From a very young age, we’re taught in school about seasonal patterns in the world of plants and animals alike.
From the mating and flowering season of Springtime to the hibernation period of Winter, even the smallest of minds tend to have some general understanding of seasonality and its role in nature.
But, what we’re we not taught about? Virtually anything having to do with reptiles, with the exception of learning about dinosaurs.
So, it should come as no surprise to anyone that bearded dragon brumation can be quite an alarming experience for new owners!
The purpose of this article is to set the record straight about brumation. From what brumation actually is, to tips on how to care for a bearded dragon that is brumating… no stone will be left unturned!
So, without further ado, let’s jump right into probably the most commonly asked question…
What is Brumation for Bearded Dragons?
In laymen’s terms, brumation is essentially the reptile equivalent of hibernation, with a few key differences.
Bearded dragons go into brumation as a direct response to the changing of the seasons.
As Winter approaches, not only does the sun grow weaker, but daylight hours get shorter, leaving bearded dragons unable to absorb enough warmth to properly digest their food, and well, to put it bluntly… survive.
In addition to changes in the sun, the weather itself will also be changing, leading to colder temperatures.
This affects the availability of the food beardies need to survive; plants go dormant until spring and insects die off.
A bearded dragon without food cannot possibly sustain themselves (obviously), so their metabolism has evolved over thousands of years to significantly slow down… allowing them to remain alive without food for as long as several months! Pretty cool, right?
Burying themselves under the soil, bearded dragons will essentially go into a deep sleep where they don’t need food or water.
However, their vents will often pull in moisture from the soil to keep them sufficiently hydrated, just as a side note.
By being underground, bearded dragons also avoid freezing to death and the temperature slips lower and lower.
Why do Bearded Dragons Brumate in Captivity?
While any responsible owner is going to supply their bearded dragon with enough food, warmth, and light to keep them healthy year-round, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can change their biology just like that.
You see, it is important to acknowledge that despite the resources we provide, bearded dragons have evolved to welcome brumation as simply a part of their life.
Now, with this being said it should also be noted that not all dragons will brumate in captivity, nor will all dragons brumate in Winter!
Some dragons may never brumate, while others feel such a strong instinct, that they may brumate every year.
Some dragons may even be so in tune with their instincts, that they go into brumation in Spring or Summer, despite being in the Northern Hemisphere!
Seeing as this is around the time they would brumate in their native Australia – which experiences Winter and Fall during the Spring and Summer of the Northern Hemisphere – goes to show just how intuitive these little guys truly are!
How Long Does Brumation Last?
Just as how not every dragon will brumate during the same time frame… the extent of how long brumation lasts will vary from dragon to dragon.
And while this may not be the succinct and helpful answer you were looking for (I’m sorry!), it is the truth.
You see, it may take you a brumation or two with your dragon to figure out exactly what you can expect from them.
Some dragons will go into a single long sleep for weeks on end, others will take long naps on and off, and some may never even really sleep at all!
Signs of Brumation in Bearded Dragons
As bearded dragon owners, we have a tendency to become slightly frantic and paranoid whenever our pet seems to be displaying strange behaviors that extend for longer than just a couple days.
With so many things that can go wrong with bearded dragons, it’s only natural that abnormal behavior triggers an alarm within us! After all, our beardies are family.
However, often times what we worry may be the signs of a serious health concern, such as impaction or virus, can oftentimes just be signaling the onset of a perfectly normal bearded dragon part of life, such as brumation or a shed.
Signs that your dragon may be preparing to go into brumation can include…
- Loss of appetite
- Going to the bathroom less (#2)
- An atypical aversion to being handled
- Refusing to bask
- Sleeping on the cool side of their vivarium, even in the day
- Burying themselves
- Difficulty being woken up
Once you’ve realized your bearded dragon is preparing to brumate, it is best to just leave them alone.
Do not try to force-feed them as this goes against the natural course of things and can cause health issues.
In fact, your bearded dragon is most likely counting down the days until all the food in his stomach is 100% digested, so he can pass one final bowel movement before transforming his lethargic naps into a deep sleep.
So, force-feeding will only complicate his calendar (on top of causing health issues).
Now, you can by all means still provide your dragon with a little bit of food and allow him to decide whether he wants to eat or not. But brumation is simply not a time for force-feeding, even if it would make YOU feel better.
How to Tell if a Bearded Dragon is Sick, Dead, or in Brumation
With new owners especially, the signs of brumation may often times go misdiagnosed and lead to some pretty scary assumptions about the health of your dragon.
Sick or Brumation?
A good indicator of whether your dragon is sick or just simply preparing to brumate is to look at their physical state.
Sick bearded dragons may display black beard, have depleted fat pads, mucus in their mouth, rotting tails, scale discoloration, sunken eyes, and other physical signs of illness.
However, a healthy dragon who is preparing to brumate should display none of these signs. Dragons preparing for brumation show more behavioral changes than physical.
Dead or Brumation?
If your concerned your bearded dragon may be dead, first I must say I am quite sorry if this turns out to be the case.
Losing a pet is never fun and I extend my condolences to you in this trying time.
To be certain whether your dragon has passed on, I advise you to not make any rash decisions or act too quickly as they are known to be pretty convincing at playing dead.
Dead bearded dragons will feel cold to the touch and can go stiff from rigor mortis. You will also likely notice a smell and their coloring changing depending on how long they have been dead for.
Here’s a test you can do to determine if your dragon is alive or not…
Try laying your dragon on their side and see if they move. If no movement is evident, turn them onto their back.
Any alive dragon will find this very uncomfortable and should try to wiggle themselves upright. If there is no movement still, it is entirely likely your dragon is dead.
How to Care for a Bearded Dragon in Brumation
Once you know your dragon is about to brumate, it isn’t as easy as simply checking out of their lives for a few weeks and coming back to care for them once they’ve woken up!
You’ll want to enact a couple of measures to make sure their brumation goes as smoothly as possible and that they wake up healthy.
Take Them to the Vet
If you can, schedule a vet appointment before your dragon is set to brumate to ensure that there won’t be any health issues related to them not eating for an extended period of time.
Certain ailments like parasites lurking in the digestive track, can be very difficult to account for, especially in well-fed healthy weight dragons who get plenty to eat.
However, if a dragon begins brumating WITH parasites in their digestive system, the parasites will begin to eat the dragon’s fat stores and can lead to them losing a scary amount of weight.
Your best bet at preventing this is to request a stool sample (which is typically around just $30 or so), your reptile vet will be able to definitively rule out whether or not your dragon is fit to go without food for weeks.
Get Them a Hide
It’s only natural that your bearded dragon is going to want to bury themselves under something to feel safe and secure while they brumate.
You can make brumation a much more peaceful and enjoyable experience for your pet if you provide them with a hide just begin enough for them to fit their entire body in comfortably.
Consider purchasing a good hide like this, if you don’t already have one, and placing it on the cool side of your dragon’s vivarium.
Dial Down the “Daylight” (Optional)
Want to mimic your dragon’s natural environment as closely as possible for them and save a little on your electricity bill at the same time? Consider turning the lights on for just 8 hours a day while they brumate.
If you want, you can even increase the light time little by little as you anticipate them coming out of brumation.
However, you likely need to be familiar with their brumation schedule to pull this off successfully, so new owners don’t fret too much over this.
Keep Them Hydrated
While your dragon brumates, you’re going to want to make sure they stay hydrated.
Unlike in the wild, your dragon won’t be able to take in moisture through his or her vents. So, you’re going to want to make sure you offer your pet water.
If your bearded dragon can be woken up or wakes up on a weekly basis, simply drip some water on their snout and see if they seem receptive to drink. Continue doing this until they stop.
If your bearded dragon won’t drink any of the water you drip on his snout OR simply is in such a deep sleep they can’t wake up, consider soaking them weekly in a nice warm bath.
Fill up a plastic bin or your bathtub no more than 2 inches, just enough to cover your beardie’s vents and allow them to soak for 20 to 30 minutes.
If your dragon doesn’t wake up for their bath, fear not this is perfectly normal. However, you will need to watch them to ensure they don’t take in any water in their mouth, as this can not only lead to pneumonia, but in more severe instances… death by drowning.
Make sure you dry your dragon entirely before placing them back in their vivarium as wet scales can lead to fungus.
If your dragon is awake, dry him gently and place him on his basking spot to let him fully dry, just make sure the temps are right.
Monitor Their Hunger
Now, if your beardie seems hungry at any point, you can try to feed them, but don’t get upset if they refuse food as they will know what is right and wrong for their body.
If your little guy or girl DOES decide to chow down, if even just a little, don’t let them simply go back to sleep as they will need to digest their food. Encourage him to bask by removing his hide.
If you have a stubborn beardie on your hands, you can promote a bowel movement by simply waking him up once daily for a quick soak until he passes a movement.
After he has an empty stomach and his food has passed, you can now allow him to sink back into a deep sleep.
How to Get a Bearded Dragon Out of Brumation
First and foremost, you should understand that the only reason you should even attempt to stop your bearded dragon from undergoing brumation should be because either A) They are not healthy enough to go without food for that long or B) They are under a year old (although this is still a topic of much discussion).
Also, be forewarned that keeping some dragons from brumating is much easier said than done.
Some bearded dragons are so prone to brumation and can fall into such deep sleep that preventing brumation isn’t really a realistic option.
Also, you should be prepared for your dragon to potentially undergo a slight personality change as not allowing them to brumate can lead to aggravation, stress, and even some hostility.
Since brumation is such a natural, instinctual part of a dragon’s life, you will need to think long and hard about whether preventing brumation is truly warranted.
If you suspect your bearded dragon is too sickly or weak, make an appointment with a legitimate reptile vet ASAP.
They’ll help you decide if you should allow your dragon to brumate or not.
Now, if your vet advises you to prevent/stop brumation OR your dragon is under a year old and/or quite small for their age, there are some measures you can take to at the very least, shorten the brumation period…
Up the Handling Time
Make sure you handle your dragon frequently and allow them to get out and explore often.
If you can, also take them outside and allow them to absorb sunlight.
Increase Their “Daylight” Hours
Consider leaving your lights on for a little longer than normal, say around 14 or 15 hours.
By convincing your bearded dragon that it’s quite “sunny” out, you stand a good chance of at the very least shortening the brumation period, although no promises.