Many people are familiar with the concept of hibernation in mammals, but did you know your reptile can "hibernate" as well? In reptiles, this is usually called brumation when weather gets cold and estivation when it gets overly hot and dry. Some reptiles do enter a deeper level of brumation that is closer to hibernation, and many breeders purposely brumate or hibernate their animals in preparation for breeding seasons, however, this page will discuss natural brumation in your pet reptile.
What is Brumation?
Breeders and pet store owners often have customers contact them in a panic. Why is my bearded dragon not moving?? How come my skink is sleeping all day?? Why won't my leopard gecko eat his food?? This panic is natural, but often unnecessary in the colder months of the year, even if you live in a warm climate! Reptiles have instincts that do not change even in captivity or when they are outside of their natural habitats and it is normal and healthy for your reptile to enter a state of brumation during certain times of the year. This period of time is usually from late fall to early spring. The length of brumation varies widely from animal to animal, depending on species, geographical region, yearly temperature variances, age, health and sex. Young reptiles do not brumate as they do not have the fat stores to survive it. If your reptile is under a year old and exhibiting signs of brumation, seek expert advice.
What IS brumation? It is a period of inactivity and dormancy. Their heart rate and breathing rate slow down. Little or no digestion occurs so they may eat very little or nothing at all. They drink less, eat less and eliminate waste less often. They hide more, often for weeks at a time without moving. Without brumation, wild snakes and lizards in seasonal climate zones would not be able to survive. This can be unnerving for the average pet owner, and even the experienced one.
It is ALSO normal, however, for your reptile to NOT enter a brumation period. Some do, and some don't. Some brumate by being completely inactive for long periods, some will just hide and sleep for a few days at a time and toss in some active days between.
DO NOT ATTEMPT TO FORCE BRUMATE YOUR REPTILE WITHOUT EXTENSIVE RESEARCH! There is a difference between adjusting your care for your reptile during brumation and forcing them into brumation, which should only be done by experienced keepers for breeding purposes.
Which Reptiles Brumate?
Most cold-blooded animals native to areas that experience cold winters naturally brumate to survive the harsh season. This includes lizards, turtles, snakes, and even frogs and salamanders.
Leopard geckos, bearded dragons, blue-tongue skinks, many tortoises and tegus are some of the most commonly kept pets that brumate.
What Are Signs Of Brumation? What Should YOU Do?
Your reptile may start to "go to bed" earlier than usual. They will spend more time sleeping, and be less interested in food. Some may stop eating altogether, and spend more time on the cool side of the enclosure. They become lethargic and move around less. Because they are eating less, they are also producing less waste. If they have access to burrowing substrate or hides, they will start to spend more and more time burrowed or hiding. Offer extra burrowing or hiding opportunities during this period.
Worried about your reptile surviving brumation? If they are healthy, they will have no issues surviving without any issues. However, before normal brumating periods (mid to late fall), taking your reptile to an experienced reptile vet for a fecal to make sure they have no parasites and for an annual checkup is a great way to go into brumation without worries. If you notice signs your reptile is about to start to brumate, give them a long warm soak to help them empty their bowels and get hydrated as much as possible.
Once you are sure your reptile is healthy and entering brumation, you can slowly reduce their temperatures and lighting. Do not suddenly turn off all their light and heat access however. Gradually reduce temperatures and turn off UVB as your reptile spends more time sleeping. Feed them less often, and be sure they have emptied their bowels completely before turning off lights and heat completely. Your reptile should still be kept at comfortable room temperatures and have access to natural daylight, but turning of basking lights and UVB while they are inactive is fine. Weigh them and keep a record to help you monitor their health. Record keeping is very helpful during this time - weight, feedings, temperature drops, activity periods, bowel movements - all of these things on paper will help you understand and care for your reptile easier during this period and help understand their behavior in the future.
Why Reptiles Brumate
Why on earth do they do this? Well, in the wild, many factors affect a reptile's ability to survive. Lack of food and water as ecosystems slow down is a big one. Plants and insects die, water freezes, and temperatures drop. Reptiles are unable to control their body temperature, which they rely on for digestion and other essential biological functions. They adjust for these periods by brumating.
Why do they do this in your home though? Even with lights on a timer, food available at all times and steady sources of heat, you can't fight instinct, and you can't (and shouldn't) control natural sunlight, barometric pressure and natural ambient temperature drops in your home, which all subtly affect your reptile's enclosure as well.
Brumation is very important for many reptiles for their breeding health as well and some cannot reproduce without natural brumation cycles. After brumation, your pet may show signs of breeding behaviors, even if they are not with a mate. Males can become more aggressive or display mating behaviors, and females may create a nesting site and lay infertile eggs.
Tips To Caring For Your Brumating Reptile
* Put lights on a timer to match the natural day and night cycle happening each season. Adjust these times as the seasons change.
* Adjust temperature, humidity, UVB and lighting schedules slowly. Even though your reptile may not be basking, they often have moments of activity where they will come out and bask and drink. Monitor their behavior closely and adjust their environmental conditions gradually.
* Offer clean, fresh water at all times, even if your reptile seems very inactive. They may be coming out during times you are not aware, and having access to water is extremely important.
* During active moments (no matter how slight), give your reptile a warm, shallow water soak to help keep them hydrated. Be sure to monitor them the entire time so they don't drown or choke. The goal is simply to give them access to water and soak it through their skin and vent if they do not drink on their own.
* Monitor your reptile's weight and body condition. Take photos weekly to compare, and examine and weigh them often if possible. Check for stuck shed, sunken, weepy or crusty eyes, extreme weight drops, or bloated bellies. These are indications of issues that may need vet attention.
* Avoid handling your reptile while they are brumating other than to weigh them or offer soaks. Disrupting this natural cycle can cause issues - plus, you are annoying them ;) It is fine to interact with them when they wake up and come out on their own, but try not to do more than a quick look in while they are "sleeping". I know, I know, it's hard.
* Offer your pet small meals during ACTIVE PERIODS ONLY. If they are out and about and looking for food, offer a small meal and slowly bring their temperatures and UVB access back up to normal. If they are only awake for short periods, do not offer food. A reptile that is hungry and ready to eat again will be actively looking for food and heat sources and begin to exhibit normal sleeping and eating patterns again.
* Having a hard time determining if your reptile is brumating or dead? Try putting them very gently on their backs. Even a sleepy reptile will attempt to right themselves. Do not do this unless you are absolutely unable to determine if they are alive or not.