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Bearded Dragon Brumation and Care

Bearded Dragon Brumation and Care

Bearded dragon won’t wake up? Chances are it’s bearded dragon brumation time.

Bearded dragons in the wild will brumate every year during the cold winter months. In captivity, brumation is not necessary to survive the winter months since it lives in an artificially heated and lit habitat. However, they are still programmed to pick up on the cues of impending winter and start to slow down or completely hibernate.

In the wild bearded dragons (Pogona barbata) may brumate in a burrow or up a tree (Wotherspoon, 2007). More on wild bearded dragons here.

Bearded dragons buried under objects or loose substrate, hiding, showing less interest in food or being particularly inactive are some of the signals that brumation is on its way.

Bearded Dragon Brumation

5 Signs Your Bearded Dragon is Ready to Brumate…or Already Doing It!

5 signs a bearded dragon may be going into brumation are:

  1. Start sleeping more. Seem lethargic and inactive.
  2. Start hiding or burrowing under bark, sand or other objects, looking for peaceful spot especially in the cool end.
  3. Doesn’t want your attention.
  4. Eating less or disinterest in eating.
  5. Less bowels movements (less poop).

Sometimes brumation can appear to come on quite suddenly. One day everything is seemingly normal and the next your bearded dragon suddenly hiding in its cave or burrow.

The signs of bearded dragon brumation can also be those of illness so it is important to be able to distinguish. There are many signs of ill health and parasites to watch out for. Smelly diarrhea and pale gums along with lethargy are a warning sign of illness and coccidiosis would be at the top of that list. Scheduled an annual vet check up prior to brumation for peace of mind. One of the dangers is coccidiosis in the post Coccidiosis in Bearded Dragons.

How Brumation is Triggered

It is the environment which makes the difference as to whether bearded dragon’s will brumate or not. Brumation in captivity isn’t necessarily a full on sleep as might be expected in a hibernating bear. It could be little more than a lethargic bearded dragon not wanting to eat. Some pet owners have never experienced their bearded dragon brumating. The environment conditions will influence if it will brumate, how deep the brumation will be and for how long.

The cues for brumation may occur in captivity when a bearded dragon picks up on environmental changes, which it is naturally attuned to doing. Like other reptiles, if it has access to see the light from a window, it can pick up on the reduced hours of daylight and cooler temperatures as winter creeps closer.

As temperature and lighting is controlled in pet bearded dragon housing, it may not match the natural seasons it is programmed for. This may confuse the reptile. On the one hand, nature is telling it that it is time for sleep and potentially hormonal cues that we are yet to discover. On the other hand the temperatures and lighting in its house are telling it a different story. As such, true brumation will not always occur. Some bearded dragons will simply become lethargic, a bit sleepy and wanting less food if anything at all.

Do Bearded Dragons have to Brumate?

Some pet owners have reported that their bearded dragons has never undergone brumation. Since brumation is not always a complete winter shut down it is difficult to know. Some will still undergo subtle changes, a slow down on eating, perhaps not move around much but not really sleep.

We know that for some reptiles, brumation is necessary for breeding. This is not the case for bearded dragons. They are prolific breeders that need no help at all.

Outside of breeding, it is suspected that brumation is associated with a longer life, but there is no scientific evidence to support that.

So bearded dragons do not have to brumate, whether it is better to support natural behaviours is another question.

Turns out that not letting bearded dragons brumate may contribute to getting fat! When they brumate they are using up fat reserves. More about overweight bearded dragons in the post Is my Bearded Dragon Fat?

Danger Times for Brumating a Bearded Dragon

3 dangerous times for a bearded dragon to brumate are:

  1. It is under 1 year of age, give or take. Brumating is not expected to occur for bearded dragons under 1 year of age, however there are the odd ones that defy our best intentions. This is primarily because it is a time in their life best served to good nutrition to support the demands of a growing body.
  2. Sick bearded dragons should not be encouraged into brumation, they may not survive it as temperatures drop and the immune system drops with the temperatures. Veterinary care is best sought.
  3. Dehydrated. Bearded dragons must be hydrated before brumating. For more on hydration and signs of dehydration see How to get your Bearded Dragon to Drink and Dehydration.

How Long can Brumation Last?

Bearded dragons can sleep for weeks or even as far as 4 months. It could be that it is just sluggish for part of this time, eating very little but not tucked away in a deep sleep. Maybe it will sleep for a few days, comes out for a few days and sleep for a few days on and off. Or perhaps it will snuggle down to its chosen spot and stay there for months.

How long a bearded dragon will brumate in captivity is significantly impacted by the environment it is given. To encourage brumation winter temperatures and lighting cycles need to be set up.

5 Steps to Remove the Stress for you During Brumation

Sleeping for months and not eating is very foreign to human behaviour and can be quite disconcerting. To allow natural behaviour to take place and provide you with peace of mind, it is important to prepare for brumation just prior to the onset of each winter.

Here are 5 steps to support safer bearded dragon brumation:

  1. Get a vet check up prior to or at the onset of winter every year. Schedule it in your calendar. This will include a parasite and health check.
  2. Set thermostat for winter temperatures which includes lights and heat.
  3. Create a burrow or privacy spot. Setting this up well is key for you to be able to check on your bearded dragon during its sleep without distributing it and giving you peace of mind.
  4. Track feeding and bowel movements. Can’t have food rotting in the gut when your bearded dragon is brumating.
  5. Monitor health and hydration during brumation.

1. Vet check

Schedule an annual vet check just prior to winter, right before bearded dragon brumation starts. Pop it in your calendar to be sure. This is not only important for brumation to ensure the bearded dragon is well and doesn’t have an elevated load of parasites. It will also provide your vet with some data to baseline the bearded dragons health, useful should ill health ever strike.

Parasites are certainly a concern before brumation. Heavy loads could result is serious illness or even death when brumating. When temperatures go down, reptiles immune systems can be easily compromised.

If the bearded dragon has already started brumating and has not gone through the vet check, take it to the vet. This vet check could make the difference between you stressing or not, from a healthy bearded dragon waking up, to something you don’t want to happen.

2. Setting up heating and lighting winter cycles

Set the heat and lighting to winter cycles. Thermostats make this an easy task.

3. Creating a burrow or privacy spot

A bearded dragon may choose a burrow to hide in or a branch to sleep on. Offer a few options to allow it to choose.

A dig box with some hay on top may be attractive. Many pet shops will sell small bags of hay.

Bearded dragon is sleeping during brumation
Bearded dragon has found a quiet and secluded spot to sleep during brumation

To prepare the hay simply wash the dust off and spread it out to dry in the sun.

Wet hay spread out for drying after washing dust off for the bearded dragons bed
Wet hay spread out for drying after washing dust off for the bearded dragons bed

If an upright branch is the spot the bearded dragon prefers then add some artificial foliage or perhaps even hay to cover the area a little. Needless to say nothing flammable should go near the heating and lighting.

Burrows can be made by stacking rocks together (clearly they must not be at risk of falling down) or a mixture of rocks and branches. If you cannot provide natural accessories then try a cardboard box which could have a bit of added hay just for a bonus.

Bearded dragon sleeping in its burrow
Bearded dragon sleeping in its hand made burrow. Carla Dolloway’s Norman.

The accessories used for brumating (including upright branches) need to be on the cool side of the gradient. When and if it wants heat during its sleepy winter, then it will move to the heat, bask a while and back to its bed when it feels the need to. For the bearded dragons comfort this is best left up to the reptile. It knows what to do as long as it is provided the right conditions to adjust itself.

Providing something to brumate in that the bearded dragon can be weighed in without waking it will make it easier to keep monitor weight. Any sudden loss of weight is a sign of danger.

Make sure that the bedding provided to sleep in still allows access to the bearded dragon to check on.

4. Tracking feeding and stools

Bearded dragons should not brumate with a gut full of food. It will be sleeping in lowered temperatures and this is going to cause a lot of problems with digestion. Food in the digestive tract without the required temperatures to digest can become putrefied. Keep a track of bowel movements as the bearded dragon starts to slow down for winter.

5. Monitoring health and hydration

By providing a burrow or area of privacy that makes it easier to access the bearded dragon will help to monitor its health.

Weigh the bearded dragon before it starts to brumate. Take note of the reading and continue to do this every week during brumation. Assuming that the bearded dragon is healthy and was given a vet check, then monitoring is limited to hydration and any quick and dramatic weight loss.

Keep weight readings and provide to the vet if care is needed.

A rapid loss of 10% weight is too much and should prompt a phone call to the vet.

Less water will be needed during bearded dragon brumation. Some water may still be required and this is often done by misting (spraying) the reptile with water. This is much less intrusive than bathing during a heavy brumation period.

Care During Brumation

The main elements of care during brumation are keeping a check, feeding and hydration.

If the bearded dragon has gone into a deep sleep then it can be checked every couple of days with minimal disturbance. If it is in a deep brumation then some weight will be lost. Keep a watch on its condition to ensure it is not too much. Bearded dragons can be weighed during brumation if there are health concerns. However, normally visual inspection is sufficient.

Weigh the bearded dragon before brumation starts. Periodical weighing during brumation will provide a way to track condition. If the bearded dragon has chosen to sleep in a burrow then the entire burrow can be weighed with the bearded dragon and subtract the weight of the burrow to determine the bearded dragons weight.

There is no ‘safe’ weight as such, but a rapid loss of weight or a loss of 10% or over of the baseline, is a likely sign of trouble should trigger a call to your vet to request guidance.

Chances are that during brumation a bearded dragon will not want to eat. Even if it does not go into a deep sleep and appears for all intents normal, it may reduce or stop its eating for a while during winter months. Its metabolism drops and so it’s need for food has also diminished.

Observation is also needed for bearded dragons that have gone into a partial brumation. With environments that are not setup for winter temperatures their metabolism may not have dropped sufficiently to endure brumation. It is best to choose either providing winter or summer temperature and lighting cycles, not stopping and starting or something in between.

Never force a brumating bearded dragon to eat. If it does eat, then ensure that it has normal heat and lighting levels available to digest for some hours after eating. This is a good reason to simply provide good brumating conditions rather than leave it with confusing cues as to whether it is winter and it should sleep or not by not adjusting environment heating and lighting.

Hydration is critical for good health. Maintaining the environment humidity will assist but other means of providing fluid may be required.

Bathing during full brumation is not required and likely to be quite disruptive to the bearded dragon. If additional fluids are required then a light misting would be a better option and for the more experienced, gently opening the mouth and lightly misting the tongue should be enough. Alternatively a syringe can be used to put a few drops on the bearded dragons tongue.

Feeding During Brumation

If the bearded dragon is in full brumation it will not need waking to be fed. However, if the bearded dragon is in a light brumation then there may be times it seeks food. Once fed, it must be provided with hours of daytime temperature and lighting for digestion.

3 Steps when Bringing a Bearded Dragon Out of Brumation

When a bearded dragon is coming out of brumation it is exciting and relieving all at once. 3 steps for a bearded dragon coming out of brumation are:

  1. Set the summer heating and lighting cycle.
  2. Hydrate the bearded dragon. Few drops of water on the tongue is a great start.
  3. Provide food once warmed up. Vegetation can be misted for additional water.

Brumation will come to an end when the bearded dragon picks up on the days becoming longer and warmer. If it has gone into full brumation (sleeping) it will come out from hiding to bask and its appetite will pick up.

Set the heating and lighting to summer cycle if it isn’t already. Once the bearded dragon has warmed up and is basking, it can be provided with food. It requires hours of heat and UVB to digest the food afterwards.

Sometimes they can pop out from brumation and go back to it, even after a day or two awake. This is less likely to occur if the temperature and lighting is set appropriately.

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Reasons a Bearded Dragon May Not Eat After Brumating

Here are 4 things to check if a bearded dragon is not eating after brumating:

  1. Is it out of brumation? It could still be brumating, just no longer in a deep sleep, perhaps lethargic. Some bearded dragons will wake up during brumation and then go back to sleep after a day or more. 4 months of brumation is about the maximum it would normally experience but it could be as short as a couple of weeks.
  2. Check the bearded dragons environment, likely it is not right.
    • Check the temperature and lighting. The heat and duration of lighting are cues for a bearded dragon that summer is on its way.
    • The best boost to health a bearded dragon can get is to go out in the sunlight for a while. This will help let the bearded dragon know that it is no longer winter and warm it up in such a nice way.
  3. The bearded dragon could be dehydrated. Provide water.
  4. It could be sick. Discuss with the vet.

It might take a little while for a bearded dragons appetite to come back after brumation. If everything is normal, the bearded dragon looks healthy, it is hydrated and the environment is set to spring/summer cycles, then give it a few days. After that, a phone call to the vets office to ask their opinion would be useful.

How to Wake a Bearded Dragon from Brumation in 3 Simple Steps

Sometimes there may be a need to wake a bearded dragon from brumation, such as if it is brumating more than 4 months. Waking some bearded dragons from brumation can be difficult, however here are 3 simple steps on how to wake a bearded dragon from brumation:

1. Set the temperatures and lighting back to summer cycle. Duration of light and the temperature are keys to brumation.
2. Take the bearded dragon out into the sunlight.
3. Provide a warm bath.

Only feed bearded dragons that are warmed up and hydrated. Post on how to rehydrate bearded dragons quickly.

As spring is about to arrive, change the temperatures to be warmer and lighting cycles to be longer replicating the weather changing. However, there are times they might come out for a few days and then go straight back to brumating. Generally, once they are back out basking you can expect it is over. Normal conditions should be provided once they come out and start basking.

Sudden Aggression after Brumation

Some bearded dragons, mostly males, may become suddenly aggressive a short time after brumation. This is likely to be getting ready for breeding season. More on that in aggressive bearded dragons.

Do bearded dragons wake up during brumation?

Bearded dragons can wake during brumation, it depends on how deep the brumation is. It is quite normal to wake up, perhaps for a day or more and then go back to sleep.

References

  • Wotherspoon, D. (2007) Ecology and Management of Eastern Bearded Dragon Pogona barbata. Western Sydney University Thesis Collection

Share your story of your bearded dragons brumation with us. Were you worried?

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