Know the basics for successfully hibernating your pet reptile.
What is hibernation? How do I do it and for how long? These and other questions likely have popped into your head. If your reptile either needs or seems to want to hibernate, this overview is for you.
Hibernation means to spend the winter in a dormant state. Often “brumation” is the term used to describe this activity in reptiles and amphibians. From a scientific standpoint, brumation describes a certain metabolic process present in temperate reptiles during their winter sleep. “Torpor” is another term, but it is better used when the cooling period is short. To keep things simple, I will stick with the well-known and generally understood term “hibernation.”
Hibernating animals originate in temperate regions, such as Australia, the United States, Europe and many parts of Africa. Tropical animals, such as iguanas, ball pythons or boa constrictors, generally don’t hibernate, so if these animals act like they want to hibernate, there is a problem. Please see a good herp veterinarian. You can find vets listed by state at ReptileChannel.com/VetList and on the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians’ website: arav.org. This article is not meant to pertain to tropical herp species of any type.
Hibernation is a normal process many reptiles go through. If your reptile wants or needs to hibernate, and it’s appropriate for the species to do so, then there are ways to do so safely and easily.
Ready for Repose
As winter approaches you might notice your reptile changing its habits. If hibernation is normal for the species, it might be getting ready to hibernate.
Where I live in Southern California, hibernation season begins as early as late-September but may not start until early November. In more northern climates reptile hibernation could start a month earlier. Let your pet tell you. It can indeed send you signals. It may voluntarily go off-feed and sleep a lot. It may refuse food. If you see these signals and the general hibernation season is upon you, then you know when — now!
Reptiles must be in good health and have a good body weight before they enter hibernation. Several “Health Check” sidebars explain what that means for some common reptile pets. Sickly animals shouldn’t undergo hibernation. They might not come out of it.
Start hibernation season by prepping for it. Allow your reptile to go approximately 14 days with heat and light (your normal setup) after the last feeding. This gives your pet time to clear its bowel of its last meal. Digestion stops during hibernation, so if the bowel contains food, the food rots, which could kill the animal. Tortoises should be soaked daily to maintain hydration. Once your pet has cleared its gut of food, remove the heating and lighting, and keep the animal at room temperature for a week to acclimate it to the cooler temps.
After this preparation period, put your animal in a cold spot, such as a spare bedroom, laundry room or basement. “Cold” means above 50 degrees Fahrenheit and below 68 degrees. A little temporary fluctuation in temperature is fine. In Southern California we sometimes have warm winter days in which the temperature gets above 70 degrees. It cools off again, and hibernating reptiles aren’t interrupted. If the animal will experience temps below 50 degrees, then it should be moved to a location where it will not.
Moisture is another factor to consider while selecting a hibernation spot, and finding an ideal location can be tricky. In nature many hibernating reptiles spend winter in a humid environment, such as a burrow. These environments aren’t wet. In many areas winter precipitation is above ground as snow, and it’s the spring thaw flooding the burrow that wakes the animal. If the spot you’ve chosen is too wet, the animal could get a respiratory infection and perish. On the other hand, if the chosen spot is too dry, the reptile could become dehydrated. Every moist breath exhaled is replaced with dry air on the inhale, and the animal dehydrates ever so slowly. Over time, especially with smaller specimens, this adds up, and your pet could be in trouble. Dehydration is the most common cause of hibernation problems.
I mention these factors to help you pick the best possible spot for your hibernating reptile. They shouldn’t scare you away from doing it. As a natural process, hibernation is beneficial to your pet’s health. I trust you know a safe place to do this in your home.
Most hibernating reptiles, such as snakes, leopard geckos and bearded dragons, can sleep the winter away in their enclosures. Don’t feed them, but they should always have fresh water available. Don’t let the water bowl go dry. Hibernating herps will wake and drink throughout the winter. In some cases they might dehydrate during hibernation. Ideally, you should weigh your pet before hibernation and about every two weeks during it. Any weight loss is water loss, and a 10-to-15-minute soak in room-temperature water is recommended. The reptile gets a drink, and then it returns to cold storage.
Unlike other reptiles, tortoises (and perhaps turtles though I haven’t tried it) are best cooled in a plastic storage box. Use backyard soil as a base, and cover the animal with shredded newspaper. The soil maintains humidity and mimics a burrow in nature. No additional water beyond the moist substrate is necessary, and too much moisture is also a problem. Weigh a tortoise in intervals similar to other hibernating reptiles, and one that has lost weight should be soaked.
In Southern California the hibernation season usually ends between mid-January and mid-March. Weather plays a large role. In northern latitudes hibernation may last a month later in the spring. The animals seem to know when winter is ending. They’ll let you know by moving about actively in their containers despite being relatively cool. That is it. Hibernation is over. Set your animal back up in its regular enclosure if it’s been kept in winter quarters, turn on the heating and lighting, and start feeding it regularly. Soon your happy and healthy reptile is going to want to reproduce. Don’t worry; reptile stores always need quality captive-bred reptiles.
Now you know the basics for successfully hibernating your pet. You get a break, and your pet gets a natural life cycle. Everybody wins.
SCOTT SOLAR has kept and bred reptiles for more than 25 years. Co-owner of Amazon Reptile Center in Montclair, Calif., and Covina, Calif., he thanks his family and staff for all the support they provide, allowing him to have a job that feels like it’s not one.