The bearded dragon is a well-known lizard currently considered one of the best pet lizards. There are eight species of bearded dragons, but the most popular one is the inland or central bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps), from the arid to semi-arid southeastern parts of Australia. The information in this handout refers to the inland bearded dragon.
What are some of the more common diseases of pet bearded dragons?
If they are well looked after, with a good diet and proper environment, bearded dragons are reasonably hardy animals. Common health conditions of pet bearded dragons include metabolic bone disease, infectious stomatitis ('mouth rot'), parasites, respiratory infections, and adenovirus infection.
"If they are well looked after, with a good diet and proper environment, bearded dragons are reasonably hardy animals."
What are the signs of these diseases?
- Metabolic bone disease (MBD), or nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism, is a complex disease and is probably the most common health problem of pet bearded dragons. It is most often seen in juvenile bearded dragons (less than 2 years old). MBD is generally caused by feeding an improper diet that is high in phosphorus and low in calcium or Vitamin D3 (caused either by a direct nutritional deficiency of vitamin D3 or a lack of exposure to UV-B light required for lizards to make vitamin D in their skin). Common signs include swelling of the lower jaw, softening of the jaw and facial bones ('rubber jaw'), and/or swelling of the hind limbs (fibrous osteodystrophy). Legs also commonly tremor as the animal tries to walk, and many bearded dragons with MBD are so weak that they can neither walk nor push their bodies up in a normal stance, but instead crouch low to the ground or lay on their abdomens. X-rays reveal thin bone tissue (decreased density), widening and thickening bone shafts, and possibly fractures that appear to have occurred in the absence of any trauma or for no apparent reason. Greenstick fractures (bones that appear to fold or bend rather than break apart) may also occur when bones are soft. Blood tests may show a low calcium level and an imbalance of calcium and phosphorus, with phosphorus being higher than calcium, instead of in the 2:1 calcium to phosphorus ratio desirable in reptiles. As the condition progresses, muscle twitching, seizures, loss of appetite, and loss of energy (lethargy) are seen.
- Infectious stomatitis (mouth rot) is not seen in bearded dragons as often as it is in other lizards such as iguanas. It is a bacterial infection of the gums and/or jaw bone that appears as pinpoint hemorrhages on the gums, gum swelling, or excessive thick mucus, often the consistency of cottage cheese, in the mouth. Infectious stomatitis can also cause swelling of the jaw when it infects the jaw bones.
- Parasites, especially pinworms, are common in the intestinal tract of pet bearded dragons. The pet may show no clinical signs, and parasites will be detected on an annual fecal examination. In some cases, parasites may cause diarrhea or weight loss. Pinworms are common parasites that live within bearded dragons’ gastrointestinal tracts. They are probably commensal organisms (in which the parasite benefits from living in the lizard while the lizard is neither harmed nor benefits from the parasite). Mites and ticks may be found on bearded dragons’ skin. These parasites are transmitted from other bearded dragons. They are often seen moving around, under or between scales, around the lizard’s head and in skin folds.
- Respiratory infections (especially pneumonia) can occur in bearded dragons that are stressed, improperly fed, or kept in poor, cold, or dirty conditions. Respiratory tract infections may be caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. Affected lizards may sneeze, or have discharge from their eyes or nose, bubbles from the mouth or nose, unnaturally rapid or shallow breathing, open-mouthed breathing, decreased appetite, and lethargy.
- Adenovirus infection is extremely common in young bearded dragons but may affect dragons of any age. It typically causes fatal hepatitis and gastrointestinal infection. Affected animals are weak, do not eat, and often die acutely. Others show a more chronic infection in which they fail to thrive, are weak, may become paralyzed, and periodically do not eat. Ultimately, they die, as well.
How can I tell if my bearded dragon is sick?
"ANY change from normal is a cause for concern and should be immediately evaluated by your veterinarian."
Signs of disease in bearded dragons may be specific for a certain disease, such as jaw or hind limb swelling seen in bearded dragons with metabolic bone disease, or may be non-specific, such as anorexia (lack of appetite), depression, and lethargy which is seen in many diseases. ANY change from normal is a cause for concern and should be immediately evaluated by your veterinarian.
How are diseases in bearded dragons treated?
Metabolic bone disease usually requires immediate oral calcium supplementation, rehydration with fluids, nutritional support, treatment with injectable vitamin D3, and injections of calcitonin (a drug which helps re-deposit calcium back into bearded dragons’ bones). In addition, the diet has to be corrected, and full spectrum lighting (including UV-B, essential for enabling lizards to make vitamin D3 in their skin), must be provided.
Infectious stomatitis (mouth rot), usually requires injectable antibiotics, as well as rinsing the mouth with antiseptic solutions. Dragons too painful to eat may also require supplemental feeding.
For parasitic infections of the gastrointestinal tract, several deworming medications are available, formulated as either oral or injectable drugs. The type of parasite identified on microscopic examination of the feces dictates which drug is needed. Mites and ticks can be treated either topically or with oral or injectable anti-parasitic medications, as advised by your veterinarian. Environmental cleaning, disinfection, and treatment, is essential, as well, so that parasites do not re-infect the dragon after treatment.
"Be sure to have any health issues your bearded dragon exhibits checked immediately by your veterinarian to avoid serious illness."
Respiratory infections can be diagnosed with X-rays, blood tests, and cultures of eye/nose/oral discharges, or other samples. As these infections are often bacterial, affected dragons are typically treated with oral or injectable antibiotics. If infection is severe, the animal may have to be hospitalized for more aggressive therapy and supportive treatment. For respiratory tract infections caused by fungus, viruses, or parasites, other specific drugs targeting the cause of the infection may be warranted.
Any of these diseases can be severe enough to cause a loss of appetite and severe lethargy. If your lizard is really debilitated, it may need hospitalization and intensive care, including medications, fluid therapy, and force-feeding. Be sure to have any health issues your bearded dragon exhibits checked immediately by your veterinarian to avoid serious illness.