Brumation is the reptile equivalent of hibernation; a period of time when they slow down, stop eating, and sleep for weeks on end. Wild reptiles evolved this ability to survive winter, so brumation typically starts in autumn and ends in spring.
For western hognoses, brumation should last about 3 months, starting in December and ending at the end of February.
For eastern and southern hognoses, brumation should last about 2 months, starting in December and ending at the end of January.
- Less active than usual
- Remaining buried for weeks at a time
- Loss of appetite
- Preferring the cool side of the enclosure
Brumation is a perfectly normal part of your snake’s annual cycle. In fact, some sources assert that cooling reptiles during the winter brumation period provides a more complete brumation, and therefore healthier, more long-lived animals. The following instructions are based on instructions in Designer-Morphs Western Hognose Snakes by John R. Berry.
Brumation is definitely more of an advanced reptile keeping technique, so it’s a good idea to keep an experienced reptile veterinarian on hand for any complications (significant weight loss, not waking up from brumation, etc.). Artificial cooling should not be attempted for hognoses younger than 12 months old.
If you wish to provide winter cooling for your hognose during the winter, here’s what you need to do:
Before you get started, make sure that your hognose is healthy enough to brumate. Brumation pushes a reptile’s body to its limit, which means that minor health problems can turn life-threatening if they aren’t addressed before brumation begins. That’s why pre-brumation is a good time for your snake’s annual checkup appointment with the vet. Any health issues that the vet does find should be treated and cleared before the snake is allowed to brumate.
1) At the beginning of November, stop offering food. This gives the snake a chance to clear out its digestive tract and start preparing for brumation. Otherwise, trapped food and fecal matter can rot and poison your snake while it sleeps.
2) Two weeks later, turn off all heat sources so the snake is now at room temperature (68-72°F/20-22°C). Heatless light sources can continue to provide a day/night cycle. This reduction in heat will make your snake sluggish and sleepy.
3) At the beginning of December, place the snake in a large deli container, tupperware, or plastic shoebox with holes poked in it. Make sure there is about an inch of substrate in the container for cushioning. Then, transfer the container and snake to a cooling chamber. The cooling chamber should be a mini fridge or freezer controlled via thermostat to maintain a temperature of 50-60°F/12-15°C. Some reptile incubators have a cooling function that allows them to double as hibernaculums. Cooler is better than warmer, but 38°F/3.4°C is too cold, and will freeze the snake!
- If you aren’t able to source a suitable cooling chamber, you can brumate the snake inside its enclosure by turning off all lights. Make things are dark as possible to encourage the snake to sleep. If you are brumating the snake inside its enclosure, make sure fresh water remains available, as snakes brumating at this temperature are likely to remain minimally active.
4) Weigh the snake’s container every 1-2 weeks with a digital kitchen scale to track weight changes. Weight loss greater than 10% of the snake’s original weight indicates that there’s a problem, and you need to stop brumation and bring the snake to a vet.
5) When it’s time for brumation to end, transfer the snake’s container from the brumation chamber back to its enclosure and take the lid off (if you were using a cooling chamber). Heat sources should still be off, but heatless lights can cycle as normal.
6) Two weeks later, you can turn on the heat source(s). Within 1-2 weeks of the heat coming back on, you should be seeing your hognose drinking water and return to normal activity. You can also offer a small meal at this point.
7) After the first meal has been digested, you can resume a normal feeding schedule.