Coccidia is the most life-threatening health concern in captive bearded dragons. Being a parasitic infection, it can progress from being asymptomatic to a full-blown disease that can kill the lizard within a short time. As a pet owner, it is significantly important to know the signs of coccidia, proper care tips, and ways to prevent coccidiosis in bearded dragons.
What is coccidia in bearded dragons?
Coccidia is the term used when referring to protozoans found in the gastrointestinal tract of reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals. These parasites reproduce by dividing themselves into two new cells which means that there will always be more than one present inside your bearded dragon.
Coccidia is more serious in juvenile bearded dragons than in adults. This is because juvenile bearded dragons are still growing and have a weaker immune system, which exposes them to a greater chance of dying from coccidia.
The best way to prevent this disease is by ensuring that you provide an adequate diet with calcium for bearded dragons, especially juveniles. In addition, you want to make sure you keep the environment your bearded dragon lives in is as clean as possible to prevent the spread of the parasites.
Coccidia infection can be detected when you see symptoms such as sluggishness, lack of appetite, and diarrhea. It may also cause weight loss which will make it difficult for the juvenile beardie to grow properly.
Signs and symptoms of coccidia in bearded dragons
How do I know if my bearded dragon has coccidia?
The most common symptom of coccidiosis is watery droppings. Other symptoms include weight loss due to malabsorption, anorexia (lack of appetite), lethargy (inactivity), weakness, listlessness, and a swollen abdomen.
Let’s look at the symptoms in detail:
1. Lethargy and weakness
Lethargy and weakness in bearded dragons is an indication that the infection has progressed to a more serious stage. Your lizard will be lethargic and may struggle to move or climb.
While there may be quite a few causes of lethargy in beardies, you can suspect coccidia because it affects a majority of bearded dragons (at least 1 in 3). Since this sign can also be indicative of a range of other illnesses, it is imperative to take your pet lizard in for an examination if you see them exhibiting any lethargy or weakness.
2. Swollen abdomen
This symptom applies particularly when the lizard’s mucous membrane is damaged by the coccidia parasites. There may also be intestinal obstruction which leads to the inability to defecate (constipation) due to swelling from coccidiosis infection. The swollen abdomen adds pressure on the intestines, making movement difficult as well as eating.
The parasite affects digestion because they form colonies that consume nutrients before passing through into feces and being excreted out by the lizards. This causes malnutrition even without noticeable weight loss in bearded dragons, which makes diagnosis very challenging, especially in adult lizards.
3. Slow growth in bearded dragons
Coccidia slows down the growth of bearded dragons by reducing their natural appetite. Stunted growth occurs due to poor metabolism and absorption of nutrients.
With slowed growth comes an increased risk of health complications and death due to malnutrition in bearded dragons that never grow into adults.
Loss of bodily fluids through diarrhea is also a major problem for bearded dragons that are infected with coccidia. Dehydration occurs due to diarrhea and not being able to drink enough water or eat sufficient food sources because of the disease. Dehydration can be fatal in bearded dragons if it is left untreated.
Beardies may stop eating or drinking when they have dehydration, which will lead them to lose weight at a fast rate.
One of the side effects of coccidiosis is diarrhea. Diarrhea, or loose stools, are characterized by fast passage and watery consistency (which can be mucous-covered). It’s important for owners who suspect their bearded dragon has diarrhea to contact a veterinarian as soon as possible because it could lead to dehydration that will be followed by other severe symptoms including weight loss and loss of appetite.
Bearded dragons with diarrhea will produce smaller fecal pellets than usual. They may also pass these very frequently – every 15 minutes or so.
6. Weight loss
Coccidiosis is a common intestinal parasite in bearded dragons. The weight loss associated with coccidiosis can be caused by the parasites’ consumption of vital nutrients, as well as the weight loss from diarrhea that it causes.
Weight loss due to coccidia occurs due to the following reasons:
- Parasites consume vital nutrients in the diet.
- Diarrhea caused by coccidiosis is a leading cause of weight loss. Weight loss from diarrhea may lead to a skinny bearded dragon.
If you notice any symptoms such as diarrhea, weight loss, lethargy, or dehydration in your pet then you should bring them to the vet immediately. The sooner they are treated the sooner they will recover and have a happy and healthy life again.
How do bearded dragons get coccidia?
Bearded dragons can get coccidia by coming into contact with a contaminated surface or food. They are also likely to become infected if they eat something that is already contaminated by the faeces of other animals, such as birds and rodents.
Isospora amphiboluri is the particular parasite that is found in the intestines of bearded dragons, causing coccidiosis. Isospora amphiboluri is a species of coccidia – intestinal protozoans, which often present as ileal cystitis or colitis with diarrhea.
Do not feed your bearded dragon any food items that may have been contaminated by faeces from other animals such as new reptile pets or birds. This will help to prevent them from contracting Isospora amphiboluri.
Can coccidia kill a bearded dragon?
Coccidiosis can be fatal to bearded dragons if not diagnosed early enough and left untreated. The infection can be asymptomatic for a long time, which makes it difficult to diagnose but when it becomes a disease, it can progress quickly and cause severe symptoms and death.
Juvenile bearded dragons are at a higher risk of dying from coccidia compared to adult lizards. The problem is, that most lizards carry the infection without showing any signs, especially if they are well-fed, stress-free, and healthy in many other aspects.
Symptoms can also go unnoticed for a long period, which means most bearded dragons are always at a higher risk of death from coccidiosis than the owners realize.
Treatment for coccidia can be as varied, but all treatments typically involve antibiotics or anti-parasitic drugs. In cases where the coccidiosis infection is severe and has progressed to active disease, coccidiostatic medications may also need to be given with a longer time frame of treatment.
Do not attempt to treat your bearded dragon yourself. You first need a diagnosis done by a professional reptile vet.
Get a prescription for your reptile to prevent any risk of worsening the reptile’s condition. Most drugs for coccidia are prescribed according to the lizard’s age and weight.
Follow through the treatment course to ensure the parasite is completely eliminated.
I highly recommend that you have your pet diagnosed by a reptile vet, even if there are some symptoms of infection. They will help rule out any other infections or diseases before administering medication.
Coccidia prevalence in bearded dragons is estimated to be between 20 and 50% of the pet population. The prevalence rate increases dramatically when considering captive bearded dragons housed with other lizards, as it can spread from one lizard to another through contact or shared food bowls.
This prevalence figure also goes up when enclosures such as a cageless setup for growing beardies are used. These microscopic parasites are spread through contact with infected faeces, which is why the infection rates are extremely high in pet bearded dragons. Other reptiles or even humans may also transmit them.
It is possible to prevent coccidia. It can be done by taking a few precautions, such as not letting any new bearded dragons in the enclosure and always washing hands before handling other animals or food items. In addition, wash all bowls with hot water and soap after every feeding session. Make sure you are using fresh clean water for each use, including both baby beardies’ dishes and your beardie’s drinking bowl. Wash their vegetables thoroughly too, because they may carry some of these parasites on them without showing signs of infection yet.
Here are tips on how to prevent coccidia in bearded dragons:
Quarantine new pets
Quarantine new reptile pets for at least two weeks before introducing them to the old pets. During this period, observe the lizards closely to make sure they do not have coccidia symptoms.
Once the quarantine is over, it’s important to wash your hands before handling any reptiles. If the new pet has come in contact with other animals or food items outside of the quarantine enclosure, he may be carrying a parasite that could spread to others if you don’t take precautions.
Don’t bring water bowls from the new bearded dragons’ cage into another because this can also cause contamination and illness. Instead, wash all bowls thoroughly with hot water and soap after every feeding session for each lizard – including baby bearded dragon dishes and their drinking bowl.
The cleanliness of the enclosure can also affect the spread and containment of coccidia. Keep things clean and as dry as possible, with no standing water. No wet or damp substrate is better for bearded dragons because it might not only be hard to clean but may lead to fungal infections and the spread of coccidia.
Don’t leave droppings laying around either – clean them out of sight. If there are any areas where your beardie has urinated on logs or rocks, scrub these down with a disinfectant so they don’t spread coccidia parasites all over the enclosure.
Dishes should always be washed between uses, even when using fresh clean water during each dishwashing cycle.
Isolate infected bearded dragons
If one of your pets shows symptoms, isolation will help prevent the spread to others. The isolation can be done by creating a separate enclosure where only this lizard can enter and exit.
Provide the isolated pet with clean water dishes, food bowls, towels for climbing on top of or under to lay down in if desired, and other items important for its well-being while sick.
Reducing stressors is also important in the prevention of coccidia. The stress factors will vary depending on the enclosure setup, but there are a few general stress reducers that might help:
- Keep feeding times short to avoid overcrowding and contamination if you have tankmates
- Remove any items from their enclosure they don’t need (this includes anything laying around). This can reduce the stress for your lizard as well as make it easier to keep things clean
- Limit handling – less contact means fewer opportunities for spreading illness. If necessary, use gloves when you do handle your bearded dragons.
As a general rule of thumb, you want to ensure that your reptile pet has adequate food, heating, a UVB source, and proper humidity to keep them happy and healthy.
Do not overcrowd enclosures.
Overcrowding is a major cause of coccidia. In overcrowded areas, the faeces can get soiled or wet and transmit this parasite to other lizards without them being infected themselves – which spreads it even more efficiently.
If you have multiple pets in one enclosure, give them space by either building additional enclosures (or modifying existing ones) for each lizard as needed. Likewise, if your bearded dragon is sharing an enclosure with others that are not its tankmates, be sure to provide plenty of perches for every single one too.
The overcrowding will happen if only one extra branch is available on a tree climbing post but three different dragons want to climb up at once. Keeping things neat will also cut down on stress.