Is your bearded dragon acting very tired and refusing food? She might be preparing to brumate! Bearded dragon brumation is a pretty common occurrence, but it can scare a first-time reptile owner who may not understand what their dragon is doing. Read all you need to know about brumation so you can be prepared and help your bearded dragon have a peaceful brumation experience.
What Is Brumation?
Brumation is a natural process that many reptiles undergo in the wild during the cold winter months to conserve energy. During brumation, a dragon’s digestion system essentially shuts down, his heart rate drops significantly, and he appears to be in a deep sleep.
Bearded dragons are ectotherms, meaning they cannot regulate their own body heat. They rely on their environment to keep them warm or cool. Desert winters are too cold for them to be out and about, so they burrow in the ground or in a tree and settle into a dormant state.
Although this process resembles hibernation, it isn’t the same thing. When mammals hibernate, their body fat is used to keep them alive. They don’t need to eat or drink, and they don’t wake up until hibernation is over. During brumation, reptiles won’t eat or defecate, but they will often wake up briefly to drink water.
Of all domesticated reptiles, bearded dragons are the most likely to brumate, so there’s a decent chance your pet will go through this process. At the same time, not all domesticated bearded dragons brumate, so you shouldn’t worry if your dragon skips brumation altogether.
How Often Does Bearded Dragon Brumation Occur?
In the wild, bearded dragons would brumate once a year during the cold months. Domesticated bearded dragons are a little different. The truth is, it varies. Any of the following brumation patterns are normal.
Your bearded dragon may brumate:
- Once a year every year, during the current cold season.
- Once a year every year, during Australia’s cold season.
- Every other year or every few years, predictably or unpredictably.
- Only once in her lifetime.
Every dragon is different and their specific brumation patterns are nearly impossible to predict. The key is to watch for brumation signs in your bearded dragon and let nature run its course.
Bearded Dragon Brumation Signs
How do you know if your bearded dragon is about to go into brumation? There are some telltale signs to look out for:
- Lethargy, increased sleep, earlier bedtime
- Loss of appetite or complete refusal of food
- Frequent hiding or burrowing
- Less frequent bowel movements
- Disinterest in you or other people
- Unusual aversion to being handled
In many cases, you’ll notice signs of brumation in the late fall just before winter (October, November). But for some bearded dragons, brumation starts around June, when it’s winter in Australia. It just depends on your individual dragon.
If you do notice any brumation signs, regardless of the season, remember that many of these signs also commonly signify parasites or some kind of illness. That’s why it’s best to notify your vet immediately to make sure it really is brumating time and there’s not some other issue going on.
What to Do If Your Bearded Dragon Shows Signs of Brumation
So you’ve noticed the signs, talked to your vet, and have determined that your bearded dragon is going into brumation. What can you do before, during, and directly after brumation to help your dragon have a good experience?
To help your dragon go into brumation smoothly:
- Ensure your bearded dragon’s habitat has optimum heating and lighting. This means making the tank cooler to mimic Australian desert winter conditions.
- To prevent food rotting in your dragon’s stomach, make sure your dragon has a bowel movement before going into full brumation. A belly massage can help with this.
- Get a fecal test done to check for parasites, which can cause symptoms that are similar to brumation.
- Don’t force feed your dragon.
- Offer water, but don’t force your dragon to drink.
Pro Tip: For optimal brumation conditions, turn your dragon’s basking bulb and UV light off. Aim for a daytime temperature around 68 degrees Fahrenheit and a nighttime temperature around 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Once your dragon is “asleep”:
- Although it may sound a little harsh, leave your dragon alone. Handling him could cause major panic or a heart attack.
- Provide fresh water in the tank, but never force your dragon to drink.
- Provide a hideaway for your dragon to sleep in. This could be a blackout hut or cave.
- Jot down notes for your vet (and your own future reference) during your dragon’s brumation. You can keep track of things like when it began, how long it’s lasting, and any behavior your dragon exhibits during brumation, such as drinking or wandering around.
Once your dragon wakes up:
- Over the next few days, set the heating and lighting back to normal.
- Offer little portions of food gradually. You may want to stick with greens and easy-to-digest veggies at first until your dragon’s full appetite comes back.
- Continue to provide fresh water to keep your dragon hydrated.
Where Does a Bearded Dragon Brumate?
Bearded dragons naturally want to brumate underground or deep in a tree. They probably don’t have either of those options in their terrarium, and that’s okay. You can help your dragon along by placing a blackout hut in their cage. Your dragon can curl up and drift off without the risk of constantly being woken up by lights in your home.
How Long Does Brumation Last?
In the wild, brumation is a survival necessity. So all bearded dragons in the same area would be brumating around the same time—during the cold months. However, in captivity, brumation is not a necessary behavior, so it is different for each dragon. Some domestic dragons only brumate for a few weeks. Some brumate for months.
So technically your dragon could be in brumation for just under a month, or for up to eight or nine months. It just depends on what your beardie’s biological clock is telling him.
In the wild, brumation would last three to four months. If your bearded dragon is still brumating after four months, let your vet know just to be safe. But chances are, your dragon is perfectly fine.
It can be disconcerting if your bearded dragon goes into brumation and then disappears for months on end. If you start to worry, just peek in on your dragon from time to time or even every day to make sure he is still breathing. Just try to do it without waking your dragon up.
Is It Brumation? Or Is My Bearded Dragon Dead?
If this is your first bearded dragon, or if your dragon has never brumated before, it’s normal to feel a bit apprehensive when you see your pet in such a deep sleep. Many owners worry whether their dragon is in brumation or dead. If your dragon goes into brumation in a healthy state, odds are you have nothing to worry about. Just check in on your dragon from time to time and see that she is still breathing, and she should be waking up before you know it.
Should You Ever Prevent or End Bearded Dragon Brumation?
Brumation is a natural process for many reptiles, including bearded dragons. More often than not, it’s best to just let your dragon do what her biological clock is urging her to do. But there are some cases in which your vet will advise you to prevent brumation.
This is because brumation can kill a sick or malnourished dragon. Contact your vet if your dragon starts to brumate under any of the following circumstances:
Your dragon is under a year old. In the wild, baby bearded dragons don’t brumate. Brumation requires a dragon to go for months without food. This lack of nutrition can be very harmful to a baby's growing body. In many cases, if your baby dragon starts going into brumation, it is best to prevent it. Talk to your vet about the best ways to do that.
Your dragon starts to brumate during a warm season. Is your dragon showing signs of brumation during a season other than winter? One explanation is that your dragon’s brain is still hard-wired to its Australian desert roots. So your dragon’s biological clock is saying “Hey, since it’s actually winter in Australia right now, let’s go ahead and brumate.”
Normally this is not problematic and you can allow your dragon to go into brumation. However, sometimes warm-weather brumation is a sign that something else is going on. It could be caused by:
- Heating and UVB lighting issues. If your dragon is too cold, he might think it’s Northern-hemisphere-winter when it actually isn’t. Poor heating and lighting can cause a number of health issues, some that are quite severe like metabolic bone disease. If you discover your heating and lighting have not been adequate, get your dragon checked out by a vet before allowing brumation to occur.
- Malnutrition. Nutritional deficiency can cause off-season brumation. It’s always important to make sure your dragon is receiving a complete proper diet at all times to help keep him as happy and healthy as possible. Your vet can help you determine if this is the issue.
- Dehydration. Although your dragon may emerge periodically during brumation to get some water, he shouldn’t enter into brumation dehydrated. If your dragon has sunken eyes, loose skin, or appetite loss, he may be dehydrated.
- Illness or medical condition. If you know your bearded dragon has a serious health condition or is ill, let your vet know as soon as any signs of brumation emerge. Your vet can instruct you on what to do to prevent brumation in this case.
Contact your vet if you ever notice any of the following symptoms in your bearded dragon, regardless of whether you think she is going into brumation:
- Any abnormal behavior
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Skin discolorations or wrinkly skin
- Difficulty moving
- Swollen jaw or limbs
- Difficulty breathing
- Refusal to eat
- Overall weakness
Some of these signs, like lethargy and loss of appetite, are characteristic of brumation. But some are not. That’s why it’s important to keep a keen eye out and talk to your vet. It’s better to be safe than sorry!
How Do You Know When Brumation Is Ending?
When your bearded dragon initially goes into brumation, there are signs to look out for. When your dragon wakes up, it’s pretty obvious. You may check on her and see her staring wide-eyed back at you, or she may just wander out of her hiding spot and begin crawling around her terrarium in search of food. Either way, it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between your dragon wandering out for a sleepy drink vs. actually waking up.
Keep in mind that your dragon may take several days to get back into his old routine. Gradually adjust his lighting back to normal and offer his regular meals, and just be patient as he wakes up. Pretty soon he’ll be back to his normal habits. If at any point you feel concerned or notice anything abnormal, reach out to your vet.
Although brumation can be a little stressful especially for first-time Dragon Keepers, remember it’s a natural process and your dragon will be so excited to see you when she wakes up!
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