Bearded Dragon Impaction And How To Prevent It

Bearded Dragon Prolapsed Cloaca

My Bearded Dragon Hasn’t Pooped For Ages

Bearded dragon’s bowel habits differ between each individual dragon, but in general if they’re eating properly they should poop every couple of days or so. If it’s been longer than this since your bearded dragon last pooped then they could be constipated or impacted.

Impaction is a serious, potentially life threatening condition in which the intestines of your bearded dragon have become blocked. Anything behind the blockage cannot pass and eventually this backed up poop will cause significant problems.

How Do Bearded Dragons Become Impacted?

There are many reasons for a bearded dragon impaction. These can be (in no particular order);

  • Using a high risk substrate (flooring) in the vivarium. Any loose particle substrate can cause problems but some are higher risk than others.
  • Eating food that is difficult to digest. This is more of a problem in babies and juvenile dragons than adults.
  • Inadequate temperatures inside the tank.
  • Dehydration (though this is rare).

Using High Risk Substrate

Depending on which source you use, some people say to avoid any and all loose particle substrate in a bearded dragon vivarium. We disagree since some loose substrate has a much lower risk than others.

We don’t recommend loose or particle substrate for beginners though because the risk of impaction for inexperienced keepers is much higher than that of non-particle substrates. Similarly, we don’t recommend loose particle substrate for young dragons either. Young dragons are clumsy eaters and inquisitive beings. Clumsy eaters will end up eating the particles by accident. Inquisitive dragons use their sticky tongues to work out what is around them (a bit like us touching things with our hands). Sticky tongues on loose particle substrate ends up with them eating it.

Over time the substrate can build up in the bearded dragons digestive tract and can form hard lumps which become more and more difficult to move through the intestines. Once they become too hard they’ll form a blockage. This is impaction.

Extreme Risk Substrate

The following substrates are never ever recommended by us, for any age keeper or any age dragon;

  • CalciSand.
  • VitaSand.
  • Crushed Walnut Shell.
  • Wood Shavings.

All of the above substrates are advertised and marketed as suitable for bearded dragons. Many are carried by pet shops. Many are even used by pet shops.

They can all be deadly. They all carry an extreme risk of impaction and/or serious internal injuries if/when eaten.

High Risk Substrate

The following substrates are considered high risk and should be avoided by inexperienced keepers or for young dragons.

  • Sand of any kind
  • Coconut Fibre

We’ll not go into the details of recommended substrates for bearded dragons in this article. Instead, click the link to view our dedicated article on this topic. In that article you can see the different reasons why we recommend certain substrates and don’t recommend others.

Unfortunately the pictures on many of these products suggest they’re suitable for bearded dragons. Many of the manufacturers are actively selling them to unsuspecting new keepers.

Safest Substrate

The safest substrates for bearded dragons, to help avoid impaction are those that are what’s known as non-particle or solid substrates. These tend to be tiles (normal ceramic tiles like you’d use on your floor), newspapers or paper towels (although babies can sometimes even eat paper towel if they’re clumsy enough).

Bearded Dragon Impaction Through Food

Some foods, particularly live foods, carry a higher risk of impaction than others. Generally speaking, insects with harder shells are the higher risk. Almost all are safe though in moderation.

As a general rule, particularly for babies, if you stick to feeding insects whose body lengths are less than the distance between your dragon’s eyes then you won’t go far wrong.

Higher Risk Insects

  • Mealworms (for babies – generally fine for adults).
  • Beetles. These often have quite hard exoskeletons and legs. Again more of a problem for babies.
  • Crickets. These have a harder external skeleton that locusts on average. Once again, choose crickets that are shorter than the space between your dragon’s eyes.
  • Pinkie Mice. These should never be fed to a baby dragon in any case as they are too big. Adult dragons can tolerate them, but they should be a treat for other reasons.

We go into more detail about which live foods are suitable for bearded dragons here. The list above is a quick guide on which ones to avoid to reduce the risk of an impacted bearded dragon.

Other Risks With Food That Is Too Large

As well as bearded dragon impaction, food that is too large for your dragon, there is a risk of spinal cord compression. Bearded dragon’s often tend not to chew their food too well. This varies from dragon to dragon. One of ours is an absolute guts and tends to swallow everything whole. If we fed her food that was too large she would still swallow it whole. Due to the anatomy of the bearded dragon, this large lump of food can press on the spinal cord of your bearded dragon.

Compressed spinal cord can lead to a number of problems. The problems encountered range from paralysis, seizures and even death, depending on where the spinal cord is compressed. If your bearded dragon suddenly loses the use of it’s back legs for example, it may be that it is impacted due to having eaten something far too big.

Bearded Dragon Impacted Due To Inadequate Temperature

Bearded dragons are cold blooded animals. This means that they rely on the temperature of the external environment to keep warm. They can produce a small amount of heat through the use of skeletal muscle, such as when running or climbing but this is minimal and will have no noticeable impact on their core temperature.

Enzymes used in digestion require a very specific temperature range to operate efficiently and the chemical reactions involved in muscle contraction also require energy from heat. If the environment is not warm enough then your bearded dragon will not be warm enough either. The chemical and electrical reactions will slow down when there is not enough heat.

An environment that is too cold will cause all sorts of problems with your bearded dragon’s health, not just impaction.

To check which temperatures you should have your bearded dragon tank operating at, check our article about Bearded Dragon Heat And Lighting for more information.

Since heat is so important to bearded dragon digestion, with a dragon that is too cold being unable to properly digest their food, it’s worth remembering that you should allow enough time in the morning for your bearded dragon to warm up before feeding. You should also ensure that there is enough time after eating for your bearded dragon to stay warm to digest their food properly.

We recommend not feeding your bearded dragon for at least the first two hours after their basking lamp comes on. This allows them time to bask and warm up to the right temperature before eating. Then, similarly, we recommend not feeding them within the last two hours of the day for the same reason. That is to say, if the basking lights are due to switch off at 7pm, we would recommend the last time that your bearded dragon is allowed to eat should be 5pm. This is particularly true of live insects.

6 Signs And Symptoms Of Bearded Dragon Impaction

Some of the signs and symptoms of bearded dragon impaction can mean other things are going on too. With this in mind you’ll have to consider the context of these signs and symptoms as a group rather than individually. The following list though will give you an indication;

  • Your Bearded Dragon has not pooped for some time. This varies from dragon to dragon but if you feel that it has been longer than usual (by at least a day or two) since your bearded dragon last pooped then it could be that they are impacted. Taken in isolation though this is an unreliable indicator – use the other indicators below to form a more accurate diagnosis.
  • Your bearded dragon looks uncomfortable when walking, and possibly bloated in the stomach.
  • Your bearded dragon loses the use of their hind legs (due to spinal cord compression as mentioned above).
  • Your bearded dragon strains to go to the toilet but does not pass anything.
  • Your bearded dragon becomes lethargic, possibly with a black beard and/or blackened body. This, combined with a look about them that is hard to describe can be quite telling – particularly when coupled with no recent pooping.
  • Vomiting any recent meals, particularly if they haven’t pooped recently either.

If your bearded dragon has reduced their food intake, for example because they’re brumating, then it’s quite likely they’ll poop less frequently. So, you need to look at all the symptoms in context to form an opinion as to whether they’re impacted or not. Vomiting is never ever a sign of brumation though. We discuss Bearded Dragon Brumation in more depth in the linked article. It’s wise however to place brumation last on the list of suspected problems when trying to determine why your bearded dragon hasn’t pooped in a while.

How To Fix Bearded Dragon Impaction

Having looked at the signs and symptoms of bearded dragon impaction, along with the reasons why they may become impacted we now look at ways to solve the problem.

Bear in mind that impaction can be a life threatening condition for your bearded dragon. It’s worth having a good reptile vet on standby just in case your home remedies don’t work. And don’t leave it too long trying the home remedies before you take your pet to the vet. If you can’t afford a vet bill, we have some tips that might help you here.

Mild Cases Of Impaction

Mild cases – where the bearded dragon has become impacted only recently, can often be treated at home. This is only really applicable where you know that your bearded dragon hasn’t pooped for a while and should have. For example, if they normally go every 2 days but it’s now been 4 days since they last went – and they’re still eating normally. If they show any severe signs (such as no poop coupled with black beard and obvious discomfort or hind leg paralysis) then you should consult your reptile specialist vet as a matter of urgency. Impaction can be fatal.

Give Your Bearded Dragon A Bath

To assist with a bowel movement you can give your bearded dragon a nice warm bath. Technically speaking this will work only if your dragon is constipated rather than actually impacted – although constipation can be considered an early / mild form of impaction.

The warm water can help to stimulate your bearded dragon’s bowels. Indeed some people are of the opinion that it over-stimulates their bowels. Nevertheless in this instance, a bowel stimulation is what’s required and so a nice warm soak for up to 30 minutes can often help. We guide you through How To Bath Your Bearded Dragon in our linked article.

It’s important when bathing your bearded dragon to ensure that water does not get too cold. You can top it up with warm water if it becomes too tepid. But don’t overheat them either. Around 37-38 degrees water temperature is ideal as this is the ideal temperature for enzyme activity of digestion and to provide enough energy for the bowel movement.

It may take up to half an hour for the action to happen, so be patient. Your bearded dragon may also appear to strain more than usual. If there’s no activity at all after about 20 minutes you can gently rub their cloaca (vent) area to stimulate the process. You can also very very gently massage their tummy. Do be especially gentle with your massage at this time though as they will likely have pain and any hard impacted lump could cause ruptured intestines if you massage too hard.

If your bearded dragon doesn’t poop after 30 minutes, return them to their warm vivarium and contact your vet for further advise. If they are straining and produce any blood you should contact your vet immediately as this can be a sign of internal rupture and haemorrhage which requires immediate attention.

Check Your Temperatures

If your vivarium temperatures are toward the cooler end of normal, it can sometimes help to increase them a little bit for the duration of the impaction. The increased temperatures can help to speed up the intestines and the digestive process. But don’t overdo them – a bearded dragon that is too hot will have other issues such as dehydration which will make the impaction worse. We wouldn’t recommend any temperature higher than 110F (43 Celsius) in the basking area.

Olive Oil

Small droplets of Olive Oil placed on your bearded dragon’s nose for them to lick off can help impaction. The reasons for this are unclear but presumably are somewhat due to lubrication. This may take a few days to take effect though so keep your eye on them in the meantime and if they exhibit any of the severe signs of impaction you should refer to your vet immediately instead.

Reduce Livefood Diet – Increase Soft Vegetable Diet

During this time it’s wise not to keep feeding your bearded dragon anything that will exacerbate the problem. With that in mind it’s worth switching to soft, pureed vegetables fed by gently placing the pureed mix on the end of their nose for them to lick off or small amounts at a time inside their mouth with a syringe.

A pureed pumpkin / butternut squash mix can assist. Pureed prunes can also be used as these have a stimulating effect on the bowel. The pureed prunes should be from pure unsweetened prunes if at all possible. The sugar from processed prunes can make things worse by producing a lot of gas and making your bearded dragon very uncomfortable.

Do not force too much from the syringe at a time. If you overdo syringe feeding you run the risk of your bearded dragon breathing in the food instead of swallowing it. This is called aspiration and will lead to significant respiratory problems. A bearded dragon that aspirates is in danger of contracting pneumonia or dying from suffocation.

Time For a Vet Visit

Bearded Dragon Prolapsed Cloaca
Bearded Dragon with mild prolapsed cloaca

How do you know when it’s time to visit the vet rather than continue with home remedies? Hopefully this list will help you decide;

  • It’s been more than a week since your bearded dragon has pooped, or;
  • There’s blood around your bearded dragon’s cloaca / vent, or;
  • Your bearded dragon’s cloaca has prolapsed, or;
  • Your bearded dragon is bloated, black bearded and lethargic and the home remedies have not worked after a few days.

Prolapsed cloaca might look a little like the picture to the right. The picture to the right is more of a swollen cloaca than a prolapse but was caused due to straining when pooping. If you see any pink or grey colour protruding from the vent you have a more significant prolapse. This is part of the lower bowel that has been expelled from inside to out and is also a life threatening condition which requires emergency veterinary treatment.

Veterinary Treatments For Impaction

Your vet will have a number of options available to them to assist your bearded dragon to overcome their impaction. These options are potentially life saving – but they may be expensive. With this in mind, it’s best to avoid impaction in the first place through proper temperatures, proper feeding regime and using safe substrates.

Your vet will likely take an X-Ray of your bearded dragon to help them determine the best course of action to remove your bearded dragon’s impaction. They’ll use this X-Ray image to decide whether they can use a laxative or an enema to help move the blockage or whether surgery is necessary.

Surgery prices vary but will likely range from $300 – $1000 ( £200 to £800 ) or possibly more. If you don’t have pet insurance and don’t think you can afford that sort of fee, speak to your vet anyway. Your bearded dragon’s life depends on it and there are options available to you. We explore some of these options in our article about Ways To Pay Vet Fees for your bearded dragon.

Summary

Bearded Dragon impaction is a potentially life threatening condition whereby a build up of an immovable substance has gathered in the intestines of your bearded dragon causing a blockage which cannot be passed. If left untreated it is a fatal condition. This article gives you some tips to avoid impaction, how to recognise if it’s occurring and how to treat it.

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