When properly fed and with appropriate UV light, the bearded dragon is a robust and healthy creature, typically living 8-12 years, occasionally even 15. However, like many reptiles, they will try to hide illness or injury. The first danger to deal with is substrate. Impaction is an issue where some indigestible substance is trapped in the intestines and prevents proper flow through the digestive system. The best substrate is a matter of some controversy, but all will agree that the following are bad. Corncob can cause impaction and grow fungus and bacteria. Walnut shell is sharp and also can cause impaction. Calcisand and Vita-Sand taste good to bearded dragons, especially those needing more calcium, but cannot be digested and leads to impaction. Repti Bark, wood shavings and Original Lizard Litter can lead to impaction. There are brands that claim to be biodegradable and safe to consume, but these should be viewed with suspicion. Bearded Dragons have very short intestinal tracts, and thus have a great deal of trouble metabolizing their food. Solid surfaces are often best, and easiest to clean. Do not use heated rocks to keep the enclosure warm, as dragons have trouble detecting heat under their bodies, leading to burns.
When suffering from ingestion, they will often straighten and extend their hind legs and act as if paralyzed. This is not the same as basking, if the lizard can walk, it is just acting normally. Increasing the heat or soaking in hot water might induce a bowel movement, but it is unlikely to save the creature. The best treatment is to limit the size of the food and avoid dangerous substrates.
The next step is proper feeding. Insects fed to bearded dragons should be gut loaded or well-fed before feeding them to the lizards. Mealworms are a poor choice for dragon feed, and only the white, freshly molted larvae are appropriate. At least one meal every two days should include a calcium supplement, sprayed or dusted on the food. Some recommend a multivitamin weekly, but excess vitamin A can be fatal, so this should not be overdone. You want the proper amount of nutrients, not as much as possible.
Vegetables should be sprayed with water before feeding to supply moisture, and the animals should be misted on their faces periodically: Hatchlings twice a day, adults several times a week. If they lick all of the water off, reapply until they stop. Some can learn to use a shallow pan, but it will need cleaning daily and immediately if defecated on.
The animals will need sunlight, a UV light or diet supplementation to provide D3. Sunlight through a window will not work. If bulbs are used, keep them very close to the enclosure, within inches, and replace them twice a year even if they do not burn out.
Do not house dragons with other reptiles, and all new reptiles should be quarantined. Wash your hands before and after handling each reptile, and between handling reptiles kept in different enclosures. Keeping the enclosure clean is also important to your pet’s health.
Remember, you should always consult a veterinarian before treating an animal, and many issues are simply not within the normal owner’s ability to handle.
Coccidiosis is an infection commonly and incorrectly spoken of as a worm infestation. Coccidia are single cell organisms that live in the intestinal walls and can cause diarrhea. Most dragons are normally infected, but only when the lizards are weak does this become a danger. Smelly or loose bowels instead of hard pellets are typical symptoms. Treatment normally involves a sulfa type antibiotic. Quarantine the animal and ensure it is well hydrated. Do not allow it to refuse food or water. A typical method is to use a syringe or dropper to feed the animal, but another method is to drip food or water onto the animal’s nose. It will lick the substance off of the “dirty” nose, consuming it. Many vets recommend a pre-emptive de-worming once or twice a year, much as you would do with a dog. However, others are coming to believe that this can harm the health of the dragon and treatment should only take place when symptoms are detected. This may be a contributing factor to “yellow fungus.”
What is called the “yellow fungus” is believed to be more than one type of infection. The current belief is that many of the infected animals were treated with Albon, a common antibiotic. This is believed to have killed good bacteria in the digestive tract, allowing yeast and fungus growth to survive in the feces, which then gets on the skin of the lizard. Whatever the cause, it is infectious and lethal. It is recommended that a priobiotic treatment follow any antibiotic regimen. Some known cases were in animals never treated with antibiotics but kept on natural soil. The treatment regimen currently believed to be the best treatment is topical Nolvosan, keep it away from the eyes, then a rinsing followed by a treatment with lamisil. This should cover the infected area and surrounding areas, with another lamisil treatment in each 24-hour period. Acidophiliz+ is a well-regarded priobiotic, though others exist. Oral treatments must be supervised by the veterinarian and during the treatment period, do not feed the lizard fruits. Treatment should be extended two weeks after the last symptoms are seen. Use a solid substrate during treatment and clean it daily. A complicating factor is that it takes more than ten days for the infection to be cultured, and this often delays treatment until it is too late.
We know little about adenovirus. Quarantine any reptile suspected of infection as this can kill an entire collection. Unfortunately, the only sure way to determine if the creature has an adenovirus is autopsy. Most infected dragons had a history of lethargy, poor appetites and diarrhea. They are more likely young than old. The symptoms are frustratingly vague. Some infected reptiles recover, others die. The mechanism the virus uses to reach the host is unknown, and treatments have not yet been developed.
Bearded Dragons can be infested with mites. Mites are extremely difficult to remove and require a two-pronged attack. The animal and habitat must be treated. The animal should be given a dilute betadine bath. Allow the lizard to drink its fill before adding the betadine. If the animal defecates, drain the tub, clean it and repeat. The area around the eyes and nose should be treated with mineral oil after the bath. Dispose of all substrate, bagging it for removal, and scrape the corners and edges of the enclosure to remove all mites, eggs and mite feces. Wipe or spray the enclosure with soapy water, and remove the soap. Then use a 1/30 mixture of bleach for 10 minutes. Bake wooden furnishings for 2-3 hours at 250 degrees, longer for thicker pieces. Boil rocks for a half hour. Anything too large for these treatments should be treated with the bleach solution for 8 hours. Wipe down or clean anything else using these treatments as is appropriate to the substance. Use No-Pest strips or cat flea collars in the enclosures and seal the tank or enclosure as close to air tight as is possible. Leave this at least three hours. Bag and remove all cleaning materials for disposal, and let the enclosure sit for at least 8 hours before returning the dragons.
Egg binding is a potentially lethal problem. This most often occurs with a first clutch with infertile eggs. Discuss this with your veterinarian, as there are several possible causes. To prevent this, the best plan is to make sure the female is old enough, big enough and healthy enough to breed and has been fed the best possible diet with any needed supplementation. Protect the animal from stress and ensure a proper egg laying area is available.
Bearded Dragons are vulnerable to respiratory problems. This can include clogged nostrils due to mucus, raspy breathing through the mouth but not venting due to heat. The usual causes are excess humidity and cold. Contact your vet for treatment.
Too little vitamin D3 and Calcium can lead to Metabolic Bone Disease. The symptoms include shaking, twitching, or stiffness of limbs (especially rear legs), separation of the mouth, and difficulty chewing food. If caught early, sunlight and supplements can handle the situation.
Note that it is also possible to hurt your dragons with over supplementation, as some nutrients are dangerous if the supply is too large for the body to handle. Vitamin A toxicity usually produces swelling of the throat and eyes, followed by bloating of the body and lethargy.
Hibernation occurs naturally. In December to February, begin to reduce the length of the day by controlling the lighted enclosure. Gradually reduce the lighted period to 8-10 hours, and decrease the temperature to about 75-85 degrees in the day and 60 degrees at night. Provide material to dig a nest. Make sure the dragon is healthy and has no undigested food. If the dragon is up during the hibernation period, it is safe to provide small amounts of food. After about two months, begin increasing the temperature and light period back to normal.