Impaction is the leading cause of death in captive bearded dragons. That fact alone can be a scary and intimidating thing for bearded dragon owners!
But impaction does not have to be feared as it is a common ailment for many animals and also easily treated if detected early.
This article will provide you will an exhaustive source of knowledge for understanding, identifying, treating and preventing impaction.
Save yourself a lot of unnecessary anxiety by adopting a proactive approach to your beardie’s care and you can ensure your bearded dragon has a happy, healthy life.
Read On to Discover…
What Is Impaction In Bearded Dragons?
Impaction is a word you have likely heard while researching bearded dragon care.
There is a lot of misconceptions and misinformation about the definition of impaction, the causes and treatments floating around the blogs and forums of the internet.
so, what is impaction in bearded dragons? Impaction in bearded dragons is when a hard mass blocks the digestive system and creates an obstruction. It occurs when something undigestable is consumed. It has the potential to be an incredibly serious problem and could potentially be fatal.
The reason why a blockage in the digestive system can be so hazardous to bearded dragons health is due to the physiology of reptiles.
Reptiles have just one posterior opening, called a cloaca or vent, that serves digestive, urinary and reproductive functions. All excrement; fecal, urate and urine and eggs and sperm will pass through the cloaca.
Blockages can potentially impact all of these biological functions, depending on the point of impaction. In most cases of impaction, just digestion is affected.
A fault in the digestive tract can cause a build-up of fecal, limited absorption of nutrients or even the rotting of undigested food in the gut which all will very quickly lead to the deterioration of a bearded dragon’s health if left untreated.
Impaction can cause internal bleeding and in serious cases even paralysis.
Is Impaction The Same As Constipation?
Over time, during my research, I have seen the term impaction often used interchangeably with the term constipation in care manuals, guides, blogs and forums.
It is an easy connection to make as the symptoms and treatments are very similar but there is a difference between the two alignments.
Constipation is when the last stage of the digestive system moves so slowly it causes a build-up of fecal matter, causing dry, hard and potentially bloody fecal.
This differs from impaction as impaction is mostly due to the consumption of something inappropriate that cannot be digested or the inability to digest something, causing a build-up of matter.
This can be food, substrate or other random items that are unable to pass causing a complete standstill in the digestive tract.
If constipation becomes severe enough, it itself can be a cause of impaction.
Serious constipation without proper treatment could build-up to the point where the feces themselves are the impacted matter, bringing the digestive system to a stop.
For the most part, there is no risk associated with misdiagnosing constipation and impaction.
As the treatments are largely the same, no harm will truly be done if impaction is assumed as constipation or vice versa. Proper monitoring of your bearded dragon will help you figure out what is truly going on!
What Are The Causes Of Impaction In Bearded Dragons?
Although impaction itself is simple in its definition, the root cause of the impaction can vary a great deal.
This can leave owners with no clue as to what is causing the impaction in their bearded dragon.
So, what are the causes of impaction in bearded dragons? The causes of bearded dragon impaction are:
- Unsuitable substrate
- Basking temperature too low
- Over-sized live food
- Wrong live feeding regime
- Ingestion of the unknown
- Insufficient Diet
Let’s now take a closer look at the causes of impaction in bearded dragons…
1. Unsuitable Substrate
Loose substrates such as gravel, pebbles and sand can cause impaction if large enough amounts are consumed.
Loose substrate can be consumed on accident while eating or drinking Sand is something beardies would find in their natural environments, but captive use is still debated.
There are many substrates advertised to be specifically designed to be digested if ingested but many of these have reports of still causing impaction.
The best bet is to do significant research on different substrates and owner reviews. If in doubt, do not use any loose particle substrates and opt for reptile carpets or cage liners.
The substrate we recommend is ‘sand mat’ as it contains no loose particles so it can’t cause impaction but it also has a whole host of other benefits such as keeping your beardies nails short and having a great natural habitat look and feel.
You can check the latest price of sand mat over at Amazon below…
Last update on 2023-09-23 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
2. Basking Temperature Too Low
As they are ectotherms that require external sources of heat, assisting with thermoregulation is the key to bearded dragon care!
The basking lamp provided to beardies is of utmost importance as the heat gained by basking is vital to stimulating their digestive system.
We have created a guide that lists the 9 best basking bulbs for bearded dragons including our top 3 picks!
They need to be provided with the right temperatures so monitoring this in the enclosure is the key to avoiding impaction.
The basking temperature should be between 95-100F. Here’s a table that shows the recommended tank temperatures for bearded dragons…
Bearded Dragon Tank Temperature Guide
|Bearded Dragon Temperature Guide|
|Basking Area 95°-100°F|
|Cool Spot 75°-80°F|
The effectively measure the temperature in the tank we suggest you use a digital handheld thermometer.
This will allow you to check the temp in various areas of the tank independently of what your thermostat is saying.
The digital thermometer we recommend is the ‘Zoo-Med Repti Temp’.
You can check it out on Amazon below…
- Instant read thermometer gun
- Easy to use, just point and click
Last update on 2023-09-23 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
3. Over-Sized Live Food
It may seem obvious, but a very easy mistake to make is feeding insects that are too large for your bearded dragon.
Insects that are too large can easily create an obstruction in the bowels. A golden rule to keep insects a suitable size is to not feed out anything that is larger than the space between your bearded dragon’s eyes.
As your dragon ages, that space will get larger as will the size of insects it can digest.
4. Wrong Live Feeder Regime
Bearded dragons thrive on a balanced diet of invertebrates, vegetables and fruit.
The invertebrate proportion should also have a balance in itself. Different insects have different nutritional components, some higher in protein, some higher in fat.
Insect species are also biologically different and have differing exoskeletons.
Bugs such as crickets, locusts, mealworms and super worms in particular have hard exoskeletons.
They are still beneficial to a beardies diet but feeding too much of these bugs day after day may result in a build-up of indigestible mass from exoskeletons. Consider the digestibility of the insects when setting up a feeding regime.
5. Ingestion Of Unknown Objects
Letting your bearded dragon out to explore can be very enriching but it also opens up an opportunity for it to digest and manner of things not made for consumption.
It’s vital that they are supervised closely in a supervised area and that the area is free from small items that would be consumed and cause a blockage.
For more information on this is highly recommend you check out our post that covers all you need to know about letting your beardie run around the house…
As a desert species, bearded dragons can survive with low levels of water. They still, like all living species, need water for their digestive processes.
Dehydration can cause inadequate digestion and progress to impaction. Is your bearded dragon going to water? Is it drinking too much?
High consumption of water can cause dehydration by causing diarrhea, which in excess can cause dehydration.
We have just written an easy to follow guide that shares the signs, causes and prevention of dehydration in bearded dragons.
You can access the post here – Bearded Dragon Dehydration: All You Need to Know!
7. Insufficient Diet
Bearded dragons are an omnivorous species. Their natural diet consists of 75% animals (mostly invertebrates) and 25% vegetables and fruit.
Providing the correct proportion and types of fruit and veg supports a healthy digestive system.
If they do not get enough of this proportion of their diet they will have less frequent bowel movements and there is a higher risk of impaction.
A lack of nutrients could also stimulate your bearded dragon to look elsewhere for food and motivate it to consume substrate or any other random things it may find.
If you think none of the other causes above could be possible and you are reaching all your bearded dragon’s needs.
Your bearded dragon may have parasites. A low count of parasites is normal for most species, but a very high count can cause the body to not function correctly, including the digestive system, potentially being the root cause of impaction.
Talk to your vet about sending away a fecal egg count test to find out.
What Are The Signs Of Impaction In Bearded Dragons?
Knowing the signs of impaction in your bearded dragon can help to spot the problem early.
If the signs of impaction aren’t noticed early on then this can lead to serious health issues that need medical attention.
So, what are the signs of impaction is bearded dragons? Signs of impaction in bearded dragons include:
- Changes to fecal
- Straining to defecate
- Changes in mobility
- Significant behaviour change
- Physical examination: spinal bumps, hardened belly/cloaca, swelling, tenderness
Let’s now take a deeper look at the signs of impaction in bearded dragons…
1. Changes to Fecal
As a responsible animal owner, it’s up to you to get an idea of what is normal and what is not for your own animal.
You may be able to get an idea of what is natural for a species with research but ultimately all individuals will vary to some degree.
Understanding how frequently your bearded dragon defecates and what it’s feces usually look (and smell!) like will make sure you identify when there is an issue.
The main sign to look for is if your bearded dragon stops defecating all together. If it is not passing any fecal, this is a big flashing sign that something is wrong internally.
In less serious impaction cases there may be a decrease in the frequency of fecal but identifying when things started changing will help you identify the cause and severity of impaction if it progresses down the line.
If fecal is still passing but has a distinct red or deep black colouration, it is also indicative that something is not working correctly in the digestive tract. Red colouration can indicate blood and black, hard feces have passed very slowly.
Any pet owner, zookeeper or any animal carer will know that feces reveal a lot!
Recommended Reading: Why Do Bearded Dragons Eat Their Own Poop?
2. Straining to Defecate
In conjunction with fecal changes, you may see your bearded dragon struggling significantly trying to pass feces.
Whether or not feces are passed, how much the animal strains could also indicate something is wrong.
If you are able to observe the bearded dragon as it tries to defecates take note if there is any significant straining or discomfort.
Excess straining can also result in cloacal prolapse. If your bearded dragon is having unexplained prolaspes, impaction could be the root cause.
3. Changes In Mobility
Reptiles do not have disks between their vertebrae to protect their spinal nerves and bearded dragons stomach and intestines run very close to the spine. Impaction can cause large hard masses and swelling in the intestines, which will exert pressure on the spinal nerves.
What you may observe if the impaction is serious; dragging, unexplained stiffness and shaking of the legs, often the hind legs but this depends on where the impaction has occurred.
If the impaction progresses bearded dragons can become paralysed. If you observe any indication of nerve damage take your bearded dragon to the vet immediately.
4. Significant Behaviour Changes
All animals will show a significant general behaviour change when they are ill. Reptiles are masters of disguise and can hide illnesses to protect themselves from predation in the wild.
Once you start seeing behaviour change, the issue is significant and will require treatment.
Signs of important behaviour change include, but is not limited to: Lethargy or complete lack of activity, rejecting food, lower appetite, regurgitating food, and discomfort.
Again, know what is normal for your animal, any change from normal behaviour will have an underlying cause.
5. Physical examination:
If you suspect your animal is ill, make sure you do a thorough visual examination and have collected information from behaviour and fecals before you handle it. If the impaction is serious handling can cause discomfort or pain.
Handling will likely still be necessary but keep it limited and for a purpose e.g for examination or treatment.
Here’s a great article that covers best practices for handling your bearded dragon…
When doing a physical examination in a case of suspected impaction you may see bumps along the spine.
This will be caused by the impaction itself. You may also see swelling around the spine or the underside.
Use your fingers to very gently feel around the underside of the bearded dragon and notice any areas of tenderness. You may also feel a hardening of the belly or cloaca that is abnormal.
Only physically examine your bearded dragon if you are comfortable and confident. Any more than the above handling should be done by an experienced veterinarian.
How to Treat Impaction In Bearded Dragons?
In many cases impaction begins as a minor issue and if identified early can be easily treated at home.
If the impaction is significant or left too long that it becomes significant vet treatment will be required.
So, how can you treat impaction in bearded dragons? Treatment for bearded dragon impaction includes:
- Warm bath
- Stimulating massage
- Diet change
- Veterinary treatment
Let’s take a closer look at the treatments you can provide for impaction in bearded dragons…
1. Warm Bath
Many reptiles prefer to defecate in water. Water can reduce pressure on internal organs by reducing the effect of gravity on the body and provide weightlessness.
In many cases, water will relax the reptile’s digestive systems and stimulate defecation.
To help stimulate your bearded dragon to poop, a warm bath can do wonders. A shallow bath at approximately 38℃ for 20-30 minutes will help pass minor impactions.
Monitoring the water does not cool too much during the time of bathing so you do not cool the bearded dragon down dramatically and cause stress.
Weekly bathing is beneficial for healthy beardies to assist with hydration, shed and digestion.
Have you ever wondered if bearded dragons actually need baths as part of their weekly routine? Well, here’s a post that shares all you need to know…(and the answer just might surprise you)
2. Stimulating Massage
While your bearded dragon relaxes in its warm bath you can assist its bowels with external stimulation in the form of a gentle massage of the abdomen.
Do not turn it on it’s back to do this as bearded dragons struggle to breath when upside down.
Instead, slip your fingers under either side of the abdomen and with light to medium pressure use small downwards strokes down from head to tail.
Massage down the sides and the belly following the natural digestion direction towards the cloaca.
Pay close attention to the animal’s reaction and be careful with areas that are tender or painful.
Fruit forms just a small portion of a bearded dragon’s natural diet. For a regular, healthy beardie it’s advised to limit fruit as it can have a laxative effect.
For an individual who is struggling to defecate due to impaction or constipation, consuming fruit will help loosen the stool for it to pass.
If you suspect impaction, puree any fruit from your bearded dragon’s diet so it resembles baby food.
Apple sauce is popular for this. Make sure it is 100% fruit, no sugar added.
If your bearded dragon is indeed impacted it may not readily take food due to reduced appetite.
In this case, you can use a small syringe to drop some puree on its nose in the hope that it will lick it off or else squirting some fruit into an open mouth should do the trick.
In addition to fruit, feeding an impacted animal oil can be beneficial. You can even mix it in with the fruit mix to increase palatability.
The purpose of oil is to essentially make a digestive slip n’ slide! The oil will line the stomach and hopefully the impaction itself to decrease the friction of the large hard mass and assist in passing it safely.
Many natural oils will suffice but be sure not to use an oil that hardens in cool conditions such as coconut oil, as you may make the impaction worse this way.
Olive oil is popular for home remedies as it is easily available in most households.
Paraffin oil is a largely popular choice for zoo professionals dealing with reptile impaction. It is fast-acting and it quick to pass through the system.
Other oils may stick around in the stomach even after an impaction has passed and line the stomach, reducing the uptake of nutrients.
After a period of time with an impaction, your bearded dragon will need the extra care and nutrients so the quicker the oil is out of its system, the better.
5. Veterinary Treatment
If you suspect impaction and the above home treatments seem to have no effect you should seek vet professional advice from a vet with reptile experience.
Do some research on nearby vets with relevant experience before you get a bearded dragon to join your family so you have a source of help, advice and treatment if needed.
Vet treatment for impaction will vary but it will usually begin with an x-ray to get a good idea of what is going on internally.
From there your vet may prescribe laxatives, perform an enema or worst case, surgery will be required to remove the impaction.
Anyone with a history of owning animals will know that vet treatment is never cheap. But as a pet owner there is a responsibility, not just morally, but also legally to provide professional care if your animal is ill or injured.
If your bearded dragon stops eating, moving or defecating always contact a veterinarian.
What Is The Average Cost Of Surgery Of An Impacted Bearded Dragon?
The price of treatment for impaction will vary on what is required to rectify the impaction, depending on the severity.
Surgery, of course, will come with the largest bill. The price varies, but we have collected information from a handful of owners who had to put their bearded dragon’s through the surgery to give an average range.
So what is the average cost of surgery of an impacted bearded dragon? The average cost of surgery for an impacted bearded dragon in the United States is $400 – $1200. This will include any x rays, aftercare and medication. Always ask the vet if they are accustomed to reptile care before agreeing to the procedure.
If money is an issue consider getting pet insurance so you are prepared for any scenario. Many vet clinics will also offer payment plans to suit your needs.
Can Bearded Dragons Poop And Still Be Impacted?
While one of the telltale signs of impaction is a bearded dragon not passing any fecal at all, this is not a be-all-end-all.
Owners often want to know if their bearded dragon can poop and still be impacted afterwards.
So, can bearded dragons poop and still be impacted? Bearded dragons can poop and still have an impaction. The fecal or lack of fecal that passes will depend on where the impaction is, how severe the impaction is and when the impaction occurred.
A minor impaction may still allow space for the passing of feces and some absorption of nutrients, but has the potential to become a lot worse if left untreated.
If the impaction is in the early parts of the digestive tract there may still be a significant amount of matter after the impaction that is still left to pass.
You may see normal, fully formed fecal and there still be an impaction present.
How long you see normal fecal for will depend on the rate of metabolism and digestion which will vary with seasonal changes.
If your bearded dragon is still passing fecal but something is still not right, be sure not to rule out impaction.
How Can I Prevent My Bearded Dragon From Becoming Impacted?
We have covered the long list of potential causes for a bearded dragon becoming impacted.
The key to avoiding impaction is making sure your reptile husbandry covers all of the above and does not put the animal at risk by exposing them to the causes of impaction.
So, how can I prevent my bearded dragon from becoming impacted? Here are the ways you can prevent your bearded dragon from becoming impacted?
- Suitable substrate
- Correct basking temperatures
- Feeding appropriately sized insects
- Access to water
- Supervise when out of the tank
The best thing you can do as a bearded dragon carer is educating yourself on best practises to avoid impaction. Use this article as a guide to provide the best husbandry to digestive health.
Owning reptiles initially can seem overwhelming and complicated but in reality, they are simple creatures with clear motivations and requirements.
Once you gain a solid understanding of the natural behaviours, husbandry and nutritional requirements and set-up your enclosure up perfectly, your bearded dragon will be relatively low maintenance.
Your priority should be efficient record keeping and monitoring. Consider keeping a diary of your bearded dragon’s food consumption and fecals. This will help you identify when something deviates from the norm.
Always provide your bearded dragon with fresh, clean water and a range of food sources both live feeds and greens. Provide your beardie with toys, environmental enrichment and exercise to promote overall well-being.
You will soon realize as your bearded dragon expresses a range of natural behaviours the satisfaction that comes with providing a good life for a happy, healthy and thriving bearded dragon!
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