As the daylight gets shorter and our homes get cooler, a natural process begins in many captive snake, lizard, turtle and tortoise species. In winter months, some reptiles undergo “brumation”, which is similar to a hibernation period. Many reptiles will go weeks without interest in eating and some go into a trance that can be alarming to owners.
This phenomenon occurs because reptiles are “cold blooded”, or more accurately, “ectothermic “. They rely on heat sources in the environment to warm them, in order to perform their bodily functions. A COLD reptile has DECREASED: metabolism, immune function and ability to digest food. As a defensive mechanism, in the cooler months, reptiles take cover and empty their bellies for a long, cold, winter of dormancy. Brumation is also necessary for reproduction in some species, which is the most common reason for people to purposefully hibernate their reptiles.
How can I tell if this is happening to my pet?
• Decreased appetite
• Less activity and hunting drive
• Hiding on the cool side of the enclosure • Excessive sleeping • Change in color (darker due to cold temperature) • Mild weight loss
How long can this go on?
Some snakes require a 3-4 month brumation period without food for reproduction. Reptiles can become anorexic for amazing lengths of time, but that does not mean it is healthy.
How can you know your pet isn’t sick?
• Please don’t hesitate to come in for an exam!
There are certain indicators of underlying disease that may only be apparent to the trained eye.
• Bring in a fresh stool sample. Reptiles get parasites too! They can even get them from their prey; crickets carry pinworms, yuck!
• Bloodwork and/or X-rays may be needed to further evaluate the health of your pet.
• Monitor for other signs of illness:
Does your reptile look thin? Is he dull in color? Does he have poor sheds? Does he have diarrhea?
How can I prevent this? It seems scary.
It’s time to work on your pet’s environment.
1. Buy light timers. Provide 12-14 hours of light a day, all year.
2. Turn up the heat! Even if the lamps are on, the air in your home is cooler. You may want to buy another heat lamp or get the next higher watt bulb. Remember, you need thermometers to know the temperature on both sides of the tank!
3. Reduce ambient lighting. Those tricky instincts seem to pick up lighting in windows nearby too!
4. Don’t skimp on the grub! Make sure you feed your reptiles regularly.
Sometimes, even if we try our hardest, reptiles will still slow down in the winter. If this happens, even if your reptile brumates, don’t panic.
Don’t be tempted to wake up your reptile and feed them! Partially digested food can cause many problems if it sits in a cold reptile for too long.
Instead, modify the light and heat in the tank until your scaley friend wakes up and wants to eat.
If you’re worried your reptile doesn’t have enough fat reserves for prolonged anorexia, see a veterinarian! Actually, it’s more dangerous to have an anorexic overweight reptile, due to a liver disease called, hepatic lipidosis.
Don’t forget there are other healthy insects for insectivores!
Butterworms, reptiworms, dubia roaches, silkworms, hornworms/pinkies (only for larger reptiles) And yes, you can buy insects online.
What else to expect for wintering reptiles:
• Poor shedding. You will need to increase humidity and remember regular baths. Don’t ignore retained shed, that’s how you can lose a finger!
• UVB bulbs need to be changed every 6 months, even if they still work! That’s especially important in the winter, when our pets don’t get the chance to sunbathe.
Good luck and Happy Holidays! from Dr. Christine Boss and everyone at Ocean County Veterinary Hospital.