Vet organisations give advice on tortoise hibernation

18 October 2016

BSAVA has worked with the British Veterinary Zoological Society (BVZS) to contribute to a release from the British Veterinary Association (BVA) offering advice for pet owners regarding how to approach hibernation with their tortoises. The following release has been issued to the media:

Over half of vets saw tortoises with weight loss or anorexia following their last hibernation, reveal the latest figures from the BVA who have teamed up with the specialist BVZS and BSAVA to make sure hibernating pets have a healthy rest this winter.

With modern advice having moved away from the traditional idea of placing your tortoise in a shoebox in the attic, many vets believed these health problems stemmed from the way the tortoise was hibernated.

British Veterinary Association President Gudrun Ravetz said:

“We have a far greater knowledge now of a tortoise’s health and welfare needs, however it’s possible that those who have had tortoises for decades may not be aware of the new practices. We would always encourage tortoise owners to make sure their pet has regular health checks with their vet to ensure their pet is in good health and ensure they are equipped with the most up-to-date advice to prevent health problems as well.”

Although the weather is getting colder, vets advise owners to delay tortoise hibernation until November or December by keeping their pet warm using heat lamps to avoid an overlong hibernation that can result in depletion of energy stores, dehydration and accumulation of toxins. The exact length of hibernation will vary depending on the tortoise’s life stage, health and size. Young tortoises should not have their first hibernation until their second, third or fourth winter and then only for six weeks. Usually tortoises hibernate for up to a maximum of three months. If your tortoise is very young or has health problems, hibernation should be avoided.

Not all tortoise species need to be hibernated. Species that can be hibernated in the UK are Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni), Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoises (Testudo graeca and Testudo ibera), Horsfield’s or Russian tortoises (Testudo horsfieldii) and marginated tortoises (Testudo marginata).

To ensure good hibernation husbandry, leading veterinary organisations BVA, BSAVA and BVZS have compiled some tips to make sure your tortoise stays healthy whilst having the best possible winter rest:

Vets top tips for hibernation

  • Take your tortoise to a vet for a pre-hibernation health check and weigh in
  • In the weeks running up to hibernating, gradually cool your tortoise’s environment and bathe it daily. In the final week before hibernation, your tortoise should be kept at an outdoor temperature and not bathed.
  • During hibernation, keep your tortoise between 5-8 degrees Celsius to prevent problems such as excessive weight loss or blindness.
  • Tortoises should be kept in a protective environment whilst hibernating to ensure they are not interfered with by other animals.
  • Tortoises should be weighed weekly while hibernating to ensure weight loss does not exceed 5% of the starting body weight. Brief handling to weigh will not disturb hibernation. There will be slight weigh loss in the first few weeks of hibernation, but if this continues into the third week then the tortoise should be brought out of hibernation.

BVZS President Mark Stidworthy said:

“Using a fridge to hibernate a tortoise may seem odd but can provide a safe and reliable hibernation chamber, avoiding some hazards of traditional methods, such as frostbite or rodent injury. It is essential to ensure that the refrigerator temperature is stable, correct for the species, and regularly monitored. Whichever method you use, hibernating your tortoise for too long is the greatest risk factor for post-hibernation problems.”

Towards the end of your tortoise’s recommended hibernation period, take them out of the protected, cooled environment and place them in their usual home. Being in the warmer surroundings will cause them to wake up, however they do not need to be fed until the second day out of hibernation. As in preparation for hibernation tortoises should have a daily warm water bath to encourage rehydration and waste elimination.

BSAVA Vice President John Chitty said:

“Tortoises are excellent pets, but it’s crucial to understand the environmental needs of your particular species, especially when it comes to hibernation. Veterinary surgeons and nurses have a greater understanding of exotic pets now thanks to an increase in education and resources, so do visit your practice for a health check prior to hibernation, where you can also get help in knowing how long to let your pet hibernate, the conditions it needs to stay well during those months, and how to encourage good health afterwards.”

If owners have any concerns or questions about their tortoise’s health before, during or after hibernation, they should contact their local vet.

The Spring 2016 BVA survey asked panel members:

What conditions do you most commonly see? (Tortoises)

  • Post-hibernation inappetance/anorexia/weight loss – 56%
  • Malnutrition/diet deficiencies/(causing) Metabolic Bone Disease – 22%
  • Respiratory problems/RNS – 23%

Does owners’ lack of understanding directly contribute to the animal developing this condition?

  • Post-hibernation inappetance/anorexia/weight loss – 45% agree
  • Malnutrition/diet deficiencies/(causing) Metabolic Bone Disease – 21% agree
  • Respiratory problems/RNS – 13% agree

Base = all vets seeing tortoises in practice in last 12 months (141)