Bearded dragons can stop pooping/passing faeces for a number of reasons.
These can include:
- an intestinal blockage after eating substrate (sand or bark chippings)
- a blockage caused by a stricture, tumour or other coelomic mass
- intestinal parasites, e.g. coccidiosis, pinworms or flagellate infestation
- poor husbandry
- metabolic disease
Bearded dragons are lizards that originate from Australia but are commonly kept as pets in many other areas of the world. Our job as owners is to house them in an environment as close to what they would experience in the wild as possible. The better we do this, the less likely they are to have any problems.
Their natural habitat varies, from the vast Australian deserts to arid and subtropical woodlands, scrublands and shore areas, where they are semi-arboreal, often enjoying basking at height. Basking temperatures in captivity should reach between 33 and 38 C, with a temperature zone in the rest of their enclosure ranging from 27 – 31 C during the day.
The diet of juvenile bearded dragons should consist of almost 100% gut-loaded invertebrates, e.g. grasshoppers, locusts, waxworms etc. As they grow, the proportion of live food should decrease, with only 25% of the diet being protein based when these lizards reach adulthood. The rest of their diet should then consist of 50% dark green leafy vegetables, e.g. kale, spinach, dandelions etc, 20% chopped or grated vegetables, e.g. carrots, courgette, squash, broccoli etc, and up to 5% fruit e.g. papaya, melon and banana.
A calcium supplement and exposure to an appropriate UVb light source to which they can get within 15 to 30 cm of, are also important aspects of good bearded dragon husbandry.
Although these lizards enjoy an arid environment, it is important that they always have access to a clean water drinking bowl that is wide and shallow to allow them to soak in it.
Substrate that is easy to clean and not easy to eat is ideal, for example, reptile carpet, newspaper or ceramic tiles. Other substrates that are commonly recommended for bearded dragon enclosures, like sand, bark chippings or wood shavings are not ideal as they are often eaten, along with the lizards food, and are also difficult to clean thoroughly which can lead to a build of parasites within the enclosure.
If all these aspects of their husbandry are as good as possible, your bearded dragon shouldn’t become dehydrated, they are unlikely to suffer from a blockage in their intestines caused by inappropriate substrate material, or a large number of parasites, and the muscles in their guts should work to digest and move food material through them.
What should I do if my bearded dragon is not eating or pooping?
If your bearded dragon has stopped eating and/or pooping, firstly it is very important to evaluate all of the aspects of husbandry described above, and to make any changes that are necessary.
If you are worried that your bearded dragon may have eaten some substrate material that could be causing a blockage, then you should make an appointment with your local exotics animal vet who can examine your lizard, possibly take x-rays and decide on the best way to treat them.
If you are worried that your bearded dragon might have intestinal parasites or coccidiosis, then you can collect a pooled faecal sample, ideally 3 poops kept in a sealed container to prevent them from drying out. The quickest way to get these analysed is to request a test kit from PALS where we offer full faecal analysis, including cultures and microscopy to carry out parasitology and check for coccidiosis and cryptosporidiosis, along with other possible causes of disease. We may then recommend a visit to your vets for treatment depending on the results.
Coccidiosis in bearded dragons
Coccidiosis is a disease caused by one or more species of coccidia, a single celled parasite or protozoa, which is commonly seen in reptilian faecal samples. Small numbers can be present in the guts of healthy bearded dragons, however, if numbers increase, either as a result of high stocking density or poor hygiene, increasing environmental contamination, or immunosuppression of an individual, they can cause signs of disease.
Coccidia infections can be classed as either intestinal or extra-intestinal, with the latter affecting other tissues as the protozoa migrates through the body.
Signs of intestinal coccidiosis can include poor growth, weight loss, diarrhoea or bloody faeces, while extra-intestinal coccidiosis will cause signs depending on which tissue is being affected, e.g. lack of appetite, depression, weight loss, reluctance to move and death. Often coccidia will be found on routine faecal testing, with no apparent clinical signs.
Coccidia is very stable in the environment and is most commonly spread through the feaco-oral route, where the coccidia are passed in faeces, contaminate the environment, and are then ingested by another, or the same, individual.
If you are worried about the possibility of your bearded dragon having coccidiosis, the easiest way to test for the intestinal form, is to collect a 3 day pooled faecal sample and send it to PALS where we can check the faeces for evidence of this parasite.
If coccidian parasites are identified on a faecal sample, we will advise that you visit your local exotics vet to start your bearded dragon on a treatment course and carry out possible further investigations e.g. blood tests, x-rays etc. It is also very important that the enclosure in which your lizard lives is thoroughly cleaned, any bedding and substrate removed and replaced with an easily cleaned alternative, e.g. reptile carpet, newspaper or tiles. Cleaning and removal of faecal material should be carried out daily. If there is any faeces in water bowls these should be cleaned and replaced as soon as possible, or if your lizard poops in their bathing water, they should be taken from the water and placed in a fresh bath straightaway.
Coccidia and their eggs, can survive in the environment for weeks. Regular testing, every 3 – 6 months, to check if intestinal numbers have increased again in an individual, even if no clinical signs are apparent, is incredibly important, especially if your lizard has tested positive at any point in their lives.
Other ways of preventing infection is to maintain a closed group, regularly test, quarantine any new animals, eliminate access to intermediate hosts and provide the best husbandry possible.
Intestinal parasites in Bearded dragons
Bearded dragons can suffer with a number of intestinal parasites which, in small numbers, are not necessarily deleterious to the animal. However, in captivity, numbers of these parasites can increase to a level that may cause your reptile to become lethargic, depressed, stop eating and defecating, lose weight, develop diarrhoea or regurgitate food, and, in severe circumstances, pass away.
The most common parasites encountered in this species are: pinworms, coccidia, protozoans, flagellates and giardia.
Pinworms, or oxyurids, are a type of round worm that live in the gastrointestinal tract of bearded dragons and do not cause problems when only small numbers are present. However, if numbers increase to a high level, and your vet believes that they are clinically significant, then treatment may be required.
Coccidia are a single celled protozoan parasite which, if present in large numbers, can cause severe disease in reptiles (see previous blog for more in depth information). They can live either within the intestines or migrate to other tissues, with treatment likely to be necessary, but unfortunately, not always successful.
Numerous other protozoal species are found in reptiles, many of which are harmless commensals. The most commonly encountered pathogenic protozoa, is Entamoeba invadens, which, although is most often reported in snakes, is an important differential in bearded dragons exhibiting signs such as diarrhoea, weight loss, inappetence with liver involvement. Treatment is required, although may not be effective if there is secondary hepatic disease.
Flagellates are a different type of single celled organisms also found in beardies, although they are more difficult to detect as they can perish quite quickly, so faecal samples need to be fresh. They will cause signs such as diarrhoea, regurgitation, faeces may contain undigested food, or blood and mucous, and your lizard may be listless and weak.
Giardia is a protozoan flagellate, which, as well as being zoonotic, can transmit to other animals within a household. Again, a number of gastrointestinal signs are seen with infestation, and treatment is based on finding this organism with fresh faecal samples.
Cryptosporidiosis, although more common in other lizards and snakes, is also a possible differential diagnosis in this species, with chronic debilitation, diarrhoea and marked weight loss observed. Diagnosis is possible either with a fresh faecal sample, or gastrointestinal biopsies. Prognosis is poor if this parasite is diagnosed, as limited successful treatment options are available.
With so many different intestinal parasites present that can cause anything from only mild or no clinical signs, to severe debilitating illness and death, getting a diagnosis as soon as possible is imperative to get the best outcome for your lizard. Fresh and pooled faecal samples are necessary to have the best chance of the parasite being present in the sample. These samples can be sent directly to PALS where we will advise if a visit to your local exotic vet is necessary to discuss treatment of your bearded dragon.
With any gastrointestinal parasite, cleanliness and minimising contamination between enclosures is of utmost importance, as spread of disease between individuals of the same, or different species, is possible. Regular testing, quarantine of new animals, maintaining a closed group and providing the best husbandry possible to keep stress levels low, are all imperative to try and prevent high numbers of parasites being a problem with your lizard.
For a list of our specialist tests for reptiles, please visit our pet owners tab and choose the reptile section. If you are unsure which test to choose, please call us on 01829 781855, we are always happy to help.