We are fully equipped to treat reptiles and amphibians, with high-resolution digital x-rays, sevoflurane anaesthetic and dedicated reptile hospital ward.
Our head vet Emily is studying towards the advanced GP certificate in Exotic Pet Medicine & Surgery, our vet Chris is preparing to embark on the European Certificate in Exotics, and our nurses Katherine and Liz both hold the Diploma in Exotic Animal Nursing. Our vet Sarah also has a special interest in acupuncture for pain relief, neurological diseases and appetite stimulation in exotic species.
Most of the Nine Lives Team own tortoises, and George the beardie lives at the surgery, so we can often help with any general advice for husbandry over the phone or via email.
Hibernating Your Tortoise:
1. Fridge Hibernation.
Fridge hibernation may sound alien! However it is considered the safest and easiest method of hibernation because:
- The tortoise’s temperature can be maintained at a constant 5 degrees Centigrade.
- You can monitor your tortoise easily with minimal disturbance.
- You can decide on the timing and duration of hibernation.
You will need :
- A larder fridge – that is one without an ice box, and preferably one that is not in daily use for your salad and wine!
- A large plastic storage container for ‘wind down’
- Sterilised top soil.
- A plastic container with lid and ventilation holes or a lidded cardboard box. There should be enough room for the tortoise to stretch its limbs out.
- Plastic bottles e.g. Milk cartons or drinks bottles, filled with water – these help to keep the fridge temperature stable.
- A fridge thermometer with 2 probes and a display unit that can be attached to the outside of the fridge – these can be set with an alarm that will alert you if the temperature rises above 8 degrees or drops below 3 degrees centigrade.
Step 1: Health check.
During September your tortoise should have a health check with your vet, to confirm that it is in good enough health to undergo hibernation. If you can, take a fresh faeces sample with you, so it can be checked for worms and other parasites. Your tortoise will be wormed if necessary.
The cost of a pre hibernation check at Nine Lives Vets is £24.50, including worming if necessary.
Step 2: Create Autumn.
For tortoises that come indoors at night during the summer, or that live indoors with heat & UV lighting all the time, you will need to prepare them for hibernation by ‘creating Autumn’
Over a period of 4 weeks you should:
- Gradually reduce the time their light & heat is on during the day and let the temperature drop off at night. By the end of the 4 weeks their lights should be on from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. – You can use a 24 hr plug in timer to turn their lamps on and off.
- Gradually reduce the amount of food you offer daily for the first two weeks, and then in addition, reduce the frequency of feeding to every other day.
- Bathe your tortoise every other day, use luke-warm water, up to the level of where the top shell joins the bottom one. If any solid or gritty urates are passed, up the baths to daily until the urates are the consistency of toothpaste – or softer.
At the end of the 4 weeks, your tortoise should be sleeping more and eating just a little or nothing.
You can now proceed straight into the next stage:
Step 3. Wind Down
The wind down period lasts 3 weeks. This is the final stage of preparing for hibernation. It ensures your tortoise’s stomach is empty and it has passed all faeces, and that it is fully hydrated.
During this period your tortoise should have nothing to eat. Be strong, remember this is natural for tortoises, even if it goes against your own instincts.
At the start of week one, set up your fridge:
Important: The fridge must be in your house, do not use a fridge in a garage, shed or outbuilding, because if the outside temperature drops below freezing, so will the temperature inside the fridge. There have been tragedies due to people not realising this.
Plug in the fridge, fill the shelves with the bottles/cartons of water. Place the thermometer with one probe near the top and one near the bottom, this will give you plenty of time to adjust the fridge thermostat so that the temperature of the fridge is a constant 5 degrees centigrade.
Once this is achieved do not adjust the thermostat again. When you put your tortoise in the fridge, the temperature will rise, but should return to 5 degrees within 24 hrs.
- Week 1:
Continue with lights on from 10 -4, bathe (your tortoise) in luke-warm water every other day for 15 – 20 minutes. No food. Keep a record of any faeces, urates/wee passed.
- Week 2:
Remove all heat & lights, place your tortoise in the large plastic storage box with a layer of sterile soil in the bottom, in a cool room, continue to bathe, but now in cooler water every other day, dry your tortoise off with a towel after bathing.
- Week 3:
Put the tortoise in its container in the coolest room in the house, bathe 2 -3 times during the week and dry it gently after. Your tortoise may well have its eyes closed by now and be almost in a state of hibernation, or it may still be quite active. Both are normal, so don’t worry.
Step 4: Hibernation
Your vet should have advised you for how long to hibernate your tortoise. We would recommend a maximum of 6 weeks for the first time, building up to a maximum of 12 weeks in total.
At the end of the wind down period:
- Weigh your tortoise.
- Place a layer of the soil from the container into the hibernation box and then place your tortoise on top.
- Put the lid on, and put your tortoise in the fridge, with one of the thermometer probes inside the box and the other out of the box, but in the fridge, removing some of the bottles of water you have in there if necessary.
Open the fridge door once a day and waft it open & shut a few times to circulate fresh air.
Once a week, gently take your tortoise out of the fridge, check that it looks ok, is responsive to touch and that its limbs are not rubbing on its shell.
Weigh your tortoise and record the weight each week so you can monitor any weight loss.
Check that no urates/wee or faeces have been passed.
- If your tortoise urinates it will need to be taken out of hibernation and woken up.
- If your tortoise loses more than 5% of its body weight during hibernation, you should wake it up.
Stage 5: Wake up
Waking up from hibernation is the most critical time.
Have your tortoise table with heat & UV lighting set up all ready with the warm end at 30 – 32 degrees centigrade.
At the end of the hibernation period:
- take the tortoise from the fridge and out of its box, place it gently into the large plastic storage box you used prior to hibernation, and leave it in a warm room for several hours to wake up naturally.
- Once awake, give your tortoise a luke warm bath for about 20 minutes and check that its eyes, nostrils and mouth are clear of dried mucous and soil.
- Offer a small amount of food straight away and then its usual amount of fresh food daily. Monitor how much is eaten daily.
- At this time it is imperative that they have heat and UV lighting to support their wake up period, because the hormone levels that stimulate eating rise rapidly for a few days – and then subside. If your tortoise is not warm enough it will not eat during this critical period and health issues will soon follow.
- Continue to bathe your tortoise daily for at least 10 days.
2. Hibernation for Outdoor Tortoises:
Your tortoise will hibernate naturally by digging down into the garden soil. This is considered better than box hibernation in a garage or cold room, as the tortoise is able to self regulate their body temperature. Mild spells of weather or very cold snaps can cause serious problems for box hibernating tortoises.
Step 1: Health Check
We recommend that during September, all tortoises should have a pre-hibernation check with the vet, to make sure they are in good enough health to undergo hibernation. It will give them time to recover from any worming treatment they may need, before they start to wind down. The cost at Nine Lives Vets for this is £24.50 and includes worming if necessary.
Step 2: Wind Down
- Your tortoise will wind down naturally, but all outdoor tortoises need additional support in the form of a hot box/greenhouse and shed with heat and UV lighting to keep them active well into the autumn. (More information on a suitable set –ups will be available soon)
- You will notice that they stop eating, and this is the natural way for them to clear their digestive tract before they hibernate. However, they should continue to have access to a water bath that they can get right into to soak as this will help them to eliminate faeces and ensure they are fully hydrated.
- If they have free range of the whole garden, limit the area of access but include an area of soil for them to dig down into to hibernate.
Step 3: Hibernation.
- Your tortoise will dig down naturally in the soil, and stay put until they wake up in the spring. They will thermo-regulate by digging deeper or coming up towards the surface to maintain a body temperature of about 5 degrees centigrade.
- Once they have chosen their spot to dig into and are settled, you should construct a protection mound over them. See diagram. Use the following layers: 1. Straw. 2. Loft insulation (or similar). 3 Tarpaulin or plastic sheeting. 4. Leaves and sticks, to keep the mound in place.
Step 4. Wake up.
- In the spring, check the mound frequently so you know when your tortoise is waking up.
- When they emerge from the soil, give them a luke warm bath for about 20 minutes and check that their eyes, nostrils and mouth are clear of dried mucous and soil.
- Offer food straight away.
- At this time it is imperative that they have heat and UV lighting to support their wake up period, because the hormone levels that stimulate eating rise rapidly for a few days – and then subside. If your tortoise is not warm enough they will not eat during this critical period and health issues will soon follow.
- Continue to bathe your tortoise daily for at least 10 days.
*If your tortoise does not start eating within a week you should bring it indoors and keep it in a suitable tortoise table with heat and UV lighting – 12 hours on 12 hours off, with the temperature under the lamp at 30 – 32 degrees centigrade, and a cooler end of 25 – 26 degrees.
**If your tortoise still isn’t eating after a few days, seek veterinary advice.
Tortoise B & B: boarding and hibernating service:
Egg Bound Tortoise:
This 40 year old spur-thigh tortoise had always been fit and well, however this autumn she went off her food and started to spend all her time digging about in the soil.
On examination she was bright and in good condition. We ran our reptile health screen. We found her blood calcium level to be elevated, 11 eggs in her coelum on the xray and intestinal worm eggs on her fecal examination.
Eggs can often be a 'red-herring' in investigating sick tortoises, but in this case the large number of eggs, her behavior, high calcium and general good health suggested she really was egg-bound.
We injected a low level of oxytocin - a hormone which stimulates egg laying. She started laying straight away, and all 11 were laid within 48 hours.
She immediately ate and returned home.
Stomatitis 'Mouth Rot' in a Water Dragon:
Just writing this case up.... won't be long!
What's Your Diagnosis? Take a look as these X-rays - what species are they? Can you spot what's wrong?
Top Tips - Our Favourite Exotics Websites:
The Tortoise Trust
Everything you need to know about tortoise husbandry and care, along with some fantastic articles about tortoise health, welfare and conservation issues.
Whilst we do have a special interest in poultry, we do not specialize in Cage & Aviary birds such as parrots. We recommend visiting Steve at Wendover Heights Vets or Scotts Veterinary Centre
Good husbandry is essential to keeping your reptile healthy. The wealth of knowledge and experience available from all the staff at Amey Zoo in Bovingdon is well worth using.