Signs of sickness, stress and anorexia with Iguanas

There are many factors that can make sure your reptile stays in excellent condition. Here we will try to show you the connections between different aspects of the reptile’s life. We will also show you how to recognize something’s wrong and how to prevent it.

Reptiles never die suddenly; it is always preceded by a long period of illness. This is because of the cold-blooded nature of the anima land their ectodermic way of storing heat. This makes the reptile able to run his primary bodily functions solely on the stored energy. It also makes it difficult for the owner to see if the reptile is ill.
Animals in the wild will not easily show their sickness or any other form of distress. Out there, a weak pray is an easy catch for predators. Animals that are capable to suppress signs of sickness or injuries stand a chance to recover before being eaten. Reptiles in captivity show the exact same behavioral mechanism.

Both in the wild as in captivity diminished activity and increased hiding can be signs of the longtime use of internal energy. The less you move the fewer calories you use. This can be a indicative sign with starving animals, this way more energy will be available for the healing process. The hiding behavior is a way of protecting itself from predators; the animal is too weak and too cold to defend itself properly.

What makes an Iguana a healthy Iguana?

  • A healthy Iguana shows these characteristics:
  • The reptile is nic and round and the skin does not look wrinkly
  • The skin has a lot of color and has a fresh complexion
  • The reptile responds to its surroundings
  • The reptile thermo regulates during the day
  • The reptile drinks, eats and poops every day
  • Shedding the skin happens every 4-6 weeks; this can happen more often with younger animals that are growing fast (mostly during spring and summer). During winter growth decreases drastically.

The next things are very important for the well-being of your Iguana:

  • A terrarium with the right size and climbing opportunities. Height, depth and wideness make sure the terrarium contains differences in temperature, giving the reptile the opportunity to maintain its desired temperature.
  • The correct humidity in the terrarium
  • Water, placed inside the terrarium so the reptile can drink from it and fertilize above it
  • Decorate the terrarium to replicate the natural habitat of the reptile as closely as possible.
  • Good heating and the right temperatures
  • A good day-night cycle
  • Healthy and sufficient nutrition
  • Regular cleaning and redecoration of the terrarium
  • Getting so well-acquainted with the reptile that any difference in behavior can be easily noticed

The previous indicates it is very important to be very well informed concerning the living conditions and nutritional habits of the Iguana and to adapt the terrarium in such a way that the reptile is surrounded by a semi-natural environment.
Small irregularities or the wrong treatment can eventually lead to serious health problems. Stress can occur very acute or can build up over a longer period of time.

Important things to remember are these:

  • Change of environment can cause stress
  • The obtainment of a new pet (in or outside the terrarium) can also cause stress
  • Change of owner can also lead to stress
  • A stress attack causes a change in the color (it becomes darker) and the behavior of the reptile. This can be easily noticed. Stress that is admitted constantly and in small doses can eventually trigger these symptoms. Behavior like hiding, prolonged bathing, decreased appetite, irregular digestion and bewildering can be an indication of stress and possibly illness.
  • Influences that can be interpreted as stressful for a reptile can result in the secretion of a hormone named endogenous cortisol. Chronical stress can increase the amount of cortisoids for a longer period of time. Depending on the species, a high amount of these hormones can cause an abnormal low count of white cells, a decrease in the production of antidotes and an extreme decrease of the anti-bacterial and fungus-killing function of macrophages.

What are Macrophages?

Antibodies are produced by a complex network of interactive white cells called macrophages, T-cells and B-cells. Macrophages have two functions:

1 remove bacteria and other ‘junk’
2 making sure anti-bodies are formed when an illness is detected
Al these specifications can cause a decreased resistance with reptiles that are under chronic stress which makes them easily susceptible for illnesses.
Ex.: even though a reptile is never completely free from parasites, a healthy defense system makes sure that colonies of bacteria, parasites or fungi can be restricted. These can not multiply and will not threat the health of the reptile.

Different kinds of stress

Stress can be divided into three categories:
Stress induced by the environment/surroundings
This kind of stress can easily be related to problems with lighting, heat, day-night rhythm, size of the terrarium, decoration of the terrarium and the surroundings of the terrarium. Changes in or on the terrarium or its surroundings can cause stress.
Behavioral stress
This is related to the daily routine of the tenant. Change of this routine can cause stress. Please keep this in mind when you are on a holiday or away for a couple of days.

Social stress
This is related to the reptile’s co-inhabitants such as other pets, or friends staying over for a couple of days.

Pinpointing the stress

When pinpointing the stress it is very important to observe the reptile very closely. Also the terrarium, the decoration of the terrarium, the temperature, the day-night rhythm and the nutrition need to be examined. The room in which the terrarium is placed is also very important and needs to be checked for stress factors. While you are not at home at regular bases, the Iguana will get used to your schedule; your schedule will part of the Iguana’s every day life. Changes in the duration of your absence, especially when you stay out longer than usual, will be noticed by the Iguana and will probably cause stress. This can lead to bold behavior such as smearing feces everywhere across the terrarium, tossing over his water and/or food bowl and “redecorating” the terrarium. By “redecorating” we mean taking down plants, climbing material and other elements of the terrarium. A bored Iguana can also try to dig himself out of the terrarium, this will result in scratching on walls, long-time digging and even throwing himself against the windows. This can cause injuries on the head, the toes and the nails. Stress causes damages the immune system of the Iguana which cause parasites and infections can develop faster. The greater the stress, the weaker the reptile gets. The reptile will also become more sensitive to other influences from its environment that normally does not bother it.
Mild up to heavy stress and the direct effects of imperfections in the Iguana’s living conditions can show severe external problems such as burn marks or a less detectable hormonal release in the blood flow. This last one can only be detected in a blood exam. Other consequences could be sleep deprivation, constant fear, bad saturation and so on. When the Iguana does not eat very well it will more than likely worsen and eventually the Iguana will become anorectic.

How to detect this?

Check the animal:

  • is the skin nice and smooth, colorful and radiant?
  • is there any discoloration?
  • is the skin color dull or dark?

Check the changes in the eating habits:

  • is there a decrease in appetite?
  • has his choice of food changed?
  • does the Iguana choose food with a high level of fluids?
  • does the animal eat more than usual?

Are there any changes in its usual pattern, consistency or amount of feces and secretion?

  • is there less urine?
  • is the urine thicker, more sticky or tough?
  • is the amount of feces smaller, harder, dryer?
  • does the animal shit less than usual?

Check for behavioral changes:

  • is the reptile slow?
  • does the reptile spend more time in the cooler section of the terrarium than the warmer section?
  • does the Iguana spend more time heating up?
  • does the reptile hide more than before?
  • does the Iguana bathe longer than usual?
  • is the reptile more active at unusual points in time?
  • does the reptile often dig, scratch or nod for a long time?
  • does the reptile jump up against windows or try to escape?
  • is there a decrease or increase of tongue flicking when handling or when the terrarium is open?
  • the Iguana aggressive without a cause?

When green Iguanas are aggressive, it can also be a sign of breeding season or territorial drift. This can be typical male Iguana behavior. Abnormal aggression seems to be also caused by blather stones, tumors, abscesses in organs, undefined pain, disturbances and illness. Not all aggressive behavior indicates a physical problem; to be sure, a vet can always help to point out the cause of the aggression.

Check for any changes when the Iguana sheds his skin:

  • is the rhythm in which the Iguana sheds his skin irregular?
  • does it take longer than usual for the reptile to shed its skin

Check for physical signs of injuries or sickness:

  • does the reptile keep its beak open for a longer period of time?
  • has the amount of saliva increased or has it changed structure?
  • is the tissue in the mouth pale?
  • can you see prolonged exposure of cloacae tissue or hemi-penises?
  • does the reptile have a limp?
  • is there any visual swelling on the toes, the tail, the limbs, the jaw or the back?
  • is there any loss in power?
  • does the reptile tremble?
  • does the animal move in a trembling manner?
  • does the animal climb less or not at all?
  • has the reptile troubles lifting his body from the surface?
  • does the reptile have balance problems when walking or climbing?
  • is there any swelling, bruising or bumps?
  • does the reptile have scratch wounds?
  • are there any blisters?

Auteur, Evert Henningheim

Geraadpleegde literatuur:

Elliot R. Jacobson, DVM, PhD, DACZM (2003) Biology, Husbandry, and Medicine of the Green Iguana. Original edition., Krieger Publishing Company, Malabar, Florida, USA.

Melissa Kaplan Green Iguana Care collection

Source: Dr. Marja Kik, veterinarian for reptiles