Brumating bearded dragons may look like they’re sick, and sick bearded dragons can look like they’re brumating. Determining if your bearded dragon is in brumation or is sick can be challenging. With experience this will get easier, but if you’re new or unsure, here’s how we tell whether one of ours is sick or in brumation.
Check the Time of Year – Brumation is a Winter Thing
Brumation typically occurs in the fall/winter months when temperatures drop and daylight hours decrease. Bearded dragons rely on external cues like cooler temps and shorter daylight to trigger this semi-hibernative state.
If lethargy, lack of appetite or other out-of-normal behaviors manifest suddenly in the spring/summer or anytime the external conditions have not changed, it can indicate sickness rather than natural brumation.
Gradual changes keyed to the season point to brumation, while sudden behavioral shifts without environmental changes are more likely linked to underlying health issues or disease you should consider having you beardie assessed by a qualified reptile veterinarian.
Look for Weight Loss – Sick Beardies Lose Weight
Reptiles often lose some weight during brumation, but significant weight loss can be a signal that they’re sick. For example, a gradual 5 – 10% loss over the period of their brumation is natural, but a rapid 20% weight loss is abnormal. It can be easier to spot this if you make sure you regularly weigh your bearded dragon both when they’re active and when they go into brumation.
During brumation, a bearded dragons metabolism slows right down, which is why they don’t lose much weight when brumating – but when they’re sick their metabolism may speed up (to help them fight off their sickness) and that needs energy, so if they’re not eating they’ll lose weight.
Monitor Appetite – Brumation or Sick Stop Eating
As we said above, a slower metabolism during healthy brumation means a reptile’s appetite is reduced but they will still typically drink water and eat some food periodically. For example, a brumating bearded dragon may eat a few insects or vegetable pieces once a week or every few days.
However, a complete lack of interest in any food or water across a number of days or weeks often indicates that your bearded dragon is sick rather than in brumation. Determining appetite levels requires direct observation and accounting for slower activity in general. If you’re seeing signs like refusal to eat a preferred food item when it’s being offered directly, no licks of water off their noses, and no interest even in live, moving prey then these are all strong signs of underlying health issues rather than brumation.
An unusual, unprecedented lack of appetite, particularly combined with additional signs of potential distress, necessitates veterinary assessment rather than assuming their winter-time temporary semi-hibernation is the cause.
Assess Environment – The Most Important Factor
A bearded dragon’s tank setup with proper lighting, heating, substrate and accessories is vital to their health. Issues like incorrect temperatures or UV exposure can cause distress or health conditions over time. For example, metabolic bone disease from too little UV or undiagnosed digestive issues from improper substrates.
In contrast, a healthy bearded dragon will rely on seasonal decreases in day light and environmental temperatures to trigger a natural state of brumation without changes needed to their optimized habitat setup.
Ensuring the tank environment does not suddenly change and does not deviate from the needed temperature gradients and full spectrum lighting supports brumation as an innate biological process for reptiles in the winter.
Examining the vivarium closely when any health issues emerge can reveal external causes from lighting problems, equipment issues introducing infection risks or other factors that you can remedy once identified. Veterinary guidance paired with correcting any environmental deficiencies in the habitat provides the best path back towards health outside of the natural brumation state.
Activity Levels Will Drop
A key difference between a brumating reptile’s state and underlying illness is response levels to direct contact and other stimulation.
Reptiles in a healthy brumation will be sleepy but they will remain somewhat alert and will shift position or move, albeit sluggishly, if touched, picked up or exposed to significant movement or vibrations nearby. For example, a gently prodded bearded dragon will elicit a slow, careful crawling motion to reposition itself despite preferring stillness.
However, if the animal is extremely weak and entirely unresposive physically to any amount of stimulation such as tapping, noises, shifting of environment – no matter how persistent – underlying illness rather than brumation is more likely.
In essence – unresponsiveness plus other symptoms means proper veterinary medical care is required. The lack of basic reactions and marked decline, points to illness rather than temporary brumation.
Body Positions Should Look Natural in Brumation
While brumating reptiles are largely inactive and their posture and body positions when at rest appear natural and neutral without strain. For example, a healthy brumating bearded dragon will lay with their torso and legs fully extended or modestly curled inward rather than hunched abnormally to one side.
However, issues like muscle twisting, contracting, trouble moving specific limbs, dragging tail or body sections, stargazing with head tilted back, or repeatedly falling over even from stationary positions all signal underlying health conditions requiring diagnosis.
Additionally, any obvious tremors, seizures, repetitive motions point to your bearded dragon having neurological or other internal medical problems rather than seasonal dormancy. Veterinary assessment helps determine causes, like vitamin deficiencies, infection or other treatable issues for supportive care restoring good health so the bearded dragon can return to normal brumation cycles in future once they’ve recovered.
Check Hydration Status
Reptiles require adequate hydration levels even in a brumation state, whereas severe dehydration often accompanies sickness.
Careful observation can help you determine whether hydration levels align with a healthy brumation cycle. For example, the skin around a brumating lizard’s neck and folds may appear slightly less elastic but still smooths back down, eyes remain round though activity is reduced, and the cloaca retains some moisture though even though they’re passing urates less frequently.
However, sunken eyes, extremely slow skin tenting, flaky scarred skin, sticky and tacky mucus membranes, unusual discharges, and a very dry, wrinkled cloaca even right after a soak all require medication attention, particularly if this is paired with your bearded dragon having appetite or behavior changes.
Tracking all the visible markers of internal and external hydration day-to-day, combined with other symptoms, assists keepers in determining if supportive care or veterinary assistance is warranted during periods of reptile inactivity.
Consult a Vet if You’re Not Sure
Consulting an experienced herp veterinarian can also help determine if there are any signs of infection, disease or distress that need medical intervention vs. supporting a natural brumation cycle for bearded dragons.
Hopefully this quick guide to brumation versus sickness has given you some clues as to whether your bearded dragon is sleeping sounding, brumating gracefully during the darker cooler months or whether they have some sickness going on that needs veterinary treatment.
If you’re still unsure, have a chat with a vet – if you don’t have one you can chat to our Vet using the chat-head in the bottom right corner.
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