Common Health Issues of Pet Lizards

Clearly, pet lizards are different in many ways from more traditional pets like dogs, cats, or goldfish, so it should come as no surprise that their needs for a healthy and happy life are going to be different as well. I have put together this post to explain some of the diseases and other health issues that may be encountered by your pet lizard. Some are lizard-specific and some are general reptile health issues. This is in no way meant to scare you away from getting a pet lizard. Just the opposite actually. It is to provide knowledge meant to empower you as a reptile keeper and to help you keep your pet lizard as healthy as possible.
While keeping a pet lizard is very rewarding, please understand there’s also a lot that goes into properly caring for it. All of the things you do for your pet lizard are considered husbandry.

Things like making sure the temperature and humidity levels are correct, cleaning the enclosure properly with proper reptile-safe cleaners at the proper times, and changing out the substrate completely and regularly go a long way to keeping mold and mildew away.

Husbandry also includes making sure the feeder insects are properly gut loaded with nutritious foods for the lizard’s benefit and dusted with the right type and amount of vitamins and other supplements, taking your lizard to the vet on a regular basis, and cleaning out the water dish over and over and over and over again (sorry, that’s the way it goes with some reptiles).

Proper husbandry will go a very long way to ensuring your pet lizard lives a long and healthy life.
Most people believe that pet stores actually care for their animals properly. This is simply untrue. Most big box pet stores just want to keep the animals alive long enough to get them sold, along with a boatload of accessories and equipment, and out of their store.

Don’t believe me? Do an internet search for “why pet stores are bad” and see what pops up. Unfortunately, you’ll notice, if your search results are similar to mine, that there is no shortage of wrong, illegal, and just plain cruel living conditions going on in pet stores around the country, and the real victims of all that are the animals.

Thankfully it’s not just a shame, it’s also illegal, and there are laws in place to help the animals and crush all the nasty people who do these things to animals.

This is why I always recommend you purchase your reptile from a reputable breeder. Breeders will always have healthy animals that they took the time, energy, expense (at the breeder level, it isn’t cheap), and care to raise with the best husbandry skills, some mentioned above, and many more they’ve obtained through their experience and study. Usually the lizards are eating, are parasite free, and at the very least are used to humans and at the very most are already hand tamed, if that’s possible depending on the animal, of course.

Breeders will know all about the lizard species they raise and about each individual lizard they have in their care at that time. They can tell you all about each lizard’s diet and temperament and when they last shed (and shedding is important because it is a sign of a healthy reptile), as well as help you pick the right lizard for you.

Many animal shelters across the country have reptiles, as well as dogs and cats, though I think you might be out of luck with finding goldfish at a shelter. Just be warned, if you do get your reptile from a shelter, you can be almost certain it will have some health issue. Just like other animals adopted out of shelters, reptiles are also susceptible to community diseases that get passed around inside shelters.

Know where the nearest most-qualified exotics veterinarian is to you and be sure to make an appointment to get your newly adopted lizard seen as soon as possible. The vet wants to see your new lizard when it’s healthy, so they can better diagnose what’s going on with your pet when it’s sick or injured.

During the first visit, your vet will likely give your new lizard a thorough looking over to make sure you didn’t miss anything during your initial inspection. If you did, it’s ok. You’re at your exotics vet, and they will catch it and be able to help heal your lizard. Also, your vet is there to provide you with some piece of mind about your new lizard and answer questions you may have. Your vet is your ally. Adopting and saving a life from a shelter is a truly humanitarian thing to do.

With all that being said, it’s time to discuss what a healthy lizard looks like, so you have a better idea of what to look for when you are looking for your pet lizard.

Clean skin: No bites, rashes, scratches, burns, or blisters. There should be no bumps or lumps, which could indicate an internal problem.

Clear eyes: Shiny, clear eyes, and both are moving. Make sure there is no leftover shed eye cap(s), which will cause vision problems at the least and possible blindness at the most.

Active: Watch them move. Does the lizard move all its legs correctly? Is the tail moving as it should? Is it alert, moving its head around, and looking at different things? If you can answer yes to these questions, you’re off to a good start.

Clean nose and mouth area: Clean and clear, with no signs of a rash, bleeding, scratches, or anything that looks like pus or mucus. Those are not good. 

The following list of health issues and diseases is not meant to be an all-inclusive list. There are plenty of other health issues out there that I’m sure I left off this list because I don’t even know they exist. After all, I am not a vet, nor do I play one here or on T.V.!

I am an exotic pet enthusiast who wants to help you and your exotic pet. This is meant to offer sound advice, backed by a lot of research. It is very important to do all the research you can on the reptile you are considering bringing home and naming. They only want the best for themselves, which is what you and I want for them too. If you didn’t, you probably wouldn’t have bothered reading this far.

If you already have a pet lizard, keep a watch for signs of these possible problems. You should contact your pet’s vet if you notice any of these as they could be possible indicators of a health issue:

• A change in color, like darkening or dulling.
• Their food intake has dropped off or quit.
• Their food choices or frequency have changed. They are now eating foods with more moisture content or they are eating more food than normal.
• They have less or thicker urates.
• They are defecating less or it is harder or drier.
• They are spending more time than normal in the basking area or more time than normal on the cooler side of the enclosure or in their hide.
• They are spending more than a normal amount of time soaking in their dish or water feature.
• They are active at times they really should not be active. For example, your nocturnal lizard is active during the day or your diurnal lizard is active at night.

Abscesses: These happen when bacteria work their way into an old injury and create an infection. They may appear as lumps that protrude up from underneath the skin.

Amebiasis: This is a very contagious disease in reptiles that is caused by a parasitic infection and very often results in the death of the reptile. Symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, loss of appetite leading to weight loss, lethargy, dehydration and seizures that will migrate into the central nervous system. You’ll also notice your reptile drinks water excessively.

Colds: That’s right, even a lizard can catch a cold. And all the most common symptoms of a cold for us humans are the same for lizards: sneezing, weeping eyes, coughing, and even some wheezing. If your lizard has any of these symptoms, you should call your vet and see how they suggest you proceed.

Egg binding: This comes from poor husbandry, lack of egg laying sites, and stress, and usually this is found to be the issue only after an animal autopsy. If you notice any swelling in your reptile’s cloacal region, please contact your vet immediately. Egg binding could be the cause, and only surgery will save your animal.

Fungal infections: These spread fast and cause skin damage. You’ll notice raised brown spotted scales along the reptile’s abdomen that will turn into open wounds in the skin.
Herpesvirus: This is typically associated with stomatitis or mouth rot and can be so severe that it may cause the reptile to stop eating, which is so not good. This has been known to cause liver disease in lizards as well.

Herpesvirus: This is typically associated with stomatitis or mouth rot and can be so severe that it may cause the reptile to stop eating, which is so not good. This has been known to cause liver disease in lizards as well.

Hypervitaminosis (Vitamin Excess): This is caused by people who think that giving their pet lizard more vitamins is better for them than giving them the proper dosage. It’s not! Stop it now! First off, too many vitamins can absolutely be fatal to your reptile. Too much Vitamin A will cause uncontrollable internal bleeding, and too much Vitamin D can cause artery calcification. Always go by the manufacturer’s recommended dosage or call your ally, the vet, if you have questions.

Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD): This happens when the reptile is not getting enough calcium or Vitamin D in its diet, has insufficient full-spectrum lighting in its enclosure, or even both. This will cause bone softening, tooth loss, paralysis, and convulsions if left untreated.

Respiratory infections: Most respiratory infections in reptiles are bacterial. There are other causes such as fungal infections or even parasites. If your pet lizard is showing any of the following symptoms, call your vet: weight loss and loss of appetite, lethargy, breathing through their wide-open mouth (never normal), wheezing or odd crackling or clicking noises coming from the lizard while it’s breathing, and discharge from their eyes and nose.

Salmonella: Most living reptiles carry these bacteria in their intestinal tract. When they defecate, there is a high chance the bacteria will be in their poop. Studies have shown that 85% of all turtles, 77% of all lizards, and 92% of all snakes do in fact carry at least 1 of the 100 serotypes of the salmonella bacteria that account for most human infections.

For the bacteria to spread from a reptile to a human, it must be ingested. For example, if you handle your lizard’s water dish and it has poo water in it, and some of that poo water gets on your hands, if you don’t wash your hands properly and thoroughly, that bacteria-filled poo water that wasn’t washed away will get onto your food or drink and into your body. Always wash thoroughly after having your hands in a reptile enclosure or after handling a reptile. Your health depends on it.

Stomatitis: Commonly called mouth rot, it is a very nasty bacterial infection that has led to the death of many reptiles. It causes infections and swelling and a cheesy-looking discharge around the mouth area. If you suspect your lizard has this, call your vet immediately.

Tail breaks: Quite a few lizards have the ability to self-amputate, which is to lose or drop part of their tail, when they feel threatened or when they need to escape a predator that grabs them by the tail. This can sometimes happen when an owner handles the lizard too roughly. Not all lizards have the ability to grow back the tail once they drop it.

For those that can regrow their tail, the new tail may not look like the one that was dropped. For the most part, tail breaks are not fatal if the tail breaks off at the tip or up to about two-thirds of the way from the tip to the body. If the lizard drops its tail above that, closer to the body, it can be very dangerous because of the severe loss of blood. The lizard will need to be treated by your vet quickly.

I cannot stress this enough: make sure you have a qualified exotics veterinarian close to you. This makes it convenient for regular checkups and both quick and convenient in case of emergencies. Even before purchasing a lizard, make an appointment and talk to your chosen vet and ask them questions about the lizard you are considering. I promise it will be worth the time, energy, and small payment for the knowledge you will receive.

This care information is a brief overview of a subject that has been covered in many books by respected authors and on many breeder forums. For more information, please consult a specialized book, visit one of the breed-specific forums/message boards, or contact an expert in that particular field. Your pet thanks you for it.




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