If you notice your bearded dragon is lethargic, lost their appetite, or fallen into a sleep they won’t wake up from, your mind will flood with worst case scenarios. But as serious as these symptoms seem, the cause could be a harmless process called brumation.
Brumation is when a bearded dragon becomes dormant through the winter months of Australia or, in captivity, the winter months of… well… their own deciding. Since the thought of saying goodnight to our lizards for the winter doesn’t appeal to many of us, this article will explain why this happens, what responsibility pet owners hold in the process, and how long you can expect your bearded dragon to brumate.
So, how long do bearded dragons brumate? Bearded dragon behavior varies from dragon to dragon and even from year to year, so you can’t know exactly how long your beardie will brumate.
However, you can assume they’ll brumate anywhere from 2 weeks to 4 months in captivity.
It is impossible to predict or control brumation, but some variables consistently affect when, if, and how long captive bearded dragons sleep. All in all, there are a multitude of key factors that affect how our dragons MAY brumate, but there’s no way to know exactly what they will do until they do it.
We can sometimes persuade them to shorten or lengthen brumation time and even decide when they do it, but there’s a limit to the control we have over the process. Instead of stressing about it, you’re better off allowing your beardie to do what is natural to them and trust that everything will work out in time.
The first thing to note is that beardies rarely go into brumation before they are at least 10 months old. Young dragons haven’t built up enough fat reserves to live off of during the brumation period, especially considering that a baby dragon needs much more nutrition than an adult in order to continue growing.
Since it is uncommon for bearded dragons under 1 year of age to brumate, if you’ve noticed a young dragon showing signs of brumation, take them to a vet. These symptoms could indicate an illness or other condition.
After your bearded dragon has turned 10 months old, you should be prepared for them to go into brumation at some point in their lives, whether it be that first year, or the next, or many years later.
Geographic Location And Geographic Origin
The most common time for bearded dragons to go into brumation is between fall and early winter in your geographic location. In the Northern hemisphere, many dragons brumate between September and February.
In the Southern hemisphere, they begin brumating between March and August. They do this in direct response to the changing climate outdoors.
But, since bearded dragons are naturally from Australia, some will decide to brumate during the winter season of the Southern hemisphere even if they are currently living in the Northern hemisphere. This means some dragons who live in the Northern hemisphere actually brumate during March to August, the summer-time of their geographic location.
Temperatures And Lighting
Captive bearded dragons brumate for shorter durations than wild bearded dragons because the temperatures indoors are warmer than they would experience in natural settings. Instead of sleeping for an entire winter, your bearded dragon may only be out for a few weeks before the warm “weather” triggers them to awaken for spring.
But, if you notice the signs of brumation, leaving their lights on for longer periods of time, raising their temperatures a few degrees, offering time outside of their tanks to run around and exercise, and letting them absorb sunlight outdoors (if the weather is warm) can actually discourage or shorten a bearded dragon’s brumation period.
On the flip side, turning their lights off earlier, mimicking natural conditions, and allowing the dragon to do their own thing without much interruption can cause them to brumate for longer periods of time. This is more ideal for dragons who are stubborn about brumating and attempting to put it off will only agitate a dragon who is adamant on brumation.
Sometimes, interrupting the process can even cause them to remain inactive for a longer period of time or continue attempts at brumation until they’re allowed to enter a full sleep and wake on their own watch.
Most likely, you know the term “hibernation” and how it helps certain mammals survive the winter. So, if you want to know why a bearded dragon goes into brumation, the simplest way to think of it is that brumation is the reptilian version of hibernation.
Reptiles hide in burrows, slow their metabolisms, and become completely dormant to survive the winter months of the wild, just as hibernating animals do. But this does not explain why a captive bearded dragon would go through this process when temperatures remain warm all year round and a meal is delivered on a platter every day.
What role does brumation play in captivity?
Beardies Brumate To Survive The Winter
During the Australian winter, temperatures drop to below freezing, insects all but disappear, and plant life becomes scarce. To avoid starvation or freezing, wild bearded dragons must go into brumation for survival.
During brumation, they burrow underground or hide in an insulated hibernaculum for warmth and become completely dormant, slowing their metabolic rate to burn as few calories as possible so they can survive on fat reserves until spring arrives. They begin preparation for brumation as soon as they sense the seasonal changes of fall, which typically occurs around March in Australia.
After millions of years of predictable necessity, the instinct to brumate has become ingrained in bearded dragon DNA. And for good reason: most cold blooded animals could not survive the harsh conditions of winter without brumation.
Beardies Have An Instinct To Brumate In Captivity
In the comforts of a climate controlled home, bearded dragons may not need to brumate for survival, but the instinct to do so is still just as strong and can be triggered regardless of their environment. However, bearded dragon pets are not responding to the same natural triggers they would experience in the wild, so they don’t brumate at the same time, for the same duration, or in the same way as wild beardies.
In the absence of seasonal weather changes, the response to this instinct becomes seemingly arbitrary and dependent on your individual dragon. Some beardies brumate when it’s winter in their location, others in the summer, and some are hard-wired to brumate during the Australian winter, regardless of their current location.
Some beardies do it every year, others never brumate at all, or only do it a few times in their lives. Because brumation in captivity is caused by a strong natural instinct that can’t be controlled, all we can really do is help our bearded dragons through it if they decide it’s time to brumate.
Beardies May Need Brumation To Fulfill Natural Processes
Some bearded dragons will never feel the need to brumate on their own due to the consistent temperatures in their enclosures. But, what if denying these animals such a significant process in their natural lives has unforeseen effects?
This is why some keepers purposefully induce brumation by mimicking the lighting of an Australian winter. Bearded dragon breeders have reported that due to hormonal changes that take place during brumation, beardies are more likely to breed afterwards.
Many breeders induce brumation because of this possibility. Though we’ve been learning about these animals as long as we’ve kept them in captivity, there is still much we don’t understand about the intricacies of their natural behaviors and how to provide the best captive environments for them.
So, if your bearded dragon has no inclination to brumate, you don’t necessarily need to induce it yourself, but it remains an option to breeders and keepers who wish to give their dragons a natural life-cycle.
As we’ve already mentioned, brumation plays a large role in a bearded dragon’s natural life-cycle and frequently occurs in captivity. It’s important for every bearded dragon owner to be prepared for brumation and know the signs, how to help their dragons through it, and what to do once they wake up.
Know When Your Bearded Dragon Is About To Brumate
It can be tricky to know when a captive bearded dragon will brumate, but certain times in the year are more likely than others. The climate in your location can trigger a bearded dragon’s natural instincts, so watch for these signs and behaviors during the autumn.
Some bearded dragons are inclined to brumate between March and August as this is the autumn and winter season of Australia. In captivity, brumation usually doesn’t last as long as it would for a wild bearded dragon due to the milder temperatures indoors, but some bearded dragons can still brumate for up to four months while others only brumate for a few weeks.
Signs of Brumation:
- Decreased appetite
- Sleeping earlier in the day
- Basking less
- Defecating less (due to decreased appetite)
Bearded Dragon owners often mistake the signs and symptoms of a coming brumation for illness. I mistook these symptoms for impaction the first time my bearded dragon went into brumation.
None of the treatments I used on him had any effect because, in reality, he was perfectly healthy. So, I spent four months worrying and hundreds of dollars on vet bills over nothing.
And, by interrupting the process over and over again, I prolong my beardy’s brumation time and caused him and myself a lot of needless stress.
However, it’s still good to get an exotic veterinarian’s opinion after you notice these symptoms to be sure they have no preexisting illness entering brumation. Parasites wreak havoc on dormant dragons, burning through their nutritional reserves and causing substantial weight loss and dehydration.
If you’re on a budget, ask for a fecal exam, $30, to check for parasites. A full check-up will rule out the possibility their symptoms are caused by illness.
Just as you can mistake brumation for a serious illness, you can mistake a serious illness for brumation.
What To Do When Your Bearded Dragon Begins Brumation
Once you’ve confirmed your bearded dragon is ready for brumation, your normal care routine will have to accommodate some changes. You’ll want to give them a complete brumation free of interruptions, so offer them a dark hide on the cool side of their tank.
Then, begin reducing their daylight period from 12 hours a day down to around 8 while they brumate. Some people cut this period down little by little until they turn the lights off completely.
This is optional, but it may be beneficial to mimic the natural light conditions of an Australian winter.
Also, be prepared for your bearded dragon to stop eating. Appetite loss is normal during brumation and a dragon should never be force fed at this time.
Instinct tells them to fast before entering brumation because once the dragon goes dormant, they can no longer digest their food, which will sit and rot inside their intestines and lead to serious complications or potential death. However, during the weeks to months of brumation, you can offer food and hydration on a weekly basis, as long as you make sure they defecate after eating.
To achieve this, turn on their lights once a week, offer food (which they may decline), and then give them a weekly bath for hydration and to prompt a bowel movement. Continue offering daily baths until they have a bowel movement if they ate.
Then, you can let them go back to sleep. This habit doesn’t differ drastically from the natural process of brumation, during which wild bearded dragons often rise to replenish on warmer days of winter.
What To Do When Your Bearded Dragon Wakes From Brumation
How long a bearded dragon brumation depends on the dragon, but in captivity, brumation usually doesn’t last as long as brumation in the wild because indoor temperatures are much warmer than what they’d experience in the wild. Some bearded dragons brumate for up to 4 months while others only brumate for a few weeks.
To encourage your bearded dragon out of brumation, increase the daylight period back to 12 hours and raise temperatures in their tank. One day, you’ll find them awake and ready for food.
But try not to overload them with insects at first, as their stomachs can be sensitive after brumation. Instead, gradually wean them back into normal eating habits. Typically, bearded dragons will return to normal within 2 weeks of coming out of brumation.
Attempts to prevent or interrupt brumation only cause undue stress to your bearded dragon and may prolong the process instead of shorten it. The only legitimate reason to try to prevent or shorten brumation is when the lizard is too unhealthy to safely brumate.
If they are infected with a serious case of parasites or other illness that has resulted in substantial weight loss or nutritional depletion, they may not have enough fat reserved to survive brumation. Consult a vet if a sick beardie shows signs of brumation.
If your dragon really shouldn’t be brumating, you can attempt to dissuade it with frequent handling and raising temperatures slightly.
Although none of us want our bearded dragons to go into brumation for up to 4 months, the process is uncontrollable, unpredictable, and, in many cases, inevitable. This instinct has helped cold blooded animals endure our planet’s harsh winters for millions of years.
Though it isn’t necessary in captivity, the urge to brumate is written in your bearded dragon’s DNA. It will take many more decades of captive breeding before brumation becomes less prominent in our pets.
Not all bearded dragons are compelled to brumate in captivity, but for those who do, it’s the owner’s responsibility to keep their animals healthy in dormancy just as when they’re active. So, be wary of parasites, never let them brumate on a full stomach, and tuck your baby in before he goes to sleep.