Keeping a reptile as a pet is a never-ending source of happiness and surprises! Sometimes, your pet might do something that really catches you off guard. Bearded dragons are no exception to this rule. Bearded dragons will do strange things like twitch, flip on their backs, and even act like they are dead! So, what’s up with this? Is your bearded dragon actually dead or just playing?
Can a bearded dragon even play dead?
Bearded dragons have an innate defense mechanism that allows them to become almost paralytic when stressed. Bearded dragons will stop breathing, moving, and blinking for up to 10 minutes at a time. Some bearded dragon owners even report that their pets do this in response to something like daily medication!
So, it’s not that your bearded dragon is really playing dead, but its body is going through a stress sequence that is definitely making them look dead! In this article, we’ll discuss what exactly is going on, along with a few other things that you might mistake for death in your beardie.
What Does It Look Like When A Bearded Dragon “Plays Dead?”
If you’re reading this article, you might have already seen what it looks like when a bearded dragon plays dead. Or, maybe you’re just a cautious owner trying to learn everything there is to know before it happens to you and your scaly friend.
When bearded dragons play dead, they will usually lie on their stomachs and stay very still. Your bearded dragon probably won’t lie on their back while playing dead because it’s a very unnatural and prone position. Although there are other reasons why your beardie flips on its back, this isn’t going to be one of them. If a bearded dragon is playing dead, they’re also able to slow their breathing to almost a stop. They will only take one breath every few minutes.
It will look almost like your pet has frozen in place. So, why do beardies do this?
Why Do Bearded Dragons “Play Dead?”
Bearded dragons instinctively play dead. Actually, many lizards are capable of feigning death.
Playing dead is a defense against predators in the wild. This defense mechanism keeps predators from even recognizing bearded dragons as prey in the first place. Then, if a predator does approach, they’re less likely to attack something that looks mostly dead. In the wild, most predators don’t want to eat animals they find dead because those animals could have died from an illness or parasite that they could pass on.
While the playing dead act won’t work on scavengers, it’s a pretty effective strategy against many lizard predators.
So if beardies do this in the wild when predators are near, why do they do it in captivity?
Stress Can Cause Your Pet To Play Dead.
In captivity, bearded dragons have a feigned death response when their stress levels spike. Think of it as a fight-or-flight response. The only difference is that the end result is a fake death.
Acute stress can be caused by things like medications, soaks, tank cleanings, and vet visits. chronic and long-term stress can be caused by inappropriate housing and poorly regulated environments. If your bearded dragon is playing dead often, they’re probably not feeling too great. Stress can cause more than a defensive response and can actually make your pet very sick over time!
How To Reduce Stress For Your Bearded Dragon.
Luckily, there are plenty of ways to reduce stress in your bearded dragon’s life! After all, you control the majority of what happens to them. Once you identify the cause of the playing dead you’ll be able to find the cause of the stress as well!
For acute stress like medications, soaks or vet visits, you can try making those experiences more pleasurable for your pet. The definition of pleasurable looks different for each beardie, but one way to get your bearded dragon to not worry about an event so much is to give them their favorite treats. If you think the vet stresses your beardie out, try giving them a few of their favorite treats while they wait in the exam room. Or, you could even try a virtual visit if your veterinarian deems it appropriate.
For long-term or chronic stress, it’s not such an easy fix. Long-term stress on the body of a pet usually comes from daily inadequacies in the environment. This means there is a problem with tank setup, lighting, temperature, or humidity. Remember, bearded dragons are desert animals that require a hot and dry environment. If your enclosure is too cold or moist, they’re going to start to feel the stress of that. If you think the humidity is too high in your beardies tank, you can check out or tips for lowering humidity in this article.
To feel relaxed, your bearded dragon also needs good lighting during the day and almost complete darkness at night. You’ll also want to provide them with a basking light while their day lights are on. Providing a hide is a great way to ensure that your bearded dragon feels comfortable and relaxed. A hide gives them a place to feel safe and secure.
What Else Could Be Happening When Your Bearded Dragon Looks Dead?
As shocking as this might sound, playing dead isn’t the only reason why your bearded dragon might start to look, well, dead.
There are a few other reasons why your scaly friend might start looking a little worse for the wear. It’s important to understand what these are and the differences between them so that you can take action if necessary!
Have you heard of brumation before?
Brumation is sort of like hibernation but for reptiles! Reptiles will brumate throughout the winter to make sure that they survive until spring. Just like in hibernation, brumation slows down the heart rate and metabolism. Reptiles in brumation do not go into a deep sleep and will still move around slowly. They’ll likely spend most of their days under a rock but will go out to get water on sunny days.
Some captive reptiles will still brumate, even in well-regulated environments. If your bearded dragon starts to feel the effects of a cold season coming, it might go into brumation. This will look a little different from playing dead because your bearded dragon will spend a lot of time hidden away. When they do move, they’ll move slowly, and they’ll also start to eat and drink less.
If you don’t want your pet to brumate, keep the temperature warm in their enclosure, year-round, and you should be able to avoid this state! If you want to learn a little more about bearded dragon brumation, here is a great summary in video form.
Another thing that might cause your bearded dragon to look dead is illness.
Illness can make bearded dragons dehydrated, colorless, and lethargic. In extreme cases, your bearded dragon might not have the energy to sustain movement. But with illness, you should still notice that your bearded dragon’s respiratory rate and heart rate stay pretty normal or high.
Of course, if you do think your bearded dragon is sick, you’ll want to make a trip to your veterinarian ASAP to get them a diagnosis and treatment.
The last thing that might cause your bearded dragon to look like they are playing dead is actual death.
Not to be morbid, but the death of a pet is always a possibility. Whether they die from old age, disease, or some other unknown, it is a part of the circle of life.
If your bearded dragon has died, you’ll find that not only will it stop breathing completely, but its limbs will start to stiffen and its stomach might start to become bloated looking. If your bearded dragon is on its back, it could also be a sign of death. Bearded dragons have a really hard time breathing while on their backs, so if you find them in this position, something is definitely wrong.
The best sign of death in a bearded dragon would be a lack of heart rate and that’s something you’ll want to have a professional verify before calling it quits. As crazy as it sounds, there are plenty of stories on the internet of people burying their bearded dragons while they’re still alive!
How To Tell If Your Bearded Dragon Is Sick, Playing Dead, Bruminating, or Dead.
It gets a little confusing with all of the different things that could cause your beardie to become inanimate. Let’s start from the top.
In all of the states except for death, your bearded dragon will still have a heart rate. So, if your bearded dragon’s heart has stopped beating, you can consider them passed away at that point.
If your bearded dragon’s vitals are almost normal, but they look weak, lethargic, and dehydrated, they’re probably dealing with illness.
A bearded dragon that has stopped coming out during the day is breathing slower and eating less might be brumating.
And of course, a bearded dragon that looks frozen and has stopped breathing and blinking for a few minutes is likely “playing dead” in response to stress.
As always we cannot recommend giving your veterinarian a call enough! Having a second opinion is never a bad idea. Even a professional can have a hard time making a solid diagnosis. So, before you start any treatments check with your local exotic pet vet.
Bearded dragons do play dead, but not out of choice! They won’t really roll over on their backs for treats like dogs sometimes can. Playing dead is more of a physiological response to stress that beardies have little to no control over just like twitching in some medial situations. Make sure you know exactly what’s going on with your beardie next time they start to act funny! Hopefully, you can get the situation figured out and keep your pet’s life as stress-free as possible.