Sunday, August 10, 2014

Keeping tortoises cool on hot days

When Summer finally comes, and the weather heats up, it is SO important to make sure your tortoise doesn't overheat or dehydrate! I will outline a few simple but important precautions you need to take to insure your tortoise remains happy and healthy, even during a heat advisory.
Being outdoors is so good for tortoises... but can also be dangerous!
First, always keep in mind that if the air temperature is 90 degrees F (32 degrees C), the ground temperature in the sun can easily be 140 degrees F (60 degrees C), which is unsafe for our chelonian friends!

In the wild, tortoises have the opportunity to dig deep into their burrows to enjoy cooler temperatures and even to aestivate (Summer version of hibernation). They can seek out DEEP shade under bushes and trees and rock crevices. They can roam for miles in the morning to find a suitable spot to hide from the midday sun.

In captivity, keepers often only provide flimsy hides that don't actually insulate tortoises from the heat. Some outdoor enclosures don't have deep shade from trees or bushes, and the substrate is too shallow to dig into. Tortoises can be trapped, and may suffer from heat stroke if left in the beating sun for too long.

(some tortoises like to dig more than others)
If your tortoise is outdoors, and the weather is warmer than 85 degrees F, your tortoise really needs to have some form of insulated hide that also allows it to dig several inches or feet into the soft, cool soil to regulate its body temperature. Such a hide can be built from wood and insulation material, or made from a sturdy half-pipe or half flowerpot, with several inches of soil piled over top. You can plant sod over top to help keep the dirt in place (possibly with some kind of netting under the sod, to prevent erosion).

In the picture below, you can sort of see one of my insulated hides up against the wall. It is both attractive and useful! I made it from a sturdy plastic bin (once upon a time a recycling bin), with soil piled on top, and a little rock garden with succulents. Even on a hot day, the inside of the hide only rises to about 70 degrees F (21 degrees C). The soil inside is soft, and tortoises can dig about a foot down into it.

A hide that is insulated by dirt and a rock garden with succulents!
The tortoise enclosures are large, and are planted with several bushes, and a tree partially shades a portion of the tortoise yard all day long. As a result, the tortoises can decide which part of the temperature gradient they want to spend time in. They come out into the sun in the morning, to raise their body temperature. Then they eat and wander for a few hours. During the hottest afternoon hours, they hide away in the cooler, shadier areas. Then they usually come back out in the cooler evening hours, or they dig in for the night.

To help regulate the temperatures in their tortoise garden on hot days, I hose it down thoroughly every couple of hours. The tortoises have come to appreciate the cool rain shower from the hose - almost all of them come out to visit while I'm spraying down the outdoor tortoise habitats. On extra hot days I also set up an umbrella to shade part of the enclosure.

Another measure I take to help the tortoises stay healthy in warm weather is to soak them once a week. When it is not as hot, I let them self-regulate their water intake, since they do have a nice big planting saucer full of water to bathe in or drink out of. However, 100 degree weather can dehydrate a tortoise awfully fast.

8 soaking Russian tortoises
Here's the whole bale of my RTs, 6 females and 2 males, ranging from 4.5" to 9" SCL, all soaking in some cool water this afternoon. We have a couple of really hot days coming up, so even though they live outside, I soaked them in the kiddie pool to make sure they are well hydrated.

Using an infrared temperature gun to check the ground temperature regularly might save your tortoise's life.

If there is a heat advisory in your area, and you are not sure if you will be able to come home during the hottest hours of the day, it is safer to bring your tortoise into the cool inside (NOT the garage, which is often much hotter than outside!) for the day. Being in a boring bin is safer than being stuck in the heat!

CAUTION: If your tortoise has been outside in very hot weather, and is acting lethargic, is incessantly pacing, is foaming at the mouth, vomiting or is having neurological symptoms, IMMEDIATELY put it in cool water and run room temperature water over the top of its shell to help it reduce its body temperature. Then call an emergency veterinarian and seek help ASAP! Tortoises can die from heat stroke!