Bearded dragon parasites… The name alone can make your skin crawl and conjure up images of creepy crawlies that have to get inside a host body to survive and multiply.
Just like humans, and our other pets like dogs and cats, bearded dragons can get parasites as well. Some parasites can be passed along from bearded dragons to humans and mammals like cats or dogs, and vice versa.
Bearded dragons can become host to pinworms, coccidia, flukes, protozoa, flagellates, giardia, tapeworms, and even mites and ticks.
We will go over what you as a careful beardie owner should be on the lookout for with these parasites. Including what you can do yourself to help prevent these parasites if any action at home can remedy the situation, and when you contact your veterinary expert.
With proper care, sanitation, and attention given to your bearded dragons you can minimize infestation of parasites and reduce the number of problems associated with these freeloading organisms.
What are Parasites?
Parasites are organisms that live on or in a host to derive nutrients at the other’s expense. If you have seen fleas or ticks on a cat or dog, or you may have seen squirming worms in cat or dog’s feces, then you have seen parasites. When you give your furry babies heartworm treatments, you are using treatments to prevent parasites.
Not all parasites can be seen without a microscope though. Coccidia, flagellates, and giardia for example are all microscopic parasites that will require a vet to test for, diagnose, and treat.
Common Parasites in Bearded Dragons
Bearded dragons may not get parasites nearly as often as cats and dogs because typically they are solitary animals and don’t go very far when exploring.
It still does happen though, and when signs and symptoms appear, it’s best to treat them right away, because they rarely if ever go away on their own. When parasites become established and grow in number, they can cause major problems in your beardie if they are not taken seriously and treated as soon as possible.
Here are some of the most common parasites in bearded dragons:
Pinworms can be contagious to humans and other mammals so if these parasites are suspected. Make sure you clean your hands before and after handling anything in or around the bearded dragon enclosure, and when handling the beardie itself.
An infestation of pinworms can come from the insects they eat, be transferred from infected animals, or if someone handles an infected animal then handles another animal without washing their hands or they can be passed along through feces.
Symptoms of pinworms can include but are not limited to Lethargy, loss of appetite, depression, lack of interest in food, diarrhea, dehydration, and weight loss, or there may not be any symptoms at all. This is one way that pinworms can be easily transferred from animal to animal.
Pinworms live in the intestines and they deplete nutrition from their host. If your animal is asymptomatic, it may be found during a yearly fecal test by your vet, at which time the vet will give medication to treat them.
If you suspect pinworms, see the tiny worms in your dragon’s stool, or otherwise see the above symptoms, see your vet as soon as possible.
Hookworms show similar symptoms to pinworms such as loss of appetite, diarrhea, dehydration, and weight loss. Regurgitation can also be caused by hookworms. Hookworms are different from pinworms in that they feed on the blood of the host.
Certain hookworms can be transferred to humans through feces. The tiny worms burrow through the skin and get into the bloodstream. Always wash your hands after handling your reptiles and after cleaning up any feces in the tank.
Hookworms need to be tested for by your vet. If your bearded dragon does end up with this parasite, your vet will give you medication to treat them.
Coccidia and Other Protozoa
Coccidia is a common parasite in bearded dragons caused by protozoa.
Symptoms include lethargy, diarrhea, blood or mucus in stools, depression, reduced appetite or they can be asymptomatic when found in small numbers. It can still be spread to other animals even if there are no symptoms.
Coccidia can be transferred from animal to animal, from contaminated feces, or from contaminated food and water. It is easily spread to beardies, especially in younger bearded dragons, and other reptiles, but this one is not contagious to humans.
Coccidia and other protozoan parasites have to be identified by your vet who will also help you to treat and cure your bearded dragon.
Flagellates are another single-celled organism that can cause a myriad of problems in your beardie’s health. Symptoms include soft unformed feces, blood or mucus found in feces, vomiting or regurgitation, undigested food particles found in stools, and lethargy and weakness.
Flagellates can sometimes be hard to detect and may take your vet multiple fecal tests to find them. Infected reptiles may show no symptoms when infected with flagellates making it easy to transmit from reptile to reptile. Make sure to always wash hands if you have been handling another reptile before touching yours.
Your veterinarian will treat flagellates with the proper medications.
Giardia is one parasite to really be careful about if it is diagnosed. It can spread to other pets and humans, although it is considered a small chance, it is still possible.
Symptoms of giardia include loss of appetite, irritability, foul-smelling poop or diarrhea, or stool that is very greasy or has a lot of mucus.
If your beardie is diagnosed with giardia you will need to clean anything your bearded dragon may have touched or been in contact with. Replace anything that is porous like substrate, climbing rocks, and wood, and disinfect any non-porous items.
Your vet will need to diagnose and treat giardia.
Tapeworms are long, flat, segmented parasites that live in the intestines of infected animals and humans.
Symptoms of tapeworms include extreme weight loss despite having a good appetite, a swollen abdomen, diarrhea, aggravation and or depression, seizures, and can eventually lead to death because the tapeworm gets all the nutrition.
Tapeworms can drop eggs and even segments of themselves in fecal droppings. This is also one way tapeworms are transmitted. You may end up seeing sections of the tapeworm in the feces.
If you notice flat, ribbon-like, white threads in the dragon’s stools, he may be suffering from a tapeworm infestation.
Visit your vet as soon as possible to get a clear diagnosis. If tapeworms are infecting your bearded dragon, they are usually easily treated using antiparasitic medications.
Mites and Ticks
Mites and ticks on bearded dragons are considered rare, but both can happen. If you see tiny red, black, or brown dots moving around on your beardie, or on yourself after handling her, you probably have an infestation of mites.
Usually, they are found on the sensitive areas of your beardie such as the armpits, under skin folds, or around the eyes and nostrils.
Symptoms of mites include scratching, as they are terribly irritating. In severe cases of heavy infestation lethargy and anorexia can happen.
Mites are contracted through physical contact from hands, equipment that is already infected, or being around other infected animals.
If you see mites on your bearded dragon, you will have to visit your vet to get some mite-killing medication.
You’ll also need to clean and disinfect your beardie’s enclosure very well to prevent a reinfestation.
Vacuum any areas your bearded dragon was on, clean and wipe non-porous areas with a pet-safe disinfectant, and clean food and water dishes in a weak bleach and water solution. Substrate and wood or cork items need to be replaced as cleaning may not get all of those tiny buggers.
Ticks on your beardies are very rare, but you should easily be able to see one on your pet. You can remove these yourself if you are careful and have the right tool.
Don’t squeeze or pull the tick with your fingers as you can squeeze more saliva and infection-causing fluids into your beardie’s bloodstream, or you could leave the head or mouthparts still stuck in the bearded dragon’s skin.
Use pointed tweezers, not the flat-tipped kind, clean them with antiseptic and around the area with antiseptic, grab the tick as close to the skin as possible, and pull straight out. Don’t wiggle, twist, or pull downward.
Once the tick is removed, dispose of it, and disinfect the bite area. If you are unsure how to remove it, or are uncertain, get a vet to remove the tick just to be safe.
How do I know if my bearded dragon has parasites?
If you see tiny things crawling around on the skin of your bearded dragon, or you see something moving in the fecal matter in the enclosure, it’s likely your beardie has parasites. If she is exhibiting symptoms like diarrhea, loss of appetite, runny, mucousy, or bloody stools then a parasite could be the cause.
Either way, the only true way to know for sure if your dragon has a parasite is to have your vet test for them.
How did my bearded dragon get parasites?
Parasites can come from other infected animals, from infected poop, or from handling infected animals and not washing your hands. Unsanitary conditions can be a cause of parasites, or they can come from the insects and food they eat.
Be sure to clean out any feces as soon as possible, clean the enclosure on a regular basis including replacing substrates every 2 to 3 weeks, and feed only clean, reputable insects and fresh vegetables.
Can I prevent parasites?
Cleaning and proper hygiene are the best ways to prevent an infestation of parasites. Change out the substrate every 2 to 3 weeks and be sure to clean up any feces every day.
Properly prepared foods are also a good way to prevent parasites. If your bearded dragon eats insects from outside, the risk of getting a parasite goes up because wild insects can carry many parasites.
Routine vet checkups and yearly fecal tests will also help to keep your bearded dragon free and clean. Because some parasites can be present even though your dragon is asymptomatic, a vet can find and treat parasites before they become a problem with proper checkups.
Reduce stress. If your bearded dragon is stressed all the time, the added pressure can lower his immune system and cause him to be more susceptible to illnesses and parasites.
What can I give my bearded dragon to get rid of parasites?
There are over-the-counter (OTC) medications to treat worms and parasites for reptiles. You could purchase these and administer them to your dragon yourself, but we would strongly discourage self-diagnosis and treatment of your pet without veterinary guidance first.
The OTC product may not be as effective at treating the problem as the medications your vet has access to. If the diagnosis is mistaken, you could do more harm than good when treating at home.
Remember, when in doubt, turn to the experts.
Wrapping it Up
Parasites are out there, and they want to get inside your beardie, but they are treatable. If you suspect a parasitic infection don’t wait, the longer they have time to grow inside your pet, the more severe the problems can get.
With proper care and taking your sick animal to the vet when you notice symptoms, your bearded dragon can live a parasite-free, long, happy life.