Written by Denise R. Bushnell in June, 2008
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For those who are not experienced in the hobby, and who keep Bearded Dragons as pets, one of the greatest sources of worry is when, for one reason or another, our beardies refuse to eat for long periods of time, or become increasingly inactive and lethargic.
When this happens with no warning, as it frequently does, all sorts of terrible things run through our minds, especially when this behavior goes on for more than just a few days. Do they have an impaction? Do they have some sort of an illness that isn’t readily apparent? Do they have parasites? Are they under some sort of stress? Do they need to see a vet? Is it my fault that they’re not eating? What am I doing wrong????
While all of the above, along with inadequate temperatures, and improper UVB lighting, may be causes of their lack of appetite and lethargy, what if none of the above apply? What else is left?
The answer, in many cases, is a behavior that is perfectly natural to a Bearded Dragon, but which many inexperienced owners know little to nothing about. The purpose of this article, therefore, is to shed some light on the periods of time in a Bearded Dragon’s life when they become dormant and almost completely inactive, not taking in any nourishment, and ignoring their world as time passes by.
The proper term, for these periods of time in a Bearded Dragon’s life, is “Brumation”, and it is essentially the reptile equivalent of hibernation in mammals, with a few important differences. So let’s explore this behavior a little, and see if we can’t explain away some of the mystery, and take away the fears surrounding it.
Reasons for Brumation
Just as with mammals, when in the wild there are certain times of the year when temperatures drop, and food becomes difficult to find for Bearded Dragons. The many insects that they use as a source of protein die off, and most vegetation that they consume goes dormant during the winter months, and so will not provide them with the much needed nourishment that they need.
Also, most Bearded Dragons will not drink from standing water, as they don’t recognize it as something that they CAN drink. Instead, most Bearded Dragons will take in water by lapping morning and evening dew from leaves and plants in their environment, in order to keep themselves hydrated. Once colder weather arrives, the morning and evening dew is replaced with frost, which is a poor source of hydration for them.
When faced with these problems to overcome, Beardies will burrow under things, or bury themselves in the soil, in order to keep from freezing, and their bodies will draw in moisture from the soil, through their vent, during their winter sleep, to ensure that they remain adequately hydrated enough to survive until Spring.
Also, a Bearded Dragon’s body depends on warmth from the sun in order to digest their food, and break it down into the nutrients that their bodies need, so when temperatures drop, Beardies, in the wild, would not be able to digest their food, even if they did find a food source to sustain them. Therefore, when the hours of daylight get shorter, the sun doesn’t shine as brightly, and the temperatures become colder, they brumate, in order to survive.
In order to ensure their survival, Bearded Dragons have evolved with the ability to voluntarily slow their metabolism down to nearly a standstill, which will enable them to eat and drink nothing for long periods of time, without losing more than a few grams of weight, and while maintaining their overall health. This has become instinctual to them, over time, and so many Bearded Dragons do brumate, even while in captivity, even though we provide them with warm temperatures and and a steady source of food.
You may be thinking that, since we now provide them with everything that their bodies need, year round, why do they still brumate? Over hundreds of years of evolution, their bodies have adapted to the harsh conditions in the wild that they live in. We can’t expect that the way that their bodily functions work are going to change in the mere 20+ years during which we’ve brought them into our lives and homes, and domesticated them. To expect that their bodies and instincts are going to change in that short space of time, just because their lives have become easier for them, because of our providing for their needs, would just be an exaggerated sense of self importance on our part.