Neil Forbes presented several interesting and unique talks in the exotics stream at the Vet Festival on 8 June 2018. In discussing the issue of anorexia in tortoises, he stated that an astonishing 75 percent of exotic animals presented to vets are suffering husbandry or management problems. This means that many owners are failing to provide the “good practice” that is necessary in husbandry as outlined in section 9 of the Animal Welfare Act. The problem may go unrecognised in tortoises, which can survive for years despite suboptimal conditions.
Before a tortoise is brought into the surgery, Neil recommended that receptionists ask specifically what species is coming in so the husbandry can be researched before the patient is seen.
It is not uncommon for tortoises to present with anorexia. The problem is often associated with dehydration, metabolic exhaustion, ongoing or chronic disease, runny-nose syndrome, post-predator attack, egg retention or parasitic disease. Anorexia will very often be associated with hibernation, but Neil advises taking an X-ray if the anorexic tortoise is female to check for eggs in the bladder – these patients would require a plastronectomy.
Hibernating a tortoise
Note that not all species of tortoise hibernate, and no tortoises weighing under 200g should be hibernated, Neil said. One of the key pieces of advice Neil said he could give was to record the contact details of those clients with hibernating species so they can be invited for a prehibernation check in late September.
Advice for the period before hibernation was to keep the temperature at less than 15°C with decreasing daylight. The tortoise should be starved for three to four weeks and bathed regularly to improve hydration; it is a myth that tortoises should not be disturbed when hibernating – in fact, they should be checked weekly.
The tortoise should be hibernated between 2 and 8°C (ideally at 5°C). Hibernating tortoises should be protected from temperature extremes, car fumes, predators (including rats) and ill health, Neil said. He advised that it is safe for the tortoise to lose 1 percent body weight per month, but not more than 8 to 10 percent body weight during the total hibernation period.
If left alone, a tortoise will come out of hibernation around April (after five or six months). This is far longer than in nature – hibernation should not exceed 20 weeks, or 15 for smaller tortoises. When ending hibernation, the temperature should be increased gradually over several hours to 15°C or more, which will start to prepare the metabolism. Neil advised that tortoises be placed in a bright, warm environment and bathed twice a day to encourage drinking, urination and defecation.
It was recommended that owners also be contacted for a post-hibernation examination. This should involve checking weight, doing a physical exam, blood tests if required, assessment of husbandry, re-evaluation of hibernation period and intervention as necessary.
It is key to note that if the tortoise hasn’t drunk within 48 hours of coming out of hibernation or hasn’t eaten within a week, it needs to be seen by the vet, Neil said. It will typically require an oesophagostomy tube. Failing to urinate more than once in six weeks has a grave prognosis, he warned: “We need to prevent tortoises getting to that stage.”
Causes of post-hibernation anorexia include:
- Excessive length of hibernation
- Low white cell count
- Failing to reach preferred optimum temperature zone after waking up
- Disease or trauma during hibernation
- Undetected chronic disease
Take a history of progress compared to last year, including signs of infectious disease, and talk to the owners about nutrition and routine health checks. If a tortoise is anorexic, perform a clinical examination and take an X-ray; also obtain faecal/urine samples and blood samples for haematology and biochemical analysis, Neil advised.
To treat anorexia, correct dehydration. Fluid therapy should be used (Neil’s preferred method is via the prefemoral fossa) and urination achieved. He said that blood glucose should be increased and concurrent disease treated, ensuring there is an optimal environmental temperature and appropriate nutrition is provided.
Neil strongly recommended inserting an oesophagostomy tube – it allows for easy feeding and medicating, has minimal stress to the patient and is long-lasting, inexpensive and simple for the owner to use. Reptiles get sick slowly and recover slowly, he explained, highlighting that anorexic tortoises may not be self-feeding for one or two months.
The take-home message was that reptiles are often poorly understood and provided with suboptimal husbandry, so it is important that veterinary surgeons understand how to advise owners on looking after their pet tortoises. It will take a long time for a tortoise to get better, so treat it over a few months and advise the owners on best care to prevent issues in the future.