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Bearded Dragon Health Issues

Bearded dragons are incredibly hardy and one of the easiest lizards to care for and, with the correct heating, substrate and diet, most problems can be avoided. However, here are a few signs to look for that may indicate all is not well and what to do about them.

Vitamin A deficiency:

According to our local specialist reptile vet, approximately 4 out of 5 lizards he sees in his surgery are deficient in vitamin A. The main reason for this is that the Vit A contained in all supplements loses its effectiveness after about 2 months of opening, so owners think they are dusting their beardies’ food, but actually the vit A within that powder is out of date. Some symptoms associated with Vit A deficiency include: problems shedding; weepy or sore eyes; sensitivity to light or a loss of appetite. Luckily, there are two easy ways to correct this, firstly by gut-loading your feeder insects with a vitamin A enriched good quality formula (such as Repashy Bug Burger) and secondly, by buying fresh Vitamin A every few weeks and adding this to your dusting container in addition to your normal supplement. Both bug burger and Vitamin ACE-High are available fresh every week in some reptile shops or you can buy a small container, just bare in mind that once opened, the powder only stays viable for around 6-8 weeks.

Incorrect temperatures:

Too hot and the beardie will likely be hiding down the cooler end trying to escape the heat; too cold and your lizard might not be moving much at all, sleeping during the day & will probably not be eating much, if at all. Eating insects when the lizard’s metabolism is too cool to digest them properly, may lead to undigested food just sitting in the stomach, which is not good. Check your temperatures regularly, especially when the outside temperature changes suddenly or when moving between seasons. The cooler end of the enclosure should be close to 85°F. The hotter end and basking spot needs to be a minimum of 110°F and the ambient night-time temperature should be not lower than 70°F. Make sure your heat bulb is on for around 14-15 hours. If your viv is still too cold, you can either go up a wattage on your bulb or install an additional heat source to top up the cooler end in the daytime/prevent the night-time temp dropping too low. We recommend the Habistat high-power, ceiling-mounted sticky heat mats (25w – 60w).

Substrate ingestion/Impaction problems:

We do not recommend using sand, calci-sand or beech chips for bearded dragons. All of these substrates, if swallowed, can potentially lead to a blockage in the lizards’ intestines causing constipation or impaction. This is when the gut is totally blocked, stopping food from passing through or being excreted - this can be fatal and it is a slow, painful death. Sand and calci-sand granules are tiny and easily stick to a beardie’s tongue and get consumed with other food items, forming a hard, calcified lump within the gut when they stick together. Calci-sand has the additional detrimental effect of neutralising the acid in the stomach, preventing food being digested properly. When impaction occurs, the lizard eventually stops eating, which is often the first time the owner realises something is wrong, unfortunately at this point it may be too late to remedy. The lizard’s underbelly feels hard or lumpy and it might strain whilst trying to go to the toilet (see 'prolapse' or 'blood in faeces') or just stopping passing poo altogether.

Generally, if a reptile intentionally consumes the substrate in the enclosure, this may be an indicator that it is deficient in one or more vitamins or minerals. In the wild, lizards (and tortoises) gain their supplements from a much more varied diet and seek to correct any imbalance by eating substances such as chalk or stones found around their environment. In captivity, this innate behaviour is still present, but they only have their substrate to eat out of desperation. Ensure all your feeder insects are gut-loaded correctly and dusted with good vitamin and mineral supplements and this can easily be avoided.

Incorrect diet:

Some owners like nothing better than to spoil their bearded dragon by giving them too many insects or by feeding bugs before their lizard has eaten most of its salad leaves, which can cause a few problems. A bearded dragon needs to consume salad for its moisture content as well as for the nutrients. Little or no salad can quickly lead to constipation or dehydration, particularly in juveniles.

Bearded dragons are clever and will try to train their owner! If it thinks that he might get bugs, he’ll wait to fill up on his favourite food! A worried owner might then make the common mistake of feeding bugs just to reassure himself that his lizard is at least eating ‘something’. However, too many bugs and no salad is not healthy at all, it can lead to constipation, dehydration, obesity and in extreme cases, even death. It is therefore important to wait until your dragon has eaten a good amount of his salad before offering any treats! This also allows for plenty of time for his metabolism to have heated up sufficiently in order to digest them properly.

Juvenile bearded dragons need insect protein for growth and require smaller prey, which would likely be more easily found in the wild. Being much larger, the adults would struggle to find numerous prey items at a sufficient size in the desert to sustain them so instead they naturally evolved to be more vegetarian as they got bigger as well as being opportunistic feeders – gorging themselves when prey was available as, being scarce, it was infrequent and they might not find more for several days. In captivity, this means it’s easy to over-feed a beardie, quickly leading to an overweight, unhealthy lizard. This pattern should ideally be replicated in captivity, more greens but feed insects to adults irregularly with bug-free days in between to prevent obesity. If you wait and only feed bugs in the afternoon and only if your dragon has eaten his salad, this problem will be avoided. For adults, don’t be afraid to go 2-3 weeks of feeding just salad and no insects at all – trust the fact that if the temperatures are correct & the beardie is hungry, but otherwise healthy, he will eat the salad eventually!

When alert and healthy, a bearded dragon should stand with just the feet touching the floor - the stomach should be elevated off the ground with a visible gap underneath. It should happily pace around and hunt its food, sometimes with its tail raised pointing upwards if he’s feeling especially curious!

Watery/sore eyes & eye problems:

Sometimes lizards may get sore eyes which can be caused by a few different things. Objects such as dust, or pieces of substrate can easily be removed by gently wiping the eye and eye lid with a used, tepid tea-bag. Tea has antiseptic properties and the soft tissue material of the tea bag won’t scratch the eye if used to remove an irritant. Eyes that are sore, weepy or sensitive to light can be an indication of a lack of vitamin A (see above). Anything that doesn’t improve after these issues have been eliminated is worth a visit to the vet for a check-up.

Eggs and infertile egg laying:

Once adult, bearded dragons can have around 25 eggs in a clutch and have upto 3 clutches of eggs per year. This obviously requires lots of nutrients (especially calcium) and energy from the female. As with many other lizards, female bearded dragons can sometimes produce eggs without ever having been mated with a male. These eggs are infertile and can be discarded after laying, but if a female dragon repeatedly produces batches of infertile eggs it can rob her body of essential nutrients and she might rapidly lose weight and condition. One solution is to allow her to be mated with a male dragon which will produce a fertile clutch. These eggs can also be discarded, but the mere act of producing fertile eggs seems to curb future incessant egg-laying. Signs to look out for that may indicate a female beardie has eggs may include a lack of appetite (as the growing eggs will gradually push up into the stomach area, leaving little room for food), continuous digging, particularly if she uses both her front AND back legs (looking for a suitable ‘nest’ site). You can assist her by providing a plastic container (deep and long enough for her to fit in and dig) filled with vermiculite or damp moss. Often infertile eggs are just randomly scattered in the cage, but fertile eggs are likely to be retained until a suitable nest site is found, in rare cases, they might get too big to be laid & need an operation to remove them.

Mites:

Considered much easier to deal with these days due to more readily available treatments, mites are tiny black parasites which often appear following a drop in temperature, poor husbandry, stress or from close contact with other infected reptiles. Left untreated they can irritate your dragon as they wedge under the scales and suck its blood. Often hard to spot, they are normally found in the eye lids, ears, corners of the mouth, under the front ‘armpits’, in flaps of skin and in between the scales on the chest and beard. It is thought that the microscopic eggs are ever present in the various substrates, but that a sudden drop in temperature (such as a blub blowing) causes them to hatch out. One method of reducing the likelihood of mites is to either freeze or microwave new substrate before adding it to the lizards’ enclosure. Freezing needs to be for at least 48 hours and microwaving the substrate a container at a time for long enough to make it feel very hot (eg 20-30 secs). Once spotted on your lizard, it’s a good idea to give him a bath, use a toothbrush to gently brush as many mites of from under his scales as possible. Then if you are using one of the commercially available products (such as Calingtons spray by habistat) follow the instructions, but if not you will need to empty the enclosure of all bedding and disinfect/wash all the surfaces & decor within it to remove any microscopic mites or eggs. Then put newspaper back inside, continue to bath your lizard daily to remove any mites that are still lurking and after a few days of no visible parasites, set your enclosure back to its usual arrangement and substrate. If you have more than one reptile, it is important that you wash all hands and equipment between each enclosure to prevent the mites spreading to your other reptiles.

Discoloration of faeces:

Green :

probable infection. This is a sign that the gut bacteria aren't working properly, or are insufficient in number. The first solution to this would be to bathe the beardie in a warm water with added reptiboost powder. The reptiboost powder is used as a probiotic - restoring 'friendly' bacteria to their correct levels - particularly useful after a course of antibiotics. It also is an electrolyte - providing glucose for energy and helping rebalance hydration.

Yellow:

yellow or orange urates (the bit which is normally white) can indicate dehydration in reptiles. The solution is again a warm bath, making sure the animal drinks, or even better, a bath or syringe of reptiboost solution. Tbh of the beardie is eating enough salad in its diet, dehydration shouldn't be a problem.

Red:

not to be mistaken for blood, a red or pink colouration normally is just an after-effect of eating red or pink vegetables! Normally nothing to worry about!

Blood:

lots of blood should pretty much always require a quick visit to a specialist reptile vet as this can sometimes be an indicator of something serious. A small amount of blood can be just a bit of straining from a large poo or perhaps from a recently mated female.

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