Cold Weather Initiates Hibernation
If you're a reptile owner, you may have noticed a change in your pet's behavior as summer fades and fall begins to approach.
As September turns to October, certain species including lizards, tortoises, turtles, frogs and snakes start to slow down—snakes' appetites dwindle, turtles look for a place to burrow and lizards sit still for long periods of time.
This behavior is called brumation and is essential to your reptile's survival.
What is Brumation?
In a nutshell, brumation is to reptiles what hibernation is to mammals.
When temperatures begin to drop to cooler climates and the days begin to get shorter, reptiles seek out a warm, safe hiding place where their metabolism slows to the bare minimum and they rest until the climate changes again for spring time.
The ideal ambient temperature for brumation is between 40 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep in mind that temperature changes for your pet should occur slowly and under the advice of your pet's veterinarian.
When a reptile brumates, it becomes lethargic and stays that way throughout the cold season. The length of brumation depends on whether or not the reptile is in the wild or has a home in captivity—indoors.
In the wild, reptiles dig a burrow or find a safe hiding place. In captivity, reptile owners can control the environmental conditions by building or providing a hibernaculum to help their pets maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Brumation will also depend on the reptile's particular species, age, gender and geographical location—for instance, reptiles living near or close to the equator do not typically brumate as long as those living in an area with more seasonal climate variation.
In the spring, environmental signals like rising temperatures, barometric pressure changes and longer days alert the reptile that it's safe to come out.
Why Do Reptiles Brumate?
Brumation is essential to the survival of particular reptile species because they are incapable of raising their body temperature when the seasonal weather changes.
During brumation, reptiles stop eating and their heart and respiratory rates slow significantly, as does their digestion.
This "suspended animation"—long periods of inactivity—may actually lengthen the lives of these reptiles. In a sense, they are being preserved during the cold season when they likely wouldn't survive in the elements.
What's the Difference in Brumation in a Wild Reptile Versus a Captive Reptile?
Reptiles living in the wild are subjected to natural cues to brumate, including hormonal changes, shifts in air pressure, humidity and the length of day.
There is speculation that pet reptiles living indoors still receive seasonal cues and therefore begin to show signs of brumation, despite the controlled climate in which they live.
As the days become shorter, you should consider a pre-brumation examination with your veterinarian especially if you notice any changes to your reptile's habits. If you have a female pet, your veterinarian may recommend x-rays before brumation to prevent complications due to the presence of unlaid eggs. Be sure to ask your veterinarian about specific recommendations regarding your pet's hydration, feeding, and temperatures for brumation.
You may notice your reptile expressing less interest in food during the onset of fall, or backing away from a hot lamp and taking refuge in a cooler area of their habitat.
Reptile owners should create a safe, climate-controlled spot in which their pets can rest without disturbance.
It is important to note that captive reptiles that are not given the opportunity to brumate are prone to obesity and may be at higher risk for diseases such as hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver).
One should also keep in mind that a hibernaculum kept too warm will prevent true brumation, while one kept too cold may prevent your pet from waking at all.
Careful steps should be made to create a hibernaculum ideal for your particular species. If you are a first-time reptile owner, seek the advice of your pet’s veterinarian or a reptile specialist in order to determine what is best for your pet.