With the past few days of sunny weather, Spring has sprung and we can expect tortoises to start rousing from hibernation over the coming weeks. Reptiles in general will all start to display more activity with the lengthening days and rising temperatures. This is an important time when health problems can arise however, especially in species such as tortoises that have hibernated over winter and are at their lowest ebb in terms of energy reserves and immune function than at any other time of year.
The post-hibernation period is one of the most critical times for pet tortoises, and I have to treat several poorly patients every Spring. One of the most common problems we see in the clinic is post-hibernation anorexia. Infections in the mouth, respiratory diseases or aural abscesses within the ears are not uncommon either. With our summer weather getting more and more unreliable, tortoises are having a hard time building up enough energy reserves to get through the hibernation period and emerge healthy and well in Spring. Wet summers in particular have caused big problems; often these are slow to develop and difficult to recognise until quite advanced. For these reasons I always recommend a pre-hibernation check in late Autumn with an experienced reptile vet. I personally check their weight and body condition, as well as a general health check and possibly parasite screen depending on history.
A post-hibernation check is equally if not more important and generally includes a detailed examination, assessment of weight loss and body condition, and in some cases submitting a faecal sample to screen for parasites if for example we haven’t performed this test in Autumn. If your tortoise refuses to feed or shows any signs of ill-health in the first 1-2 weeks after rousing it is extremely important to get it checked by a vet as a matter of urgency.
Upon rousing from hibernation, it is critical to provide your tortoise with supplemental heating and UV light in order to stimulate appetite and mimic Spring time so your tortoise begins eating again. This means that an indoor enclosure or tortoise table should be set up with a heat lamp, and a UV light to replicate natural sunlight and restore the animals depleted and much need vitamin D levels following hibernation. Failure to provide the correct temperatures and lighting in this critical window of opportunity will often have devastating consequences for an already debilitated tortoise. Once anorexic for 1-2 weeks after rousing it can be extremely difficult to encourage them to eat again, and various knock on effects can lead to metabolic problems and even organ failure with time. Similarly immune function is generally at an all time low at this stage so the sooner they are given a boost and resume feeding the better to restore lost energy supplies and fend off opportunistic infections.
Sadly, each year I invariably see tortoises that present too late to clinic with chronic anorexia or pneumonia, both of which can be difficult to treat or even fatal. A quick post-hibernation check, with appropriate advice and perhaps timely treatment to stimulate appetite in this critical period can be the difference between life and death. These are specialised long-lived pets if cared for correctly. Sometimes they need a little extra care in Spring to get them over the rigours of hibernation. If they have been anorexic for some time then I often fit them with a feeding tube in the side of their neck so that liquid feeds and medications can be administered easily at home without stressing the animal out.
Generally, if prompt vet care is sought when there is a problem after hibernation, there is a successful outcome. Unfortunately with the changing climates and poor summers we have been experiencing in recent times, the outdoor garden lifestyle does not support long term health for most species so supplemental indoor heating and lighting arrangement have to be provided in poor weather conditions.
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