My bearded dragon won’t wake up! Is it sleeping or brumating?
Bearded dragons in the wild will brumate every year during the cold winter months. In captivity, brumation is not likely to be a must to survive the winter months since it lives in an artificially heated and lit habitat meeting all its needs. However, they are still programmed to pick up on the cues of impending winter and start to slow down or completely hibernate. It is the environment which makes the difference as to whether the bearded dragon will brumate or not, and if it will brumate then the environment conditions will influence how deep the brumation will be and for how long.
Brumating is not expected to occur for bearded dragons under 1 year of age, however there are the odd ones that defy that guideline. This is a time of their life best served to good nutrition and growing. Sick bearded dragons should not be encouraged into brumation, they may not survive it. Do not create brumation conditions for sick or young bearded dragons.
The cues for brumation may occur in captivity when it picks up on environmental changes such as less hours of daylight (especially if they are near a window) and cooler temperatures. Temperature changes with the onset of winter will be less obvious if a thermostat is being used since it will manage the environment temperature automatically. There may also be hormonal cues to trigger brumation, but this is an unknown.
The end of brumation will occur when your bearded dragon comes out to bask. Having said that, there are times they might come out for a few days and then go straight back to brumating. But 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.
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.
Does it 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 if there are some with subtle changes or whether they really aren’t brumating at all.
We know that for reptiles brumation can help breeding. Some reptiles will not breed without going through brumation. But bearded dragons are prolific breeders that need no help at all from that aspect. 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.
How long will my bearded dragon brumate for?
The bearded dragon can sleep for weeks or months. It could be that it is just sluggish for a few months eating very little but still sitting around on its branch. 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, 3 or 4 months even.
How long it will brumate for in captivity, and whether it is broken up or a complete unbroken sleep, will be significantly impacted by the environment it is given. To encourage brumation winter temperatures and lighting cycles need to be set up.
Preparing and bedding for brumation
A visit to your vet the month before winter should probably become a calendar entry for every year from here on. Not only for an overall health check but also, most importantly, a parasite check. When temperatures go down, reptiles immune systems can be easily compromised. You don’t want any excessive load of parasites thriving in a sleeping bearded dragon. If your bearded dragon has already started brumating and has not gone through the check, take it to the vet. It is really important to ensure it is healthy to cope with brumation.
Set the heat and lighting to winter cycles. Thermostats make this an easy task.
Your bearded dragon may choose a burrow to hide in or a branch to sleep on. A dig box with some hay on top may also be attractive. 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. Many pet shops will sell small bags of hay. To prepare the hay simply wash the dust off and spread it out to dry in the sun. There is no benefit to your bearded dragon in buying a burrow. Save the money for lighting and other critical gear. If an upright branch is the spot your 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.
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. You do not need to control this and for your bearded dragons comfort you should probably not. It knows what to do as long as it is provided the right conditions to adjust itself.
Make sure that the bedding you provide to sleep in still allows you access to your bearded dragon to check on.
Your bearded dragon must 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 and moving that food on. Keep a track of bowel movements.
Weigh your bearded dragon before it starts to brumate and take a note of the reading. Doing this regularly (such as every month) is useful data particularly for your vet. At least prior to brumation take a reading which will set the baseline used during care.
So the elements of preparation are:
- Vet check up (essentially for parasite check),
- Set thermostat for winter temperatures;
- Create a bed (preferably a couple of options to allow for your bearded dragon to choose which it prefers);
- Track feeding and bowel movements (don’t want food in the gut for brumation); and
- Weigh your bearded dragon.
Care during brumation
The main elements of care during brumation are keeping a check, feeding and hydration.
If your bearded dragon has gone into a deep sleep then it can be checked daily or perhaps even every couple of days with minimal disturbance. If it is in a deep brumation then it is going to lose some weight. Keep a watch on its condition to ensure it is not too much. The weight reading taken during “Preparing and bedding for brumation” (see above) will provide the baseline to gauge by. As a rough guide, weight loss of 10% or over of the baseline should trigger a call to your vet to request guidance.
Chances are that during brumation your 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.
It is really important not to force a brumating bearded dragon to eat and if it does eat, then ensure that it has normal heat and lighting levels available to digest. 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. If the housing is big enough, then providing a good wide heat gradient for it to have the option to bask in heat or sleep in the cool without adjusting temperatures yourself will be far more friendly to the bearded dragon.
Hydration is far more important than food when resting. 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 and therefore cruel 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 slightly and lightly misting the tongue should be enough.