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Garter Snake information

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First of all, what is it? Brumation is a specialized kind of hibernation. Often, the two words are used interchangably when referring to garters, but brumation is actually the more correct term. This page describes the natural function of brumation, and the role that it could possibly play in the life of your garter, if you choose to.

The terminology: While hibernation is a long period of lowered inactivity, brumation is a kind of selective hibernation. In the wild, garter snakes brumate when the weather gets too cold to support their lifestyle. Garters 'den', or gather together in large numbers in any sort of sheltered area, such as a crevice in a rock, or basements and storage sheds. Denning is most notable among Eastern and Canadian garter snakes, which form groups of several hundred, and make quite a spectacle when they emerge together in the spring. Brumation itself causes the snake's metabolism to lower and for the animal to become inactive for cold periods. If a warm day or two happens to come along, a garter can 'wake up' and become active again. This is the main thing that seperates brumation from a much more long-term hibernation.

The choice, if you have it: So if garter snakes brumate in the wild, does yours need to? The answer is no, brumation is not essential for a garter's health, and can often be the demise of snakes if brumation is attempted, but not done properly. You might read this and want to avoid brumating your garter, but be aware that you may not have a choice in the matter. Most wild-caught older garters will go into brumation of their own accord. When the weather gets too cold outside, they will stop eating and seek out the coolest place in their tank to hide. Owners need to recognize this behavior and respond by 'cooling down' their snakes. More about how that is done will be detailed below.

The major reason why owners decide to brumate their garters voluntarily is breeding. It has been theorized that garter snakes will not readily breed unless they go through brumation, and this is especially important for more northern species. Southern species have been known to breed without brumation, but a cooling period helps to stimulate such activity.

One of the situations in which you would not brumate a snake is with the very young. Neonate snakes are simply not strong enough to go through a brumation period, especially if you only have one or just a few snakes. In the wild, these snakes den up with much warmer and more numerous adults, so they are protected from the cold. A lone neonate may suffer from its inexperience with brumation, so it is recommended that you wait until it is at least of breeding age (1.5-2 years).

The process: If you've decided to brumate your garter, there are several ways to go about it. The easiest is if your snake brumates on its own. That way, it can choose its own time, and is much less stressful for you as well. An owner should respond to a brumating snake by turing off all heating fixtures in the tank, and greatly reducing the period of light the garter receives. If you don't have a specific hide box inside your tank, you may want to add one. A closed cave-like atmosphere is often welcomed by the snake. Be sure your snake always has clean fresh water, but do not feed it until you see its activity level pick up. This self-induced brumation can last anywhere from two weeks to about a month. After that, you should start to reinstate heat and lighting in small increments over several days, to slowly warm your snake up, just as a thaw would occur in the springtime.

For snakes that do not initiate brumation, you get to pick the schedule of its cooling down. This should be sometime during the winter. First, do not feed your snake for at least a week before brumation starts. You need to be sure that its stomach and intestines are clear, because once the digestive system shuts off, the food could rot and kill the snake. You can try brumating your snake in its tank, as described above. If it won't take a hint, place the tank closer to a cool area such as a garage, leaky window, or door to the outside. (However, make sure the air stays relatively humid and don't expose your animal to cold snaps!) Another method is to place snakes in a refridgerator. This is much more risky to the snake, because it will be outside of its usual environment, and out of your immediate sight as well. Snakes should be placed in a refridgerator not currently being used to store food, and the temperature should be set somewhere from 50-40 degrees F to get things started off. You can leave the snake in its tank if you have room, or place it in a large plastic container with plenty of air holes, substrate, and fresh water. Speaking of air, the refridgerator must be opened at least once a day to let fresh oxygen circulate in. Warming the snake up again can be done by unplugging the fridge and leaving the door open for increasing increments of time over several days. This will allow the temperature inside to slowly rise to normal again.


Brumation is a stressful time for both owners and snakes, as it seems that the animal's health is out of your hands for a long time. Be sure to pay careful attention to your snake, give them plenty of quiet and space, and make sure they have all of the essentials provided for them. The brumation tips above are simply that: tips. I would not claim to be an expert on the subject, and by providing this information take no responsibility for the fate of animals belonging to those who use it. Brumate at your own risk, and best of luck!

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