What Is Brumation?
Bearded dragon brumation is a process whereby reptiles slow down their metabolism to preserve energy during colder weather. Reptiles are cold blooded and therefore require external heat from the environment – ideally the sun. It’s similar to hibernation in mammals.
Mammals are warm blooded so they generate their own heat. Many mammals hibernate, which is a more extreme form of brumation. In hibernation the mammal generally ‘sleeps’ fully for a time, in order to preserve body mass during the months when there is little food available. Hibernation is a protective mechanism so that the animal can survive the lack of food during the cold months.
Brumation is also a protective mechanism but is done to preserve the creature during the colder months as they cannot generate their own heat. Their entire metabolism relies on external heat, so during the colder months there is not enough heat in the environment to sustain them.
However, during brumation, reptiles will still wake up occasionally. This is usually because they need water or sometimes food. But they’ll only wake up from their brumation when there’s enough heat in the environment to sustain them. This might be when the sun is out and they can capture enough heat temporarily.
Why Do Bearded Dragons Brumate?
Bearded dragons are reptiles and as such they cannot generate their own heat internally. They rely on the heat from the environment to digest and metabolise their food. When there’s not enough heat in the environment, they enter brumation in order to survive.
Mammals have internal heat generation, mostly from metabolism itself but also from skeletal muscle activity such as shivering. Bearded Dragons can’t shiver and don’t generate their own heat.
What Triggers Brumation in Bearded Dragons?
In the wild, the bearded dragon has evolved to look for certain triggers to begin brumation. The temperature dropping is likely to be the biggest trigger. Shorter days and longer nights will also trigger the brumation process. A reduction in food sources will also trigger the brumation process. Many insects are more prolific during the warmer months. If you’ve ever experienced a ‘locust’ season in Australia you’ll understand the proliferation of food available during the spring and summer.
In captivity these changes are less marked because the keeper controls the environment. This is usually through the use of timers and thermostats to keep the temperatures at the ideal point and to manage the amount of light the enclosure has throughout the day. But often the keeper won’t need to keep the enclosure heated overnight ( depending on the overnight temperature in the house ). The nights might start to get cooler and the amount of genuine daylight will still drop during winter months.
What Are The Signs My Bearded Dragon Is Going Into Brumation?
Brumation can be a scary time for bearded dragon owners – particularly new owners. Many new owners are thrown by the brumation process because it can look like your bearded dragon is sick. In some cases it may be that they are sick, so it’s worth checking everything before deciding that they are brumating. I’ll go into that a bit later.
Signs that your bearded dragon is going into brumation;
- Eating less – particularly if they were ravenously hungry a few days/weeks prior
- Being less active
- Spending less time in the basking zone
- Retreating into their cave area
- Spending more time in the cool zone of the tank
Signs Something Is Wrong, not Brumation
Some keys to look for to make sure your bearded dragon is brumating versus becoming ill;
Bearded dragons going into brumation will be slowing their metabolism down. This means they don’t eat as much but don’t burn as much energy. They shouldn’t therefore be losing any weight if they’re brumating because their energy input will match their energy output. A sick Bearded Dragon will still have their normal metabolic rate (or possibly even increased to fight the illness). If they’re not eating but still burning the same amount they will lose weight.
It’s worth weighing your dragon every so often even when they appear healthy just to keep a baseline so you can be sure if they start losing weight. It’s also good information to be able to give to your vet if necessary.
A Bearded Dragon that is losing weight and lethargic is SICK not brumating.
Baby Or Juvenile Bearded Dragon
Bearded Dragons less than 10 months old don’t generally brumate – at least not fully. If your baby or juvenile bearded dragon is lethargic and avoiding eating there’s probably an illness at play, not brumating.
Other Problems That Mimic Brumation
There are various problems that can mimic brumation and are worth checking to make sure these aren’t going on before accepting that your dragon is brumating.
Shedding can cause a bearded dragon to be off their food and appear more lethargic. Bearded Dragons need to shed their skin in order to grow. If they have been gaining weight well and then becomes lethargic you might find they’re going to begin a shed. Look for small areas of their skin to become lighter in colour and look like it’s lifting away. This is probably a shed starting, not a brumation. In this case, have a look at what to do when your bearded dragon is shedding instead.
Impaction can cause Bearded Dragons to become lethargic and be off their food. If your bearded dragon hasn’t had a poo for a while or begins to regurgitate their food, then they could be impacted. Only you can know what is normal for them because every dragon has a different routine for this! Impaction is where an undigestible substance has been eaten and cannot be broken down. This forms a solid blockage in their bowels beyond which waste can’t pass. More information about Bearded Dragon Impaction is available.
If you think your bearded dragon is impacted, you should consult a herpetologist immediately. Impaction can be fatal.
Bearded Dragons can pick up parasites from their food. Good reputable food suppliers should be parasite free, but sometimes a bearded dragon might eat an insect that flew into the enclosure for example. These wild insects can easily contain parasites which grow in the nice environment their internals provide. Fortunately, home testing kits are available, or a quick trip to the vet with a stool sample will be able to rule parasites out and treatments are easily available. If you think your bearded dragon is entering brumation, it’s a good idea to do a parasite check to be sure it’s not parasitic infection and is definitely brumation.
Dying / Old Age
If your bearded dragon is getting on in years it could simply be that sadly, they are dying. This is something none of us want to think about but unfortunately it is inevitable at some point. See Is My Bearded Dragon Dying for more information.
The signs of a bearded dragon dying are likely to be similar to brumation, but you’ll probably be able to tell that something is different. It may be that their eyes don’t have the same shine as they used to. Their colour will fade and they may look grey. They’ll probably be very lethargic and not respond to you in the way they used to. It may look like they’ve just given up. Of course, these symptoms could be something else going on as mentioned above. If you’re concerned you should consult your vet before assuming that your dragon is definitely dying.
How Long Do Bearded Dragons Brumate?
Each bearded dragon is different, and each one’s brumation is different. Some will brumate for months, others will only brumate a few days. Even the same bearded dragon might brumate for a different length of time this year compared to last year. So long as you’ve ruled out all the possible sickness causes when they enter brumation then there’s no need to panic if they brumate for longer this time than they did last year.
Even the type of brumation can vary each time. Your dragon might only slow down a little bit and become a little bit lethargic during the day – other times they might go to sleep on Monday and not wake up again until Friday, a month later… They’re very unpredictable. Some times you might not even notice that they’re brumating at all.
What Should I Do While my Bearded Dragon is Brumating?
Normally, provided that you’ve ruled out any causes of sickness and your bearded dragon has a clean bill of health, then you don’t need to do all that much at all during brumation.
You will most likely need to reduce the amount of food you leave out for them, because they’re not likely to eat it. If you leave live food in the tank, worms are likely to turn into beetles or flies because they’re not getting eaten. Vegetable and leafy greens will likely go untouched and go rotten. So, reduce the amount of food and try not to leave any in the tank to get spoiled. They might want some food now and then even during brumation, so be guided by your dragon. They’ll let you know if they wake up hungry. You should still put some fresh food and water every day but it can be a reduced amount. We used to put a small drop of water on our dragon’s nose every day during brumation which they usually licked off (because it annoyed them) to ensure they stay hydrated.
Reduce Light and Heat
You can reduce the light and heat gradually during the brumation process. They’ll likely be spending more time in the cooler end and potentially in their cave so they won’t need as much light and heat. Try to keep the cool end at around the 25 degree celsius mark though, don’t make it too cold for them as they are after all from the warmer areas of Australia. Even during the winter most of their natural habitat won’t get too cold. We switched our tank lights off about an hour earlier in the winter during brumation time.
A good rule of thumb is to disturb them as little as possible during brumation. Keep your eye on them but be guided by them as to how much food they want, how much basking they might want (which may be none). Check on them daily but without disturbing them too much, and if it helps you to keep your mind at rest you can weigh them now and then to make sure they’re not losing weight. They may lose a little bit of weight, but it shouldn’t be much.
So, don’t panic, let them rest. They’ll wake up refreshed and be bugging you for a larger meal soon enough.
If you have any questions after reading this post, please leave a comment below and we’ll do our best to help.