Bearded Dragons - Diseases

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Bearded dragons are susceptible to several diseases; understanding these diseases may help you prevent them from occurring in your pet and know when to seek veterinary attention. In addition to the diseases listed in this handout, bearded dragons are susceptible to other health problems —see the handout “Bearded Dragons – Problems” for more information.

What are some of the more common diseases of pet bearded dragons?

If they are well looked after, including proper diet and husbandry, bearded dragons are reasonably hardy animals. Common health conditions of pet bearded dragons include CANV, atadenovirus, metabolic bone disease, parasites, infectious stomatitis ('mouth rot'), and respiratory infections.

"If they are well looked after, including proper diet and husbandry, bearded dragons are reasonably hardy animals."

What is CANV?

CANV (Chrysosporium anamorph of Nannizziopsis vreisii) is an aggressive and potentially fatal fungal infection of several types of lizard species but is most commonly seen in bearded dragons. It is also known as ‘yellow fungus disease’. This disease can affect bearded dragons at any age and may involve both males and females. This disease is typified by thickened yellow plaques on the face, back, sides, or legs. These plaques will crack, peel, and bleed if not attended to early on. In advanced cases, the infection becomes invaded by bacteria from the environment and adjoining skin regions and causes the bearded dragon to start losing weight and become noticeably weak.

This disease necessitates a veterinary examination and aggressive treatment with antifungal medication, and often antibiotic treatment as well.

What is atadenovirus?

Atadenovirus infection is very common in young bearded dragons but may affect dragons of any age. It typically causes fatal hepatitis (infection of the liver) and gastrointestinal infection. Affected animals are weak, do not eat, and often die acutely suddenly. Others show a more chronic infection in which they fail to thrive, do not grow at a normal rate, are weak, may become paralyzed, and periodically do not eat. Ultimately, they die as well.

What is metabolic bone disease?

Metabolic bone disease (MBD), or nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism, is a complex disease that is one of the more common diseases in pet bearded dragons. It is most often seen in juvenile bearded dragons (less than two years old). MBD is generally caused by feeding an improper diet that is high in phosphorus and low in calcium and/or Vitamin D3. This imbalance may be caused either by a direct nutritional deficiency of vitamin D3 or a lack of exposure to the UV-B light required for lizards to make vitamin D3 in their skin. Common signs include swelling of the lower jaw, softening of the bones of the jaw and facial bones (‘rubber jaw’), and/or swelling of the hind limbs (fibrous osteodystrophy). Legs also commonly tremor as the lizard 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, so they crouch low to the ground or lay on their abdomens instead.

"...many bearded dragons with MBD are so weak that they can neither walk nor push their bodies up in a normal stance..."

Radiographs (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 either a low calcium level or an imbalance of calcium and phosphorus blood values, usually with phosphorus being higher than calcium. A normal calcium to phosphorus blood level should be two parts calcium to one part phosphorus. As the condition progresses, muscle twitching, seizures, loss of appetite, and severe lethargy are seen. Not all cases can be resolved.

What is infectious stomatitis?

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 jawbone that appears as pinpoint hemorrhages on the gums, gum swelling, or excessive thick mucus production. Oftentimes, a material resembling cottage cheese may be seen in the mouth. In advanced cases, infectious stomatitis can also cause swelling of the jaw when the infection invades the bones of the jaw.

Parasites, especially pinworms, motile protozoa (single-cell organisms), and coccidia (Isospora amphiboluri), are common in the intestinal tracts of pet bearded dragons. The pet may show no clinical signs or just mild loose stool formation. These parasites are diagnosed by a microscopic examination of the fecal material by a veterinarian. In advanced cases, parasites may cause foul-smelling feces, profuse diarrhea, and/or weight loss. Pinworms and several types of motile protozoa are common parasites that live within bearded dragons’ gastrointestinal tracts in small numbers. 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. Problems occur when there are excessive numbers of these intestinal parasites. 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.

What is a respiratory infection?

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, or parasites. Infections with any of the above diseases may weaken your bearded dragon’s immune system and allow bacteria to invade the respiratory tract. Affected lizards may sneeze, 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. These cases call for immediate attention and aggressive therapy from your bearded dragon’s veterinary team.

How can I tell if my bearded dragon is sick?

Signs of disease in bearded dragons may be specific to 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 are seen with many diseases. Any change from normal is cause for concern and should be immediately evaluated by your veterinarian.

"Any change from normal is cause for concern and should be immediately evaluated by your veterinarian."

How are diseases in bearded dragons treated?

Metabolic bone disease usually requires a multi-pronged attack depending on the blood levels of calcium, phosphorus, and kidney function tests. Treatment may involve oral calcium supplementation, phosphorus-lowering medication, rehydration with fluids, nutritional support, treatment with injectable vitamin D3, and/or injections of calcitonin, a drug that helps re-deposit calcium back into the bearded dragon’s bones). In addition, the diet must be corrected and full-spectrum lighting (including UV-B, essential for enabling lizards to make vitamin D3 in their skin), must be provided. DO NOT ATTEMPT TREATMENT without guidance from your veterinarian.

Infectious stomatitis (mouth rot) usually requires injectable antibiotics as well as antiseptic mouth rinses. Dragons who are too painful to eat may also require supplemental feedings.

For parasitic infections of the gastrointestinal tract, several oral and injectable anti-parasitic medications are available. The type of parasite identified in the feces will indicate which drug is needed. Mites and ticks can be treated with either topical or injectable medications. Environmental cleaning, disinfection, and treatment are also essential to prevent reinfection after treatment.

Respiratory infections can be diagnosed using radiographs (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 the infection is severe, the lizard may require hospitalization for more aggressive therapy and supportive treatments. For respiratory tract infections caused by fungus, viruses, or parasites, other 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 debilitated, it may need hospitalization and intensive care, including medications, fluid therapy, and force-feedings. Be sure to have any health issues your bearded dragon exhibits checked by your veterinarian as soon as possible to avoid serious illness.

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