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What Is A Bearded Dragon Respiratory Infection?
A respiratory infection in bearded dragons occurs when bacteria or fungus enters the bearded dragon’s lungs and finds itself able to multiply and grow quicker than the dragon’s immune system can kill it.
Bearded Dragons have evolved over thousands or millions of years in a dry environment where the relative humidity is quite low. Some days during summer in the areas dragons can be found will not reach more than 15% relative humidity, although the Australian Bureau of Meteorology states that the average for Alice Springs is around 24%, ranging from 18-35%. Coober Pedy ranges similarly from 18-41%. Both these cities are in the arid zone from which Bearded Dragons originate.
Some websites and groups will cite the humidity for the coastal towns in Queensland, New South Wales and sometimes even Victoria. These areas are the homes of Pogona Barbate (or the Eastern Bearded Dragon) and we’re not talking about those dragons. We’re talking about Pogona Vitticeps which is the Central Bearded Dragon.
The issue here is that bacteria and molds like a warm, humid environment, so they thrive better in humidity. This coupled with the fact that because dragons haven’t evolved a suitable immunity because they’ve not been exposed to these microbes, make respiratory illness more of a problem for them.
An untreated respiratory infection will cause significant complications for your bearded dragon and will ultimately end in pneumonia and death. Bearded dragons do not posess a diaphragm to assist with breathing like humans do, which means any difficulty breathing is exacerbated quickly.
Bearded Dragon Respiratory Infection Symptoms
- Lethargy and reduce appetite
- Mouth gaping – when not basking.
- Excess mucous production resulting in runny nose, runny eyes or drooling from the mouth.
- Beard and chest puffing. Don’t be worried about the occasional beard puff, bearded dragons do this often. But prolonged beard puffing is potentially a problem.
- Wheezing or clicking noise when breathing.
- Black beard for a prolonged period of time. (Be advised though, this can be a variety of problems).
- Difficulty breathing – excessive chest wall movement at rest.
Not every sick bearded dragon will exhibit all the symptoms. Only some may be present. Many of the symptoms above can have multiple causes – for example a black beard for a prolonged time can be various other things. We investigate these things in “My Bearded Dragon’s Beard Is Black“
Causes And Prevention Of Bearded Dragon Respiratory Infection
Improper Temperatures And/Or Humidity
By far the biggest cause of respiratory tract infection is an environment that is too humid and/or too cool.
There’s 2 primary reasons for this and temperature is by far the most important of the two (within reason). A bearded dragon requires the right temperature in their environment because they cannot produce their own body heat. If they’re too cool then their bodies immune system will not function properly and they will not be able to fight off any infection so well. When it comes to humidity, the most likely cause of respiratory infection will be from mold spores. A higher relative humidity also often indicates that the temperature is a little too low as well, so a higher humidity and lower temperature are recipes for a bearded dragon respiratory infection.
Keeping the temperatures and humidity at the right levels is very important for keeping respiratory infections at bay. Bearded dragons have evolved in the very dry arid areas of central Australia and as such have not evolved defences against pathogens that like damp, cool environments. The best prevention therefore is to keep the temperature at recommended levels and the humidity as low as you possibly can. Humidity is recommended to be no more than 40% at the cool end. There is no minimum for bearded dragons – they will not suffer from a humidity of 10% particularly at the basking end.
If you are seeing evidence of dampness on the walls or glass of the vivarium or you can see evidence of mold growth anywhere then your bearded dragon is at risk of developing a respiratory infection.
Syringe feeding can be a significant risk to a bearded dragon developing a respiratory tract infection. Bearded dragons fed from syringe are in danger of aspirating the food/drink. This means they breath the contents of the syringe instead of swallowing it.
Syringe feeding is best avoided except under the direction of a vet for this reason. Aspiration respiratory tract infection can quickly lead to pneumonia and ultimately the death of your bearded dragon. If you’re thinking of syringe feeding just because your bearded dragon won’t eat we do not recommend it. There’s better ways to coax them to eat in the previously linked post. If they simply won’t eat, it’s worth a chat with the vet anyway because there’s probably something else wrong that may need treatment.
So, avoiding syringe feeding is one way to prevent a bearded dragon getting a respiratory tract infection.
Aspiration When Drinking
Similarly to the risk of syringe feeding, there is a risk of aspiration when your bearded dragon is drinking. This is more likely a risk when they are in the bath. Keep an eye on your bearded dragon in the bath. One of ours takes huge gulps of water in the bath and then washes her pallet out and spits the water out. She is at much bigger risk of aspirating the water when she does this and as such at much bigger risk of developing a bearded dragon respiratory infection.
Never use a syringe to force water into your bearded dragon’s mouth unless you’ve been advised to by a bearded dragon vet AND shown how to do it safely. The risk of aspiration from this practice is huge and there are better ways to hydrate a sick bearded dragon.
This is a contentious subject and is often a cause of great arguments on public forums such as Facebook groups. Many people love loose substrates and many people hate them.
Nevertheless, the pathophysiology of breathing in dust is well known in humans and there’s no reason to suggest that bearded dragon lungs are in any way better protected than our own against dusty environments – particularly with long term exposure.
A dusty environment will cause lung irritation. The immune system of the animal concerned will treat the dust as foreign invaders and will attempt to neutralize it. To do this, the immune system sends lots of ‘inflammatory’ cells to the affected area. These inflammatory cells consist of various chemicals and white blood cells. This causes swelling of the area – which reduces the area available for oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange. Which makes it harder to breath.
The lungs also produce mucous to present a physical barrier that the invader has to get through in order to infect an animal. Of course, this invader is just dust. Ironically the production of mucous in the absence of an infection actually increases the risk of an opportunistic bacteria or mold being able to take hold.
Hence, a dusty substrate can potentially cause a respiratory infection in your bearded dragon. At the very least, a dusty environment will exacerbate an existing respiratory infection. We’re not against loose substrate at all – but please do research to decide on the best loose substrate possible if you must use one. Our Bearded Dragon Substrates can give you some tips to help you choose the best substrate for your bearded dragon.
Treatment For Bearded Dragon Respiratory Infection
If you think your bearded dragon has a respiratory infection then the first things to check are the temperatures and humidity in the tank and correct those. Any other treatment will be pointless if these are not correct first.
In a mild respiratory infection, correcting the temperatures and humidity may give your bearded dragon’s immune system enough power to fight off the infection itself. If you’ve corrected the temperatures and the infection appears mild you can potentially wait a couple of days to see if the symptoms improve.
If your bearded dragon is on a loose, potentially dusty substrate we’d recommend changing it out for a solid substrate at least while they’re trying to fight off the infection. We’re not against loose substrate (see our article about Bearded Dragon Substrates) but we do believe that when something’s wrong then it may help healing times to remove them.
However, we would also advise contacting your bearded dragon veterinarian for advice and perhaps an appointment either way. If your bearded dragon respiratory infection improves then you can cancel the appointment – and if it doesn’t, take them to the appointment.
Other treatments for bearded dragon respiratory infection are either antibiotics or anti-fungal medications depending on whether the infection is of a bacterial or fungal nature. In order to properly determine this a trip to your bearded dragon vet is going to be needed. The vet will probably take swabs from your bearded dragon’s saliva or inside their mouth to determine which is the best course of action.
In most cases the medications you’ll need to administer will be oral (ie, via mouth) medications and will need to be administered by a syringe. This method of administering medications carries the same risk of aspiration as syringe feeding. If you’ve never done it before, ask your vet to show you how. Some bearded dragons are easy to syringe medications to, others are a nightmare… Good luck!
If your husbandry is on point then it’s very unlikely your bearded dragon will develop a respiratory infection and prevention is definitely better than cure. So, even if your bearded dragon doesn’t have a respiratory infection, make sure your temperatures and humidity are correct and your substrate isn’t too dusty.
Untreated bearded dragon respiratory infections can be fatal. Keep an eye on your bearded dragon and interact with them regularly to spot any signs of things going wrong. Don’t delay contacting your vet if you’re in any doubt as to what’s happening for your bearded dragon.
The featured image for this article is a stock image from Pixabay Author Gayleenfroese2 and is not a picture of a bearded dragon with a respiratory infection. None of our bearded dragons have, or have had, a respiratory infection so we cannot provide our own featured image in this case.