Reptiles like geckos require outside heat sources to regulate their body temperature. But they can withstand a few days of cooler temps if the power goes out. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki / BDN

Ectothermic animals like reptiles rely on environmental conditions to regulate their body temperatures. In the wild, lizards or snakes will bask on a rock in the sun to warm up. If the reptile wants to cool down, it will head for shade under a rock or in a burrow. But what happens to reptiles kept in the home as pets when environmental conditions change during a power outage?

Here are some things to keep in mind to make sure your pet reptile is comfortable and safe in the event you lose power.

Short term cold spells are okay

“We get this question quite a bit,” said Denise Cieri, founder and director of HerpHaven, a pet reptile rescue and sanctuary in Brunswick. “The first thing that you really need to know is you need to be more careful to keep them from overheating rather than from getting cold or chilled.”

That’s because reptiles like geckos, lizards, dragons and iguanas are perfectly fine for a few days if the temperature in your home drops a bit if your heat source goes out.

“As long as the temperatures stay in the 50s, it’s not a huge deal for the reptiles for a few days,” Cieri said.

Just as they do in the wild, if temperatures drop in your home, reptiles will become less active and enter into torpor during which their entire metabolic rate slows down. According to Cieri, this is perfectly natural as far as the reptiles are concerned.

“There is not a place on Earth where it is 85 or 90 degrees all the time,” Cieri said. “Even in the Southwest there are days it gets cold, and we know there are plenty of snakes, lizards and tortoises in the Southwest.”

A very visible and somewhat dramatic example of torpor occurs in Florida whenever temperatures drop near or below freezing. Iguanas spend a great deal of time in trees, and if they are in a tree when they enter a torpor state, they often fall out of those trees.

Plan ahead

Cieri said it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the weather forecast during the winter and plan your reptile’s feeding schedule accordingly.

“If you see a storm is coming and you think there is a possibility you are going to lose power, don’t feed them for a couple of days,” she said. “This is especially true for snakes who tend to get bigger meals that take longer to digest.”

If a reptile goes into torpor with a full belly, they will lack the necessary metabolic energy to digest whatever food they have just eaten. That undigested food could be regurgitated at a later time or remain in the digestive tract where it can start to decompose and rot. All of this can cause health problems or even death to a reptile.

When the power comes back on, according to Cieri, the reptiles will naturally warm back up and you can feed them as you normally would.

Your reptiles will need water, even in a torpor, as dehydration is a danger.

“It should not be warm water,” Cieri said. “Reptiles, being ectothermic, can’t dissipate heat, so if the water is too warm, it can cause their body heat to go too high and cause neurological damage.”

Alternate heat sources

If you need to use an alternate heat source, there are a few options that are safe for your reptiles. Cieri said chemical hand warmers, sold at many sporting goods stores in Maine, are fine to use.

“The key is to use them appropriately,” she said. “They can’t be put in direct contact with the reptile and should never be placed with a reptile in an enclosed, unventilated space.”

Chemical hand warmers can reach 200 degrees Fahrenheit, which can burn a reptile. These types of hand warmers also use oxygen to activate and can actually deplete the available oxygen in a small space, causing the reptile to suffocate.

Hand warmers work best, Cierii said, if taped on the outside of a reptile’s enclosure where they can warm up a corner or space without coming into contact with the animal. A good option is using battery-powered hand warmers, which can be set to specific temperatures and do not pose a danger of suffocation because they don’t use oxygen to activate.

You can also heat up rocks on a gas grill, wrap them in towels and place them in the reptile’s enclosure. Hot water bottles work well if filled with warm, not boiling, water. And one of the best ways to keep your reptiles warm is by sharing your own body heat.

“Just put them next to your body,” Cierie said. “They will be quite happy there.”

Education is key

No one should get a reptile as a pet before doing some research.

“Before you bring a reptile home, you need to know exactly what it needs for heat, enclosure and food requirements,” Cieri said. “What tends to happen when people don’t take the time to learn is you get a sick reptile because they are not provided with what they need to be healthy.”

Those requirements can vary among different types of reptiles, as they are one-size-fits-all creatures. It’s also good to remember that, in the wild, they are used to temperature fluctuations, so there is no need to panic if your power goes out.

“They key is, these animals can and do deal with temperature spikes,” Cieri said. “They know what they need to do to survive.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.