Mid-Winter Blues

The “Mid-winter Blues” is a catch-all term for lots of things that can go wrong for a keeper in the middle of winter. Our tortoises will have been indoors now for several months and spring is still a ways off. The general stress of captivity is really high and our tortoises are feeling it (and we probably are too!) Contributing factors can include:

  1. So-so diet, not as good as what they would get outside or over the summer.
  2. Inadequate exercise because of the smaller indoor habitats.
  3. Boredom because of the lack of variety:  weather, nature, temps, lighting.
  4. Environmental issues with heat, humidity, and light which are always a bit of a trick to get just right indoors.
  5. Higher exposure to diseases in the substrates due to the presence of substances such as poo, combined with reduced resistance.
  6. Substrates that are going “sour”, i.e. getting smelly or germy.
  7. and more and more and more and more.

Your tortoise may show many signs of this stress:

  • Sleeping all day, possibly in the hottest or coldest areas.
  • Not eating as much or eating more lethargically.
  • Losing weight.
  • Abnormal or no bowel movements.
  • Skin getting drier and/or paler.

The stress can open the tortoise up to many health issues including bone disease, parasites and viruses. Lots of these already exist to some extent or another in the habitat or are dormant in the tortoise, but stress can cause them to “bloom” and become real problems.

This is a really good time of the year to rethink and regroup. Consider the following:

1. Take a big whiff inside the habitat. It probably needs some work, right?

  • Give the habitat a good cleaning and freshening. Polish the glass and clean the lights.
  • Think about replacing the substrate.
  • Give the torts a good soak every week or so.
  • Double check your temps and humidity.
  • Look at the lighting. Are they getting any UVB? A good white color balance? Natural day lengths? Is the lighting baking them like an oven? Is it blindingly bright? Is there a LOT of shade and hides?
  • Try some new plants or add more plants for variety and the other benefits.
  • Make sure the habitat has plenty of fresh air.

2. Think about the diet

  • Is it pretty complete?
  • Should you add a touch of supplementation? Diets this time of year should generally be low in moisture and carbs, and high in calcium and fiber- but they still benefit from variety and treats once in a while.
  • Try some variety in the diet- when was their last treat or special meal?
  • Try scattering, hiding, or hanging food so they have to hunt or stretch a bit to get it.

3. Look at the tortoise carefully.

  • Good growth lines? Even and clean, not dry and flaky or raised?
  • Good eyes, nostrils, skin?
  • Plastron OK?
  • Good weight?


Think of it as a quarterly check-up and overhaul. I generally find I have to do something like this about every 3-4 months to one extent or another. Start the summer pen, mid-summer clean-up, start the winter pen, mid-winter clean up, etc.


Edited 3-4-2013, (C) Mark Adkins