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AATortoise Hibernation Information Sheet

The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies
Department of Veterinary Clinical Studies
Hospital for Small Animals
Easter Bush Veterinary Centre
EH25 9RG
Tel: 0131-650 7650 Fax: 0131-650 7652
A. Meredith, MA, VetMB, CertLAS, DZooMed MRCVS
K. Eatwell, BVSc (Hons), DZooMed MRCVS
E. Keeble, BVSc, DZooMed, MRCVS
B. Reusch BVetMed (Hons), CertZooMed, MRCVS
S. Hollamby BA, BVSc (Hons II), MS
G. Goodman DVM, MSc, MRCVS
L. Longley MA BVM&S DZooMed MRCVS
L. Benato DVM, GPCert (ExAP), MRCVS

Tortoise Hibernation
Hibernation is only suitable for those species which would naturally be
exposed to adverse weather. Suitable species include most
Mediterranean Tortoises, Horsfield?s and the Desert Tortoise. Do not
hibernate Leopards, African spurred (Sulcata), Southern Turkish spur
thighs, Egyptians, Lybians, Tunisians & other North African variants,
Red-foots, Yellow foots and most turtles. Any individuals hibernated
should be healthy and of a sufficient size.
During August and September, as the days grow shorter, the light
intensity decreases, the temperature begins to fall and tortoises prepare
for hibernation. Feeding declines: it takes 4-6 weeks for their gut to
empty for winter and before they start this process, in early September,
the tortoises need a check over. Make sure there are no signs of wounds,
abscesses, infections internally or externally, also that the mouth is
clean and pink, the eyes alert and bright. If you have any concerns then
a health examination by a tortoise vet should be performed.
Historically the Jackson ratio has been used to assess suitability for
hibernation in wild caught Herman?s Tortoises. This ratio defines the
minimum weight based on the horizontal carapace length of the tortoise
(its length).
Jackson ratio = wt of tortoise (g) divided by length of tortoise3 (cm)
For an adult Testudo spp., that has been wild caught, the average value
should be 0.20-0.22. This has not been proven to be useful for other
species. Values higher than this can suggest the animal has excessive
body fat, excessive fluid, follicles or eggs. Values lower than this can
suggest the animal is underweight.
The difficulty is ascertaining that a tortoise at the correct weight is not a
thin tortoise with eggs on board! Thus the Jackson ratio is only a rough
guide and a complete health check is required alongside this. Comparing

the weight of the tortoise to previous records is vital.

The Jackson ratio is provided on a graph at the end of this handout.
Any tortoise which is underweight or suffering from an ailment should
not be hibernated, but overwintered in a vivarium. This should have a
heat source and full spectrum light (including UV-a and UV-b outputs) for
13-14 hours to prevent hibernation. A basking area is created using a
spot bulb, providing a basking temperature of 40?C. This should be kept
on all day. The cool end should be maintained at 25?C. Background heat
is important with this set up and a stable room temperature is required.
Heat can be provided with a heat mat (on the back wall) a tubular
heater, a heat plate or a ceramic bulb. This should be set on a
thermostat so that the overnight temperature does not drop below 25?C.
The temperatures should be measured with a maximum/minimum
thermometer. During the cold winter months careful checking is required
to ensure the heat sources are keeping the tank sufficiently warm. Heat
sources should be guarded or kept at a height to prevent thermal burns.
A simple vivarium can be provided with the light source on one end and
a shelter on the other. Never allow the temperature to go below 15?C
Hibernation set-up
Use a large, wooden, rodent-proof tea-chest or box, with small airholes
in the sides.
Both the top and the holes should be covered in wire mesh to prevent
vermin entering.
Line the base and the sides of the box with thick pads of polystyrene or
newspaper. Place the tortoise in an inner box with air-holes and filled for
one to three-quarters with polystyrene chips, dry leaves or shredded
newspaper. Avoid hay or straw.
Place the smaller box inside the larger one, making sure you can open it
easily for check-ups.
The tortoise can be carefully weighed individually or complete with inner
box on a weekly or twice monthly basis.
Weigh the tortoise monthly. An adult tortoise loses about 1% of its prehibenation weight per month, so a l000g tortoise is allowed to lose l0g
monthly. A drastic weight loss (>8-10% loss) indicates something is
wrong: the animal should be brought out of hibernation immediately,
checked and disease investigated.
Make sure the tortoise is hibernated in a frost-free environment, at
temperatures of 2-9?C. Tortoises kept below freezing point can lose their
eyesight or at worst their lives. Use a maximum and minimum
thermometer (obtainable from garden shops) to check temperature
For every drop of 10?C the heart rate drops 50%. At 4?C the respiratory
movements are negligible. If the tortoise is kept too warm and becomes
too active it will use up its fat and of glycogen or animal starch stored in
the liver, the latter is needed on emergence from hibernation.
Persistent temperatures below 15?C and decreasing day length and light
quality are inducing factors for hibernation.

High Tech Hibernation

In order to keep the hibernation temperature more stable many owners
have resorted to using a dedicated fridge. This is good in principle as a
hibernation temperature of 2 - 4?C is achieved. However the
temperature is variable depending on the position in the fridge (higher
is slightly warmer). The inclusion of a thermal probe or max/min
thermometer is required to ensure the correct temperature is achieved.
Fridges will also tend to dry out the air inside them and the humidity will
be too low. The ventilation is also poor. The solution to the short
comings is to open the door daily (just for 30 seconds) to allow for
ventilation and assessment. Placing a bowl of water in the bottom of the
fridge and keeping it topped up will allow for the humidity to be
maintained. A chiller cabinet does have some advantages over a fridge
as direct visualisation is possible through the glass door. Many are fan
assisted and this improves ventilation. There is no need to insulate
tortoises hibernated in this way, although many people prefer to provide
some substrate to allow the tortoise to bury itself.
Hibernation plan
Tortoises will appreciate climate change over the year and as the days
reduce in length and the temperature drops (overnight and during the
day) the tortoise will start to prepare for hibernation.
1st week in October allow the tortoise to spend increasing time outside
(in out house/ cold frame ect), as this will allow exposure to a shorter
day length and decrease in environmental temperature. Aim for a
decrease of 5?C core body temperature per week. Still bring the tortoise
in overnight but do not provide a basking site.
For tortoises maintained inside, the temperatures and lighting provided
should mimic the natural levels to encourage hibernation. Typically the
basking site is left on (but only for nine hours) for the first week and
then turned off for the next three weeks. Any thermostatically controlled
heat sources should have the temperature reduced slowly.
Stop feeding and bathe for 20 minutes a day to encourage good
hydration, defeacation and urination. Make sure the temperature of the
bath is the same as the core body temperature.
Once body temperature is around 13?C, the tortoise can be moved to a
refrigerator or hibernation box and maintained between 2-9?C. This is
usually around early November. Above 100C they will loose weight and
may die of starvation. Below 20C they get blindness and frostbite.
Hibernation periods can run until as late as April given our weather
conditions but this longer than tortoises would naturally be exposed to.
Horsfield tortoises probably hibernate for longer than some species for
four months.
The decision to wake the tortoise up may be as soon as six weeks (for
juveniles just learning the process) or up to four months after going into
For adult tortoises wake up from hibernation in February.
Emergence from hibernation
Start checking your tortoise from the end of January onwards. When the
animal starts moving take it out of its hibernation quarters or remove it
at the allocated time based on species, size and any veterinary

Bring it out of hibernation slowly, check for discharges from the nose,
eyes and tail end. Inspect it carefully, bath the face and eyes and wash
the mouth.
Leave the tortoise at room temperature for the first few hours.
Then the tortoise can be given a warm bath for at least half an hour. This
can be repeated twice daily. It is important that the tortoise empties its
bladder to get rid of the toxic waste accumulated during hibernation and
that it replenishes its water supply by drinking. Monitor urination and
defeacation. If this does not occur then a visit to the vet is required so
the tortoise can be rehydrated and further investigations performed as
Keep the animal warm (in vivarium or heated enclosure), until the days
get sufficiently warm for the tortoise to go outside. Keep the tortoise
indoors overnight until the nights get warmer.
Feed succulent foods (cucumber initially then back to 80% fibrous
grass/weeds, 15 % veg and 5% fruit.)
Once out of hibernation and eating, keep it active (as for overwintering)
if the weather becomes cold again. Warm spells in February breaking
hibernation are a hazard of the British climate
Any tortoise that is not feeding or has not urinated with in seven days of
emergence from hibernation, or if it appears ill, should be taken to a
veterinary surgeon with an interest in tortoises without delay.
Avoiding hibernation
Hibernation does pose some risk and there is a natural mortality
associated with it in the wild. In captivity where we can control
hibernation this risk is reduced. Hibernation is a reaction to adverse
weather in the wild, but it is natural and is part of a tortoise?s life. It
also helps to reduce rapid (and potentially abnormal) growth. It may also
increase the longevity of your tortoise although you personally will
never reap the benefits of this! There are times when hibernation should
be avoided.
This may be due to your tortoise being too small to hibernate, due to
poor husbandry identified at a health check or due to ill health.
Whatever the reason it is important to know how to prevent the tortoise
entering hibernation if it is considered to be to high a risk.
PLEASE READ???????????
The Exotic Animal and Wildlife service offers
1.We offer pre-hibernation sessions
2.All our vets are very experienced and have extra qualifications in
reptile medicine and surgery and can offer your pet a high quality
standard of veterinary care
3.All reptiles are hospitalised in appropriate accommodation
4.First opinion consultations
5.For the more unusual and complex cases you can be referred to us
6.For emergencies, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year,
please ring our veterinary hospital on 0131-6507650

our website providing up to date information on our services.

UV Guide UK - Ultraviolet Light for Reptiles - UVB reptile lighting on test
the latest information on UV light sources.
British Chelonia Group: The animal charity dedicated to the preservation
and conservation of Tortoises, Turtles and Terrapins worldwide
a good source for information sheets, husbandry advice and a vet list
detailing local vets who treat tortoises.
Tortoise Trust Web - Start Page
a good source for husbandry sheets.