Brumation is a word that we often hear in the reptile community. But, what does it really mean? What is brumation in reptiles? Is it just like hibernation? What do I need to look out for? Is it healthy for my pet? Read below to answer all of those questions!
Brumation vs Hibernation
At first glance, reptile brumation and mammal hibernation look identical. According to the Webster dictionary the brumation definition is “a state or condition of sluggishness, inactivity, or torpor exhibited by reptiles (such as snakes or lizards) during winter or extended periods of low temperature.”
Both brumation and hibernation are at the same time of the year, which is in the winter, where an animal goes into a state of rest. Both mammals and reptiles will fatten themselves to be able to survive the wintertime, but reptiles don’t use the fat to survive.
Reptiles use glycogen, a form of sugar, while the fat is used for breeding and egg development. Some species, like corn snakes, need brumation to spark their breeding cycles.
Hibernation in mammals is a sleep-like state where the animal does not eat, drink, move or defecate. Unlike mammals when reptiles brumate, they will come out of their dens to drink water and bask in the sun on warm days. Reptiles do not create their own body heat and so will need the occasional sunbathing to keep their organs moving and healthy through brumation.
Reptiles also need access to water or their bodies will become dehydrated. Fat is high in liquid, which is why mammals do not need to drink water during hibernation.
What Reptiles Go Into Brumation?
In the pet trade the most well known is bearded dragon brumation. But you will see many other species of reptiles brumate as well.
Frogs in North America, especially the wood frog, are a perfect example of reptile brumation. Wood frogs can freeze completely solid and still wake up in the spring to continue the next generation. This is done because of glycogen, the sugars that reptiles store while getting ready for winter. The glycogen is flooded through the body the second that it drops below 32 degrees fahrenheit, and they keep the cells from rupturing due to being frozen. Their heart completely stops beating and they do not need any oxygen to survive. We found this fascinating article by LiveScience that talks more about the wood frog and their process of brumation.
Many turtles brumate, including red ear sliders and snapping turtles, and are known to freeze solid also. Many keepers place them in their fridge or freezer for a month or so to stimulate them to brumate. This can be dangerous, and not necessary for your reptile’s health, so it is best to leave it to breeders and professionals.
Desert species of tortoises, like russian or sulcata, are reptiles that brumate. The desert can have very cold nights, especially in the winter. Always offer water and a spot for them to stay warm, but don’t be surprised if they bury themselves into the substrate for a few weeks to a couple months!
Lizards that are native to the deserts, temperate forests, lakes and grasslands are all species that brumate. This can be the ever popular bearded dragon down to a small fence lizard.
You will not see tropical species brumating. This is because the temperature in their natural habitat does not ever drop down low enough for them to need to. If your tropical reptile’s temperatures drop even 5 degrees and is held there for a long period of time they can suffer from respiratory infections. A drastic drop in temperatures could kill them in a day. It is not safe to brumate reptiles that are from areas around the equator like ball pythons, iguanas, red foot tortoises, or chameleons.
What Are The Signs of Reptile Brumation?
There are a few signs that you may notice in your reptile when they are starting to go into hibernation.
- Becoming Lethargic- You may notice that your pet is not moving as often as they used to. They may hide themselves under the substrate or in a hide, rarely coming out.
- Appetite Loss- The biggest sign is your animal refusing food. This is a natural response as reptiles know that if they go into brumation with food in their bellies they can get really sick. If this continues for a long time and is accompanied by weight loss, you will want to take them to your nearest exotic vet.
- Reduced Bowel Movements- As your reptile starts to slow down and stops eating as much, their bowels will not be moving as quickly. It will take longer for a bowel movement to go through the digestive system.
Should My Pet Reptile Go Into Brumation?
There are many keepers, rescuers, and veterinarians that encourage fellow keepers to not purposefully brumate their reptiles unless absolutely necessary. Here’s a few reasons why you should not brumate your reptiles.
- Starvation- If your pet reptile has not had enough calories to build up the glycogen reserves to sustain brumation, then their body will start to use up the fat and muscle reserves. Your pet’s body needs to be in good condition to begin with or it will resort to eating their organs. If you are going to brumate your reptiles you need to make sure they are in top condition and have had quality nutrition.
- Rotten Food- When your reptile enters brumation the stomach slows down and sometimes even stops. That means that if they had a meal before the lower temps hit, that food would sit inside their gut and rot. Rotting food leads to higher bacteria growth and can poison your reptile’s blood.
- Dehydration- When your reptile goes into brumation they will not drink as often as they would have before. Some reptiles will refuse to actively seek water so you may need to do supplemental soaks to assist them. Without water reptiles organs will begin to shut down. This can cause permanent damage or even death.
- Parasites- If your reptile’s brumation starts before you have been able to have the stool tested or treated for parasites their bodies’ slowed state can become a breeding ground for parasites as it is not strong enough to fight them off.
What Do I Do If My Reptile Brumates?
Your temperature is perfect. Your light cycles aren’t too short. But your pet’s body still decided it was brumation time. Here are the things that you should do.
- Hydrate- Give them a good soak so they can get hydrated. You want to make sure that your reptile has as much water in their system as possible to help with the glycogen movement in their cells.
- Remove Food- Stop feeding them as their bodies are slowing down and refusing food. You do not want to cause them stomach issues while your reptile is brumating.
- Cool It Down- Lowering the temps inside of their tank will help your reptile. If your reptile is trying to brumate while it is too warm it can cause them stress as their eternal clock is telling them they need to brumate but the outside conditions aren’t correct. This can hurt their bodies as well.
- Darken the Cage- Cover their cage with a blanket. By giving your reptile a dark, cool environment you are mimicking the natural den that they would go into, helping their body fully brumate.
- Proper Hides- Give them somewhere cozy to sleep. Research where your reptile’s natural habitat is and where they would normally brumate. Some reptiles like to brumate in deep substrate while others would like a tighter hide.