A common condition that bearded dragons face is known as impaction or constipation. While this may not seem like a big deal it can be very dangerous for lizards. In addition, treatment can be more complicated than simply taking a laxative or eating more fiber.
How do you know if your bearded dragon is impacted? When your bearded dragon is impacted they may show some of the following symptoms:
- Infrequent bowel movements or a total lack of bowel movements
- Straining while attempting to defecate
- Loss of appetite
- Lethargy or a marked change in behavior
- Vomiting or regurgitation
- Trembling hind legs
- Loss of function in one or both hind legs
- A slightly raised bump along the spine
- A hardened or swollen belly or cloaca/vent area
- discomfort or tenderness around the stomach area
How do you help a bearded dragon with impaction? Treatments for bearded dragon impaction include:
- Bathing them in warm water
- Gently massaging their abdomen in a downward motion towards their vent
- Ensuring their basking area is warm enough
- Giving them a couple of drops of olive oil (place on their nose if reluctant to ingest)
- Feeding them natural laxatives such as pureed pumpkin, prunes, or blueberries (place some on their nose if reluctant to ingest)
- Ensuring they are receiving a full and balanced diet
- Ensuring their feeders are not too large and avoid hard shells or exoskeletons
- Rehydration (consult your veterinarian)
- Enemas (consult your veterinarian)
- Surgery (consult your veterinarian)
Of course, the best way to stop this condition from occurring in bearded dragons is simple prevention. Understanding what causes impaction or constipation in bearded dragons is the first step in preventing it from occurring or reoccurring.
About Bearded Dragons and Impaction
Impaction, also referred to as constipation, is a health condition that involves a “buildup of matter inside of the intestines or the gut” that results from ingesting an object or objects that are difficult to pass through the digestive system. (Source: Pets on Mom)
In bearded dragons, this can occur after a particular substance they consume (either food or other solid or semi-solid mass) is unable to be digested; over time, the material causes a buildup within the lizard’s digestive system, blocking food from getting through the stomach and intestines.
Impaction vs. Constipation in Bearded Dragons
Both the terms “impaction” and “constipation” are often used in place of one another and the symptoms and treatments are similar but there is one distinct difference between the two.
Impaction refers to a buildup in the digestive system caused by an inedible solid or semi-solid matter, such as a substrate. Constipation, on the other hand, is buildup caused by a hard buildup of food and stool within the digestive tract.
How Do Bearded Dragons Become Impacted?
The most common cause of impaction in bearded dragons is due to their consumption of the substrate (bedding)—such as sand, gravel, pellets, and pebbles—found within their enclosures.
Some bearded dragons will mistakenly eat these materials while in pursuit of their feeders (such as live insects). They may accidentally eat a little sand or a pellet or two while snapping after a feeder or licking them as they run around their environment. Although they only consume the substrate in small amounts, over time, regular consumption can lead to blockage.
It other cases, bearded dragons may intentionally seek the harmful material out as a food source if they are very hungry or lacking nutrients.
Other Sources of Impaction in Bearded Dragons
Of course, there are other ways bearded dragons can become constipated:
- Indigestible Food – Larger pieces of food, or feeders with hard shells or exoskeletons that bearded dragons are unable to digest completely, can be the source of their impaction.
- Inadequate Temperatures – If the inside of your bearded dragon’s tank is not warm enough, it may have trouble digesting its food properly.
- Dehydration – If your bearded dragon does not receive enough water, its metabolism and digestive system will not work properly in order to break down food. Its colon will be unable to absorb the water it needs to eliminate waste effectively.
- Insufficient Diet – A lack of vegetables and greens in your bearded dragon’s diet can lead to less frequent bowel movements.
- Eating Other Inedible Objects – Things outside of substrate, such as materials found outside of your bearded dragon’s tank, can cause impaction if your pet tends to try to eat everything as they explore outside of their normal habitat.
Other sources of bearded dragon impaction include parasites, injury, infection, and tumors.
How Serious is Impaction in Bearded Dragons?
Mild cases of impaction will simply cause discomfort in your bearded dragon. However, without treatment, they can quickly have a more serious effect on your pet’s health and overall well-being.
- For one, their cloaca, or the vent in which they excrete waste, pass both feces and urine. If the digestive system is blocked to the cloaca, then, that means that your bearded dragon is unable to pass stool and urine, which can be very concerning for their overall health.
- In addition, if an impaction becomes bigger, the lump may press against your bearded dragon’s spinal cord, which lacks protection. As a result, your lizard can lose some or all of its ability to move its legs and become paralyzed until it has proper treatment.
In general, if left ignored or untreated, impaction in bearded dragons can eventually lead to life-threatening consequences; in fact, impaction is one of the leading causes of death for captive bearded dragons. (Source: Bearded Dragon Care 101) For this reason, it is critical that you learn how to recognize and treat the condition as soon as you can.
How to Prevent Impaction in Bearded Dragons
There are a number of preventative steps you can take to ensure that your bearded dragon does not experience impaction:
One of the ways you can prevent your bearded dragon from becoming constipated is by assessing its current substrate. If you find that it often tries to consume the material, ask your vet about other bedding options that may better fit your pet’s needs.
Some ideal bedding options for bearded dragons that your vet may suggest include:
- Ceramic tile
- Reptile carpet (Amazon)
- Paper towels
These substances are not prone to consumption by bearded dragons because they are not loose like sand or have small particles that are easily eaten. They will also lay flatter on the bottom of your pet’s tank, so they are less likely to be consumed by accident.
Review your bearded dragon’s current diet with the vet. Are they getting enough needed nutrients with their current food? A lack of nutrients could be the underlying cause of bearded dragons that purposefully eat the substrate in their tank.
Assess the type of feeder you are using to feed your bearded dragon:
- Does it have a hard shell or exoskeleton that could be difficult for your pet to digest? Over time, shelled or tougher insects can put your lizard’s digestive track at risk. Avoid feeding your bearded dragon insects such as large crickets, or mealworms and super worms too often. These types of feeders should only be fed to adult bearded dragons, and only occasionally as a treat. They should never be used as a regular source of food.
- Is it simply too large? A good rule of thumb to determine whether or not your bearded dragon’s feeder is too big for it is to look at the distance between your lizard’s eyes. If the feeder is greater than this width, then it is too big.
Bearded dragons are incapable of generating their own body heat, which is critical for proper digestion. For that reason, it is vital that you routinely monitor the temperature of your pet’s tank and basking spot. Your basking bulb will gradually lose power, and therefore heat, over time, so also make sure that it is changed as soon as it shows signs of wearing out.
Make sure that the temperature of your bearded dragon’s usual basking spot is at least 95 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. For much younger lizards, the temperature should be between 105 and 110 degrees Fahrenheit. The ambient temperature within the enclosure should be 80 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
Your bearded dragon should always have easy access to its basking spot where it can go after it eats. Bearded dragons require at least an hour to bask in warm light or temperatures to digest their food properly. Because of this, avoid feeding your pet right before you turn the tank lights off.
Regular exercise will also encourage a healthy digestive system in your bearded dragon. You can promote exercise in your pet with a few ways:
- Give them things to do. As hard as it is to imagine a bearded dragon chasing a ball around, it’s possible! Invest in a small, clear ball such as a cat toy, where you can place a few feeders inside. Leave the ball in your lizard’s tank for a while and get ready to watch it chase the ball around for a few minutes each day. Alternatively, you can also purchase a small Reptile Hammock (Amazon) that they can rest and play on regularly.
- Give it chances to explore. Every once in a while, take your bearded dragon out of its tank so it can explore other areas, either inside the house or throughout your front or back yard. Do make sure though that you keep it on a leash or closely monitored so it does not attempt to eat random objects that could cause impaction!
- Let it swim. During regular baths and soaking, make sure the warm water is up to the bearded dragon’s shoulders, so it has enough depth to swim comfortably. You should also allow them somewhere to rest should they have enough.
How to Recognize Bearded Dragon Impaction
Of course, prevention can only go so far; even with preventative methods in place, there still may be a chance that your bearded dragon becomes impacted.
In these cases, it is crucial that you learn to recognize the signs of impaction, so you know when your bearded dragon is in need of treatment. The following are examples of symptoms you should look for:
Frequency of Bowel Movements
Adult, healthy bearded dragons usually have bowel movements once every one to two days (young bearded dragons more often have bowel movements just once a day).
If you notice that your pet has not gone to the bathroom for at least three days or more (especially a week), impaction is most likely the cause. Also, pay attention to your bearded dragon’s stools. If they are a smaller amount than normal when they use the bathroom, this can also be an early sign of impaction.
However, note that every bearded dragon is different, so the average frequency of your pet’s bowel movements may differ. The key here is to be able to recognize when their bowel movement patterns are significantly different.
Marked Changes in Behavior
Pay attention to any significant changes in your bearded dragon’s behavior. Often, these patterns can give you clues into their overall well-being.
If your bearded dragon suddenly seems sluggish or inactive, it could be a sign that its digestive tract is blocked. Other changes in behavior that may suggest impaction include resting inside their water bowl.
Weight and Appetite Changes
As a result of having their intestinal tract blocked, your bearded dragon may have a low appetite and eat less food than normal. In some cases, it may even reject food when offered. This can eventually lead to weight loss and fluctuations.
If constipated, your bearded dragon may display some trouble with movement. For example, it may have trouble walking due to a slight shaking of the legs, or display evidence of a stiff or awkward gait. You may also notice its hind legs begin to drag more often as they move around.
Your bearded dragon may also appear tense each time it tries to use the bathroom, showing slight shaking as a sign of struggle. This is a sure sign that it is impacted, and is in need of immediate treatment.
Other Symptoms of Impaction
Other symptoms that signal your bearded dragon may be constipated include:
- Tiny lumps around the spinal area or a small bump along the back
- Signs of discomfort or tenderness around the stomach area
- Small bulge at the location of impaction
- Hardened or swollen belly and cloaca area
- Dull, unhealthy appearance
- Regurgitation of food
- Development of a black “beard”
How to Treat Bearded Dragon Impaction
If you suspect that your bearded dragon is impacted or constipated based on the previously listed symptoms, contact the vet as soon as possible. The following are treatment options that can be performed at home or at the vets.
If the vet is not readily available, you can try the following treatment methods at home to help relieve your bearded dragon’s constipation:
Try feeding your bearded dragon a reptile-safe, natural laxative, like fruit. Some unsweetened, pureed prunes or blueberries can do the trick. If your pet does not have an appetite and refuses to eat, try dabbing a little bit of the puree on its nose to entice it into licking off. It will do this even if it does not feel hungry.
Use a large, shallow container (a sink or your tub works just as well) filled with warm water (approximately 100 degrees Fahrenheit) to give your bearded dragon a bath. The water should not surpass its head but should offer enough depth where they can swim around (at least up to their shoulders).
Your bearded dragon should stay in this setting for at least thirty minutes. Continue checking the temperature of the water to ensure it maintains a consistent 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and add more warm water if necessary.
The exercise through swimming in the water can make it a little easier for your bearded dragon to digest and pass the blockage through their digestive system while simultaneously relaxing their muscles. The warm bath will also provide them with hydration if the cause of their impaction is dehydration.
Warm baths should be at least a weekly routine for your bearded dragon in general, especially if you have noticed regular constipation or impaction. This will allow it to have regular exercise while maintaining the health of its digestive tract.
Alternatively, you can also gently massage your pet’s belly and cloaca area regularly to encourage a bowel movement.
This is often best done while your bearded dragon is soaking in the bath. Cup your hands around its belly and start by first stroking the flanks of your bearded dragon from the chest area, moving downwards towards the cloaca.
Make sure that you do not turn your bearded dragon on its side or its back to massage it. It should be upright in a comfortable position.
Add a couple of drops of olive oil to the tip of your bearded dragon’s nose—just within reach for them to lick off. You can also add a few drops of olive oil to a soft, pureed food that it can eat.
If you find that your bearded dragon is impacted, you should avoid feeding them feeders or hard foods. Instead, limit their diet to soft foods that are more easily digested. Some soft foods that bearded dragons can safely eat include:
- Warm baby applesauce
- Puréed pumpkin diluted with water
- 100% natural juice (1 part juice, 3 parts water)
(Source: Reptile Guide)
Avoid anything with artificial ingredients or added sugars. This is why natural baby food products such as puréed prunes and applesauce are good options.
Veterinarian Treatments for Bearded Dragon Impaction
If home remedies do not seem to relieve your bearded dragon’s symptoms or impaction, the following treatments can be offered through the vet:
The vet may try to rehydrate your bearded dragon by soaking in it in warm, shallow water between 30 minutes to two hours. Alternatively, they may try to inject fluids (subcutaneous fluid) into your lizard underneath the skin to get them hydrated again.
In more severe cases of dehydration, the vet may insert fluids into your bearded dragon’s bone canals (the hollow center of your bearded dragon’s bones) through a method called intraosseous administration. (Source: Veterinary Partner)
Your vet may suggest treating your bearded dragon’s constipation with a natural laxative, such as pureed pumpkin or prunes, or with a particular lactulose solution administered in their office.
An enema performed by your bearded dragon’s vet will help clean out its digestive tract, eliminating any blockage that is causing impaction. To do so, the vet will insert a lubricated catheter or feeding syringe into your pet’s cloacal opening and flush the area with warm water.
In more severe cases of impaction that cannot be resolved through a laxative or enema, your bearded dragon may need surgery to remove the blockage causing it.
Some of the above treatment methods feature ways you can help treat your bearded dragon at home. However, if you find that your bearded dragon is experiencing impaction, it is best that you seek professional herpetological veterinary care for it as soon as you can. The vet will be able to take x-rays and accurately diagnose the severity of its constipation and provide the best treatment solution for its case.
After all, just like you, their job is to ensure that your pet remains healthy and happy!