Between you and me, I think that Tortoises have secret Scandinavian elements in their DNA. How else do you explain them embracing Hygge (hoo-ga), that cosy, nesting concept that is currently all the trend?
O.K, maybe Hibernation is a bit more complex than merely getting all cosied up against the colder climes, but those of you that have Tortoises as pets will certainly be embracing the idea of preparing your animal for its annual slumber. If, like me, you’re of a specific age, you’ll remember the Blue Peter Tortoise, George, being put into his hibernation!
It isn’t as straight forward as just popping your lady or chap into a box and kissing them night-night, there are several factors to consider, not least the specific type of Tortoise you have and their age. Most experts recommend that Tortoises under 3 years of age aren’t hibernated, and there is a rising scale of time period for those aged above 3: aged 3 can hibernate for 10 weeks, those aged 4 can slumber for 16 weeks, and 5+ can over-winter for 22 weeks.
So why do Tortoises hibernate anyway? Well, wild Torties tend to live where the summers are hot and dry and the winters wetter and milder; Mediterranean species commonly hibernate, but desert Tortoises may also do it too. Tortoises like it hotter and drier, so over time they have evolved to shut off all their bodily functions (other than the critical ones) and simply sleep i.e. Hibernate.
Hibernation usually starts in November (depending on the age of your Tortie), but you really need to be assisting your pet to gain weight well before this – August or before. In this period of time it’s essential that you weigh your pet regularly and record the figures in order to know how they’re progressing.
As part of the hibernation preparations your Tortoise will need to undergo a fasting period so that it can digest any prior meals, and this may last between 2-6 weeks depending on how big your pet is. If any food is allowed to remain in the tortoises’ gut before it hibernates, it may ferment and decay in the stomach, potentially causing the animal to asphyxiate or develop a serious bacterial infection.
Whilst your Tortoise may not need food, it certainly does need water, and the easiest way to encourage them to drink is to let them sit in a shallow container of water. Your Lord or Lady can have a bath at the same time – a pre-spring clean if you will! 🙂
I’m hoping it’s not just me, but I can’t seem to remember any of this happening on Blue Peter, can you? Perhaps the presenters did one of their infamous “here’s one we made earlier” demonstrations! So, once you’ve done all the preparation necessary for Tortie’s slumber, it’s time to decide which method you’re going to use: the Fridge method or the more commonly used Box method (although both use a box to put your Tortoise in).
Whichever method you decide on, you’ll need a layer of substrate (sand and/or soil) that’s deep enough for your pet to completely bury itself in; a bit like we do with our duvets on a particularly cold night J. Don’t forget to put ventilation holes in the box too!
For the fridge method simply pop your pet in a box, preferably plastic, a little larger than the animal and place it into a clean, food free fridge that is between 3-7 degrees Celsius – the ideal range is 4-5 degrees C. Remember to open the fridge 3 or 4 times a week for a few minutes to let the air
circulate and refresh . Filling the fridge with sealed 2-litre bottles of water will help stabilise the temperature of the air around your pet whilst the door is open.
The box method was the preferred mode of Tortoise hibernation on Blue Peter, that much I can recollect – oh, and the fact that George used to go into the Blue Peter garden shed! Funny what you remember isn’t it?!
Anyhow, if you’re using the box method, the box with the Tortoise inside is placed within a slightly bigger box and then the gap between the two boxes is filled with shredded paper or crumpled newspaper for insulation. The whole ensemble then needs popping in a cellar, garage or garden shed; as long as the place is dry, not prone to getting flooded or fluctuations in temperature, your pet should be fine. As with the fridge method, the temperature should ideally be 3-7 degrees Celsius.
Tortoises can lose up to 1% of their body-weight per month during hibernation, so it’s vital you weigh them each week whilst they’re dozing. If they consistently lose more than this, then you’ll need to wake them up and artificially over-winter your pet for the rest of their hibernation time.
A tortoise should be woken up gradually from its hibernation; I can totally relate to this, although my awakenings tend to be more abrupt! The best way to do this is to move Tortie and box to a warm room; after about an hour they will start to wake up and begin to move around. It’s crucial that an adequate temperature of about 22-25 Celsius is maintained after this initial waking up period; a basking lamp is ideal for this.
Once your lady or gentleman has woken up properly, they’re in desperate need of being fed and rehydrated as soon as possible. Again, the easiest way to get them to drink is to put them in a shallow bowl of warm water. It’s absolutely vital that they have a good drink; they’ve got a lot of accumulated toxins to flush out of their system.
Feeding needs to be re-established quickly in order to gain back any weight lost during hibernation. Fresh Tomato is always a great morsel to tempt your pet with at first, as its high water content will rehydrate as well as feed themJ. If your Tortoise doesn’t resume eating within a week of waking, it’s paramount that you bring them into us at Saint Leonard Veterinary Centre so that we can examine them properly.
We always say that prevention is better than cure, so if you have any concerns at all before, during or after your pets hibernation period then don’t hesitate to get in touch – it’s why we’re here 🙂
Until next time; stay safe, stay well, and be happy 🙂