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What is impaction?
Impaction is a condition where a bearded dragon's digestive tract is blocked by a solid or semi-solid mass.
Causes of Impaction
This condition may be caused by several things. One possible cause is if a bearded dragon is permitted to eat food items that are too large to properly move through their digestive tract. The best prevention for this is to remember that a good rule of thumb for determining the right size for food items, is that any item fed should be smaller in size than the space between your bearded dragon's eyes.
Also, some food items may not be easily digestible, particularly, feeder insects with hard chitin shells, such as large crickets, mealworms, or superworms. Feeding insects such as these to your bearded dragon (especially those who are not yet adults) puts them at an increased risk of developing an impaction.
Another problem related to feeding, is that a bearded dragon needs appropriate temperatures in order to digest their food. As a general rule, the surface on which a bearded dragon basks, following a meal, should be maintained at a temperature between 100 to 115 degrees, in order for them to digest their food properly. If a bearded dragon is fed a food item that is difficult to digest, and is not provided with the proper temperatures in order for him to digest that food, this may also place him at an increased risk for impaction.
Another major contributor to impaction is the ingestion of substrate. Many particulate substrates can pose a risk. In many cases, Calci-Sand has been reported to have caused impaction. However, it is not alone; any type of pellets (such as Rabbit Pellets), pebble-like substrates, and several dried plant-based substrates are also known to present a high risk. Play sand can also cause impaction if it is ingested on a regular basis, or if a great deal of it is ingested at one time.
The packaging of many substrates claim that they are completely digestible. However, please be very wary of claims from the manufacturers of these products. Unlike products for human consumption or use, the safety of products used for our pets is under no such regulation.
Before trusting a substrate, do some research to discover what those with lots of personal experience think about it. Many calcium-based substrates (including, but not limited to Calci-Sand) not only claim that their substrate is digestible, but also claim that it is beneficial for your bearded dragon's health if they do ingest it, because it is a source of calcium for them. However, a bearded dragon may be inclined to eat more of this substrate than is good for them, if they feel a need for additional calcium in their diet. And they are NOT digestible, as they claim. Combine the difficulty of digestion with the increased likelihood of ingestion, and you may have yourself a very sick bearded dragon.
How will I know my bearded dragon is impacted?
There are a few signs that you may notice. One of the first indications is that your beardie will stop going to the bathroom regularly. Typically, your beardie will have a bowel movement (i.e. poop) once a day. Now this is not a hard and fast rule, since every bearded dragon is different, but if your bearded dragon has not moved his bowels in a couple days, and is not acting like his normal self, be sure to pay attention. This may be an indication that something is serious going on.
An indicator of a more serious issue could be partial paralysis. Typically, a beardie's hind legs will seem to have less mobility, and often drag as your beardie moves. If you see this happening, it could be that he has an impaction. Of course it may be something other than impaction as well, but it's definitely a problem that needs your immediate attention.
Another sign, often accompanied with the paralysis mentioned above, is a bump or lump along the back, near the spine. Like the paralysis, this is usually an indication of a more serious problem and should be cared for immediately.