When the year turns toward winter and the leaves change colour as summer slips away from us, an awful lot of bearded dragons go into brumation. Which leaves a large number of owners desperately worried that their dragon could be terribly sick, or even dying. Whilst it’s rarely that serious, it can be distressing to observe your bright and active pet – who has spent the whole summer demanding your attention – suddenly curled up in the cool end of their house, snoozing the days away.
So, just what is brumation? As the dictionary puts it:
A state or condition of semi-dormancy exhibited by reptiles and amphibians in response to cold weather, characterized by lethargy and a decrease in metabolic activity.
We’re all familiar with full hibernation, when an animal goes to bed and turns its internal processes right down low. They put themselves into a state of suspended animation to avoid winter, and wake up again in the spring. It’s a very drastic process, but vital to avoid severe weather and a total lack of food.
Brumation is similar, but not as extreme. In their native Australia the central bearded dragon that we most commonly keep can be exposed to seasonal differences in temperature and humidity. In order to cope with the reduction in available food (and the heat to digest it with) they dig themselves a burrow and doze away the season. If there is a warm day they wake up and bask, or will rouse themselves to lick dew from their rocks, but generally they slow down and wait for the good weather to return.
Even though they are many generations away from their wild ancestors, our pet bearded dragons still possess a fully functioning set of wild instincts. Despite their homes being artificially heated and lit, they are still sensitive to light levels in the room outside, air pressure, and fluctuations in external air temperature.
All of this means that your beardie may, with no apparent provocation that we can see, go to bed and want to stay there. So if this happens, what should we do?
Having a faecal sample tested by a vet will eliminate the possibility of a heavy parasite load causing lethargy. If your dragon gets a clean bill of health from the vet, then follow this simple checklist:
- Check your UV tube. Sometimes replacing a worn tube can convince your dragon that spring has sprung, and they wake up again.
- Check your temperatures. It may be that as the weather cools, your night time temperatures have dropped sufficiently to suggest to your pet that winter is here; adding night time heating may be necessary.
- Are they spending all their time at the cool or the warm end? If they are sleeping in the warm end, they probably want more heat. Sleeping in the cool end – usually under a hide – is a classic brumation symptom.
- Are they eating anything? A poorly dragon won’t eat at all, even if you offer them their favourite treats. A brumating dragon will eat a little, but not very much.
- How do they behave when you get them out? If they are their usual bright and attentive selves but go straight back to bed when they are returned to their vivarium, that’s normal for brumation. If you lift them out and they lie quietly, keep their eyes tightly shut or are otherwise lethargic, that is more likely to be a sign of illness.
- Take a look at the weather forecast – beardies are incredibly good at knowing when really hard weather is coming! If snow or storms are likely, it’s possible that your dragon is reacting to the changes in air pressure. This may trigger full brumation, or it may pass when the weather picks up.
OK, so we’ve established that your dragon has decided to brumate. How do we deal with it?
There are two generally accepted ways to deal with brumation. The first is to continue as normal, keep your UV and heat lamps on, offer fresh salad every day, and monitor your dragon’s weight weekly (which is good practice anyway). A brumating dragon will lose very little weight, a sick dragon will lose significantly more. Bathe them weekly to allow them to remain well hydrated, and bear in mind you might need to support their head above the water if they’re really sleepy. You can reduce the time your lamps are switched on by an hour or so each day, and return to their normal photoperiod when they start looking more alert again.
The second method is to allow the dragon to brumate as naturally as possible. Once they’ve had the all clear from the vet, begin to reduce temperatures and daylight by switching your lamps on later and off earlier, not offering food, and a daily bath to both empty the gut and allow them to drink. After two weeks the heating should be off (check that the temperature is not dipping below 19ºc), and your dragon will curl up in the cool end and go to sleep. If they don’t have a hide they can get totally under, then cover the front of the vivarium with black paper or a towel to allow them to sleep in darkness, just as they would in a burrow in the wild. Weigh and bathe them once a week, and keep a close eye on them. When they start to move around on their own, begin the process of ending brumation by turning their lights back on.
Brumation can last a few weeks, or as long as a few months. Usually, they will start to perk up as the days begin to get longer and the weather begins to improve; at this point, you should return their lighting regime to normal, make sure their temperatures are where they should be and begin to offer food. It’s quite normal for them to be ravenous after their long sleep!
Some dragons decide they’re going to brumate in the summer, which is baffling – nobody really knows why. However, since they are originally from the Southern hemisphere, it has been suggested that they are still keyed to the weather patterns on the other side of the world where our summer is their winter. This has never been proved, but is an interesting theory.
Summer brumation should be watched carefully. Sometimes bringing the dragon outside in good weather to take advantage of natural sunlight can be all the trigger they need to begin behaving normally again.
Brumation can be very frightening to a dragon owner who hasn’t seen it before. Rest assured, it is a natural part of beardie behaviour and nothing to be worried about. We’re always on hand to answer any questions you may have, and after the first time it’s not so scary; if you are concerned that your pet may be sick rather than trying to sleep away the winter, please consult a reptile specialist vet. Not every dragon will brumate every year, and dragons under a year old almost never – but sometimes!
Enjoy the winter, and wait for the spring to bring your summer dragon back to you!