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Health Supportive Care During Parasite Treatment

Written by Denise R. Bushnell in June, 2005
Last updated in May, 2008


As those of you who own Bearded Dragons are probably already aware, Bearded Dragons are extremely hardy lizards, when they are provided with the proper temperatures and UVB lighting in their environment. However, they are also pets who do their best to hide their symptoms from us when they become ill, as do most other reptiles. This is no doubt an instinctual behavior, since a sick beardie, in the wild, would no doubt not live for very long.

Fortunately, those that we are lucky enough to have as pets don’t have to fend for themselves. Because of this, we need to be very aware of what is normal behavior for each of our particular dragons, and what is not. An alert eye can generally spot a problem long before it becomes a major concern. Particular attention should be paid to each dragon’s eating habits, and the amounts that they usually eat, as well as what is the norm as far as how often they present us with bowel movements, and what they usually look like, when they do. Attention should also be paid to the amount of urates that are passed within the bowel movements, as a change in this can be a sign of kidney problems, particularly as they age.

For those of you who purchased your dragons from a pet shop, unfortunately you may have gotten more than the one living thing that you paid for.....there is a better than 50% chance that your dragon may be carrying some type of intestinal parasite, particularly if they were being housed with other dragons, and the conditions that they were being kept in were not exactly as clean as you would have liked. They may be infested with coccidia, roundworms, pinworms, hookworms, or numerous other pests. If you should buy from a reputable breeder, this is much less likely to be the case, but even then, it is possible. For this reason, once you have had your dragon for two weeks, you should make it a point to have him or her seen by a reputable vet, who is well versed in the care of reptiles, and take in a stool sample for testing. Give your dragon at least two weeks to settle in, unless it is apparent that they are ill, as when they are stressed, their parasite count , particularly their coccidia count, may be higher than normal.

Coccidia is a microscopic parasite that all dragons normally have in their intestinal tract, in small amounts. This is a normal occurrence, both in the wild, and in beardies being kept in captivity. A minimal coccidia count is usually not troublesome in a healthy dragon. Their immune systems are able to keep the amount of coccidia in their systems in check, so that they don’t become sick from them.

However, one of the things that can cause a dragon’s immune system to stop working properly is stress. And, unfortunately, when you bring your beardie home with you, no matter where you get him from, or how much you fuss over him, he is going to suffer from relocation stress for at least a week or two. Bearded Dragons are creatures of habit, and are very sensitive to changes in their environment. Nearly all of them suffer from relocation stress, to some degree, and as a result, their coccidia counts will become higher than normal. This is why you should give your dragon a couple of weeks to settle into his new home, before having his stool sample checked. Once the stress disappears, and he begins to relax and feel at home, his immune system will kick into play again, and, if coccidia is the only parasite present, his immune system will bring the coccidia levels back down to a normal level without having to medicate him.

However, if other parasites are present, that will also make their coccidia count higher, and your dragon cannot get rid of these types of parasites on his own. Leaving them untreated for a long period of time can cause serious illness, lasting problems with his digestive system, or even death.

All parasites survive in your dragon’s digestive tract by existing on the food that your dragon eats. They take in the nutrients from the food that your dragon needs to grow and remain healthy. Some parasites, such as hookworms, will even burrow into the walls of your dragon’s intestines, and lay eggs there, which will hatch and feed on his blood. A severe infestation of parasites can not only starve your dragon of the nutrients that he needs, but can also make him anemic, if left unchecked. The symptoms that he suffers are not pleasant.....he will probably have diarrhea, stomach pain, difficulty in digesting his food, and may even stop eating. His immune system will be busy trying to fight off the parasites, and he will become weak, making him susceptible to other infections. He will not grow as he should, nor will he gain weight as he grows. Parasites are not something that you can ignore, and can cause serious, and possibly lasting, problems if left unchecked.

Coccidia are not considered as serious as many of the other possible parasites, as, since they are microscopic, they don’t consume as many nutrients from your dragon, when they are only present in small numbers. However, they too can cause the same problems as other sorts of parasites do, if their numbers become too high. Sometimes, the few coccidia that are normally present will rise to levels that your dragon’s immune system cannot handle on its own. At that point, you will need to medicate him, in order to bring the levels back down to where they belong.

Depending upon the type of parasite that your dragon is harboring in his digestive tract, his vet will usually prescribe some type of deworming medication, and/or an antibiotic to kill off the parasite. Three of the ones more commonly used are Albon, Panacur or Metronidazole (also known as Flagyl or MTZ). These are given by mouth, and are in liquid form.

Unfortunately, these medications, along with a few others, not only kill the parasites and/or the coccidia, but they also kill off all the good bacteria in your dragon’s digestive tract. The medications are necessary, and they do, in most cases, rid your dragon of the parasites, but they usually cause a whole new set of problems instead. This is a case where the cure can do nearly as much damage as the illness itself, without your providing the right sort of supportive care.

Antibiotics and worming medications will totally destroy the good bacteria in a beardie’s digestive tract. These good bacteria are what cause your beardie to feel hunger, and they also help him to digest his food. Because of this, once the good bacteria are destroyed, dragons will often go without eating for so long that they can become extremely undernourished and very weak. If every time someone wanted you to eat, you already felt full, and every time you ate, you got diarrhea or terrible pains in your stomach, I'm sure you wouldn't want to eat either! That's the bad news........the good news is that there are ways that you can help!

There are two products that you can purchase, which will assist you in helping your pet to return to the best of good health. Neither is very expensive, and both will make a world of difference in his or her recuperation from their treatment with antibiotics or worming medications. In fact, I recommend that these two products be kept on hand at all times, if you keep beardies as pets, since you never know when you might need them.

First, I would recommend that you purchase a bottle of Pet Authority brand Acidophiliz+, which is a probiotic. If you can't locate this product at your local pet store, you can purchase it online at ReptileSupply.com. It is listed under supplements, and is about $6.00 a bottle. This is not a medication, but is a probiotic, which is a solution which will replace the good bacteria in your beardie's intestinal tract. After opening it, you must keep it in the refrigerator, or it will no longer be effective. The solution contains living bacteria which are beneficial to your dragon. While the bottle remains sealed, or is kept under refrigeration, the bacteria in the solution remain inert, and it is only when they are exposed to higher temperatures that they begin to grow. When they do become active, and start growing, they need to be in your dragon’s digestive tract in order to feed, or they will die in the bottle, and don’t do anyone any good. Therefore, be sure to keep the solution under refrigeration at all times after opening it.

The Acidophiliz cultures are also available at Health Food Stores, in powdered form, and may be taken by humans as well, and there is also another form of the same culture sold in Pet Stores under the name of Bene-Bac, which is sold for use on birds and other animals. In my opinion, however, these are not a good substitute for your dragon, unless you absolutely, positively cannot find Acidophiliz+, which is formulated exclusively for lizards and other reptiles.. The reasons that I don’t recommend these versions of the probiotic are very good ones.

First, since both of the versions mentioned above are for use with other animals, or with humans, and they aren’t formulated in liquid form, they are of a different concentration, and calculating the proper dosage for a lizard as small as a bearded dragon would be very difficult.

Secondly, the Pet Authority brand of Acidophiliz+ is made with numerous vitamins and minerals that are specifically needed by reptiles, and when your beardie isn’t eating properly already, due to his illness, these vitamins and minerals can be very beneficial for him.

Lastly, Acidophiliz+ is made with extracts of the Papaya and Yucca plants, which makes the liquid particularly palatable to your dragon’s taste buds. Most of them like the flavor of it, and once they taste it, will take it willingly from a dropper or from a feeding syringe. This is much easier on you, and much less stressful for your beardie, if you don’t have to force it down him every time you dose him with it.

The directions on the bottle will say to give 3 drops per day. For your purpose of use, with your bearded dragon, you can disregard those instructions. After being treated with antibiotics, they need a good jolt of it. Give a full dropperful, once a day, about 3 hours before your dragon’s bedtime. After you give him that dosage, he must be kept very warm for at least the next 8 hours. The bacteria in the solution need heat to seat themselves in his intestines and start to grow. While bearded dragons normally only require nighttime temperatures of around 65 degrees, and benefit from a cool down period while they sleep, when you are attempting to replace the good bacteria in their digestive tract, night time temperatures of only a few degrees cooler than their tanks are kept during the day, are much more beneficial for them. These increased overnight temperatures will allow the good bacteria to multiply much more quickly and effectively.

You can raise the temperature in their tanks, while they sleep, in several different ways. The easiest way is by purchasing a Ceramic Heat Emitter to use during the nighttime hours. This piece of equipment will screw into your dragon’s light fixture, in place of a bulb, and will supply him with heat during the overnight hours, without emitting light, which may keep him awake. These are very convenient, but they can be a bit pricey, usually running somewhere in the $30 to $40 range, which may be more than some people want to spend for something that they may only use when their beardie isn’t feeling well.

Another option is to purchase “black light” bulbs of the same watttages as his daytime bulbs, which should supply nearly the same amount of heat during the nighttime hours. It should be noted here that several companies do sell blue or red bulbs, which are classed as “night lights”, on the premise that reptiles cannot see red or blue light. This myth simply isn’t true, and you may find that using a red or blue “night light” bulb will disrupt your beardie’s sleep patterns, keeping him wide awake when he is ill, and needs his rest the most.

Another possible way to keep their overnight temperatures up, is to run an Under Tank Heating Pad. However, you need to be very careful, if you choose this method of providing adequate warmth for them while they sleep, as dragons cannot sense heat from below. Depending on what sort of substrate you use in the bottom of their tank or enclosure, this method can be extremely risky. For instance, if you use sand, paper towels, non-adhesive shelf liner, or any other sort of substrate that your dragon can burrow under, you run the risk of their becoming seriously burned if they should lay with their underside against the glass, directly over the heating pad. For this reason, this is definitely NOT the best way to provide overnight heat for them. It can be done, if you have a surface available on which you can place a thick bath towel, folded over several times, between the Under Tank Heating Pad and the glass bottom of the tank, but again, if you choose this way of providing heat, make sure to monitor the tank closely during the overnight hours, so that you don’t run the risk of starting a fire.

You should dose your dragon with the Acidopholiz+ and keep him overly warm, with temperatures of at least 80 degrees during the overnight hours every night for the entire time that you are dosing him with his medication, and for at least two weeks after he has finished it, in order to ensure that the good bacteria in his digestive tract have a chance to replenish themselves to an adequate level.

The timing of when you dose him with his medication, and when you dose him with the Acidophiliz+ is also very important during this time period. In order for the Acidophiliz+ to work as it should, you will need to leave at least a 6 hour window of time between the two.

I have tried several ways of doing this, and have found that the way that works best, is to give them their medication first thing in the morning, before leaving for work or school. You can leave food down for them as well, if you like, but the odds are that they probably won’t eat it.

When you return, in the evening, wait until about 3 hours before your dragon’s bedtime, and then give him his daily dose of the Acidophiliz+. Remember to give him a full dropper of it. The contents of the Acidophiliz+ are all natural, and there is no way that you can overdose them on it. Any of the solution that his body can’t utilize will simply pass through him and be expelled with his stool and urates.

After he’s taken the Acidophiliz+, wait about a half hour, to give the probiotic time to spread throughout his intestines, and then give him his large meal of the day. By doing this, you ensure that the good bacteria are in his digestive tract, and active before he eats, which will result in him being able to digest his food more efficiently. He will then have the overnight hours to completely digest his meal, before the meds kill off the good bacteria again in the morning, and you need to begin the cycle again.

Once he has finished all of his medication, then you have a little more freedom as to when you can give him the Acidophiliz+, as what you give him will remain in his digestive tract, and will not be killed off by the medication. In fact, you can actually give him the Acidophiliz+ about a half hour before you plan to give him food, even if you feed him more than once a day. It won’t hurt him, and will actually help his digestion. If he is eating for you, this can be discontinued about two weeks after he’s finished his meds.

If, during this treatment period, your dragon has stopped eating entirely, or if you are concerned that he is dropping too much weight, you can syringe feed him a formula which is super nourishing until he starts eating again on his own.

To make this formula, you will need to purchase a tube of "Jumpstart", which is a caloric supplement and reptile appetite stimulant that comes in a paste form. This product is made by Zilla Reptile, and can sometimes be difficult to find in Pet Stores. If you aren’t able to purchase it locally, you can purchase it online at ReptileSupply.com. It can be found under reptile appetite stimulants. This product was formerly manufactured by ESU Reptile, who have now sold the rights for it to Zilla.

Mix about a teaspoonful of the “Jumpstart” paste with a jar of Gerber #2 Chicken Baby Food, a pinch of your beardie’s vitamins and of his calcium supplement, and some Pedialyte (like you give small children when they have diarrhea). Mix everything up but the Pedialyte, and then add just enough Pedialyte so that it flows easily through the tip of the syringe. I would recommend using the Cherry or Orange flavored Pedialyte, since the unflavored Pedialyte tastes really unpleasant!

Try to get two or three teaspoonfuls of this formula into him at least once a day (or a smaller amount, if your dragon is still a small baby). This amount will provide him with the protein that he requires (from the baby food), and all the vitamins that he needs (from the Jumpstart) until he starts feeling better and begins to eat again on his own.

Once you have given the Acidopholiz+ for at least a week after your dragon has finished all of his medication, you should cut back the syringe feedings to every other day, or every third day. Always offer your dragon his normal food before syringe feeding him. Only syringe feed if he refuses to eat his regular food. The goal here is to get him to start eating his regular food, on his own, as soon as possible, which he won't be very likely to do if he is constantly filled up with formula.

Also, it should be noted that bearded dragons become very lazy and spoiled very quickly when being syringe fed. You may find that if you need to syringe feed for a very long period of time, your dragon will want you to continue doing so. Once he is well, and has gotten a clean fecal exam from your vet, STOP the syringe feeding, even if your dragon is refusing to eat on his own. When he gets hungry enough, he will eat. A healthy animal will not starve himself forever. They can quickly become little tyrants if you allow them to get away with this nonsense. Once your little one is well, don’t let him bully you into continuing to syringe feed him!

I have had first hand experience with these treatments, so I know that they work. When I got my first beardie, Charlie, in 2004, he became deathly sick, due to being kept in extremely unsanitary conditions at the pet store where I bought him. He looked chubby and healthy when I purchased him, but looks can be deceiving, especially if you are ignorant of the many types of parasites that can infect bearded dragons. He ate for the first two nights, but only a small amount, and after the third day refused to eat anything at all for the next 9-1/2 weeks. At first, I chalked up his lack of appetite to relocation stress, but after three weeks, it became really apparent that something was very wrong. As it turned out, a veterinary examination revealed that he was infested with both coccidia and hookworms, and over the long period of time that he had remained in the pet shop, without veterinary care, they had done a great deal of damage to his digestive tract.

Over a two week period, he was dosed with both Albon, which got rid of the coccidia, but not the hookworms, and then with Metronidazole, to kill off the hookworms. After three weeks, he finally showed a clear stool sample, but was still refusing to eat. By this time, he was 6 months old, and, at one point, his weight had dropped to only 48 grams. His vet actually told me to prepare myself for the fact that he probably was not going to recover from this, since he was so weak. This was not acceptable to me, and I refused to give up.

I began force feeding him the above formula that same night, and , in a few days, his condition began to improve. He seemed more alert, and was moving around more. He even looked better, since he was more hydrated from the Pedialyte. At his next vet visit, his weight had increased to 98 grams in only two weeks, which was definitely making him feel stronger, but he was still refusing to eat on his own.

It was at this point that I posted his case on BeardedDragon.org, and asked for help. Chris, one of the regulars on that forum at the time, responded to my cry for help, and told me about the Acidopholiz+, and how to use it. And, sure enough, in only 8 days, he was gobbling crickets like he was starving to death!

He is now a happy, healthy little man, at 4 years of age, and although he is still small for his age, his weight is now up to 280 grams and he is 16 inches long, even with a two inch tail nip. This isn’t too bad for a dragon who wasn’t expected, at one point, to make it through the night.

Because of the severity of Charlie’s hookworm infestation, and the fact that he had them for such a long period of time in the pet store, before I purchased him and had him treated, he will always have some digestive problems. His vet says that he no doubt has an enormous amount of scar tissue in his digestive tract from the damage that was done, since he was bleeding internally. He is a very picky eater, only eating small amounts at one time, and he is unable to have a bowel movement without being immersed in very warm water for 15-20 minutes. But he did survive! And I attribute that to the supportive care that I’ve described above, along with the fact that he never stopped fighting to live, once he knew that he was loved.

Hopefully, because of what I learned with Charlie, other beardies will have an easier time recovering from parasites, and the medications that treat them. And other bearded dragon owners, like myself, will realize how critical it is to have their beardies tested for parasites early on, so that they can receive the medical care and supportive care that they need to make their recovery as easy and as rapid as possible. At least I hope so........

WRITTEN AND UPDATED BY
Denise Bushnell
May 27, 2008
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BD.org
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