A thorough initial examination is the cornerstone of a health
care program for the pet iguana. All newly acquired iguanas,
regardless of age, should be thoroughly examined by a veterinarian as
soon as possible. Besides a complete physical examination, a blood
work-up and stool examination should be included. The advantage of
this thorough initial work-up is that current and potential medical
problems can be identified and treated before they become serious.
The most common disease of captive iguanas results from gross
malnutrition. Most new iguana owners are not given proper dietary
information when they buy their iguana. In fact, many are given
incorrect information. The most common mistake is feeding lettuce
(usually iceberg lettuce) to the exclusion of other important dietary
items (see the section on Diet). Lettuce provides adequate amounts
of moisture but is a nutritionally barren food otherwise. The
problem is often aggravated by vitamin D 3 and calcium deficiencies,
which result from inadequate exposure to direct sunlight or
artificial ultraviolet light and lack of vitamin-mineral
Signs of fibrous osteodystrophy include general listlessness, an
enlarged, swollen lower jaw, difficulty in eating, and markedly firm,
swollen limbs and tail. Unfortunately, these desperately ill iguanas
appear well-fed and chubby, and veterinary care is not often sought
until it is too late. Sometimes the back, tail or legs are fractured
Iguanas with metabolic bone disease should be treated by a
competent reptile veterinarian. If the patient refuses all food
offered except lettuce, the lettuce must be top dressed with a
suitable vitamin-mineral powder.
Iguanas that have become "lettuce junkies" (consume lettuce to
the exclusion of other foods) must be encouraged to accept and feed
on more nutritionally complete food items. Some iguanas accept items
that resemble lettuce, such as spinach and beet greens, and then may
be more accepting of other foods offered. Another way to wean an
iguana from lettuce involves sprinkling the more nutritious items
(cut up in small pieces) over the preferred lettuce leaves. Usually
the iguana will feed on both simultaneously. With each feeding, the
proportion of nutritionally superior food items should be increased
and the amount of lettuce decreased until the iguana has fully
accepted a more nutritious variety of food. After 2-3 weeks, a
vitamin-mineral powder can be sprinkled over the food to ensure
nutritional adequacy. If such a product is used during the
transition period, it may cause the iguana to refuse all food,
including the lettuce. This would be undesirable.
PARALYSIS OF THE REAR LEGS
A disease resulting from vitamin B 1 deficiency causes paralysis
of the rear legs and tail. This problem is treated with injectable B
vitamins and dietary improvement, including vitamin-mineral
supplementation. Rear limb paralysis may also result from mineral
(especially calcium) deficiencies that cause fibrous osteodystrophy
of the spinal column. Injectable calcium is also necessary in the
therapy of this problem.
One of the unfortunate consequences of captivity is injury
resulting from repeated attempts to escape. Iguanas tend to push and
rub their noses against the walls of their enclosures as they
repeatedly pace back and forth. This constant trauma results in
chronic ulceration of the nose (rostrum), whether the walls of the
enclosure are made of glass or wire mesh. Nose injuries may result
in serious and often permanent deformities that may cause long-term
Preventing this problem is difficult, but providing adequate
visual security (hiding places) and other additions to the enclosure
(artificial plants, branches, rocks) helps to minimize it. A visual
barrier of dark paint or plastic film placed on or along the lower 4
inches of the enclosure's walls often inhibits pacing and rubbing.
Serious burns often result when iguanas contact unprotected heat
sources within their enclosures. Exposed light bulbs and heat lamps
are most often responsible for these accidents. Neither of these
appliances is actually necessary. If they are installed in an
iguana's enclosure, they must be outfitted with a protective device
to prevent burns.
Blister Disease: Chronic exposure to bacterial contamination
from poor sanitation and hygiene is the most common cause of
bacterial infections in captive iguanas. Blister disease results
when an iguana is confined to a moist, filthy enclosure. The disease
is characterized by blisters, especially on the underside aspects of
the body, that develop into seriously infected wounds. Aggressive
antibiotic therapy is necessary to successfully treat affected
Dry Gangrene of the Tail or Toes: Another sign of serious,
body-wide bacterial infection is dry gangrene of the tail and often
the toes. The dry gangrene usually slowly moves up the tail from its
tip. One or more toes may have the same type of progressive problem
simultaneously. The disease can be controlled with aggressive
antibiotic therapy, strict hygiene and good husbandry.
Mouth Rot: Bacterial infection of the mouth is often the
result of malnutrition and a debilitated, weakened condition. Signs
of mouth rot include swelling, inflammation and accumulations of pus
within the mouth, increased salivation, and difficulties in eating.
Treatment involves identifying the offending bacteria and giving
appropriate antibiotic therapy. Providing vitamins, fluids and
forced feeding are also essential.
Abscesses: Bacterial infections may settle in 1 or more areas
and result in abscess formation. Reptile pus is not liquid, but is
of a cheesy, sometimes rubber-like consistency. Consequently,
treatment of abscesses by a veterinarian involves opening up the
pus-filled abscess and manually cleaning it out. Antibiotics are
then infused directly into the cavity and also given by injection.
Bacterial infections of reptiles require injectable antibiotics
to eliminate the bacteria from the body as rapidly as possible. When
therapy is delayed or insufficient, bacteria multiply and spread
throughout the body, usually resulting in internal abscesses.
Antibiotic therapy then is much less successful. Initial and
periodic white blood cell counts are necessary to properly monitor
the progress of the patient and to detect any relapse.
Parasites may be found externally (mites),
within the gastrointestinal tract (worms, protozoa), and within the
blood (malaria-type parasites) of captive iguanas. Parasites
represent a significant burden in addition to the inevitable stresses
of captivity endured by all pet iguanas, and should be treated by a
veterinarian specializing in reptiles. Iguanas weakened by
malnutrition and chronic bacterial infections are particularly
susceptible to the detrimental effects of parasites.
Though viruses probably cause disease in
iguanas, only a few have been specifically identified in this
capacity. With continued interest and research in iguanas, our
understanding of viral infections will be enhanced.
Failure of vital organs often accompanies
advancing age, and may also be a consequence of gout and severe
bacterial infections. If possible, blood samples should be collected
to allow evaluation of vital organ function. Treatment by a
veterinarian is usually guided by the results of diagnostic testing.
Minerals in the urine may precipitate and form
stones within the urinary bladder of iguanas. The iguanas may
exhibit no signs of illness or may strain during urination and act
listless. If the stone becomes very large, the abdomen may become
enlarged. The droppings may also contain blood. A radiograph (x-ray)
is necessary to confirm the diagnosis. Abdominal surgery is usually
necessary to remove the stone.
Egg-binding can be a life-threatening condition.
It results when a pregnant female cannot expel 1 or more eggs from
the reproductive tract. Causes of egg-binding include malnutrition
(especially mineral imbalances), various diseases, mummification of
eggs, and large or malformed eggs. Physical examination and
radiographs (x-rays) are necessary to diagnose this problem. The
veterinarian may select a medical and/or surgical approach to relieve
this serious condition, depending upon circumstances.
SWOLLEN JAW (See Fibrous Osteodystrophy)
Though iguanas do not shed their tails like some
other lizard species, tail fractures, dislocations and other serious
injuries may occur. Care must be taken to firmly restrain the tail
when an iguana is picked up and held. A veterinarian can treat soft
tissue injuries according to their severity, and can "set" and splint
the fractured tail if necessary.
An iguana's toes are very vulnerable to injury,
especially when iguanas are housed in screened or wire enclosures.
It is very easy for toes and/or claws to become entrapped within
the wire mesh, resulting in fractures, dislocation, torn claws (with
subsequent bleeding), and injuries to the skin and scales of the
toes. These injuries often occur during attempts to remove a
panicked iguana from its enclosure. Great care should be taken when
overcoming the animal's grip on the wire mesh. Twisting of the
iguana's body against this steadfast grip often causes serious
injuries to the feet and toes. A veterinarian should be consulted at
once if such injuries occur.
Iguanas are usually quite docile and enjoy handling. You,
however, may not always enjoy the activity because of the scratches
inflicted by sharp claws, powered by very strong limbs. An iguana's
claws should be periodically dulled by an experienced veterinarian or
veterinary technician. A cautery instrument or high-speed grinding
tool is usually employed for this task.
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