Pet snakes that aren’t of tropical origin can go into brumation, a period of several weeks to several months of cold-weather inactivity.
In this article, we’ll tell you about some fascinating brumation facts.
We will tell you more about what brumation is, why snakes do it, and which pet snakes are most likely to go into a state of winter brumation.
What Is Brumation?
If you live anywhere outside the tropics, you have probably noticed that snakes seem to vanish in the winter.
They just aren’t around in the colder months, but they are a common sight once again when it gets warmer.
That’s because snakes, sometimes including pet snakes, brumate. Brumation is a snake’s equivalent of hibernation, with a few important differences.
Like hibernation, brumation is a low-energy state. Unlike hibernation, snakes don’t spend the winter in a deep sleep.
They still need to drink water. They won’t wake up for a winter snack. They just don’t move around a lot, and they are temporarily much more tolerant of cold.
When your pet snake is brumating, it won’t respond to most poking and prodding. (If you happen to aggravate it when it is getting up to get a drink of water, it may respond in an unpleasant manner.)
It may burrow underground or curl up in the darkest, coolest part of its enclosure.
It will not defecate.
When snakes start brumating, they become very lethargic. It can be hard to tell the difference between a brumating snake and a dead snake.
It may look like it is dead. But don’t assume that it is.
Why Do Snakes Brumate?
All snakes and, for that matter, all reptiles, are ectothermic. They depend on their surroundings for warmth.
Their bodies don’t generate heat on their own. They are cold-blooded.
Brumation is a snake’s way of dealing with falling temperatures. When they first sense the nights are getting colder, they may eat more to put on body fat.
Once temperatures fall, snakes don’t eat because they need external warmth to digest their food.
Digestive enzymes require body heat that a snake cannot generate on its own.
We don’t know if brumation snakes dream, herpetologists have confirmed that reptiles retain all their memories from before brumation when they wake up.
What Are the Differences Between Brumation and Hibernation?
Brumation and hibernation share a number of similarities. Both processes occur when days start getting shorter and temperatures fall.
In both brumation and hibernation, animals store up fat by eating more in late summer and the fall.
In both processes, animals don’t eat during cold weather and wake up hungry in the spring.
Both brumation and hibernation involve both males and females of a species, although in some species the females will go into their winter rest before the males and wake up after them.
But there are also some important differences between brumation and hibernation:
- Warm-blooded animals hibernate, while cold-blooded animals brumate. Hibernating animals lower their body temperature intentionally so they won’t have to hunt for food in the winter. Cold-blooded animals like snakes don’t control their body temperature, so they find a place to brumate where their body temperatures won’t fall too low.
- Brumating snakes can tolerate low oxygen levels. Hibernating mammals cannot.
- Hibernating mammals go without both food and water. Brumating snakes still need to keep hydrated, and will get up to take a drink of water.
- Hibernating mammals won’t wake up to take advantage of an unusually warm winter day. Brumating snakes may come out when the weather is unusually warm, but then return to their winter shelter.
Do All Pet Snakes Brumate?
Any pet snake native to a location that has cold winters can brumate.
Western Hognose Snakes, for example, often start brumation in December and only become active again in February.
Eastern Hognose Snakes have a shorter brumation period, only about two months.
Some tropical snakes will brumate in the summer, in preparation for their breeding season.
A Rubber Boa, for example, will shut down in June or July (in the Northern Hemisphere) to get ready for mating and laying its eggs in a nest.
What Should I Do to Prepare My Snake for Brumation?
If you don’t have a lot of experience with snakes, you can always make sure your pet snake has a spot in its enclosure where it will be cool, quiet, and safe during brumation.
If you keep your snake’s enclosure at the same temperature all the time, chances are it won’t brumate, but if temperatures in your home go down and your snake’s cage gets less light, then it may get ready for winter rest.
You don’t have to do anything special other than making sure it is undisturbed and has water to drink when it occasionally wakes up.
If you have a lot of experience with snakes, or you have guidance from your veterinarian, you can create the conditions that will make your snake want to enter brumation.
Many owners of Hognose Snakes, in particular, change their conditions to encourage brumation.
You shouldn’t try to force brumation in any snake that is under 12 months old or that has had any recent health problems.
But if your pet snake is at least a year old and is generally healthy, you can follow these steps.
- Make sure your snake is eating normally in September and October. It needs to have a reserve of body fat for brumation.
- Stop feeding your snake at the beginning of November. Continue providing water. This gives your snake a chance to clear its digestive tract. Trapped undigested food and fecal matter can incubate bacteria while your snake brumates, making it sick.
- Turn off your pet snake’s heater in the middle of November. Don’t turn off central heating for your home. Let your snake’s enclosure fall to room temperature, about 68° to 72° F (20° to 22° C). Continue using heatless light sources, but don’t run them more than eight or nine hours a day. Give your pet snake total darkness at night.
- At the beginning of December, place your snake in a snake box or a Tupperware container with holes in it. (Snakes don’t need as much oxygen when they brumate, but placing them in a completely closed container will smother them.)
- Next transfer the container to a cooling chamber. The cooling chamber can be a refrigerator or a freezer with a thermostat to maintain its temperature at 50° to 60° F (12° to 15° C). Don’t put your pet snake in any cooling chamber that doesn’t have a thermostat or that can’t be kept at 50° to 60° F (12° to 15° C). Although some snakes can stand temperatures considerably below freezing, others develop hypothermia at temperatures below 38° F (4° C).
- If you can’t find a reliable cooling chamber for your snake, it is OK to let it brumate in its usual enclosure. Keep the room in which you keep your snake cooler than the rest of your home, but above 50° (12° C).
- Weigh your snake’s container every one or two weeks while it is brumating. Wake it up and take it to the vet if its weight falls more than 10 percent.
- If you are using a cooling chamber, about two weeks before it is time for your snake to end its brumation, transfer its container back to its enclosure and take off the lid. You should keep the heat turned off, but you can run heatless light sources 12 hours a day.
- Two weeks later, turn your snake’s heater back on. You should see your pet snake drinking water at this point. Once you see your snake drinking water, it is OK to offer it a small meal.
- When it is clear that your snake is able to digest its food, then you can resume its normal feeding schedule.
Frequently Asked Questions About Brumating Snakes
Q. Why would anyone want their pet snake to brumate?
A. Many snakes mate when they awake from their winter brumation.
Pet owners who want to breed their snakes often give them conditions for brumation.
Q. Are snakes the only reptile that brumates?
A. Snakes aren’t the only reptile that brumates. Bearded dragon lizards are famous for shutting down in cold weather.
However, any given individual bearded dragon may brumate every year, for a long period, for a short period, off and on throughout the winter, or not at all.
Many turtles and tortoises also brumate. So do some amphibians such as frogs.
Q. Why don’t I ever see snakes brumating in the wild?
A. Wild snakes brumate in caves, under rocks, in tree stumps, in wells, in crawl spaces under houses, and in basements with open windows.
If you do see brumating snakes, you will usually see many snakes in the same location. Snakes are usually asocial animals, but brumating together conserves body heat.
Brumating snakes tend to stay in the same spot every year.
If you find a mass of brumating snakes one year, chances are that you will find them in the same location the next year.
Q. If the power to my home goes out during the winter, and the heat goes out, won’t my pet snake just go into brumation?
And even snakes that ordinarily go into brumation can be seriously injured in a sudden cold snap.
There are things you can do to prepare your pet snakes for the possibility of a winter power outage, things you can do to protect your pet snakes when the power goes out, and things you should not do during a power outage.
- If there is a forecast that a winter storm that could knock out your power is on the way, don’t feed your snake until it is passed. Your snake cannot digest food when it is cold. Food will decay in its stomach. It is better for your snake to be hungry than for it to die of food poisoning.
- If you can’t afford a generator to keep a small heater going, stock up on heat pads used for transporting reptiles and fish. These inexpensive pads (they sell for about US $1 each) generate a small amount of heat for about 18 hours through a chemical reaction triggered when you pull a tab. There are more expensive pads that will last as long as 72 hours, but they are too hot at first to place directly on your snake. Wrap them in a paper towel until they reach a safe temperature.
- Don’t open your snake’s enclosure any more than absolutely necessary when the heat is off. Keep as much heat as possible in their enclosure.
- If you are able to boil water on a gas stove, prepare a hot water bottle and place it in their cage, but not directly on the snake.
- If you have chemical hand and foot warmers, you can place them in your snake’s terrarium to keep it warm. Make sure they are not too hot before you put them in the enclosure.
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