Waking your tortoise from hibernation

As the average daily temperature begins to approach the critical 10C or 50 F point, a tortoise’s metabolism will begin to reactivate in readiness for waking.   At this point unfortunately, it often runs into its first problem.  In this country springs are cold, wet and miserable.

For us, this sort of weather may be merely unpleasant.  For tortoises it can present rather more serious problems.  Upon first emerging from hibernation, a tortoise is depleted in strength, and is very vulnerable to infection.  Unless it receives adequate quantities of heat and light, it will simply ‘not get going properly’, and instead of starting to regain weight and strength lost during hibernation, may well refuse to eat and begin to decline.

This condition in its most serious form is known as post-hibernation anorexia, and has been the subject of some intense veterinary research over the past few years. As the temperature rises listen carefully to the hibernating box – you should begin to hear the first sounds of movement.

At this point, rather than follow tradition and wait for your tortoise to emerge from its hibernating box itself, you should remove the hibernating box from its winter quarters and warm it up by placing it close to a heater. After an hour or so remove the tortoise from its box and place it in a warm, bright environment.

Repeat the pre-hibernation health checks, including weight, eyes, mouth, skin and shell, then offer the tortoise a drink as soon as it is fully awake.  Provided the temperature is correct, this should only take a matter of an hour or two.

Many people experience problems in getting tortoises to drink – in fact almost all tortoises will drink provided water is offered in a suitable manner.  We recommend placing the entire tortoise in a sink or washing-up bowl filled with about 1 inch of very slightly warm water – less in the case of very small tortoises, a little more for giant specimens.  Simply offering a small dish of water to the tortoise is not likely to stimulate a good drinking response but actually placing it in water is usually successful.

Drinking is, at this stage, far more important than feeding.  Both dehydration and the presence in the body of toxins dictate that every effort must be made to encourage drinking first, feeding later.

The tortoise must also continue to be kept warm as described previously- it is absolutely vital that temperatures are maintained in order to speed up activation of the tortoise’s digestive system.  As the tortoise awakes many biological changes take place; one of the most important of these is the release into the bloodstream of a chemical called glycogen, which has been stored in the liver.  This provides extra energy to give the tortoise an initial ‘boost’.  Feeding must take place before this supply is exhausted, or the animal will begin to decline.  The glycogen level can be artificially boosted by providing water with glucose in solution daily – about 2 teaspoons per 250 ml dilution.  Do not continue this therapy for more than 1 week or dangerously high blood-sugar levels may be attained.

All tortoises should very definitely feed within one week of emerging from hibernation. If they do not there is either;

  • A health problem
  • A husbandry problem.

If your tortoise is not feeding by itself within one week of waking up, do not delay any longer – consult your veterinary surgeon.