Short Term Power Outage Survival Guide for Reptile Keepers

Dec 10, 2014
The Reptile Report
by Diana Heideman

The Reptile Report - This is an excellent write-up on how to prepare for the inevitable power outages caused by winter storms–from our newest TRR team member, Diana Heideman:

With severe winter weather at hand, many reptile owners worry about what to do in a power outage. Thankfully, a few easy preparations can make the process less stressful for owners and animals alike. Remember that reptiles are cold-blooded and respond to cold far differently than mammals. Their bodies just slow down in the cold, and they simply stop eating, drink less, move less, and sleep more until it warms up again.

This guide covers all common pet species: bearded dragons, ball pythons, corn snakes, tortoises, leopard geckos, crested geckos, and the like. Those that keep temperature-sensitive species, lose power multiple times a winter, or maintain reptiles in a detached building should invest in a backup power source like a generator.

In a short-term situation like this, true hypothermia in reptiles is extremely rare. Ectotherms do not shiver to warm themselves, so a “shivering” lizard is probably suffering a calcium crash. As long as the animal responds to touch, lethargy or sleepiness is usually normal brumation and no cause for concern. Unless the animal does not respond to any stimulus, loses the ability to climb or cling, or seems “drunk” and disoriented in its movement, don’t worry.


1.) No heat packs or hand warmers. “Just wrap one in a sock and toss it in the tank” — this dangerous suggestion surfaces all the time in discussions. Reptiles should never come in direct contact with heat packs, as they can be badly burned or even killed. Human hand warmers reach 180 F. 40 hour heat packs (the most common reptile shipping pack) reach 135 F, and even 72 hour heat packs reach 112 F.


2.) No fireplaces. “Just put the tank right up next to the fireplace!” is asking for trouble. Fires simply get too hot. Even bearded dragons should never have a hot spot of more than 105 F, and wood fires burn far hotter than that. That much heat can crack the tank, send the animal into heat distress, or in extreme cases cause burns.

3.) No bottles of hot water. Another common suggestion is a plastic bottle full of warm water. This doesn’t do any good, and if the water spills and saturates the bedding in a rapidly cooling setting, it can actually raise the chance of a respiratory infection.


1.) Stop feeding. Undigested food in the gut when the temperatures drop is a leading cause of illness and even death in reptiles. Do not offer food within 24 hours of an expected power loss for lizards and chelonians, 48 hours or more for snakes.

2.) Clean water. Clean and fill all bowls, and make sure you have enough bottled water set aside to keep them all full for several days. Freezes can burst pipes, power stations can go dark, and floods can pollute the water supply. Never rely on the tap during a power outage.

3.) Add more bedding. Putting some extra substrate in helps trap heat and keeps the enclosure at temperature longer after the lights go out. Animals can also thermoregulate better if they can fully burrow in instead of remaining exposed. For animals that are usually kept on paper towel, stone, or carpet, add bunched up towel or newspaper, an old T-shirt, cotton rags, or micro-fleece – anything they can burrow under but not get tangled in.

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4.) Move the enclosures. If the cages are in a big open room like a bedroom or den, move them if possible. A bathroom or closet works perfectly. As long as the doors are kept shut, a small space will hold heat a lot longer than a large one.

5.) Raise the thermostat or keep the lights on. In a tank setup with a heat lamp, keep it on overnight, even for nocturnal animals. For systems with a thermostat, raise the temperature 1-3 degrees and remove any programmed night drop. Extra heat now will help keep it warm quite a bit longer once the lights go off.

6.) (In Special Cases) Make a candle space heater. If any animals are particularly temperature sensitive, ill, or it is below freezing outside, assemble a candle space heater.  This is absolutely overkill in most cases, but is the only safe way to maintain heat in a power outage. This should only be done in an enclosed room where no other pets or children have access.

Images and instructions for creating your own candle space heater can be found here:


1.) Turn off all fixtures. Power companies request all electric devices be unplugged except for a single lightbulb during an outage. This helps prevent overloading the grid when power is restored and reduces the risk of a rebound outage. The surge of power being restored also occasionally causes bulbs to explode, especially any type with a ballast.

2.) Cover the tanks. After the lights are set aside, cover the tanks with towels or blankets. For racks, make sure all drawers are pushed in tightly. This helps them retain heat quite a bit longer.

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1.) Don’t do anything. Reptiles cool down every evening when their lights go off for the night. This won’t cause any problems at all, while many knee-jerk solutions to try to prevent it will.

2.) Don’t even peek. Every time a drawer is opened or a tank uncovered, more heat escapes into the room.


1.) Don’t worry. Reptiles commonly go 2-3 days with no heat or lights every time they’re shipped, transported, or taken to a show. Remember that nearly every reptile out there has been off heat for a couple days at least once in its life.

2.) Check only once a day. Make sure the water is still full, the bedding has not gotten wet, and the animal seems fine, as quickly as possible. Checking more often will just cool the tank faster and make the environment more stressful.


1.) Body heat. Mammals are warm. This is a good metric to see if the reptile was brumating or in distress. If the heat from a few minutes of scale on skin contact is enough to perk the animal back up, everything is just fine.

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2.) Lukewarm water. Water warmed on the stove makes a good soak for a chilled animal. It should be comfortable enough to put a hand in. Let the reptile until its activity level increases, but make sure the water does not become chilled, and to dry it completely before returning it to its enclosure.

3.) Indirect fireplace heat. If it’s getting really cold, removing the reptile from its tank for a few minutes and handle it in front of the fireplace. Never let the animal free roam near open flame. If it is too warm for people to tolerate, scoot back a few feet because it’s too warm for reptiles too. Remember an animal actively trying to move away from a heat source is a healthy animal.

4.) Car heat. When more consistent ambient heat is needed, go out to the car. Get the engine running and turn the heat up (but never in an enclosed garage). Stay there until the animal begins to respond to stimulus again.


1.) Turn on the heat. After power is back, be sure to plug in all the lamps and heat sources again. If animals experienced extreme cold, be sure to warm them up very gradually. Rapid, extreme changes in temperature can cause a whole new set of problems, even if the new temperature is usually optimal.

2.) Resume feeding slowly. Don’t offer any food until the animal’s activity level has returned to normal. This may take a few hours, or a few days if it entered full brumation.

3.) Listen closely. Upper respiratory infections (URIs) sometimes follow a chill. Listen careful for wheezes, clicks, and popping sounds, and watch for any sign of mucus or slime around the mouth and nostrils. Consult a reptile vet if any of these symptoms are present.

Diana Heideman