Brumation is a dormant period for reptiles. As with hibernation in mammals, their bodies shut down and conserve energy for the coming year. During the period of brumation, a reptile may not eat, drink, defecate, or move for several weeks. It may bury itself completely underground or go to the darkest, coolest part of its enclosure. It can scare you when your pet doesn't respond to normal stimuli such as 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.
Which Reptiles Brumate
Bearded dragons are the most common breed of reptile pets that brumate. Bearded dragons are very unpredictable 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. Some amphibians, such as frogs, also brumate.
Comparison to Hibernation
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 the reptile still needs to drink water. A brumating reptile may have days where it will wake, show some activity, drink water, and then go back to its 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 bodies tell them to do it. Brumation is a natural thing that is completely safe for your healthy reptile. 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 clocks may take over and tell their bodies to shut down for a while.
Preparing a Reptile for Brumation
Make sure your reptile is healthy, free of parasites (both internal and external), and encourage it to defecate (try soaking your pet in some water and massaging its belly). Also, make sure the humidity and temperature in the enclosure are correct. A yearly check-up at the vet is a good idea. In the wild, a reptile may have an ailment when it goes into brumation in the winter and as a result, may not re-awaken in the spring. Thankfully, captive reptiles are usually much healthier than their wild counterparts. You will lessen the health risks of brumation with regular veterinary care.
To avoid brumation altogether, make sure your temperatures, feedings, and lighting are all consistent. You should be able to interrupt your reptile's brumation period by handling your pet, as is encouraged when you offer water and food. Otherwise, brumation is a natural process, and although it is not without its risks. If your pet slips into brumation, help it rehydrate but otherwise leave your reptile alone.