Bearded dragons are susceptible to several health problems; understanding them will help you prevent them from occurring in your pet and know when to seek veterinary attention.
In addition to the problems listed in this handout, bearded dragons are susceptible to certain diseases—see the handout “Bearded Dragons – Diseases” for more information.
While turtles are most commonly incriminated for causing Salmonella bacterial infections in children, bearded dragons are also associated with this infection.
"Salmonellosis is a zoonotic disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans."
Salmonellosis is a zoonotic disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans. Salmonellosis in humans and pets is usually a severe gastrointestinal disease with symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, cramping, and fever; it can also cause septicemia (bacterial infection of the blood leading to potential multi-organ infection). The risk of getting this disease is higher for children, the elderly, and the immunocompromised. Many animals and people carry these bacteria in their gastrointestinal tracts at a low level without showing any clinical signs yet shed the bacteria in their feces, serving as a source of infection for others.
There are over 2,000 serotypes of Salmonella. Not all are disease-forming in reptiles, and depending on the health status of the humans in the house, not all serotypes are of grave concern for humans. It is always best to have your bearded dragon’s feces tested for Salmonella if there is a concern for the health of family members that have contact with your bearded dragon.
Prevention through proper hygiene is the best control against salmonellosis. Clean and disinfect your bearded dragon's enclosure every time it is soiled. Clean up all feces right away. Use a separate area to clean items for people versus reptiles. Most importantly, wash your hands thoroughly with disinfectant soap every time you handle, clean, or feed your bearded dragon. Supervise all children handling these lizards to ensure they disinfect their hands. Since most reptiles carrying Salmonella bacteria are not ill, they usually require no treatment; treatment is often unsuccessful in killing all the bacteria.
With avascular necrosis, one or more blood vessels supplying an area of the body becomes obstructed, leading to the death of the organ or tissue that this blood vessel supplies. This problem is more common in iguanas than in bearded dragons but can be seen in juvenile dragons housed in low humidity conditions. Low humidity can lead to dysecdysis (difficult or abnormal shedding of the skin). The tips of the toes and the tail end are most commonly affected. Successive layers of retained skin can form constricting rings around the toes and tail, resulting in restriction of the blood supply to the affected area. Eventually, the constriction results in avascular necrosis beyond the constriction point. Within a short period, the toe or tip of the tail becomes discolored (dark), often becomes infected, and then dies, dries out, and hardens. Necrosis and infection can spread up the tail or toes to other surrounding body areas.
"Necrosis and infection can spread up the tail or toes to other surrounding body areas."
Blood vessels to the extremities may become obstructed by traumatic injuries that become infected. This may occur from fights with other bearded dragons in the cage at the pet store or from the toes or tail getting caught on cage doors or cage tops. These areas may swell and cut off circulation. Blood clots (emboli) that become lodged inside blood vessels or tumors that cut off blood supply to tissues beyond the point of the tumor may also cause avascular necrosis.
Sometimes, the cause of blood vessel obstruction and resultant avascular necrosis cannot be determined.
Treatment involves removing the ‘ring’ of dead, retained skin or, in severe cases, amputation of the affected tail or toe to prevent the spread of necrosis. Most pets recover well and lead normal lives after surgery.
Tail rot occurs when an injury to the tail and its tissues become infected. Physically, the end of the tail turns black, appears shriveled, and feels mushy. Most bearded dragons have a dark coloration to the top of the end of the tail, but tail rot causes the whole circumference to turn black. This condition requires aggressive treatment; in some cases, surgical amputation of the affected tissue is necessary.
Abscesses are occasionally seen in bearded dragons and often appear as hard tumor-like swellings anywhere on the body. An abscess is a swollen infected area within body tissue containing an accumulation of pus. Abscesses can occur in any reptile and often go unnoticed until they are large and prominent.
An abscess occurs when bacteria or fungi are introduced into the tissue by trauma, such as with a bite wound, penetration from a foreign object, growth of a tumor, or invasion by a parasite. Subcutaneous (just under the skin) abscesses are frequently encountered in reptiles. Abscesses of the upper or lower jaw may occur from trauma to the mouth or from an infected tooth. Reptilian pus is usually caseous (resembling cottage cheese).
"Abscesses are treated by surgical excision or by lancing and flushing them."
Abscesses are diagnosed by appearance, palpation, fine needle aspiration, or surgical exploration. Abscesses are treated by surgical excision or by lancing and flushing them. The material within the abscess should be cultured to identify the causative organism and to determine the appropriate medication to treat any remaining infection.
Dystocia (also referred to as follicular stasis or egg binding) occurs when a female bearded dragon has difficulty or is unable to lay eggs in a proper timeframe. Dystocia is a common problem in reptiles and can be life-threatening. It may be caused by various factors, including poor husbandry, such as improper environmental UV lighting and temperature, an unsuitable nest site, improper diet (malnutrition), and inadequate humidity. Other contributing factors include the age and health of the animal, injuries, physical obstruction caused by deformed or oversized eggs, physical abnormalities within the reproductive tract or pelvis, infection, constipation, or the presence of abscesses or masses obstructing egg passage.
A normal gravid (with eggs) bearded dragon may not eat but is generally still bright, active, and alert. A gravid bearded dragon with dystocia will also not eat and rapidly becomes sick, lethargic, or unresponsive.
"A veterinarian familiar with reptiles should examine an animal in this condition right away."
A veterinarian familiar with reptiles should examine an animal in this condition right away. Diagnosis requires a physical examination, blood testing, radiographs (X-rays), and, if necessary, an ultrasound examination. Medical and/or surgical procedures may be required. Without treatment, dystocia is often fatal. Many cases could have been prevented with proper husbandry.
See a veterinarian experienced with reptiles to ensure your bearded dragon’s husbandry is appropriate to prevent dystocia and other diseases associated with improper care.