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Understanding Coccidia In Bearded Dragons And Treatment

Bearded dragons are among the most popular reptile pets due to their easy care requirements and docile temperament.

Good husbandry practices are essential when caring for bearded dragons, as they are prone to illnesses such as coccidia.

But what exactly is coccidia?

Coccidia is a microscopic intracellular parasite, and it lives in a bearded dragon’s intestinal tract. While coccidian parasites are found even in healthy bearded dragons, they will cause illness and possibly death if they multiply quickly.

A bearded dragon’s immune system is lowered due to stress or improper care, allowing the coccidia parasites to thrive and reproduce.

The most common symptom of coccidiosis in bearded dragons is smelly diarrhea, easily leading to weight loss and dehydration.

Coccidia is especially dangerous to juvenile bearded dragons, as it will lead to poor growth and may be fatal.

Read on to learn more about coccidia in bearded dragons, including treatment and prevention.

coccidia in bearded dragons
Coccidia in bearded dragons is a severe issue you need to address and watch out for.

Understanding Coccidia

Coccidiosis is the most common cause of death in juvenile bearded dragons due to severe diarrhea and dehydration it causes.

While all ages are affected, adult bearded dragons respond better to treatment because of their larger size and more developed immune system.

The most common coccidian parasite found in bearded dragons is Isospora amphiboluri.

Isospora amphiboluri is found in the intestinal mucosa, where it destroys the epithelial cells lining the intestine.

One in every three bearded dragons is infected with coccidia, which has a complex life cycle.

Isospora completes its entire life cycle in just one host.

Bearded dragons shed coccidia eggs, known as oocysts, in their feces.

Once the oocysts are shed, they are already infectious.

Oocysts mature and develop into an infectious state while still in the colon or cloaca.

When a beardie ingests these infectious oocysts, bile and enzymes in the digestive tract break down the sporocysts into sporozoites.

These sporozoites will then enter the intestinal mucosa or epithelial cells of the reptile.

As the sporozoites enter these cells, they develop into meronts, becoming merozoites and infecting new cells.

After several cycles, the merozoites become either male or female gamonts, reproducing new sperm and eggs.

The gamonts form zygotes, which turn into oocysts, and the cycle starts all over again.

Throughout the life cycle of coccidia, the cells of the bearded dragon are severely damaged or destroyed.

What Are the Causes Of Coccidia In Bearded Dragons?

The most common causes of coccidia in bearded dragons include stress, poor diet, and unsanitary conditions. Keeping your enclosure clean is critical in avoiding this disease, and happy bearded dragons are more likely to fight it off if they get it.  

Stress

Stress in bearded dragons occurs for many reasons, such as habitat changes, an unnatural environment, and overcrowding.

When a beardie is introduced into a new enclosure, it will take time before the reptile becomes acclimated.

Unfamiliar or noisy environments will also cause the animal to become stressed.

In turn, this stress will lower the beardie’s immune system and allow parasites and other diseases to flourish.

Keeping too many bearded dragons in one enclosure causes stress and poses a danger from the reptiles becoming territorial and fighting.

It is always best to provide your beardie with a calm environment by placing the enclosure away from busy areas of the home and keeping the noise levels low.

Do not keep more than one beardie in an enclosure except during breeding, which is only for a short period.

A small enclosure will also increase the risk of your beardie easily spreading coccidia because of the limited space.

Juvenile bearded dragons feel more secure in a smaller, 10-gallon tank. 

Once the reptile grows into an adult, the enclosure needs to be upgraded to 20-50 gallons.

Poor Diet

Abruptly changing your beardie’s diet or not providing the right amount of nutrients will make your reptile more susceptible to coccidia.

Never change your bearded dragon’s diet without consulting your veterinarian first.

If a change in diet is required, do it gradually, so your beardie can adjust.

Switching your beardie’s diet may lead to diarrhea and a lowered immune system if it is not done correctly, which puts your pet at a higher risk of coccidia infection.

Providing a nutritious and varied diet of gut-loaded insects, leafy greens, vegetables, and dietary supplements will ensure your beardie has the essential nutrients it needs for gut health.

When your reptile has good stomach health, it is easier for the animal to ward off a coccidia overgrowth.

Avoid feeding your beardie any wild-caught insects, as they may be infested with parasites which will make the reptile very sick.

Any time a bearded dragon’s immune system is lowered, coccidia will take the opportunity to reproduce.

Unsanitary Conditions

Since coccidia is transmitted through fecal matter, it is crucial to keep your bearded dragon’s enclosure clean at all times.

An unsanitary enclosure provides a breeding ground for coccidia and increases your beardie’s risk of infection.

You will need to remove feces every day and use a reptile-safe sanitizer on any soiled areas.

Once per month, completely remove everything from the enclosure and sanitize the items.

You may also need to add more substrate or completely change it out using a loose substrate mixture.

Sanitize the enclosure sides and allow everything to dry before putting it all back together.

Provide your bearded dragon with clean, fresh water every day and change it out whenever it is dirty.

Beardies tend to soak in their water dish, so you may need to change the water several times per day.

How Do Bearded Dragons Get Coccidia?

bearded dragons get coccidia from feces
Understanding where coccidia comes from is the first step to prevention.

Coccidia is transmitted to bearded dragons when they ingest food or water contaminated with feces containing coccidia oocytes. Young bearded dragons tend to contract this more often, and an unclean environment dramatically raises the risk. 

You may not know your beardie has coccidia because it is not showing any clinical signs or symptoms.

A healthy bearded dragon’s body can keep the parasites from reproducing rapidly, which prevents the animal from becoming extremely ill.

However, even a seemingly healthy beardie will shed the coccidia eggs in their feces.

Anything these coccidia eggs touch will become contaminated.

The beardie may accidentally drag its tail through feces and transfer the oocytes to its water dish.

Coccidia transmission may also occur if your beardie eats food that has come into contact with the contaminated substrate.

If live feeder insects come into contact with your beardie’s stool, they will also be contaminated.

Placing infected uneaten feeder insects back into their colony will cause the rest of the insects to become infected as well.

If your beardie’s enclosure has a loose substrate, it is a good idea to feed your pet in a separate container with a simple paper towel substrate to prevent cross-contamination.

Never allow a bearded dragon infected with coccidia to contact another reptile, as the parasites are easily transmitted.

As previously stated, a stressed beardie will have a lowered immune system, which makes the reptile more prone to a coccidia infection.

While healthy bearded dragons may fight off a coccidia infection, the parasites will quickly multiply if the animal has a weakened immune system.

What Are the Signs of Coccidia In Bearded Dragons?

Coccidia is easy to spot in bearded dragons if you know what to look for. Clinical signs of coccidia in bearded dragons include:

  • Smelly diarrhea
  • Lethargy
  • Dehydration
  • Lethargy
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Stunted growth

Not all bearded dragons will show these disease symptoms, as their immune system will naturally fight the parasites to keep the illness from becoming severe.

Adult beardies are more likely to be asymptomatic than juveniles due to their more robust immune system and larger size.

Smelly Diarrhea

The most common sign of coccidia infection in your bearded dragon will be diarrhea.

The feces will be very watery and have an extremely foul odor.

There may be mucus present in the stool, and in severe cases, it may also contain blood.

Learn everything you need to know about bearded dragon poop in our complete guide.

Lethargy

As the coccidiosis progresses, your beardie will become lethargic and not be interested in exploring its enclosure or other activities.

The lethargy is likely due to the reptile becoming weak from diarrhea and lack of nutrition.

Dehydration

Dehydration is a significant concern in a bearded dragon with coccidia because it will be difficult for the animal to retain fluids due to diarrhea and vomiting.

Signs of dehydration in beardies include wrinkled skin, sticky saliva, sunken eyes, and loss of skin elasticity.

It is imperative to rehydrate your beardie as much as possible until you are able to get veterinary care, as this symptom is deadly for your reptile.

Weight Loss

Even if your bearded dragon is still eating, it will not receive many nutrients from food and will show signs of weight loss when infected with coccidiosis.

These signs include a skinny tail and legs, visible ribs and hips, and sunken eyes.

Weight loss is a serious issue for beardies, especially in juveniles who are still growing.

Vomiting

Coccidia parasites will aggravate your beardie’s digestive system, causing frequent vomiting.

You may even notice your beardie regurgitating whole insects or pieces of food.

Aside from depriving your reptile of nutrients, the constant vomiting episodes will cause damage to the animal’s esophagus.

Loss of Appetite

As the coccidia impairs digestion, your bearded dragon will have diarrhea and vomiting, which may cause the reptile to lose its appetite completely.

If you notice your beardie is not interested in food, this is a sign of digestive impairment.

For more information on bearded dragon sickness, check out the link to our article.

Stunted Growth

Coccidia in juvenile beardies is very dangerous, as constant diarrhea and vomiting will deprive the reptile of the essential nutrients it needs for healthy growth.

Your beardie will not gain weight or grow as it should and will become emaciated because of poor nutrition.

Juvenile bearded dragons with coccidia are more likely to die from the disease if it is not treated quickly.

Monitoring You Bearded Dragon for Coccidia Symptoms

coccidia stops bearded dragons eating
Monitoring behavior and health is key to catching coccidia early.

Regularly monitoring and recording your bearded dragon’s behavior, weight, bowel movements, food intake, and water consumption is critical for noticing coccidia. Not only will this help you notice signs of illness, but it will also help your veterinarian with diagnosis and treatment.

Keep a detailed log of your beardie’s activities, and note any unusual symptoms or behaviors such as diarrhea, weight loss, and lethargy.

Taking this list to your veterinary appointment will help with your beardie’s diagnosis and treatment plan.

It is especially important to weigh juvenile bearded dragons weekly and adults at least once per month.

Even if your beardie does not show any disease symptoms, a failure to grow or sudden weight loss indicates a serious issue.

It is essential to seek veterinary care as soon as possible at the first signs of illness to ensure your beardie receives the treatment it needs for a faster recovery.

Juvenile bearded dragons have not developed a strong immune system, making them more difficult to treat than adults, who have a more robust immunity to diseases.

Waiting too long to seek veterinary treatment for a juvenile beardie with coccidiosis may lead to death.

How Is Coccidia Diagnosed in Bearded Dragons?

The veterinarian will perform a fecal flotation to examine the stool under a microscope to diagnose coccidia in bearded dragons. This technique will allow them to see oocysts and determine the severity of the infection.

Based on the symptoms you provide, your veterinarian will likely ask you to bring in a fecal sample from your bearded dragon for further examination.

Your bearded dragon’s age, immune status, and previous exposure to infection will determine the number of oocytes present in the fecal sample.

Other considerations include:

  • The number of oocytes ingested.
  • The progression of the infection.
  • Stool sample consistency.
  • Any medications your beardie has taken.

A bearded dragon will shed more oocysts in its feces during initial infection, and then the number of oocysts may decline.

Because of this fluctuation, there may not be enough oocysts in the stool for a proper diagnosis, and multiple fecal tests may be needed.

Fecal testing is the simplest and most economical way to diagnose coccidiosis, but it is not the only method available.

A nested polymerase chain reaction, also known as PCR testing, may be used in rare instances.

PCR testing requires your veterinarian to perform a biopsy for a tissue sample, then examined by a pathologist.

Since this method is more complicated than a fecal floatation test and requires specialized instruments, it is more expensive.

Due to the expense and complication of PCR testing, it is only used to diagnose coccidiosis if fecal flotation wasn’t decisive.

What Is the Treatment for Coccidia in Bearded Dragons?

The most effective treatment for coccidia in bearded dragons consists of medications designed to kill and stop the reproduction of coccidian parasites. Medications to boost your bearded dragon’s immune system and reduce the severity of symptoms may also be prescribed.

The vital goals of treatment are to reduce the number of oocysts in feces, shorten the coccidia life cycle, reduce symptoms such as diarrhea and intestinal hemorrhages, and prevent reinfection.

The two most common drugs used to treat coccidiosis are coccidiostats and coccidiocidals.

Coccidiostats such as sulfadimethoxine, more commonly known as Albon, do not kill the existing parasites but halt their reproduction.

Once the reproduction of coccidia is stopped, the bearded dragon’s immune system will begin to take over to eliminate them.

Coccidiocidals like Ponazuril not only stop the coccidian parasites from reproducing, but they also kill parasites already present in the reptile’s body.

Ponazuril is more commonly used due to its lower dosage requirements and fewer side effects.

The medication must be used exactly as prescribed to eliminate the coccidia infection effectively.

Depending on the type of medication, it may need to be administered between 8 and 28 days.

Aside from the drugs used to kill the coccidia infection, your veterinarian may also prescribe probiotics to ease your beardie’s digestion and boost its immune system.

Maintaining Sanitary Conditions During and After Treatment

In addition to medication, you will need to follow strict sanitization protocols to prevent reinfection through surfaces contaminated with coccidia oocysts. Your bearded dragon will also need to be quarantined away from other reptiles to prevent spreading the coccidia parasites.

It is good to set up a smaller hospital tank with a simple substrate, such as paper towels.

The separate tank is not only easier to keep clean, but it allows you the opportunity to properly sanitize your beardie’s main enclosure.

You will need to use a solution of bleach diluted with water to thoroughly wipe down the enclosure and all of its contents.

The substrate will also need to be replaced entirely to ensure no oocytes are present.

Once your bearded dragon is well again, it is crucial to maintain a regular cleaning schedule for its enclosure.

Food and water dishes need to be cleaned daily, and your beardie always needs access to fresh water.

It is also essential to keep your beardie hydrated and provide it with nutritious foods both during treatment for coccidia and after your pet has cleared the infection.

Are There Secondary Infections with Coccidia?

Since coccidiosis lowers a bearded dragon’s immune system, a secondary viral or bacterial infection may also be present. A lack of nutrients due to coccidia infection may also lead to metabolic bone disease.

Adenoviral infection, known as Atadenovirus, is a very contagious viral infection in reptiles.

Atadenovirus causes inflammation of the liver, kidneys, nervous tissues, and the digestive system.

When coupled with a coccidial infection, Atadenovirus makes it almost impossible for a beardie to gain weight and causes neurological symptoms.

Atadenovirus has no cure, but the symptoms may be treated with antibiotics.

Metabolic bone disease is also commonly found in bearded dragons infected with coccidia, as the parasites prevent the reptiles from receiving important nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D.

Beardies with metabolic bone disease will experience bone softening, jaw and spine deformities, tremors, and increased muscle weakness.

There is no cure for metabolic bone disease, but it may be prevented by adding calcium and vitamin D3 supplements to your beardie’s diet.

Other secondary effects coinciding with coccidiosis in bearded dragons include respiratory and bacterial infections such as infectious stomatitis, also known as mouth rot.

Is Coccidia Contagious to Humans?

Coccidia is not indicated as a zoonotic disease, which means bearded dragon owners will not be infected by their pets. While coccidiosis can infect a variety of vertebrates, including reptiles, birds, and humans, the parasites are specific to certain hosts.

Isospora amphiboluri is the most common coccidian parasite found in bearded dragons.

This coccidian parasite species will not infect humans, but reptiles are at risk.

To avoid spreading the disease, never allow a bearded dragon infected with coccidia to contact other reptiles.

It is also important to practice good hygiene by thoroughly washing your hands whenever you contact an infected beardie, especially if you have other reptiles.

How Do You Prevent Coccidia in Bearded Dragons?

There are several ways to prevent coccidia in bearded dragons, including isolation and quarantine measures, regular vet appointments, and proper sanitizing techniques. Avoiding stress and overcrowding of your bearded dragon will also help prevent the disease.

Always isolate sick bearded dragons and prevent exposure or direct contact with other healthy reptiles.

If you add a new bearded dragon to your collection, quarantine it from your existing reptiles.

The quarantine period should last for a minimum of 25 days, which is about the time it takes for a coccidia infection to show symptoms.

Maintaining your beardie’s annual health check is essential to ensure your pet’s wellness.

Be sure to schedule the veterinary appointment before your beardie entering brumation.

If your beardie goes into brumation with a coccidia infestation, the animal may not survive.

While most captive reptiles do not enter brumation because of the constant temperatures, it may be necessary if you are planning to breed the animals.

Keep your beardie’s enclosure and its contents clean at all times, and remove feces as soon as you see them avoid cross-contamination with other surfaces in the tank.

Wash food and water dishes and spot clean the enclosure every day.

Sanitize the entire enclosure and all of its contents once per month, and stick to this schedule.

Avoid causing any stress to your bearded dragon by keeping the enclosure in a calm area of your home, avoiding loud or sudden noises, and maintaining a regular feeding schedule.

Any changes to your beardie’s diet need to happen gradually to prevent digestive disruptions and malnutrition.

Never overcrowd your bearded dragons by having too many in one tank or having too small of an enclosure.

Two female beardies may coexist in the same tank as long as they have ample room, but two males should not be housed together due to their territorial behavior, leading to aggression.

A male and female beardie may be placed in the same enclosure for breeding purposes, but only for short periods.

By following these simple animal husbandry practices, you reduce the likelihood of your beardie contracting a severe coccidia infection.