Most cases of anorexia in tortoises occur when they wake up from hibernation. Hibernation in temperate countries such as the UK is difficult to manage because the season length is not the same as in the tortoise’s native country and so they are often left to sleep for too long. The natural length for a hibernation is around three months, so the tortoise should be woken in January and brought inside to a warm environment. If it is left for longer it is likely to develop problems which lead to anorexia, rather than the anorexia being a condition in itself. In the case of animals, the term anorexia really means lack of appetite, rather than a deliberate decision to abstain from food, which is what it has come to mean in humans.
How long is too long?
When a tortoise wakes up, even from a perfectly managed hibernation, it will probably be a while before it is eating normally. As a rule of thumb, it should be eating and urinating as normal within a week of waking up or being woken. A careful eye should be kept on the animal in any case for at least three weeks after awakening, with a special watch being kept out for natural appetite (rather than being specially tempted to eat), drinking, defecation and urination. They should all be totally normal by the end of this period and if they are not the animal should be taken to the vet. If no normal activities are in place within six weeks, urination in particular, then the prognosis is usually considered to be very poor.
In the wild, hibernation is really a rather extreme form of natural selection. Those animals which are not in the peak of condition when they go to sleep don’t usually wake up in spring and if you think of other natural culls in the wild, such as sick gnus being eaten by crocodiles and leopards and baby birds being turfed out of the nest by parent cuckoos, the tortoise way seem really rather gentle. So as you want your tortoise to wake up in the spring, it makes sense to take it to the vet for a pre-hibernation check in the autumn and then any underlying problems such as a sub-clinical respiratory tract infection, worms or any skin issues can be dealt with before the animal is settled down for its sleep.
The hibernation place should be cool, or the tortoise will wake up, but not so cold that the animal will freeze – this can cause damage from frost bite and also blindness, when the cornea can be seriously damaged, sometimes permanently. The tortoise should also be protected from vermin, as some very nasty injuries or death can be caused if rats get into the tortoise’s box and insect damage can also be very unpleasant. No one – least of all the tortoise – wants the spring to bring a nasty surprise when the box is opened. If all of these precautions are followed, then the hibernation should be successful.
Waking your tortoise up
Some owners who have had their tortoise for years are unaware that the hibernation period in the UK and many other places is far too long. The winter in the tortoise’s natural home is usually less than three months long and its physiology is based around that premise. Allowing your tortoise to sleep for the whole of the British winter, which can be well over six months long, is not good for its health and it is likely to result in a rather seedy animal trying to get its body back in action when it does wake up. A good way to get it going again is warm baths in shallow water and a heat lamp in an indoor enclosure until the weather outside warms up and the tortoise is back in peak condition. It is unlikely to want any food for a day or two, but tempting items replaced daily so it is always fresh is a good addition to the habitat and that way you will notice at once when it has resumed eating.
Dehydration is a common problem post hibernation and so water or very wet food should always be available so that the animal can rehydrate at its own speed. Sunken eyes are the symptom to watch for; they should soon improve as the tortoise gets moving around.
Anorexia at other times
All animals tend to lose their appetite when they are unwell and this is often the first hint an owner might get that something is amiss. A tortoise in an outside enclosure is not so easy to monitor as it may well spend its time grazing so uneaten food may not necessarily mean that it is not eating at all. If you suspect that the animal is really not eating and want to make sure, remove it from the grass substrate and keep it warm inside for a day or two and monitor its intake. If it is not eating, check it for signs of illness such as runny nose or ulcerative stomatitis (mouth rot) which can be very painful and make eating difficult. When a tortoise is kept outside it still sometimes will need warmth at night, as the British summer is not very reliable. A house inside, in a shed or garage, should always be available as if the tortoise gets too cold and its metabolism drops, its intake of food is the first thing to reduce.