Impaction in Bearded Dragons. What It is and What to Do About It.

In Care by Tim Steward

Last updated on May 10th, 2021 at 12:54 pm

One of the many things we love about owning a bearded dragon is that they are very hardy animals. Get a few things right and they are happy and healthy and overall great pets. So when Bacardi, our beardie, hadn’t pooped for a few days, we started to get worried.

One of the few health concerns bearded dragon owners need to be concerned with is impaction. A close cousin of constipation, but quite a bit more serious, impaction is something all bearded dragon owners should know about. Sheesh, we never thought we’d ever pay such close attention to how much another living thing poops!

Impaction happens when a bearded dragon’s digestive tract is blocked. Common causes are substrate or undigested food. Symptoms include mobility issues, weight loss, and bulging along their spine. Because impaction can result in death, suspected impaction should always receive veterinary attention.

Knowing how to recognize and react to a possible impaction is something all bearded dragon owners should be able to do.

How to know when there is a problem

There are two types of signs that your beardie may have a problem. First are physical symptoms. Things you can see simply by looking at them.

When our beardie got sluggish and hid, we were worried about a possible impaction.

Second, are behavioral symptoms. The better you know your beardie, the easier these are to recognize.

The following signs and symptoms could indicate that your beardie is impacted. But they could also be explained by a number of other things. It’s important to look at the situation as a whole before making a determination.

A best practice is to see a vet if you are at all unsure. A qualified herp vet will be able to properly diagnose and treat your bearded dragon a lot quicker than you can.

That said, we don’t want to have to rush to the vet every time there is the slightest problem. As responsible owners, we should know our scaly little friends well enough to figure out what may or may not be causing their symptoms.

Keep an eye out for these things. Make note of them. Monitor your beardie closely if you suspect a problem. We’ve listed several possible treatments you can try towards the end of this article before seeing a vet.

Again, it’s better to consult a vet sooner than later. We can’t emphasize this enough. But if you catch a possible impaction (or constipation, a different problem) early, you can often take care of it at home relatively easily without having to go to the vet.

Physical Signs of Impaction in a bearded dragon

  • Trouble walking (stiff or awkward gait)
  • Shaky or immobile rear legs (possibly dragging them around instead of using them to walk)
  • Weight loss
  • Unhealthy appearance
  • Tender belly
  • Lumps between spinal sections
  • Bulge at the point of impaction

Behaviors that can indicate an impaction in a bearded dragon:

  • Regurgitating their food
  • Loss of appetite
  • Rejecting food completely
  • Lethargy (moving slower than normal)
  • Lack of activity (not moving at all)
  • Not defecating on their normal schedule
  • Not defecating for several weeks or more
  • Straining when trying to defecate

Why do these symptoms occur?

For milder cases of impaction, it’s simply uncomfortable. Imagine if you had a large, hard, undigested lump stuck in your gut! You wouldn’t want to eat either. You also wouldn’t want to be very active.

An impaction causes a good deal of discomfort for your beardie. For us, this is one of the most important reasons to catch it early. The thought of our beardie laying around in pain is hard for us to imagine.

We want to do everything we can to make sure she is happy and healthy and feeling great all the time.

Serious impactions do much more than make your beardie uncomfortable. They can cause serious physical problems and even death.

A bearded dragon does not have much protection around its spinal cord. They don’t have discs as humans do. This leaves their nervous system vulnerable.

When an impaction gets large, it can press on these exposed nerves. This then causes them to lose some or all control of their rear legs. If your beardie is having trouble walking, is shaking, has trembling or non-mobile rear legs, or other similar symptoms, seek a vet immediately!

Constipation or impaction?

These are similar problems, but not the same. Both can cause similar symptoms. Both can be treated in similar ways. But they are different and it’s important to know exactly how they differ.

Xray of an impaction from sand

An impaction is when there is an undigestible mass present in your beardie’s digestive tract. It can be made of non-organic material like sand or rocks. It can also consist of organic material that your beardie can’t digest like insect exoskeleton, bark, or pieces of organic substrate.

This mass becomes hard and clumps together to the point where it simply cannot be passed or digested. It stays stuck inside your beardie growing with time and causing increasing discomfort and progressively worse symptoms.

Constipation is when your beardie is not defecating because they are having trouble digesting the contents of their gut. Maybe they ate too much. Maybe their basking spot isn’t hot enough and they are having trouble digesting. Maybe they are dehydrated. As with people, there can be many causes of constipation.

Both mild impactions and constipation can be treated at home in pretty much the same way. Severe impactions do not respond to those at home treatments and require veterinary care.

How often should my bearded dragon poop?

Healthy adult bearded dragons poop once every 1-2 weeks. Babies and juveniles will often poop every day. It’s not uncommon for some bearded dragons to go as long as 3 between poops, but anything longer than 3 weeks could be a sign of impaction or other health issues and should prompt a call to your vet.

As with most things, this will vary wildly from animal to animal. Our beardie used to go once a day like clockwork. These days it’s more like once a week.

Bacardi’s “I need to poop” face.

This sometimes changes if she is being a picky eater, but we can count on her going regularly. If it’s been more than a week, we start to get a little concerned.

Other bearded dragons can go several weeks between bowel movements. This will be their normal and for these beardies, it’s not a concern when they don’t go for days at a time.

You’ll get to know your beardie and their patterns. It’s a deviation from this known pattern that should cause increased attention. I wouldn’t panic right away, but it’s important to be aware of what’s going on so you can look for early signs of impaction.

As a general rule, hatchlings should poop about once a day. Adults over a year will average once every 2-3 days to a week. As I noted above, there is usually no cause for concern with an adult dragon who goes at least once per week.

Activity level will also impact frequency. The more active your beardie is, the more often they will go as activity aids in digestion.

The 5 most common causes of impaction

There are 5 common causes of impaction in bearded dragons. Knowing them will help you prevent an impaction in the first place. And that’s always the best approach to a potential problem!

Improper substrate

This is probably the most hotly debated topic among bearded dragon owners. I’ve written a very thorough review of the most popular substrates that you can see here (article coming soon).

In the end, some bearded dragons will eat their substrate and it will cause a problem. Make sure you are acutely aware of the pros and cons of your substrate of choice.

Eating insects with hard to digest exoskeletons

Some feeder insects like super worms, crickets, and mealworms have very hard to digest exoskeletons. Feeding your beardie too many of these types of insects can cause an impaction. This is one of many reasons we choose to feed our beardie dubia roaches as our feeder insect of choice.

superworms
The exoskeletons of superworms can be hard to digest

Eating insects that are too big to digest

We put together a nice overview of the proper food size for your beardie that you can read here. In the end, never feed your bearded dragon food that is larger than the space between their eyes. Doing this can quickly lead to an impaction.

Basking temperatures that are too low

Your bearded dragon cannot create its own body heat. Heat is critical to proper digestion. This is why your beardie basks. If you don’t provide a hot enough basking area, they won’t be able to digest their food.

Not sure what a good basking temp is? You can reference our article here for everything you need to know!

Eating random things when out of their tank

To see all the foods you can and can’t feed a bearded dragon, make sure and check out our complete bearded dragon food list with 237 different foods listed. We’ll show you what’s safe, what’s not, and what the healthiest food choices are for your beardie!!!

This may sound odd, but if you’ve let your bearded dragon explore areas outside their enclosure, you’ve probably noticed that they will sometimes try to eat anything and everything they run into that fits in their mouth. Be cautious when letting your dragon explore and always keep a close eye on them!

If you can avoid problems from the above 5 possible causes, you will most likely never have to worry about an impaction in your bearded dragon!

Treating an impaction

If you notice your beardie is off their defecation schedule by more than a day or two, there are several at-home remedies you can try to “move things along”.

Check your basking temps

As noted above, a basking area that is too cool prevents proper digestion. Since your basking bulb will lose power over time, it’s really important to check the temps regularly.

The best way to do this is with a temp gun.

Thermometers are nice and give a general reading, but nothing will give you an accurate basking area temperature like a temp gun. Since a difference of even a few degrees can have an effect, it’s important to be accurate here.

Temp guns are not expensive. You don’t need a crazy high-end laser unit. We’ve used this basic one we bought on Amazon for years and it works great! A temp gun is a must-have for any beardie owner.

Warm baths

As we noted in our complete guide to beardie bath time, one of the ways to get your beardie to poop is to put them in a warm bath. Typically a water temperature of about 100℉ (38℃) will do (here’s another great use for your temp gun!).

Many beardies prefer to poop in the bath. This makes cleanup easier on you and keeps their enclosure that much cleaner. Take advantage of this fact if your beardie is off of their defecation schedule.

Baths should be a regular part of your weekly care routine. They become even more important if your bearded dragon is constipated or impacted. If you are treating one of these conditions, try to make the baths last 20-30 minutes.

Over that time, also make sure to add warm water every so often and keep the water temperature consistent. What starts at a 100℉ (38℃) bath can quickly become far too cold for your beardie if you are not careful.

Massage

While they are in their bath, there are two types of massage you can try. Try the more gentle one first before moving on the second kind.

First, you can gently stroke the side of your beardie. Do this in the direction of head to tail. Don’t press too hard, but you can try to move things along a little.

Be very careful with techniques like this. It is very easy to push too hard and harm your bearded dragon. This is even more important when dealing with an impaction that may already be pressing on their spine or other internal organs.

We use a soft bristle toothbrush to massage our beardie in the bath

If rubbing their sides doesn’t work, try gently massaging their abdomen. Do this in a downward motion from their chest towards their vent. You can press a little harder than the side stroke, but again, BE GENTLE!

Repeated downward strokes can help move things along in their digestive tract. Doing this in the bath in combination with the warm water can be very effective.

Don’t be surprised at the amount of feces that comes out if this method works. If they’ve been backed up for a while, there is a lot in there to clear out.

An important note for either type of massage is to keep your beardie upright. Don’t turn them on their side or back to perform these massages. They should be fully supported underneath and not laying awkwardly.

Beardies have a very hard time breathing when on their backs, so it’s important not to put them on their backs for any length of time. Simply scoop your fingers underneath them as they stand in the bath and massage from there.

Fruit

Fruit is a natural and fast-acting laxative for bearded dragons. Giving them small amounts of fruit will often help them clear a minor impaction or some constipation fairly quickly.

While we don’t have any hard and fast evidence of what fruit works best, there is more than enough anecdotal evidence to point you towards one of three fruit sources reported to effectively help your beardie defecate.

The most popular seems to be pumpkin. You can get this in a can or in pureed baby food form. Make sure any fruit you give your beardie is 100% organic and has no additives.

The next most popular is either apple or prune. Again in pureed baby food form. There are numerous reports of these working. They are also tasty enough to tempt your bearded dragon to actually eat them.

These come in handy when feeding your beardie baby food or pureed fruit.

We have had great luck with both baby applesauce as well as watermelon. Watermelon by far worked the best and is now our go to fruit when Bacardi, our bearded dragon, hasn’t pooped in a while.

This brings us to the challenge of this type of home treatment. When a beardie is impacted or constipated, they often will refuse to eat. When this is the case, it can be very hard to get them to eat the above mentioned fruit that will help them.

This is a big part of the reason for recommending pureed baby food versions of these fruits. With this type of consistency, you can place a small amount on your beardie’s nose. They will typically lick it off, even if they don’t want to eat.

This cleaning off of their nose is a natural reflex and even the most obstinate beardie has been known to take in fruit this way.

Be patient

It may take several tries. Another tip is to use a small syringe (no needle of course) so you can accurately squirt a little of the baby food right on the tip of their nose or even directly into their mouth!

If they still aren’t pooping, take them to the vet. Do this sooner than later. You are better safe than sorry. Many times a mild impaction can be treated with non-invasive methods. Once an impaction reaches a serious level, surgery may be required.

If you get them to the vet, impaction can be an unpleasant experience that ends well. If you wait too long, it may not end as well. While we’ve given you a lot of things to try, it’s important to act fast if you think there is a problem.

The importance of seeing a vet increases with the seriousness of their symptoms. Not pooping for a few days or weeks is a minor symptom that deserves your attention. Regurgitating their food, dragging their legs, and not moving are much more serious symptoms that require immediate veterinary care.

Beardies are easy to care for

If you get just a few things right, bearded dragons are awesome pets that are easy to care for and will live happily for years. That said, they rely on their owners to act if there is something wrong.

Check in with your beardie a couple of times a day. Get to know their habits and routines. Be quick to notice when they deviate from this and try to figure out why. With a little care and attention from you, your beardie should live a happy and healthy life!

Related questions:

Why is my beardie’s poop runny?

This is usually caused by certain foods, usually fruit. Try varying their diet and paying attention to what foods change the consistency of their feces. You should notice a direct correlation.

Can some foods cause constipation more than others?

Yes! This will vary from beardie to beardie. For our beardie, Bacardi, we’ve noticed that too many roaches in one sitting will cause her not to poop for a couple of days. We now limit how many she gets in a feeding and don’t have that problem anymore!

Can I take my beardie to any vet?

Unfortunately, no. A regular vet clinic will not be versed in proper reptile care. They will also not have the proper medicine and equipment on hand to treat a bearded dragon. Take some time now and find a herp vet (herpetologist) in your area. A quick search on Google should be a great start. Check out our full article on vet care here!

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