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Spotting the Signs: Recognizing if Your Lizard Is Sick

Reptiles may not be soft, furry, cuddly, or as inquisitive as dogs or cats; however, they can make good pets when properly cared for. As reptiles, lizards rely heavily on their environment to maintain temperature and normal physiological function. Thus, you must keep any pet lizard in an optimal environment with proper nutrition. Further, early on, recognizing signs of illness, including changes in droppings, appetite, and behavior, could mean the difference between a treatable and a life-threatening ailment.

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Selecting a pet lizard

The most commonly kept lizards as pets include iguanas, skinks, bearded dragons, anoles, and geckos. However, what lizard may be right for one family isn’t going to fit another. Learning what habitat and nutritional requirements a species needs, how to handle it, how big it gets, and other factors must play a role in selection.

If you are queasy and can’t think of giving live prey to a pet, then choosing an herbivorous (plant-eating) species is best for you. If you have limited space (apartment, small areas), then an iguana or other large species isn’t for you. Keeping things like this in mind can help guide your decision — research where you plan to purchase your lizard carefully. Many stores sell animals that are too young, already sick, have intestinal parasites, and more. Read reviews and ensure you choose a reputable store or breeder. Further, once purchasing your lizard, take it for a vet visit within a day or two to make sure it is healthy, that you have all the information you need on how to care for it, and that you know what is in store.

Lizard health: tips for proactive pet care

Reptiles are very different from mammals, not just in appearance, personalities, and their interactions with humans but in how they maintain body temperature and demonstrate signs of illness.

Lizards are cold-blooded

Signs of sick lizards are much less evident than in mammals. Reptiles are cold-blooded animals (ectotherms), while mammals are warm-blooded. They rely on the outside temperature to aid in regulating their body’s temperature and daily functions. This means that the sun or a heat source you provide them is necessary to help keep their bodies functioning optimally. However, as a result, they are much more sensitive to slight variations in temperature and humidity changes and require a very well-controlled environment to maintain well-being.

Ectotherms, like lizards, require access to varying temperature extremes within one enclosure. They need basking spots such as heated rocks or heat lamps and cool areas with shade. Sometimes, heating pads with auto shutoff in case of emergency might be used partly under an aquarium/tank to provide additional heat support. Humidifiers in the rooms may be needed for some species to get them to the proper levels within the room. Others may require frequent misting with a water bottle or similar means.

Note that the temperatures you are comfortable with aren’t always what the lizard needs, so you want to ensure you have a dedicated room with an enclosure that has the perfect environment for them.

Lizard habitats

Husbandry refers to the management of animals and includes regulating their environment (housing, light/dark cycle, temperature regulation, substrate, and more), food, water, and, for some, breeding. All of these factors interplay in how a species thrives and vary from one species to another. There is no one-size-fits-all lizard tank or enclosure.

While it depends on the lizard, key things to keep in mind when developing a lizard’s habitat include:

  • Light-dark cycle regulation. Most species require some degree of light and darkness to thrive.
  • Thermoregulation. Heating pads under the tank, lamps over the tank, and rocks in the tank are recommended, as lizards need an optimal range of temperatures and minimal and maximum temperatures within the same tank throughout the day.
  • Sunlight/UV-B light. Lizards are primarily insectivorous and, like geckos, eat insects. Omnivorous (eat plants/animals), like bearded dragons, and those that eat only plants (herbivorous), like iguanas, require supplemental UV-B light (artificial sunlight). Most carnivores, like the monitor lizard, do not. However, it will not hurt monitors to receive it.
  • Proper nutrition. Know if the species eats plants, insects, small mammals, or a combination. Feeding correctly is crucial to maintaining health.
  • Substrate. These coverings should be non-abrasive, easily disposed of, cost-effective, and non-toxic. Always avoid cedar shavings, as they are toxic. Paper-based products are the safest.
  • Humidity and ventilation. High humidity in species not accustomed to it can predispose to skin infections, while suboptimal humidity can cause dryness and shedding problems.
  • Fresh, good quality, clean water. Always make certain your pet has fresh water 24/7. This includes drinking water and water used for soaking.
  • Sanitation. How frequently you are willing to clean out the enclosure can impact the pet’s health.
  • Environmental enrichment. Things like trees, rocks, hiding spots, burrows, and even toys improve health.

Many feel that a small aquarium or tank is sufficient for their lizard. However, lizards generally grow to the size their enclosure permits relative to the species' maximum size capability. This is especially true with larger reptiles, such as iguanas. What lizard tank you choose will vary with the species, size, and habits. Do the research for each pet, as they all have different requirements.

The minimum enclosure size for lizards should be three times their body length. Most people do not realize this and keep lizards in too small a space, contributing to shorter lifespans and illness.

How to tell if a lizard is ill

First, you must know what is normal to tell if a lizard is ill. However, what is normal for one species may be abnormal for another. Thus, it is necessary to know and understand the specifics of your type of lizard. Good resources include The Merck Veterinary Manual, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), and Melissa Kaplan’s Herp Care Collection at https://anapsid.org.

Understanding lizard body language: signs of distress or illness

Sick lizard symptoms vary depending on the species, illness, duration of the problem, age of the animals, and other factors. Most diseases in captive-bred species result from poor household management strategies such as diet, habitat, temperature, and other environmental factors.

Lizards and other reptiles hide illness very well. Often, symptoms do not appear until they have been sick for a while. While mammals will manifest with a fever, this doesn’t work in reptiles because their temperature depends on the environment. However, when sick, they often seek out warmer areas.

6 additional lizard health indicators that may suggest impending illness include:

  1. Lack of appetite. Lizards typically have great appetites. Never wait until your lizard isn’t eating because it has been sick for a long time.
  2. Fewer lizard droppings. What does lizard poop look like? It combines a white portion (urates, similar to urine in mammals) and a green to brown part (feces). Decreased stool may occur with changes in appetite, constipation, or underlying disease.
  3. Weight loss. Detecting weight loss is difficult for small species. However, you may see thinning of the tail or more easily see or feel the ribs. The minute you think there is loss, seek veterinary care.
  4. Decreased activity/weakness. Healthy lizards are active, moving from rock to rock, branch to branch, climbing and changing locations, and eating well. Sick lizard symptoms may include remaining in one place or hiding for hours. If weak, they may be unable to walk but crawl around on their bellies. Changes in weather/climate/seasonal changes may cause subtle changes in activity with your pet, but when in doubt, have your pet evaluated by a vet.
  5. Dyscedysis. Abnormal shedding or failure to shed dead skin can occur due to underlying wounds, trauma, infections, dehydration, poor/unbalanced diet, poor husbandry, improper temperature and humidity, parasites, lack of UV-B light, stress, and systemic disease (e.g., kidney). Lizards will often retain pieces about the tail and toes.
  6. Additional symptoms. We may also see abnormal discharge from the eyes, nose, or mouth or behavioral changes, including changes in the normal sleep-wake cycle. We can see sunken eyes, a sign of dehydration, a more advanced development, or secondary to muscle loss around the eyes. Those who eat live prey may be unable to catch them if they become blind, are too weak, or have mouth problems.

Common signs of illness in pet lizards are non-specific, but when present, tell you that your pet is sick. The only way to answer “Why is my lizard not eating?” or “Why is my lizard not moving but breathing?” is to have your pet evaluated by a veterinarian.

Common diseases seen in lizards may include malnutrition (poor diets, lack of calcium and other nutrients), wounds/trauma, parasites, oral disease (e.g., stomatitis), failure to shed properly (due to numerous causes), and more. The majority of ailments in our pet lizards arise due to improper diet, poor habitats, and lack of UV-B light and become serious suddenly because they are very good at hiding signs of illness.

When do I go to the vet?

When to seek veterinary care for a sick lizard depends on numerous factors, including the animal's symptoms, how long they have been present, and whether they are emergencies.

Emergency care should be sought if your lizard becomes burned from a heat source, falls and is not using a limb, or receives a bite from live prey. Further, since reptiles show signs much later than our furry friends, if you notice behavioral changes, including if your lizard won’t eat or has decreased eating, fewer droppings, or just not moving much, it is better to seek care immediately than to wait.

For the lizard who has slightly decreased droppings and didn’t fully shed all the skin this go-round, try soaking them in water a few times a day or misting them. If this doesn’t improve their clinical picture, then seek care. Sadly, there isn’t much you can do at home to treat a sick lizard. Getting a veterinarian’s opinion is ideal as they can help you evaluate the pet’s environment, diet, and other factors to ensure optimal health.

If your lizard starts showing signs of trouble breathing — it is often too late. However, seek care immediately if they are stretching out their necks to try to breathe, holding their elbows out to the sides stretching, or collapsing and aren’t getting up.

Veterinarians recommend annual visits for routine veterinary care, even for pet lizards. However, you will have to call around to veterinarians in your area and see who will see exotics. Not all vets are comfortable with lizards, have staff trained to work with them, or have the medications available that they may need.

Can I get pet insurance for my lizard?

Veterinarians recommend pet insurance for any pet. However, while the options for dogs and cats continue to grow exponentially, few offer plans that cover exotic species (reptiles, small mammals, and birds). Nationwide and PetAssure Wellness plans are currently the only companies that provide exotic insurance overtly.

Tips for preventive care: monitoring lizard health

Getting a pet lizard isn’t a choice to take lightly. Reptiles are not low-maintenance pets. While lizards can make good pets for the right people, they require a lot of work, a keen understanding of lizard body language, and an ability to recognize illness in pet lizards.

Annual well-exam visits with a veterinarian, while lizards do not require vaccinations, can go a long way to prevent disease and catch problems before they become too advanced. Vet care isn’t cheap, however, so consider pet insurance to help cover the cost.

For the lizard who has slightly decreased droppings and didn’t fully shed all the skin this go-round, try soaking them in water a few times a day or misting them. If this doesn’t improve their clinical picture, then seek care. Sadly, there isn’t much you can do at home to treat a sick lizard. Getting a veterinarian’s opinion is ideal as they can help you evaluate the pet’s environment, diet, and other factors to ensure optimal health.

Seek veterinary care if your lizard has changes in droppings, decreased appetite, fails to catch prey, is limping, is having trouble shedding normally, or other signs develop. Remember, reptiles hide illness, often until they are very sick. So, subtle changes, like just a slight decrease in stool quantity, a smidge less energy, or seeking out heat more than normal, may indicate a problem is brewing, and you should see a veterinarian. If it is on an emergency basis, call ahead because not all emergency rooms will see exotics. Still, knowing your lizard and what is normal will help you identify a problem early and seek the care the pet needs.

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