Spring is such an uplifting time of year, full of the promise of new life with green shoots, brightly colored bulbs and trees heavy with blossoms.
And yet, as a veterinarian, I associate springtime with a sinking feeling.
The reason for this strange reaction is that spring is also when tortoises come out of hibernation. Unfortunately, many of them wake up in a worse state of health than they entered their long sleep, with awful problems as a result.
The key to a happy hibernation is good preparation (more of this in the fall), but it’s also important to know when and how to wake your tortoise up early, should that become necessary.
Why Would You Have to Do This?
If you find the idea of waking a hibernating tortoise a strange one, it might interest you to know:
Tortoises do not carry the body reserves to safely hibernate for much longer than 3 months — 4 at most.
So if you rely solely on the weather to trigger a tortoise’s alarm call and she oversleeps, she is already at a disadvantage when it comes to a healthy start. Thus, if your tortoise is still sound asleep after 4 months, it’s time to wake her up.
Another reason to wake your Sleeping Beauty is if she becomes active during the winter months and then falls asleep again. This happens if the temperature rises temporarily, such as during a warm snap, and then falls again.
This may cause your pet tortoise to stir and then drop back off again. The danger is that the tortoise’s energy reserves (her battery pack, if you will) hold only enough “charge” for one successful wake-up, so after a false start it’s up to you to help kick-start her engine.
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If you don’t have one already, put a maximum-and-minimum thermometer (affiliate link) inside the hibernaculum (your tortoise’s hibernation chamber). Check the thermometer every couple of days.
The perfect temperature for hibernation is about 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius). If the temperature falls below freezing, the tortoise is at risk of frostbite. If the temperature goes above 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius), she might start moving around and burn up precious energy.
Every 2 weeks, quietly and gently lift the tortoise from her hibernaculum and weigh her on postal scales (then place her back in the box). Record her weight in a notebook, and each month check her weight loss. It is normal to lose 1 percent of their body weight a month.
This normal weight loss is equivalent to:
- A 1 kg tortoise losing 10 g per month
- A 1.5 kg tortoise losing 15 g per month or
- A 2 kg tortoise losing 20 g per month
However, losing more than this is a warning sign of a problem.
When to End Hibernation Early
Just as with Sleeping Beauty, sometimes you may need to wake a tortoise. However, don’t do it with a kiss because of the salmonella risk! The golden rules are to wake her if:
- She has been asleep for more than 3 to 4 months
- She loses more than 1% of her body weight per month
How to Wake a Hibernating Tortoise
- Take her out of the hibernaculum and warm her gently over a 24-hour period.
- Offer a tomato as a first meal. It will give her both energy and fluid.
- Give 2 warm baths a day. Tortoises “drink” through their anus (yes, this sounds weird), so warm baths are a great way to rehydrate her after a long winter sleep.
- If, after 7 days of warm baths, the tortoise still refuses to eat, see a reptile veterinarian.
This video shows a small tortoise being woken up from hibernation:
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Dec. 17, 2018.