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Keeping Your Lizard Healthy

By: R.D. and Patti Bartlett

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Health for a captive animal is much easier to maintain than it is to restore. If you want a healthy lizard, start with a healthy lizard. Don't buy one that lies listlessly on the bottom of the cage or one with protruding hipbones or one that has a thin body but whose legs are chubby. Any lizards with these symptoms has serious long-term health problems that will probably kill the animal before any medication or dietary rehab can have any effect.

For lizards, there's a simple checklist to follow before you consider any purchase or acquisition. Just because a lizard is free doesn't lessen your responsibility toward it.

What Are Your Circumstances?

First of all, look at yourself and your circumstances. Are you willing to provide everything the lizard needs in terms of food and housing throughout its life, which may be 20 years?

Now look at the lizard:

  • Is the lizard alert?
  • Is the lizard feeding and can you easily provide that same diet?
  • Is the lizard's skin healthy and free from lesions?
  • Are the limbs strong and not swollen?

    If the answer to all these questions is "yes," then by all means go ahead. Set up your lizard's housing, get a supply of food and then go out and acquire him (or her). Lizards are fascinating animals, each displaying not only its species' behaviors (i.e., iguanas climb and eat greens) but individual quirks as well. (My "new" adult male iguana likes day-old bread and really likes turnip greens and peanut butter sandwiches).

    Some lizards become tame, such as bearded dragons, which will readily climb onto your arm when you open their cage. Some quiet down, such as veiled chameleons, which will allow themselves to be picked up without displaying distress coloration. A few, such as racerunners and whiptails, will probably always blast into their hiding areas when you open the cage, even when you arrive bearing tender food morsels like trevo worms.

    What If Something Goes Wrong?

    Suppose you choose a lizard that appears healthy, eats readily, but one day the lizard somehow looks a little "off." The next day, its behavior changes. Where once it waited for its meal at the front of its cage, it remains in its hidebox, emerging to feed in limited amounts (you think) when the house is quiet. Perhaps the animal becomes sluggish and keeps its eyes closed, even during the times of day it was once active. Or the animal suddenly isn't interested in food, although the cage temperatures are right and you haven't altered the diet. Or your lizard's eyes seem swollen, and its breathing is labored. What's gone wrong? How can you ID the problem and correct it?

    Group Dynamics

    Check the basic parameters again. Look at group dynamics. Is your lizard one in a group of lizards? In the small confines of a cage, each lizard's need for a territory of his or her own may come to the fore, and not all lizards will have a chance to claim his own turf. In particular, a male lizard without territory is an intruder on another lizard's territory. Failure to feed is a typical symptom of territory infringement. The answer? Give each lizard its own cage or maintain lizards in groups of one male and no more than two females.

    The Need For Proper Lighting

    Does your lizard have access to UV light? A lizard needs warmth to stimulate the digestive system into functioning (during cold spells, digestion stops), but your lizard also needs UV light to regulate activity levels, stimulate alertness and trigger the transformation of vitamins into usable compounds.

    Like people, lizards need more than vitamins to be healthy. Lizards need UV light in order to metabolize the vitamins in their diet. Sunlight is the best source of UV, but there are light bulbs readily available that provide UV light. You may opt for an older fluorescent light or a newer incandescent bulb that gives off heat as well as UV.

    Stress and Parasites

    Was your lizard subjected to stress during capture or in the pet store before you bought it? In the wild, essentially all lizards have a number of parasites that for them are normal and acceptable. Indeed, we are only beginning to learn of the intricate ballet between what we call parasites and their hosts. (In iguanas, the huge numbers of nematodes found in the gut may actually serve as a digestive "churner," enabling the body to extract more value from the food with less effort on the body's part.)

    In captivity, the system of checks and balances between a host and its internal parasites is disrupted, and what had been gentle co-dwellers can become strength-sappers. When your lizard appears listless, a stool specimen should be analyzed to check parasite types and numbers. Your veterinarian can identify the parasites in your lizard's stool, determine if the parasite load is excessive, and prescribe medication if necessary. Remember that the goal is more to reduce the number of parasites, not to eliminate them entirely.

    Respiratory Problems

    A lizard that breathes through its open mouth is having problems in absorbing enough oxygen through its lungs, so it's trying to increase the amount of oxygen flowing across the lungs. Your lizard may have a respiratory infection caused by bacteria or virus or by a sudden decrease in cage temperature that in turn allowed fluid to pool in the lungs. (When temperatures drop, your lizard literally cannot move its muscles. The impaired muscle function includes a slowed respiration rate.)

    You can ease the animal's distress by elevating cage temperature to 90 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit for a few days. Nights should be cooler, but not below 80 degrees. At these temperatures your lizard's metabolism is at its peak level and can work to fight off the infection or to clear the fluids from the lungs. If your lizard isn't better in a few days of elevated temperatures, talk to your veterinarian.

    Watch For Swollen Eyes

    Swollen eyes usually indicate a vitamin deficiency. If your lizard is insectivorous, have you offered vitamin and mineral dusted crickets twice weekly? If your lizard is herbivorous, have you added just a pinch of vitamin/mineral powder weekly?

    Lizards that consume other animals usually eat the entire animal, and as a result garner complete nutrition from their diet. But caging – and the absence of UV light – may affect a lizard's ability to fully metabolize its diet. Diets high in fat have been implicated in lipid deposits in the corneas.

    If a possible reason for the swollen eyes doesn't seem obvious, then take your lizard to your veterinarian. The eye problem could also be caused by vitamin overdosing (hypervitaminosis) or too intense lighting with no hiding area.

    The Need for Calcium

    Lack of UV lighting and a lack of vitamin D can result in metabolic bone disease, which is commonly called MBD. This is essentially the reptilian equivalent of rickets. All reptiles need a certain level of calcium in the blood to maintain blood functions. When the diet doesn't supply enough calcium, calcium is leeched out of the reptile's bones to supplement the decreased blood levels. As a result, the bones weaken.

    To compensate for this, the body tries to strengthen those bones by adding fibrous tissue around them, rather like scaffolding. But the bones are still weakened and break easily. Normal activity, like a short drop to the substrate, may break leg bones. The lizard may not look ill; in fact, its legs may seem chubbier than ever, and that's your clue. A lizard with a thin to normal body and chubby legs is in big trouble. Once diagnosed, UV light and dietary vitamin supplementation may correct the condition over time. Far better is calcium and vitamin injections from your veterinarian, along with the husbandry corrections to shore up the body's failing skeletal and circulatory systems before death occurs.

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