Coccidia In Bearded Dragons: What You Need To Know

Are you concerned about coccidia in your bearded dragon (pogona vitticeps)? 

Do you want to know how to prevent and treat coccidia in bearded dragons? 

Part of exotic pet ownership is knowing what preventative measures to take against harmful illnesses such as a parasitic infection. 

But we know you didn’t go to veterinary school, so how do you learn about this disease. 

By reading our articles designed to help you, of course! 

coccidia in bearded dragons

What Is Coccidia In Bearded Dragons?

Coccidia in bearded dragons is a microscopic parasite living in the wall of a lizard’s intestine. Transmission is through the fecal to oral route. Coccidiosis (the name for coccidia once it has become a disease) is a leading cause of death in juvenile bearded dragons.

Coccidia comes from a genus of Apicomplexan parasites called Eimeria. 

Where Coccidia Comes From

Eimeria’s life cycle is complex. 

Eimeria and Isospora are both protozoans, and they are the most common cause of coccidiosis in reptiles. 

Isospora Amphiboluri, the most commonly found species of coccidian parasite in bearded dragons, invades the intestinal mucosa, destroying the epithelial cells which form the lining of the intestine.  

It is usually diagnosed through a fecal smear or fecal flotation performed by a vet to check for oocysts. 

Another form of diagnosis is called Nested Polymerase Chain Reaction (NPCR), which requires a tissue sample. 

However, there are equally effective treatments and are more economical. 

It is common for coccidia to occur in bearded dragons with no symptoms of the disease. 

Having no symptoms is common because when the immune system is healthy, it will keep the infection under control. 

The infection becomes a disease when the amount of coccidia becomes so high the immune system becomes damaged. 

Stress is widely considered the main factor in triggering coccidia to evolve from an infection into a disease. 

Adults can shed a significant amount of this parasite without clinical signs, whereas it is often fatal for juvenile dragons. 

A cross-sectional study showed over 20% of adult dragons in large breeding operations shed I Amphiboluri. 

How Do I Treat A Bearded Dragon With Coccidia? 

You should take your dragon to the vet to get a diagnosis. 

If your dragon is infected, the vet will provide medication and advise you on the proper husbandry practices to prevent the spread of coccidia. 

You should know what coccidia is and how to prevent it or catch it early on, should your dragon become infected. 

Effective treatment will consist of medication and regular environment control. 

There are two types of drugs used to treat coccidia: coccidiostats and coccidiocidals. 

Coccidiostats stop the reproduction of coccidia, and it is expected, after reducing the coccidia population, the host’s immune system will eliminate the rest. 

Coccidiocidals, however, stop reproduction and kill the existing coccidia. 

Some popular medications include Sulfadimethoxine (coccidiostat) and Ponazuril (coccidiocidal). 

However, drugs alone will not provide a long-term solution. 

Eradicating the coccidian parasite entirely is tough, so good husbandry practices are imperative. 

The enclosure needs to be cleaned thoroughly daily and disinfected, paired with guidance from a trained reptile veterinarian. 

To effectively treat the enclosure, you will need to sterilize it with a diluted bleach solution and properly dry it out. 

Some vets recommend a two cage system where one cage is used while the other is left to dry out. 

Your pet may have secondary infections due to the bacteria and need effective treatment for this as well. 

The treatment plan your vet uses may vary depending on the individual needs of your animal. 

The treatment goal is to prevent reinfection, reduce the time of the disease, reduce the number of oocysts in feces, and reduce the severity of symptoms such as intestinal hemorrhages and diarrhea. 

How Do Bearded Dragons Contract Coccidia? 

Bearded dragons contract coccidia orally from fecal matter infected with coccidia. 

How did the fecal matter become infected, to begin with, you may be wondering? 

Well, coccidia is often already found in low numbers in healthy dragons. 

The coccidia itself is typically brought on by stress. 

The infection happens through autoinfection, the transfer of a pathogen from one part of the body to another. 

The number of oocysts ingested will determine the severity of the infection. 

Autoinfection is part of the reason for high parasite loads in captive reptiles. 

When an infected dragon poops, the poop will be infected with oocysts (coccidia eggs). 

The number of oocysts in the fecal sample will help create the diagnosis. 

The number of oocysts depends on factors including the age of the host, the number of oocysts ingested, the host’s immune status, prior exposure to infection, consistency of the fecal sample, previously used medication, and the stage of infection. 

The dragon gets infected from the contaminated stool touching the substrate, surfaces, food, accessories, feet, and tail– whatever it lands on or near, or is accidentally transferred too. 

You must bring a stool sample to your vet to assess the coccidia infection severity. 

Predisposing factors include stress, inadequate and sudden changes in diet, small housing areas, poorly sanitized housing, and overcrowding. 

If left untreated, coccidia can lead to secondary effects like metabolic bone disease and atadenovirus. 

Supportive care is useful in minimizing the secondary effects of this disease, and dragons should be separated from breeding populations. 

The Life Cycle Of Coccidia 

The life cycle of coccidia starts with the eggs or “oocysts.” 

The oocysts become infective after they have sporulated, an adaptive response allows the organism (coccidia) to survive. 

It is rare for them to shed in an unsporulated state, and they are usually sporulated even before defecation. 

This being said, it’s possible for sporulated and unsporulated oocysts to exist in the feces simultaneously. 

The unsporulated oocysts can take as long as four days to sporulate. 

For oocysts to have sporulated, they need the optimal environment. 

Once the oocysts have sporulated, they will continue the life cycle of coccidia and spread it to other parts of the body. 

After entering the gut, bile and enzymes break the oocysts wall and free the sporocysts, which contain the sporozoites. 

After the sporozoites are released, they invade the epithelial cells or intestinal mucosa of the bearded dragon. 

Usually, sporulation occurs in the cloaca or colon, and so the oocysts are infectious on passing in the stool. 

What Are The Symptoms? 

The clinical signs of coccidiosis will be more apparent the higher the degree of parasitism in the dragon. 

One of the most common symptoms of coccidiosis is diarrhea. 

It will have a foul odor, and the stool may have blood or mucus in it. 

Other symptoms include: 

  • Weight loss
  • Apathy and weakness
  • Complete anorexia or vomiting after eating
  • Dehydration
  • Stunted or poor growth
  • Intestinal hemorrhages
  • Depression. 

How Can You Prevent Coccidia In Bearded Dragons?

Preventative measures include frequently cleaning enclosures and having regular fecal checks done. 

Annual vet checks should be scheduled before brumation, as it is crucial lizards do not go into brumation with a parasitic infection. 

Make sure to isolate the sick dragon from other reptiles. 

If you add new reptiles to your collection, they should quarantine for 24 days before being introduced to other reptiles. 

24 days is the average prepatent time for this type of coccidia. 

Sanitize properly by keeping the cage dry and clean, remove stool immediately and clean the area as quickly as possible. 

Remove leftover feeders so they can’t spread infection (some feeders like crickets can even eat your dragon). 

Please pay special attention to feeding and water equipment and protect it from contamination of the feces. 

You should avoid keeping lots of bearded dragons at a time and use large housing to reduce stress. 

Other potential stressors to avoid are abrupt changes in food, shipping, or an unnatural environment. 

Can Humans Get Coccidia From Bearded Dragons?

There is no risk of zoonosis (a disease transmitted to humans from animals). 

While coccidia infects vertebrates, including reptiles and humans, it is also species-specific. 

Isospora Amphiboluri is host-specific and only infects dragons. 

While humans are not at risk for this type of coccidia, other reptiles may be vulnerable. 

Conclusion 

Preventative measures must be taken to ensure your lizard is not at risk for parasites. 

Frequent cleaning of enclosures and annual check-ups should be routine for every healthy dragon. 

Predispositions such as stress, inadequate and sudden changes in diet, small housing areas, poorly sanitized housing, and overcrowding must be taken into account and eradicated. 

Medication will help treat infected lizards only when paired with the other measures listed, such as thorough daily cleaning and proper guidance from an experienced reptile veterinarian. 

The medication will help your dragon while daily cleaning breaks up the coccidia’s lifecycle, limiting the oocyst intake and severity of the infection.

It is essential to understand how coccidia works and its life cycle. 

If you suspect your pet is infected, journal its symptoms and writing a description of symptoms to bring to the vet. 

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