Some mammals go through a period of hibernation each year when their body shuts down and conserves its energy for the coming year. The same thing can occur in reptiles but instead of being called hibernation, it is known as brumation.
During this period of brumation, a reptile may not eat, drink, defecate, or move for several weeks. They may bury themselves completely underground or go to the darkest, coolest part of their enclosure, and scare you half to death when they don't respond to normal stimuli (i.e. poking and prodding).
Both males and females can go into this type of hibernation with males usually emerging from their deep sleep before the females. They may also brumate at any time throughout the year so this isn't a seasonal behavior.
What Is the Difference Between Hibernation and Brumation?
Mammals hibernate and reptiles brumate but there are also differences in the behaviors. During hibernation, a mammal is sleeping and does not have to eat or drink. But brumation is not a true sleep and they still need to drink water. A brumating reptile may have days where they will awake, show some activity, drink water, and then go back to their dormant state. Hibernating mammals, on the other hand, are in a deep sleep where they don't need to eat or drink. Chipmunks are one mammal that truly hibernates.
Why Does a Reptile Brumate?
Pet reptiles have no reason to brumate but it is an innate behavior, therefore, their body tells them to do it.
Brumation is a natural thing that is completely safe for your healthy reptile to do. In the wild, some reptiles, like bearded dragons, may brumate to avoid cold temperatures and the lack of food and water. In captivity, even though their light cycles and food may stay constant day after day, their biological clock may take over and tell their bodies to shut down for awhile.
Is There Anything You Can Do to Prepare a Reptile for Brumation?
Simply put, yes. Make sure your reptile is healthy, free of parasites (both internal and external), and encourage them to defecate (try soaking them in some water and massaging their belly). Also, make sure your humidity and temperatures in the enclosure are correct. A yearly check-up at the vet wouldn't be a bad idea to make sure their bodies are ready to go into brumation since many reptiles in the wild never re-awaken in the spring from brumation because of an ailment they had when they went into brumation in the winter. Thankfully, captive reptiles are usually much healthier than their wild counterparts and we are able to offer them regular veterinary care so brumation risks, while still risky, are lessened.
Can You Stop Brumation From Happening?
You should be able to interrupt your reptile's brumation period by handling them (and it is often encouraged you do so to offer water and food). But otherwise, brumation is a natural process, and although it is not without its risks, you should let your reptile be when you aren't helping them rehydrate if they happen to slip into brumation. To avoid brumation altogether, make sure your temperatures, feedings, and lighting are all consistent.
Do All Reptiles Brumate?
Out of the many kinds of reptiles that are kept as pets, bearded dragons are the most commonly seen kind that brumates. Bearded dragons are very unpredictable though and may brumate every year, never at all, for long periods of time, or on and off through a season. Other common reptiles that brumate include some kinds of turtles, tortoises, and snakes but some amphibians, like frogs, also brumate.