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 by a pet tortoise is good preparation, 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 they oversleep, they are 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 them up.
Another reason to wake your Sleeping Beauty is if they become active during the winter months and then fall 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 (their 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 their engine.
If you don’t have one already, put a maximum-and-minimum thermometer 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), the tortoise might start moving around and burn up precious energy.
Every 2 weeks, quietly and gently lift the tortoise from their hibernaculum and weigh them on postal scales (then place them back in the box). Record their weight in a notebook, and each month check their weight loss. It is normal to lose 1% 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
- 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 the tortoise if:
- They have been asleep for more than 3–4 months
- They lose more than 1% of their body weight per month
How to Wake a Hibernating Tortoise
- Take them out of the hibernaculum and warm them gently over a 24-hour period.
- Offer a tomato as a first meal. It will give them both energy and hydration.
- Give 2 warm baths a day. This encourages them to dip down for a drink, which is a great way to rehydrate them 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:
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- Morris, Paula. “Hibernation Guidelines for Turtles and Tortoises.” Melissa Kaplan’s Here Care Collection. 2002. http://www.anapsid.org/hibernation.html.
- Highfield, A.C. “Waking Up From Hibernation: Essential Steps for Keepers.” Tortoise Trust. 2011. https://www.tortoisetrust.org/articles/wakingup.htm.
- “Waking Up Your Tortoise After Hibernation.” Stanhope Park Veterinary Hospital. March 2016. https://www.stanhope-vet.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/tortoise-post-hibernation-care.pdf.
- “Instructions on Waking Your Tortoise From Hibernation.” Hampshire Tortoise Society. https://hampshiretortoisesociety.org/Care%20Sheets/Hibernation/waking%20up%20from%20hibernation.html.