Many bearded dragon owners are rightly a little afraid of bearded dragon impaction. This is a problem for captive bearded dragons in particular. If it does not receive proper treatment, it can be fatal.
It’s important not to panic, though, as the chance of a fatality from impaction in bearded dragons is low if you know what to look out for and how to treat it. Like all things, bearded dragon-related, knowledge takes you far.
In our guide to impaction in bearded dragons, we’ll go through the causes, symptoms, and treatments for this condition – and as with most things, you’ll find that prevention is better than the cure!
What Is Impaction?
Impaction in bearded dragons is like constipation in humans, except it’s more serious. Essentially, the digestive system is blocked with a complex mass of feces, which can be fatal even in otherwise healthy bearded dragons.
It is severe because a blockage can mean the bearded dragon can’t open his bowels. In addition, bearded dragons in captivity aren’t very good at managing things when their digestive tract slows. So impaction is something that needs rectifying quickly.
So, how does impaction occur? First, let’s look at the causes.
What Causes Impaction in Bearded Dragons?
There are lots of reasons why bearded dragons become impacted. There are, however, three common causes. Knowing these can help you to prevent impaction and minimize your pet’s risk of developing the condition.
- Unsafe substrate
- Incorrect temperatures
- Inadequate food
Let’s take a look at these in detail.
1. Unsafe Substrate
Arguably the most common cause of bearded dragon impaction is using an unsafe substrate. For this reason, it’s essential to ensure you know what a proper bearded dragon enclosure should be like. Always seek advice from reptile experts rather than a local pet store.
An unsafe substrate is something that is particle-based or loose. This includes things like sand, play sand, pellets, and Calci-Sand. All of these loose substrates have been known to cause bearded dragon impaction.
The reason why these are dangerous is that your bearded dragon can consume the particles. Over time, this means a blockage can form.
The consumption of loose particle substrates isn’t often deliberate either. It’s highly likely that the substrate is consumed with live feeders or when eating greens that aren’t in a secure dish.
A bearded dragon will consume anything! And so, it’s always advised to use a solid, safe substrate.
This could be a reptile carpet, paper towel, ceramic tile, newspaper, rubber shelf liner, or excavator clay. As well as being safer, they’re also easier to clean!
Don’t be fooled by commercial products claiming they are safe or digestible. These still wind up in a beardie’s digestive tract and cause blockages.
Unfortunately, unlike items designed for people, there is very little regulation when it comes to products intended for animals.
2. Incorrect Temperatures
Being cold-blooded, bearded dragons can’t produce their own body heat to help them digest their food correctly. For this reason, an appropriate basking spot with the correct basking temperatures is needed.
The basking area temperatures should be between 95 ° and 115 ° Fahrenheit. The temperature should be between 105 ° and 110 ° Fahrenheit for babies.
Your beardie should be able to access the basking spot for an hour or more after eating. For this reason, always ensure you feed your pet at least an hour before turning off the lights and basking bulb at bedtime.
Ensuring that feeding happens at a good time will mean the digestive system works as it should.
Without the proper temperatures, a bearded dragon will struggle with digestion, and the digestive system won’t work as it should. For this and other reasons, keeping temperatures under control is vital.
Furthermore, UVB bulbs should be replaced every six months for a healthy digestive system.
3. Inadequate Food
As well as avoiding the consumption of substrate, you need to be aware of feeding your bearded dragon a proper diet.
If your bearded dragon’s diet contains food that is too large for the digestive system, it will cause a blockage, which will lead to impaction.
Generally speaking, your bearded dragon should only consume food smaller than the gap between the bearded dragon’s eyes. This means it will be able to pass down the bearded dragon’s digestive tract with ease.
The actual diet is important too. Super worms, large crickets, and mealworms all have exoskeletons, which make them difficult to digest and make impaction worse.
Though you can feed these to adult bearded dragons occasionally, they should never be given to baby beardies – even alongside soft foods.
A great alternative to these is dubia roaches. Bearded dragons don’t have trouble digesting dubia roaches like they do other feeder insects.
Also, don’t forget all the things your bearded dragon might encounter if he’s left to explore outside his enclosure.
This could be anything left scattered around your home! As such, it’s important to watch them closely when exploring, as otherwise, there could be life-threatening consequences.
Since these animals are used to living in arid climates naturally, they can survive with a small amount of water. However, like all living things, they need water for their digestive system.
Dehydration will cause poor digestion and can progress from constipation to impaction.
It’s not only the consumption of too little water we need to worry about. Too much water can also cause dehydration as it causes diarrhea.
With diarrhea, there is excess water leaving the body, which causes dehydration.
Signs of Impaction in Bearded Dragons
In addition to understanding how to prevent impaction, beardie owners also need to know how to recognize the signs of an impacted bearded dragon.
The main two signs are physical and behavioral. The physical signs are usually easier to recognize, while the behavioral symptoms are much more subtle.
If you know how your bearded dragon usually moves and behaves, spotting the signs of impaction will be easier.
In addition, if you spend a little time each day inspecting your beardie, you’ll notice when something isn’t quite right.
The most apparent sign of impaction in bearded dragons is when frequent bowel movements have stopped.
Depending on your bearded dragon’s activity, they will typically have bowel movements daily as babies. At the same time, adults can go once a week.
As a bearded dragon owner, you’re responsible for noticing and being aware of your dragon’s regular habits to see when something changes.
If you’re worried that your bearded dragon hasn’t had a bowel movement for a while and are concerned about impaction, observe how your beardie walks.
If you notice that your bearded dragon’s gait is stiff and awkward or a read leg is shaky, dragging, or immobile, there could be a serious issue.
If impaction is higher in the digestive tract or if the impaction is large, you might also see problems with the front legs.
Impaction can cause paralysis (in any leg) due to how close the beardie’s digestive tract and stomach are to the spine.
When there is a solid or semi-solid mass of undigested food in the digestive tract, pressure is exerted on the spine.
Because reptiles don’t have discs between the vertebrae, unlike lots of other vertebrates, this happens quite easily.
Bulges and Bumps
Due to the lack of discs in-between vertebrae, impaction can often be seen as a bump or bulge. This bulge is the indigestible mass that is stuck in the tract. The belly might also be tender.
When a bearded dragon is impacted, you might also notice they just don’t look well! They might also lose weight. For these reasons, it’s essential to appreciate your beardie’s regular habits and looks to identify strange behavior.
Things like throwing up, rejecting food, and straining to try and defecate aren’t normal. On the other hand, suppose your bearded dragon is entirely inactive and lazy. In that case, you should try to see a herp vet immediately, as this is a cause for concern.
Treatment for Impaction
If you suspect impaction and think you’re in the early stages, there are some home remedies to try. Of course, this assumes that the signs aren’t severe and you’re just looking at missed bowel movements. If things are more serious than this, you should take your bearded dragon to the vet.
Here are some tried and tested home remedies for impaction in bearded dragons:
Check the Basking Area Temperature
Since having a cooler basking area temperature is not suitable for a bearded dragon’s health, you should check the temperature of the basking spot regularly. Don’t forget that a bulb will lose its strength over time too.
Though you can get a good idea from a thermometer, a temperature gun is more accurate. These are relatively inexpensive. Even if the temperature is out by a few degrees, this can affect your beardie’s health.
Try Them in A Warm Bath
Baths are often remedies for us humans suffering from constipation, so it’s also helpful to pop your bearded dragon into a warm bath to encourage bowel movements.
Lots of beardies prefer defecating in warm water too!
You can use a thermometer or temperature gun to ensure the bath water is around 100 °F. Then, fill the tub deeper than you usually would when bathing your beardie and encourage him to swim about. Always watch your beardie when he’s in water to prevent drowning.
Your bearded dragon will probably only need between 20 minutes and half an hour in the shallow water of a bath. Remember that the water will get cooler over time. Add warm water occasionally, so your lizard doesn’t get too cold.
Even if your bearded dragon isn’t impacted, a weekly bath is a great way to prevent impactions as it encourages a bowel movement.
Give Them a Gentle Massage
When your beardie is in the bath, you could massage them to encourage them to defecate. There are two ways you can do this.
Firstly, gently massage their sides from their head down to their tail. This will hopefully help to move things along. You should always be gentle because the mass could pressure the spine or internal organs.
Secondly, you could massage the abdomen by pressing gently downward on their chest. Again, never force it, but you might be surprised just how much feces is released this way – especially if the impaction has been going on a while.
No matter which massage you use, ensure your bearded dragon is upright and has your hand supporting him. Don’t put a bearded dragon on his back, making it difficult for them to breathe.
Try Different Foods
If there is suspected impaction, avoid feeding your bearded dragon the foods that caused the impaction. Instead, you should provide soft foods that are easily digestible and gentle on their digestive system.
Examples of foods you could try include:
- baby food (apple, pumpkin, watermelon, or prune puree)
- 100% fruit juice (no added sugar)
- Canned pumpkin that’s been diluted with water
When a bearded dragon is impacted, he might not want to eat. If you can’t persuade them to eat, try putting some of the pureed pumpkin on your beardie’s nose. This will cause them to lick it instinctively whether or not they fancy eating it. You could also squirt some puree in their mouth or nose with a syringe.
Another foodstuff to try is using olive oil (a few drops) on the nose to lick off. Olive oil has a laxative effect on bearded dragons and can help move things. You shouldn’t use any other oil types – stick to olive oil.
Take Them to A Vet
You should take your bearded dragon to the vet if you haven’t managed to get things moving along. It’s always best to seek a vet specializing in exotic animals like reptiles. The vet will probably x-ray the bearded dragon’s abdomen to look at its impaction and severity. Once they know what they’re dealing with, they will devise a treatment plan. Treatment usually includes laxatives.
If laxatives don’t work, an enema might be used.
Suppose the impaction has been caused by constipation or diarrhea. In that case, the vet might inject subcutaneous fluid under their skin to rehydrate them. If the dehydration is severe, a vet may inject the fluids into the hollow center of the bearded dragon’s bones.
The last resort is surgery to remove the mass and clear things out. This comes at a cost, but you can’t put a number on your pet’s life. Lots of vets will have payment plans to spread the cost.
Are Constipation and Impaction the Same Thing?
Though the symptoms of constipation and impaction are often similar, there are differences between the conditions. Constipation is common in many animals, and it happens when there is difficulty in digesting food, which results in being unable to defecate.
In bearded dragons, constipation can happen due to cool temperatures or dehydration.
Impaction is more serious. It results from a mass that is unable to be digested that accumulates in the gastrointestinal tract. This mass will harden and grow over time and will become more uncomfortable as it does so.
A blockage can be caused by organic matter like insect exoskeletons, substrate, or bark, or it could be something inorganic like sand or rock.
What Happens if You Don’t Treat an Impacted Bearded Dragon?
A bearded dragon can’t live a healthy life with impaction. Not only does this condition affect their well-being, but it can eventually lead to death if it is not treated.
At first, you might notice that your beardie is not his usual self. Eventually, you might see he has trouble walking or bearing weight on the back legs. There might be noticeable weight loss too.
Being impacted means proper digestion cannot happen, and thus, your bearded dragon will suffer from malnutrition. What’s more, not being able to defecate is serious too. Impaction is actually the leading cause of death in bearded dragons.
Final Thoughts on Bearded Dragon Impaction
Though having a bearded dragon impacted isn’t great, many dragons recover well when given the proper treatment.
Suppose symptoms aren’t severe, and you just happen to notice less frequent bowel movements, for example. In that case, you can help treat them at home and encourage them to defecate in the ways mentioned in this article. This would be classed as a minor impaction.
If, however, symptoms are severe and they have problems with mobility of their hind legs, for example, it’s essential to see a vet.
As with everything illness-related, prevention is better than the cure, so always ensure your bearded dragon has appropriate foods, proper temperatures, and no loose substrate!