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WARM AUTUMN / FALL WEATHER AND HIBERNATING YOUR TORTOISE

A. C. Highfield

The recent exceptionally warm weather experienced this autumn in the UK, with record-breaking temperatures all over the country, has caused many tortoise keepers serious concern, as animals that would normally already be in hibernation are active and continuing to feed, or are in a “mid-way” condition, neither hibernating nor feeding. Such a state, if maintained over a long period, can result in a steady loss of weight, to the point where should it (finally) turn cold enough to induce hibernation, they may no longer of sufficient weight to survive.

There are a number of scenarios keepers need to consider:

1) Tortoise feeding and delayed hibernation

If the tortoise is still feeding, it is vitally important that even if the weather changes and becomes cold enough for hibernation (50 F or 10 C) a period of fasting (non-feeding) MUST occur before the tortoise is placed in hibernation. The exact timescale required will depend upon several factors:

  • The size of the tortoise (large animals require more fasting time than small animals)
  • Ambient temperature (higher temperatures accelerate digestive function, lower temperatures slow the time taken to digest food in the upper digestive tract)

There is no ‘absolute’ timescale for this, but as a general guide only, at 65 degrees F or approximately 15 degrees C a medium sized tortoise will need about 3 weeks fasting time before it is safe to place it in hibernation. A small tortoise may require as little as 2 weeks at the same temperature, a larger animal may need as much as a month.

PLACING A TORTOISE FROM A WARM ENVIRONMENT WHERE IT HAS BEEN FEEDING STRAIGHT INTO AN ENVIRONMENT WHERE TEMPERATURES ARE 10 DEGREES C, or 50 DEGREES F. IS EXTREMELY DANGEROUS AND MAY RESULT IN DEATH.

A suitable fasting period at ‘intermediate’ temperatures is therefore vital. See Safer Hibernation & Your Tortoise’ for full details.

2) The house is too warm – the shed is too cold!

This is a common problem. The only viable answer in such cases is to resort to the refrigerator hibernation. This is not as scary as it sounds! With correct set-up it is a very safe and effective method, and completely overcomes the (serious) problem of fluctuating temperatures. We have some excellent articles describing how to achieve this in our online library.

Q&A

My tortoise has always hibernated in a box in the attic, but this year keeps waking up. What can I do?

The attic is clearly too warm. In this case, I would recommend refrigerator hibernation.

Will it be a shock for my tortoise to suddenly change to a new method of hibernation?

No. Not at all. If the temperature is correct, it will hibernate perfectly safely.

They are predicting a warm autumn and then a very cold January. How might this affect hibernation?

This is a very dangerous combination. Animals may have lost significant weight prior to temperatures finally falling, and any severe freeze-up poses major risk of frost damage occurring. Monitor temperatures carefully (daily) and check weight regularly. Use the Jackson Ratio chart and measure carefully. In times of extreme low temperature move the tortoise to a safe (above freezing) environment as a matter of urgency. Even a few hours of sub-zero exposure can result in blindness or death.

Is moving a tortoise in hibernation dangerous?

No. It causes no problems whatsoever.

What if I cannot arrange for a ‘fridge and my house or garage is still too warm?

The only safe option is to OVERWINTER, meaning keeping the tortoise awake and feeding throughout the winter period. To do this you must provide adequate light and heat.

Can I hibernate my tortoise in my kitchen ‘fridge?

Not if you intend to use it for food at the same time. You should not mix animals and foodstuffs due to the potential for transmitting disease.

Would one of those small ‘drinks refrigerators’ be OK?

Some work, some don’t. Unfortunately, without testing them for temperature stability it is impossible to say. On the whole, a larger food-grade refrigerator will tend to give best overall temperature stability and accuracy.

Where can I find out more?

Carapace Press has an instructional DVD on the refrigerator hibernation method available. There are also excellent articles on the Tortoisetrust website.

 

(c) Tortoise Trust 2005