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Behavior Brumation in Bearded Dragons

Written by Denise R. Bushnell in June, 2008

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.

Reasons for Brumation continued​

As far as how Beardies in captivity brumate, every Beardie is different. Its very rare for a Beardie that is under a year old to brumate, unless they were born extremely early in the year and are rapidly approaching a year old when cold weather sets in, however it is possible.

Once they become adults, however, many of them do brumate, not because they need to, but simply because its become an instinctual behavior that has been bred into them to ensure their survival. Some Beardies will never brumate, during their entire lives, while others will brumate every year, regardless of the weather conditions outside, and no matter how hard you try to keep them from it.

One of the mistakes that many of us make concerning brumation, is that we tend to compare them to mammals, who only hibernate during the winter months, when its cold, food is scarce, and they have nothing to eat. However, Bearded Dragons, as reptiles, are an entirely different species, and they will many times brumate for reasons other than lack of food, or cold temperatures. Most who do brumate will do so during our winter months, but some may also go down during other times of the year, as well.

The fact that some Bearded Dragons will brumate here, in the Western Hemisphere, while in captivity, at the “wrong time of the year” tends to upset most owners, who believe that since it isn’t wintertime, they can’t be brumating, when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The reality of the matter is that there is no “wrong time of the year” for a Bearded Dragon to go into brumation.

To understand the reasoning behind this reality, we need to remember that Bearded Dragons are native to Australia, which is in the Southern Hemisphere, on the other side of the world. Because of its location, Australia’s seasons are a direct opposite of our own.....when it’s Spring and Summer here, it’s Autumn and Winter in Australia. Therefore, some Beardies who have very strong natural instincts for survival, may actually choose to go into brumation during our Spring or Summer, because their “biological clock” is telling them that it’s the right time for them to do that in order to ensure their survival, and it would be......if they were still living in the wilds of Australia!

We’ve domesticated them completely, on this side of the world, over the last 20 years or so, and they obviously have no need to brumate at all, since we see to all their needs, providing them with a steady food supply, and constant temperatures all year round. However they still brumate, and probably will continue to do so for as long as the species exists, since their bodies have evolved that way for hundreds of years in order to ensure their survival. We can’t presume to improve upon what Mother Nature has created, and so their brumation habits will continue, in most cases, regardless of where they live, what time of the year it is, or what their living conditions are.

Another, lesser known reason for brumation, is to allow their bodies to have a “rest period”, so to speak, prior to mating season in the Spring. Many of you may have noticed that when your Beardies awake from brumation, especially the males, you see a lot of head bobbing, displaying, and blackened beards for a few weeks. The reason for this, is that allowing their bodies to rest while they brumate will cause their hormone levels to rise to higher levels than normal. This, in turn, will produce a higher sperm count in the males, which will result in a greater number of successful matings in the Spring. The higher hormone levels apply to the females of the species as well, although we usually see no outward signs of it, other than perhaps they’re being a bit more restless than usual.

So you see, there are quite a few reasons why Bearded Dragons choose to brumate, which are all to their advantage, healthwise, regardless of when they choose to do it. We can’t change it, so we just have to learn to live with it, regardless of their timing. Its just another one of the oddities that make keeping these little creatures so interesting and different to us than any other sort of pet, which, I think, is a large part of their charm.

Also, on a lighter note, it gives them another way to drive us crazy and make us worry, so that they can keep us in line and make us never want to be without them. After all, they say that “absence makes the heart grow fonder”, so they probably all brumate with smiles on their little faces when we can’t see, dreaming about all the havoc they’re causing with our emotions, and thinking about the fuss that all of their owners will make over them when they decide to wake up. The little stinkers are way too smart for their own good!

Signs of Brumation​

Generally, the signs of brumation are very easy to recognize, once you know what you’re looking for. Most Bearded Dragons will get a bit cranky just prior to going down for their long sleep, and many may not want you to handle them as you usually do. Most don’t get nasty about it, but they make it known that they really don’t want to be bothered, and would rather be left alone.

They will get increasingly inactive and lethargic, and will refuse to bask under their lights, even when you place them on their basking spot. In fact, if you keep putting them there, you will no doubt be on the receiving end of one of their famous beardie glares and an extremely black beard!

As a general rule, you will usually find them sleeping, even during the daylight hours, on the cooler side of their enclosures or tanks, preferably as far away from their lights as they can get. If there is anything that they can burrow under, or that will provide shading from the lights, that will usually be where they choose to sleep, and when they are sleeping, you may find it extremely difficult, or even impossible, to wake them.

Some will simply eat less and less as days pass, while others may just abruptly stop eating altogether, with no warning at all. Any attempts to coax them into eating will be met with stubborn refusal, no matter what tasty items you might offer, and attempting to force feed them will result in their refusing to open their mouths, no matter what you do.

If you think that your Bearded Dragon may be attempting to brumate, and they are being extremely stubborn about refusing to eat, its best to let them be, as their going into full brumation with food in their stomachs may make them extremely ill.

Left to their own devices, Bearded Dragons will simply nap on and off, until the last meal that they’ve eaten is fully digested, and they are able to have a bowel movement. This will empty their stomachs before they go into a deep sleep, since going into full brumation with food left in their digestive tracts may cause the food to rot inside them while they sleep, which can cause an extremely serious infection.

Where food during brumation is concerned, its best to let your Beardie make his own decision, as he is the best judge of whether he should eat or not. Forcing food on them may make you, as an owner, feel better, but it definitely is NOT better for your beardie, so let him make his own choices.

Actual Brumation​

Once the time comes, and your Beardie has decided to brumate, there is little that you can do to stop him. However, there are many different degrees of brumation, and every Bearded Dragon is different, as far as how they choose to brumate.

Some Bearded Dragons will go into a deep sleep, and won’t wake up at all, for weeks on end, until its time for them to wake up and remain awake. Others will wake up periodically, either on their own, or if their owners wake them, and then go back to sleep again. Still others may just take long naps. And others may not actually go into a deep sleep at all, but will just refuse to eat anything. It all depends on each individual Beardie, and what his instincts tell him to do. It may take you a year or two to discover what is normal for your particular beardie, so you know what to expect from him.

Just as an illustration of the many possible brumation habits of each individual Bearded Dragon, I will use my own three as examples. All three are kept inside my home, in the same room, in identically sized tanks. They all have exactly the same lighting, the same tank temperatures, and even exactly the same cage furniture, arranged in the same manner. However, they all brumate differently, and at different times each year.

Charlie, my youngest male, who is nearly 4 years old, will go down, without fail, during the last part of November, and will remain asleep, except when I wake him to bathe him, until around the middle of February. When I wake him to bathe him, sometimes he will wake up, although he will be very cranky, and sometimes he will sleep right through his bath, no matter what I do. I have to watch him very closely when bathing him, to make sure that his head stays above water to prevent him from aspirating any water into his lungs, or he would drown. During this time period, Charlie will refuse to eat anything at all, and will not even accept fluids from a feeding syringe, which is why I make sure to bathe him every week to ensure that he stays well hydrated.

Eden, my only female, who is also nearing 4 years old, never brumated at all until this past winter. She began being finicky with what she would eat around the holidays last year, and finally went into brumation just after Christmas. However, when I woke her to bathe her, she would usually eat, if I offered something that she especially liked. Then she would simply nap, on and off, for a couple of days, until she had a bowel movement to empty her stomach, before going back to sleep until her next bathtime. She repeated this cycle until she finally woke up, on her own, during the last week of January, and she’s been awake ever since.

Ming, my oldest male, at 5, insists on doing his own thing. He never really goes down into a true brumation, but prefers, instead, to take extremely long naps, which sometimes last for days, on and off until Spring. He will wake up, on his own, between naps, and will wander around for a couple of days, checking things out, before going back down into a sound sleep. He also seems to enjoy some “out time” with us during the periods when he’s awake, and when I bathe him, he will usually drink his fill while in his bath. However, he refuses to eat anything at all during the time when he’s brumating, and he never drops more than a few grams of weight. At our house, we have a standing joke concerning Mingie....he won’t really go into a true brumation because he’s so nosy, and he’s afraid he’s going to miss something!

So, as you can see from the above illustration, all beardies are unique individuals, and may be completely different in the ways that they choose to brumate, even if they live in the same house, and the same environment.

Keeping Your Beardie Healthy During Brumation​

Testing For Parasites​

Although Bearded Dragons brumate, in the wild, with no help from us and manage to survive just fine, the fact that they choose to brumate while in captivity does require a bit of special care, on our part, to ensure that they remain healthy while in their dormant state.

When kept in artificial surroundings, with controlled lighting and temperatures, beardies aren’t able, themselves, to make sure that they have everything that they need to ensure that they have a healthy and successful brumation, that causes no health problems for them.

One of the most important things that we, as owners, should do, prior to the beginning of their brumation period, is to take them to the vet for a check up, to make sure that all is well, and that they don’t have any type of illness that may worsen due to their not eating while in their dormant state.

One very common ailment, that may not be readily apparent, and which may cause a huge problem for them if they are allowed to brumate with it, is if they should have some type of parasite overload lurking in their digestive tract.

As you know, parasites live off the food that our beardies eat, and sometimes its very difficult to tell whether or not they may have them, when they are eating regularly. However, if a Bearded Dragon has parasites, and they are permitted to brumate, which results ln their not eating for a long period of time, they will usually drop a large amount of weight, due to the parasites feeding off their fat stores, since there is no recently eaten food available for the parasites to feed on.

If your Bearded Dragon has parasites, and they are not eradicated before they go into a full brumation, it can weaken their immune system and may cause them to become extremely ill. Therefore, it is advisable to have a stool sample checked by an experienced reptile vet, prior to the time when your Beardie may be preparing to brumate, to ensure that they are treated for any parasites that they might have, to get rid of them BEFORE they cause your Beardie any serious problems.

A healthy Bearded Dragon, who has no parasites, may brumate for months, and will only lose a few grams of weight, which is not even noticable. However, a Beardie who has an overload of parasites during brumation will drop a great deal of weight, and may become extremely thin and weak, which will put them at risk of contracting other types of illnesses, while brumating, due to their weakened immune system.

If this should happen, your Beardie will most likely require a vet’s intervention during his brumation period, to ensure that he is getting enough nutrition to keep him alive until he awakens, which can be very time consuming and very expensive. The best way to ensure that this never happens, is to do yourself and your beardie both a favor, and have them tested BEFORE its time for them to brumate!

Providing a "Hide" for Your Beardie​

In most cases, Bearded Dragons who are going to brumate will go down for their period of sleep on the cool side of their tanks or enclosures, as they rest better in cooler temperatures, away from the warmth of their lights. Many will attempt to burrow under any “cage furniture” that they may have, or under their substrate in order to do this. You can make their period of brumation much more comfortable and restful for them, and convenient for you, if you provide them with some sort of a “hide”, placed on the cool side of their tank or enclosure.

This “hide” should be large enough to cover their entire body, but small enough that they will feel snug and safe during their period of deep sleep.

The “hide” that you provide can be as ornate or as plain as you like, as long as you provide them with something, so that they can feel safe, protected and comfortable.

Many pet stores and online suppliers carry a large number of different styles....some made out of natural rock, or resin material, which look very nice, or even those that look like a cave, whose tops can double as a basking site, with silk or plastic vegetation attached to them. These will dress up their tanks, and can be used year round, but they can also be a bit pricey. Or you can simply provide them with an appropriately sized cardboard box with an entry hole in one end, placed upside down in the cooler end of their tank.

How plain or fancy you choose to go is totally up to you, and your own tastes.

Your beardie isn’t going to care one way or the other, as long as he has a darkened protected area, away from his lights, to do his sleeping in.

I should note also, at this point, that some keepers advocate shortening the amount of time that your Beardie’s lights remain on, in order to simulate the shortening of the days during the winter season. If you choose to do this, in order to save on electricity, I see nothing wrong with that, as long as their lights remain on for at least 8 hours each day, and, as Spring approaches, you slowly increase the length of time that their lights remain on , to simulate the longer days that come once the winter season passes.

Many keepers feel that this is a way to have some control over the amount of time that your beardie will brumate. However, I’ve discussed this with quite a few experienced keepers, and most of them agree that this really has no bearing on the length of their brumation, when they are being kept under artificial lighting. Your Bearded Dragon will decide when to go into brumation, and how long he’s going to sleep, and what you do with his artificial lighting isn’t going to make a whole lot of difference, one way or the other. Another case, in point, of their little biological clocks at work.

Keeping Your Beardie Well Hydrated​

As I mentioned, when Bearded Dragons go into brumation in the wild, it is a common practice for them to burrow under things in their environment, or to bury themselves in moist soil to ensure that they receive enough hydration for them to survive until Spring. Beardies have evolved, over the years, to be able to take in a certain amount of moisture throught their vents, which is enough for them to exist on while in a dormant state.

However, when we keep Bearded Dragons in captivity, it is not a good practice to add moist soil to their tanks or enclosures, since doing so will raise the humidity within their living area to unhealthy levels, which may result in their contracting an Upper Respiratory Infection. Therefore, irregardless of whether your Bearded Dragon brumates within a “hide”, or whether he chooses to burrow under whatever sort of substrate that you have on the bottom of his tank, he is not going to be able to absorb the amount of moisture that he needs in order to remain healthy and well hydrated until he awakens.

Because of this, it will be up to you to ensure that he takes in enough fluids for him to survive and remain healthy during the time that he is brumating.

The easiest and most effective way to do this is to remove him from his tank, once a week, and give him a 20-30 minute soak in warm water. For a bathing container, I prefer to use one of those large plastic “Kritter Keepers” with the neon lids that you can buy in pet stores. Fill the bottom with an inch or two of warm water and place him in there. These containers are perfect for bathing containers, since they’re small enough to put them almost anywhere, so that you can remain close enough to supervise them while they’re in the water.

When you remove your Beardie from his “hide” to bathe him, he may or may not wake up for you. If he doesn’t, its still fine to give him his soak, as long as you monitor him closely, for the entire time that he’s soaking, to make sure that his head and nostrils remain above water. If you allow his head to go under while he’s asleep, he may aspirate water into his lungs, which may cause pneumonia, or he may even drown, so watch him very closely. He’s depending upon you to keep him safe.

You only need an inch or two of water in the container. Make sure that the water is covering his vent area, if you choose to prop him up on something, so you don’t have to hold him. He will take in whatever moisture that he needs through his vent during the 20 or 30 minutes that he’s soaking.

If your Bearded Dragon chooses to wake up, he may still just take in water through his vent, or he may lower his head underwater, on his own, and choose to take a long drink that way. As long as he’s awake, its fine to allow him to put his head under....it will only cause a health problem for him if he should slip under while he’s sound asleep.

Once he’s had his weekly soak, you can return him to his tank or enclosure. If he’s still sound asleep, return him to the same place that you found him, but make sure that you dry him well first, as putting him back while he’s still wet may cause a fungous infection in his scales. If he is awake, you should still pat him dry, but you can place him on his basking spot for a few minutes to ensure that he is completely dry. When he’s had enough basking, he’ll return to his sleeping place on his own, or he may choose to walk around a bit before returning to sleep. Let him choose what he wants to do, and when to do it.

If he seems hungry, you may offer some food, but if he isn’t interested, don’t force the issue. He’s the best judge of what his body needs at the time. If does decide to eat, remove his “hide” temporarily, to force him to bask, and make sure that his basking site temperatures are adequate for him to digest his food. If he still insists on going back to sleep, you will need to wake him and give him another good soak in a day or two, to promote a bowel movement to empty his stomach. If he doesn’t go, then wait and try again the next day, until he does. You can’t allow him to go back to sleep for a long period of time until he empties his stomach. Once he has a bowel movement, then you can allow him to do as he wants until its time for another weekly soak.

Normal Behavior Following Brumation​

Once your Bearded Dragon decides to come out of brumation, and remain awake, you may find that he’s restless and very grumpy, and just wants to be left alone for a few days. This is perfectly normal, and will pass in a relatively short period of time. He also may not have much of an appetite for a few days after he awakens. If he doesn’t want to eat, don’t force the issue. He will eat when he’s ready. This is also completely normal.

Another important thing to mention, is that when your Bearded Dragon fully awakens, you may see a lot of displaying, blackened beards, and head bobbing for a two to three week period, following their brumation. This too, is perfectly normal. Following a Bearded Dragon’s brumation period, most awaken with very elevated hormone levels, in preparation for mating in the Spring, and adult males will think of little else except mating for a while. For the most part, females will only react by being a bit restless, but the adult males may drive you a little crazy for a week or two.

My oldest male, Ming, will head bob until you expect that his brains are going to fall out of his ears, for at least three weeks after he comes out of brumation. He will have a black beard nearly constantly, and will head bob at his basking rock, his tree, me, the dogs, the cats, and anything else within his line of sight.

At times, their behavior borders on obsessive, and it is rather comical to watch, but you have to feel sorry for them as well, as this hormone surge causes them to become so frustrated, and they think of little else except making little dragons. And its probably even more difficult for adult males, whose owners also have females in the house, such as I do.

The best way to handle this behavior is to simply ignore it, since if you fuss over them when they do it, they tend to do it even more, in order to get your attention. After two to three weeks, their hormone levels will return to normal, and then you’ll have your sweet little guy or girl back, until the same time next year!

WRITTEN AND UPDATED BY
Denise Bushnell
June 27, 2008
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BD.org
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