Many people think that all tortoises hibernate in the winter, but this is not the case. Tropical species of tortoise should never be hibernated, and with other species you only need to consider hibernation if you intend to breed them. Small, sick or underweight tortoises should not be hibernated. The four species of tortoise that are most commonly hibernated are the Spur Thighed Tortoise, Horsfields Tortoise, Marginated Tortoise, and Hermann's Tortoise. The hibernation procedure detailed below can be applied to any of these four species.
In order to prepare your tortoise for hibernation, you will need to make sure that it is in optimum health, well fed and of a suitable weight. As well as feeding a nutrient rich diet of fresh leaves and vegetables in the months leading up to hibernation, you may also want to consider adding a calcium and vitamin D3 supplement to their feed. Your tortoise will need to have built up sufficient fat stores to see it through the period of hibernation, and so you should start to monitor their weight, health and general fitness from around early August. Tortoise's appetite and condition is at its peak during August, after which it begins its seasonal decline, so if your tortoise is not in peak condition by then it will not continue to gain condition as the winter approaches. It is wise to have your tortoise checked over by the your vet during August with a view to its winter hibernation, to check for any signs of illness, disease or nutrition problems that may prevent you from hibernating your pet. Once you and your vet are happy that your tortoise is fit enough to hibernate, you should decide upon an approximate date upon which you wish to induce hibernation- usually around mid October to early November. You will need to stop feeding your tortoise (and remove any access to grazing and food sources) six weeks before the date upon which you plan to induce hibernation. Tortoises have a very slow metabolism, and it is important that no food remains in the intestines during hibernation. Drinking water should still be available at all times, and during the final two weeks leading up to hibernation, your tortoise should receive daily baths in shallow water. In the fortnight leading up to hibernation, you should begin reducing the temperature of your tortoise's vivarium in preparation, to slow down its metabolism and prepare it for the extended sleep. You should not hibernate a tortoise that has urinated recently and not drunk water. During hibernation, water is reabsorbed from the bladder in order to maintain hydration, so your tortoise should always be fully hydrated at the start of its hibernation.
There are two main techniques for hibernating your tortoise- in the refrigerator, or in an insulated box. Although the box method is more traditional, it can be harder to monitor your tortoise and maintain its temperature, and the refrigerator method is generally viewed as the superior method of hibernation today. The temperature of the refrigerator needs to remain above freezing and below 10 degrees Celsius at all times. You may want to consider using a separate fridge to the one you keep your food in, both for hygiene reasons and to minimise temperature fluctuations caused by regular opening and closing of the fridge door. You will need a plastic Tupperware box a little larger than your tortoise, with breathing holes in the lid and a base of kitchen towels in the bottom. You will also need a thermometer with a probe on it in order to monitor the temperature in the fridge, which should be maintained at around 5 degrees Celsius. When hibernating your tortoise in the fridge, you will need to make a visual check on your tortoise every day (which will also oxygenate the fridge due to the opening of the door) and weigh it twice a week. To hibernate your tortoise using the box method, prepare a large, strong cardboard box by filling the bottom with polystyrene packaging peanuts, which provide insulation and allow air flow around the box. Then prepare a Tupperware container for your tortoise as mentioned above, with holes in the lid for ventilation and kitchen roll in the bottom. You will then place the Tupperware box containing the tortoise inside of the cardboard box, and fill the remainder of the cardboard box with more polystyrene packaging peanuts. You will need to keep the box containing your tortoise in a room where you can maintain a steady air temperature of between one and ten degrees Celsius, and monitor the box temperature using a thermometer. As with the refrigerator method, the tortoise should be visually inspected daily and weighed twice a week.
Monitor the temperature of the container containing your tortoise on a daily basis to ensure that it is steady and within acceptable limits. During hibernation, a healthy tortoise will lose around one percent of its body weight per month. If your tortoise loses weight at a faster rate than this, urinates, or shows any signs of disease or illness, you will need to bring your tortoise out of hibernation right away.
Your tortoise should hibernate naturally for two to three months before it is time to start waking it up. Using the box method, your tortoise will start to wake up on its own once the temperature of the box remains steadily above ten degrees Celsius. Using the refrigerator method, your tortoise will not begin to wake up naturally, so you will need to initiate the process. Place the plastic box containing the tortoise either in its heated vivarium or near an ambient heat source, and the tortoise will warm and wake up gradually over the course of a few hours. Once your tortoise becomes active and starts to move around, the first thing you should do is encourage it to drink water. You can encourage drinking by placing your tortoise in a shallow dish of warm water once it has started to move around. When the tortoise has drunk, the second thing you need to do is encourage it to eat. Your tortoise should start showing an interest in food within a day of waking up, and should be eating normally again within three days. If your tortoise has not started eating within this timeframe, he may be suffering from post hibernation anorexia, and you should seek veterinary help to check for any infection or illness which has developed during hibernation and to induce appetite.
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