Home > Reptile Biology > Hibernation and Your Reptiles

Hibernation and Your Reptiles

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 30 Nov 2016 | comments*Discuss
Reptile Hibernation Brumation

Most people think of bears or squirrels when they talk about hibernation but in fact many reptiles hibernate as well – although the process is more correctly called “brumation” as it is different from mammalian hibernation. This is because, unlike mammals, a reptile is not living off its fat reserves but rather slowing down its metabolism, via the cold temperature, so that it hardly uses any energy. Thus, hibernating reptiles are not actually “asleep” but they are very sluggish. Hibernation or brumation evolved as a way of surviving times of cold, usually in winter, when food was scarce and water supplies may be limited.

Do all Reptiles Hibernate?

With some reptiles, such as box turtles, hibernation is an important part of their lifestyle while for others, such as garter snakes, it will depend on the circumstances, such as whether any breeding is planned. Of course, in many instances, you will not get any choice as the reptile will decide for itself! You will notice it becoming more inactive and losing interest in food as autumn progresses – this is usually triggered by a change in temperature, length of day or light levels.

In many reptiles, the cooling period stimulates the production of sperm in the males and ovulation in the females – thus, hibernation is necessary for breeding. It is often useful in re-setting the reptiles internal clock and encouraging it to eat again. Box turtles are perhaps the first to spring to mind when thinking of pet reptiles that hibernate although reptiles from many different ecosystems will enter a state of hibernation at low temperatures. These include desert tortoises, temperate tortoises (including box turtles), aquatic turtles and most snakes from temperate zones, such as king snakes, milk snakes, water snakes, bull snakes and garter snakes.

How to Prepare Your Reptile for Hibernation

While it is a natural process, hibernation can actually cause more harm than good if not done properly. Firstly, no reptile should be allowed to hibernate if it is not in top condition and health, as the stresses of the process can cause serious illness and even death. So always take your reptile to the vet for a medical examination before embarking on a hibernation programme. He will also be able to advise you on the correct weight for hibernation and on any dietary supplements needed. Most reptiles will stop eating as they prepare for hibernation and this is essential as their bodily functions will slow during hibernation with the result that any food in the stomach will remain indigested and may putrefy, releasing deadly toxins.

Thus, a reptile will naturally undergo a fast and clear his system before he begins hibernation underground. If your reptile does not stop eating by itself, you may need to stop feeding it to prepare it for hibernation. Food will usually clear the system in about 3 weeks. Giving it a bath in warm water may encourage it to defecate the last of the food out of its system. For turtles that need to be hydrated, soak them in water for 20-30mins every 48 hours before hibernation begins.

Hibernation does not need to take place in a sophisticated chamber – a DIY plastic box or similar storage container is sufficient. Fill it with newspaper and moistened peat moss or other moisture-retaining substrate. Most reptiles will burrow into this material. Make sure the reptile has access to water. Cover the box with a lid that has holes punched or drilled into it for ventilation. Place the box in a draught-free room and maintain it at a temperature of about 40-50 degrees F. Always lower the temperature gradually, until you reach the target hibernation temperature. Humidity is also an important consideration, especially for box turtles, and this is largely maintained by the damp substrate lining. Contrary to popular myth, darkness is not necessary and some natural light is beneficial, although this can be decreased if the reptile is too active.

Monitoring Hibernation

During hibernation, it is important to check on your reptile every 2-3 weeks and monitor its weight, appearance and activity levels. To check humidity levels, look at the skin of the reptile and see if it is dryer than normal; check the substrate as well to make sure that it is still slightly damp. If the reptile has urinated or its skin seems very dry, allow it to soak in tepid water for half an hour to an hour. For turtles, in particular, hydration is important and some owners will soak their pets every 2-3 weeks regardless. Make sure that you also check the substrate for any signs of mould or excessive dampness and replace any necessary sections.

If you notice anything untoward – such as excessive loss of weight, discharge from the eyes or breathing difficulties, immediately rehydrate and warm up the reptile (gradually!) and stop hibernation.

If everything goes to plan, reptiles can hibernate from 2-4 months. They should be gently brought out of hibernation by a gradual increase of temperature. Remember to rehydrate through soaking if necessary. Once it has reached room temperature, offer it food although note that some may still not eat for several weeks and some males may fast until after breeding.

You might also like...
Share Your Story, Join the Discussion or Seek Advice..
Hate your website because it has no info on lizards it is hopelessand I have looked at the other feedback and most of it is bad.
Lara - 4-Nov-16 @ 5:00 AM
Your website is hopeless it doesn't even tell me anything about lizards
Under scar - 3-Nov-16 @ 3:36 AM
Share Your Story, Join the Discussion or Seek Advice...
(never shown)
(never shown)
(never shown)
(never shown)
Enter word:
Latest Comments
  • SON
    Re: Reptile Keeping and the Law FAQs
    Just found out my tenant has at least 10 snakes in my upper floor apartment - I am checking on the lease, but is it legal to…
    22 February 2021
  • Reptile mo.
    Re: What to do if Your Reptile Escapes
    My bearded has escaped and it's been 24 hrs I've looked everywhere. He's no where to be found what shouldni do
    23 November 2020
  • arc
    Re: What to do if Your Reptile Escapes
    our baby green anole escaped in our apartment and we can't find him and he blends into the carpet
    17 November 2020
    Re: Keeping Tortoises as Pets
    My daughter in law has recently homed a tortoise from a local rescue centre, the tortoise is doing very well and seems to be happy and…
    12 November 2020
  • Benny
    Re: Keeping Caimans
    Hi, i'm studying a L3 Animal Management Course and am working on my Exotic animals assignment. I'm looking at caimans and why people have them as…
    6 November 2020
  • Andy
    Re: Keeping Caimans
    I am finding it hard to find insurance companies that will insure me for my licence that I need to own one I stay in the UK can anyone out there…
    12 September 2020
  • Shane
    Re: Keeping Bearded Dragons as Pets
    I have a new dragon 4 years old coming today I already have a 4 year old dragon both boys and I let the meet the first time…
    28 August 2020
  • Tan ver
    Re: 10 Common Myths about Turtles and Tortoises
    I grew up my turtle from. Baby since last 2 yrs nd. Day ago I couldn't find him. EverDay I used to take him…
    25 August 2020
  • Deb
    Re: Should I Leave the Heat Bulb on Overnight?
    We have a baby comillion in a screen enclosure. What should the temperature be.
    22 August 2020
  • Reidy
    Re: What to do if Your Reptile Escapes
    My juvenile black and white tegu escaped his enclosure and got outside I've checked absolutely everywhere even pulled up…
    19 August 2020