Changes urged in tortoise hibernation practices

U.K. veterinarians report tortoises are coming out of hibernation suffering from inappetance or anorexia

The conventional wisdom among hobbyist tortoise-keepers has been to place their shelled wards in a shoebox and store them in a dark place for hibernation.

However, more than half of U.K. veterinarians surveyed reported that pet tortoises coming out of hibernation presented with inappetance or anorexia. The British Veterinary Association, the British Veterinary Zoological Society and the British Small Animal Veterinary Association are teaming up on an awareness effort to ensure that tortoises emerge healthier from their slumber.

The groups are urging tortoise-keepers to start the hibernation later in November or December by using heat lamps to keep the pets warm longer. A delayed hibernation, they stated, allows the animal to bulk up and reduces the chances of depleted energy stores, dehydration or toxin accumulation.

The experts offered several recommendations:

  • Young tortoises should not be hibernating until their second, third or fourth winter, and only for six weeks.
  • Very young tortoises or those with health issues should not hibernate.
  • Tortoises should be taken to a veterinarian for a prehibernation checkup and weigh-in.
  • Gradually cool a tortoise’s environment in the weeks leading up to hibernation.
  • Tortoises should be checked weekly to ensure weight loss doesn’t exceed 5 percent of their starting weight.

John Chitty, BVetMed, Cert-ZooMed, urged owners to seek the counsel of their veterinarian before hibernation season.

“Veterinary surgeons and nurses have a greater understanding of exotic pets now thanks to an increase in education and resources,” said Dr. Chitty, vice president of the British Small Animal Veterinary Association.

Not all tortoises need to be hibernated in the northern latitudes. Species requiring hibernation include Hermann’s, Mediterranean spur-thighed, Russian and marginated.


Originally published in the December 2016 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today! 

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