Reptiles: Dystocia

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Dystocia means difficult birth or abnormal delivery. In reptiles that do not give live birth, dystocia may also be referred to as egg binding or ovostasis. Dystocia happens when the female reptile is unable to pass her eggs or fetus. It is a reasonably common problem in reptiles, including snakes, turtles and lizards, and can be life-threatening. It is often associated with poor husbandry, which may involve a variety of factors, including improper environment, lack of proper UV lighting, housing temperature that is too hot or cold, improper humidity levels, inadequate nest site, improper diet (malnutrition), and/or dehydration.

"It is often associated with poor husbandry..."

Other contributing factors include the age and physical condition of the animal, as well as injuries or physical obstruction caused by physical abnormalities with the reproductive tract or pelvis. Infections, constipation, abscesses, and other masses may also contribute to dystocia. Eggs that are poorly calcified, extremely large, or misshapen may also cause abnormalities with delivery.

Pet reptiles may have poor muscle tone or be "out of shape," due to their sedentary captive lifestyles. These inactive reptiles may not be able to exert the substantial muscular effort needed to lay an egg or pass young. A healthy gravid (carrying eggs or young) reptile may not eat, but they are still bright, active and alert. A gravid reptile with dystocia is usually anorectic and weak. Many cases may progress to severe lethargy and the pet may become unresponsive if not treated early in the course of the disease.

What can be done in the case of dystocia?

The challenge for both owners and veterinarians is differentiating dystocia from a normal pregnancy. Determining how long a female has been gravid may not be possible or accurate. Delaying treatment may compromise the mother, the young, and future reproductive success. On the other hand, treating a normal gravid female animal is unnecessary and may put the unborn babies at risk.

"Delaying treatment may compromise the mother, the young, and future reproductive success."

A veterinarian familiar with reptiles must examine these animals. A physical examination and palpation, blood tests, and x-rays are used to facilitate a proper diagnosis. Medical and/or surgical techniques may also be necessary to help these animals. Medical intervention may include supportive therapy, such as re-hydration, hormone injections, calcium, and vitamin supplementation. Hormone therapy, such as oxytocin and other newer drugs, may be used to stimulate the uterus to contract. Surgery is necessaray if the above techniques are unsuccessful, however surgery may damage the reptile's future reproductive ability.

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