What is Brumation / Hibernation in reptiles, and should I let my pet go through the process?

What is Brumation / Hibernation in reptiles, and should I let my pet go through the process?

turtle-641462_1280It’s that time of year again when the weather is colder and the trees are losing their leaves; its autumn, and for any reptile owner particularly those with tortoises it’s time to decide whether you should brumate your pet. So why should you allow your pet to brumate?

The majority of people will think of bears and hedgehogs when they think of hibernation but many reptiles also hibernate, but to our reptile pets it is called brumation. This is the process in which reptiles’ metabolism slows dramatically to help them survive the cold winter rather than the process of surviving from fat reserves as with our mammalian friends. While many people think of only tortoises brumating many popular snake species also brumate including king snakes, garter snakes and milk snakes.

Brumation occurs in response to reduced temperatures, day length and day light. Due to this the majority of owners will have no choice but to brumate their pets who will take it upon themselves to go through the process unless care is taken to alter temperature and day light hours through UVB as autumn approaches. It is also worth noting that brumation is necessary for breeding and the cooling temperatures stimulate the production of sperm in the male and eggs in the female, but it not vital to their survival for Mediterranean tortoises.

While a natural process brumation can be dangerous if any reptile is not in good condition – a poorly reptile that brumates can become seriously ill and even die. It is always advisable to take your pet to a vet for a pre-brumation health check before you choose to brumate or if you suspect your reptile has decided themselves that brumation is happening.

Once you have decided to brumate or hibernate your pet and you have had a thorough vet check to make sure your pet is able to go through the process then it’s time to plan your hibernation or brumation. The following steps should be used to ensure your pet goes through the brumation process successfully and emerges in the spring in good health.

Brumation / Hibernation protocol:

  • Give last feed on the last day in October
  • Maintain normal temperatures and light for the next 2 weeks to allow gut contents to clear
  • Weigh after final defeacation – warm water baths will help with pooping
  • Turn off heat sources and supplemental lighting. The temperature for hibernation should be around 10 – 12°C depending on the species for the next 1 – 4 months (3 – 4 months for most colubrid snakes)
  • Keep the room or environment dim or dark for the duration of hibernation, except for health checks which should be carried out every other week
  • Weigh the reptiles at the midpoint on brumation. Any weight loss of 7.5% of its starting weight is a sign of deteriorating health and the animal should be removed from brumation
  • In the first week of February or March depending on your target brumation period resume heating to its normal levels and resume normal supplemental lighting
  • Weigh brumated reptiles on the day of heating and lighting being reinstated, any animal which has lost 10% of its body weight should see a vet immediately
  • For breeding animals feed small frequent meals during the first week of post- brumation and then large frequent meals thereafter to encourage breeding behaviour

 

There are many problems associated with poor brumation or hibernation in reptiles. These include post hibernation conjunctivitis, neurological problems, liver problems and post hibernation/brumation anorexia, specifically in tortoises. Leucopaenia, a problem with white blood cells is also common and causes a compromised immune system leaving these pets susceptible to other infections.

For Mediterranean tortoises the temperature should be 4 – 7°C and Brumation should last a maximum of 3 months.

Tortoises that are less than 5 years old and / or less than 500g in weight should NOT be brumated. The risk of post hibernation / brumation complications is much higher and can be life threatening.

For further information, or to book a pre-brumation healthcheck, please call the surgery on 01325 380111, and ask for Jess, our exotics Veterinary Nurse!

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