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Spotlight Iguanas: Common Health Issues

General Information

Iguanas have several unique disease problems; understanding these problems will allow you to better care for your pet and minimize future health care problems.

Who can help me?

  • You should inquire with your veterinarian first to see if they handle exotics. If they do, it is recommended you make an appointment with them as they will have thorough knowledge of you as well as the patient.
  • Our Department of Avian & Exotic Medicine is available to see your pet by appointment, Dr. Magazu and Dr. Newkirk would be glad to help!

Cystic Calculiiguanas-problems-1

Cystic calculi, also called uroliths, are commonly called bladder stones. These occur when excessive dietary minerals form crystals in the bladder, which then become bladder stones. In the iguana, bladder stones are usually composed of uric acid, which may result from a diet that contains too much protein (such as a diet high in dog food or cat food). Other causes of stone formation include deficiencies in vitamins A and D, calcium deficiency, excess oxalates (seen when feeding too much spinach), dehydration and bacterial bladder infections.

Often, you will observe blood from the irritated bladder in your iguana’s droppings. An examination, physical palpation of the caudal abdomen and radiographs (X-rays) will allow your veterinarian to diagnose this problem. Surgical removal of the stones is needed, as is fluid therapy to prevent kidney damage. Your veterinarian will discuss dietary correction (see Iguanas-Feeding handout sheet) in an attempt to prevent future stones from forming.

Salmonella

While turtles are most commonly incriminated for causing Salmonella bacterial infections in children, it has recently been determine that iguanas are also a source of this infection. Salmonella is a zoonotic disease, meaning that it can be transmitted from animals to humans. An infection with these bacteria can cause severe gastrointestinal disease, with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, cramping, fever or septicemia (blood poisoning). Humans that are most at risk include children, the elderly and the immunocompromised. Many animals and people carry the bacteria without showing any clinical signs, yet shed the bacteria in their feces, which can infect others (called asymptomatic carriers).

Prevention through proper hygiene is the best way to control the disease. Thoroughly clean and disinfect the cage every time it is soiled. Clean up all feces right away. Use a separate cleaning area for people and reptiles. Most importantly, wash your hands thoroughly with disinfectant soap every time you handle, clean or feed your iguana to help minimize the risks. Since most iguanas that carry Salmonella are not ill, they usually require no treatment (treatment is often unsuccessful in killing the bacteria anyway).

Avascular Necrosis

Iguanas are often afflicted with a condition called avascular necrosis, in which the blood vessels supplying an area of the body become obstructed, leading to death of affected tissue. In most cases, this problem occurs in the juvenile iguana kept in conditions of low humidity. Low humidity can lead to dysecdysis (difficulty or abnormal shedding of the skin). The tips of the toes and end of the tail are most commonly affected. Successive layers of unshed skin can form rings around the toes and tail, resulting in restriction of the blood supply to the affected area and finally results in avascular necrosis. Within a short time, the toe or tip of the tail becomes discolored (often dark), may become infected and then dies, dries out and becomes hard. Necrosis or infection can spread up the tail or toe to surrounding areas of the body.

Blood vessels to the extremities may also become blocked by traumatic injuries that become infected and swollen, a blood clot (embolus) becoming lodged in the blood vessel, or a tumor that cuts off the blood supply to the tail or toe. Sometimes the cause cannot be determined. Treatment involves removing the “ring” of dead, unshed skin, or in severe cases, amputating the affected tail or toe in an effort to stop the spread of the necrosis. Most pets recover well and lead normal lives after the surgery.

Abscesses

An abscess is an infected swelling filled with pus that is found within a tissue of the body. Abscesses are very common in iguanas. They occur when bacteria (most common) or fungi are introduced into the tissue by trauma or a bite wound, a penetrating foreign body, a tumor, or certain parasites. Subcutaneous (just under the skin) abscesses are frequently encountered. Reptilian pus is usually caseous and thick, or like cottage cheese (not liquid). Abscesses often appear as a swelling somewhere on the body. They are diagnosed by appearance, palpation, fine needle aspiration or surgical exploration. They are treated by surgical removal or lancing and flushing of the abscess. The material within the abscess will usually be cultured to identify the causative organism and determine the appropriate antibiotics to use for completely eliminating the infection.

Abscesses often appear as a swelling somewhere on the body. They are diagnosed by appearance, palpation, fine needle aspiration or surgical exploration. They are treated by surgical removal or lancing and flushing of the abscess. The material within the abscess will usually be cultured to identify the causative organism and determine the appropriate antibiotics to use for completely eliminating the infection.

Dystocia

Dystocia or egg binding happens when the female iguana is unable to pass her eggs. It is a reasonably common problem in reptiles and can be life threatening. It is caused by a variety of factors. Most commonly, it is associated with poor husbandry including improper environmental lighting and temperature, an inadequate nest site, improper diet (malnutrition) and dehydration. Other contributing factors include the age and condition of the animal, injuries or physical obstruction caused by deformed eggs, oversized eggs, physical abnormalities with the reproductive tract or pelvis, infections, constipation, abscesses or masses. A normal gravid (with eggs) lizard may not eat, but will still be bright, active and alert. A gravid lizard with dystocia will be anorectic, but rapidly becomes sick, lethargic or unresponsive. It is very important that you have a veterinarian familiar with reptiles examine this animal. A physical examination, blood tests and X-rays are used to facilitate diagnosis. Medical and/or surgical procedures may be required to help these animals.

Rick Axelson, DVM
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