low cost source.
In addition a ‘Hot Box’ such as a cold frame or mini greenhouse, attached to their house with access to both their house and their outdoor enclosure will enable tortoises to warm up on cooler days.
If the autumn is mild tortoises may be able to stay outside until you bring your tortoise indoors for the final 3 weeks of winding down.
If it’s a cold autumn, you will need to bring your tortoise indoors into its temporary enclosure until you start the winding down process, in which case offer food every other day.
If your tortoise is indoors for some, or all of the time, you will need to create ‘Autumn’ for it, as it will not be aware of the natural shortening of day length.
Over the period of 2 – 3 weeks before you start the process of ‘Winding Down’, you will need to gradually reduce the length of time their lamp is on from 12 to 8 hrs per day by reducing the lamp time by half an hour every other day. During this period offer food every other day.
We recommend a 3 week wind down during which your tortoise should have nothing to eat.
The winding down process ensures your tortoise goes into hibernation in the best condition possible with their gut empty and their bladder full.
Week 1. Remove everything edible from the enclosure.
Have the lamp on for 8 hours per day.
The room temperature should not drop below about 15 degrees at night.
Bath your tortoise every other day.
Monitor when your tortoise wees and poos.
Week 2. Reduce lamp time every other day by 30 minutes to 6 hours.
Continue bathing your tortoise every other day.
Week 3. This is the final stage before hibernation, your tortoise may be very sleepy.
Move your tortoise into a cooler room without a lamp.
Provide topsoil substrate so your tortoise can dig down
Give your tortoise a final bath 3 days before it goes into the fridge.
If your tortoise wees delay hibernation by few days to give two extra baths.
1. At the end of the wind down period, record the weight of your tortoise.
2. Place the tortoise in its box, on top of the topsoil, put the lid on the box and place it in the middle of the fridge. Surround the box with the bottles of water already in the fridge.
3. Once daily: Open the fridge door and waft it open & shut a few times to ensure fresh air circulates.
4. Once weekly: Take the tortoise gently out of the fridge, weigh it and check for signs of stress: Not settling, passing urates/wee, significant weight loss – more than 10 gms in one week or more than 5% of starting weight overall.
If any of these 3 things are evident you should end the hibernation and follow the steps for ‘Wake up’ – See below.
5. If all is well continue with hibernation. – It’s OK if your tortoise does a small poo while hibernating.
1. At the end of the agreed length of hibernation make sure your indoor set up is ready with heat & UV lamp. Do not be tempted to continue the hibernation for a longer period of time.
2. Take your tortoise out of the fridge in the evening and leave it in its container overnight in a warm room, to warm up and wake up naturally.
3. In the morning place your tortoise in its indoor enclosure at the cool end and let it move towards the lamp (that should be turned on) in its own time. Later in the day, once your tortoise has warmed up, bathe it in warm water and offer its favourite food. Keep the lamp on for 12 hours a day.
4. Continue to bathe your tortoise daily until it produces smooth urates.
5. Most tortoises wake up and start eating within 48 hours. If your tortoise is reluctant to wake up you need to take action – keep it near the heat & UV source, bathe it twice daily and encourage it to eat. Small slivers of cucumber or strawberry often do the trick. Once eating, offer a wide variety of weeds, edible leaves and flowers.
6. If your tortoise is not eating within 5 days, or seems lethargic, seek veterinary advice, it may need a tube feed and an injection to stimulate appetite.
7. Fill the fridge with Champagne and celebrate!
Please note that Tortoise Bnb and Nine Lives Vets cannot take any responsibility for any problems with any tortoise undergoing the hibernation process, when following these guidelines or any other method of hibernation.