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AUTUMN/FALL FEEDING BEHAVIOUR - UK & N. Europe

A. C. Highfield

When a tortoise stops feeding in the autumn.....

It is important to realise that tortoises only feed under certain conditions; in order to feed they need adequate light and radiant heat. In the wild, the warm Mediterranean sun provides both. Here in the UK., our weather conditions are very different. In the wild, most tortoises have two 'feeding peaks; in the spring and again in the autumn - summer is often too hot, and in many localities tortoises do not emerge to feed for days or weeks on end... our UK and northern European pattern is very different, with the spring often slow to start, the summer relatively mild and autumn cold and prolonged. Here, peak feeding occurs in mid-summer.

It is natural- indeed, essential - for tortoises to have a break from feeding immediately prior to hibernation (see "safer hibernation & your tortoise")")

Therefore, do not worry if your tortoise has stopped eating after late summer or early autumn. If it appears to be free of health problems and IS OF ADEQUATE WEIGHT then there is probably nothing physically wrong. This 'fasting' period may last for 3-6 weeks quite safely. We would recommend keeping the tortoises above 55F (13C) for at least 3 weeks after the last meal to allow time for food in the digestive tract to be processed properly; the most dangerous thing to do is to put a tortoise into hibernation (i.e. below 50F (10C) immediately after keeping it somewhere warm where it feeds normally. If this occurs, the digestive tract will contain large quantities of semi-digested food and the tortoise is in grave danger.

If the weather is very poor in mid or late summer, then the tortoise may stop feeding too soon - if this looks like happening, you need to provide extra light and warmth to encourage continued feeding for a while longer. The further North in Britain you are situated, the more often this problem occurs. We suggest using indoor 'basking pens', or outdoor greenhouse-type accommodation where this is a problem. The main thing is to detect the problem early - it's too late to do anything about it after September. By then, the 'winding down' process will be well advanced. If a tortoise is underweight at this stage you will not be able to hibernate it safely, but must overwinter it in warm, light conditions indoors where it can continue to feed.

So, in general, a slow wind-down followed by a complete cessation of feeding is perfectly normal, but your tortoise MUST be of adequate weight by EARLY AUTUMN. You cannot "boost" its weight by force feeding or any other means after mid-summer.

  • DO NOT attempt to feed a tortoise immediately prior to hibernation as if you hibernate it whilst the upper digestive tract contains food it is in serious danger. Tortoises need a fasting period before hibernating.
  • DO REMEMBER that small tortoises (there are several geographical races, or 'varieties' of Mediterranean tortoise) are NOT DESIGNED to withstand a long hibernation. These tortoises will require extra care - large tortoises are much better equipped to withstand longer hibernation periods.