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Bearded Dragon Health – Atadenovirus (Wasting Disease, Star-Gazing)

Bearded DragonHello, Frank Indiviglio here.  Bearded Dragons are among the hardiest of all lizards, and very well-suited to captivity. However, a serious viral disease to which they are prone is well-established among populations in theUSA and several other countries.  Unfortunately, Atadenovirus infections, also known as Wasting Disease and Star Gazing, are incurable and difficult to detect by symptoms alone. Related viruses afflict Blue-Tongued Skinks, Fat-Tailed Geckos, Leopard Geckos, chameleons and other reptiles, birds and mammals, but infections are most commonly diagnosed in Bearded Dragons. 

Infection and Transmission

Atadenoviruses are highly contagious, and spread via body contact and improperly cleaned tools or terrarium accessories. Female Bearded Dragons may also pass infections along to their young. There is evidence that some Bearded Dragons harbor the virus while remaining otherwise healthy, and that sensitivity varies among individuals that do become ill.

Testing

Atadenovirus is easily detected via DNA analysis of a cloacal swab. Due to the possibility that Bearded Dragons may appear fine while harboring the virus, testing should be considered for newly-acquired animals. This is, of course, especially important to those who breed Bearded Dragons or keep large collections. 

Symptoms

Detection via symptoms alone is difficult, because individual animals vary greatly in their responses to Atadenovirus infection. Also, the most common symptoms – weight loss, loose stools/constipation, lethargy and swellings – are typical of a great many unrelated ailments. Lethargy is especially confusing, as some Bearded Dragons enter a state of semi-dormancy during the winter, even if kept warm. Bearded Dragon owners often write me with this concern, but, unfortunately, I must respond that there is no sure way to distinguish dormancy from Atadenovirus without a DNA test (please see article below). 

If the virus progresses to the nervous system, the lizard may exhibit more definitive symptoms, such as tail tip and toe twitching.  The Star Gazing moniker arises from the arching position (head and tail pointing upwards; please see photos here) adopted by some individuals with nervous system involvement. Atadenovirus infections may also weaken the immune system, as victims often become ill from bacteria, intestinal parasites and other seemingly unrelated micro-organisms.  Organ damage has also been reported.

Due to their size and secretive ways, young Bearded Dragons present an especially difficult problem, with infected animals often dying for no apparent reason. Hatchlings and youngsters that fail to gain weight and are inactive (taking normal variability into account) should be checked for Atadenovirus.

Treatment

Bearded Dragons
Unfortunately, we currently have no drugs capable of eliminating Atadenovirus from Bearded Dragons. Treatment typically consists of supporting the immune system through antibiotics (to kill off other micro-organisms), nutrition and supplements. Especially resilient individuals may suffer occasional severe reactions, during which time treatment is helpful, but live otherwise normal lives. In general, however, Atadenovirus infections are fatal; an experienced veterinarian should be consulted as to the best course of action. 

Please write in if you need further information or assistance in locating a veterinarian. 

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook. Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable. I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.  

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. 

Thanks, until next time,

Frank Indiviglio

 

Further Reading

Hibernation/Brumation in Bearded Dragons

Atadenovirus Infection in Reptiles

The ancestors of all captive Bearded Dragons in the USA were likely smuggled out of Australia!  Read more here.

 

 

Bearded Dragon image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Jan Tik

 

24 comments

  1. avatar

    Hi.. unfortunately it appears our bearded dragon is suffering from this. He is only a couple of months old but is showing signs of star gazing, and has had what appear to be a couple of fits/spasms, also hiding alot The obvious action will have to be taken :(.. my question was. can this be dangerous to humans. and also would you know how long the virus might last in an empty vivarium, ie without a host. or is total destruction the only opption. Thanks Eddie

  2. avatar

    Hi Eddie,

    Sorry to hear of your situation; please bear in mind that symptoms of many maladies overlap, and only a lab test, as described in the article, can accurately diagnose the root cause of your lizard’s distress.

    The Atadenovirus found in lizards is not known to infect humans; related viruses do infect us, however, and given the fact that animal viruses have mutated and infected people, caution is warranted when dealing with any pet illness. I suggest you speak with your medical doctor concerning precautions. Here is some info on human atadenoviruses.

    Bleach kills some related viruses. In zoos, we use 1 cup per gallon of warm water as our standard mix. Soaking the terrarium and tools, bowls etc. for 1 hour should do the trick, although there is little sopecific info as regards lizard atadenoviruses specifically. In order for disinfection to be effective, tools etc. must be clean (free of organic material) before being placed into bleach solution.

    Good luck and please keep me posted, Best, Frank

  3. avatar

    Thank you for your quick response. I will do as suggested. I was going to bleach the viv but don’t think we will get another one for a while. so i was going to leave the viv out in the shed over winter. and was wondering if that would be 100% garantee of anything the bleach may have missed diying off. thanks again.

  4. avatar

    Hi Eddie,

    my pleasure…heat works better than cold, i.e drying outdoors in full sun (I see your uk address, so that option gone for now!) but specifics not really clear, re lizard viruses.,..boiling water is one option. cold likely not effective, judging from info re viruses in general. Other than bleach and heat, I believe all other effective disinfectants, such as formalin, are risky to use or not generally available . Best Frank

  5. avatar

    sorry to keep bugging you lol. But i’ve just read the link you posted on human atadenovirus. I’ve been tying a few things together. My partner has recently had sicknes diorhea and such. is it possible that she may have passed the human form to him and if so would be less disasterous.. because he seems to have picked up alot toinght. seems like a different dragon. alert eating racing round the viv. if he had got the human form is it possible that it would be milder and he could get over it like us?.. i know this maybe all grabbing at straws but if you dont know you’ve got to ask someone.

  6. avatar

    Hi Eddie…good to hear from you; don’t hesitate to write, we have a great deal to learn and this is how thoughts and ideas take form, in my experience. It’s not really possible to know what the lizard is/was suffering from, because so many of the same symptoms, even those that seem distinctive, such as seizures, are actually common to a variety of diseases. Hopefully the immune system killed off whatever was going on, and a severe virus was not involved. Be sure it has access to a suitable hot basking site – 100-120 F/ 40-42 C and ample UVB (if a florescent UVB bulb is in use, arrange it so the lizard can get to within 5-12 inches of the bulb); very impt if the immune system is to function properly. You might enjoy this article on care and natural history..

    I’m not aware of any viruses that jump from people to reptiles, more common with mammals and birds, but not out of question. My main concern would be to make sure your partner has not picked up something from the lizard. Salmonella is present in most, and there are other possibilities. When reptiles are in the home, any unusual symptoms, esp. as you describe, should be looked into by a doctor. Salmonella etc. is easy to avoid if proper precautions are taken; please see this article and let me know if you need more info.

  7. avatar

    My daughter received a male bearded dragon from a breeder for Christmas. Appears healthy, acts normal, good appetite. She already had a female also apparently healthy. The female was “showing off” through the aquarium towards the male. A while later she was acting odd, neck twisted. We brought the 2 to the vet for a check up. They were both tested for the atadenoviris-female was neg and male was positive. I found this blog and you (Frank) provided a wealth of information to us. I asked a couple other breeders and the consensus was to not breed this male. Since he is asymptomatic we gave him to a friend who has other reptiles. In asking other breeders about their experiences with this they admitted they don’t test but they wouldn’t breed a positive animal. I contacted the breeder of our male who told us the virus is in every colony in the country, it is ok to breed pos animals, and this has been blown out of proportion by vets etc as a money making scheme. He made no offer to replace the animal nor would I take one from him due to his attitude.
    Sooo-we plan to attend a reptile show soon-does anyone have any experience in dealing with breeders concerning questioning breeding practices etc? What I have gotten from conversations was “we dont test, but dont breed a pos animal.” How do they know they AREN’T breeding a pos animal?? We would like to get another male dragon – I simply cannot afford another $100+ purchase price , then another $150 vet bill health check only to find out the poor thing is pos. What questions do we ask? Do we take our chances, not test and attempt breeding? Thanks for any advice–somoen suggested my daughter get blue tongue skink instead-sorry–too snake like for me

  8. avatar

    The female was back to normal within a day or 2.

  9. avatar

    Hi Connie,

    Thanks for posting…in addition to what we’ve covered in emails, perhaps a reader will post with the name of a trusted dealer, or another useful idea.

    Please keep me posted, Best, Frank

  10. avatar

    Tomorrow we are heading to the reptile show in New Hampshire–hoping to come home less confused :) doubtful tho knowing me

  11. avatar

    Hope all goes well, enjoy, best, Frank

  12. avatar

    Hello Frank, I have two bearded dragons approx. both the same age,,20 months. I adopted the male last Aug. and have had the female since she was a baby. I recently had them both tested for adenovirus, the girl is negative, and I just got the males results yesterday, and he is positive. They are each in their own viv’s. But they were on the same table side by side. I also just had complete blood work done on both of them,,which showed everything to be normal for both. I am searching for information on just how this is passed. I have moved the male across the room,,,it is a large room. They generally are not in contact with each other…but both are allowed to roam the house at separate times, they both go outside in the same yard. I am trying to figure out what I need to do to keep him from infecting her. I would appreciate any help you could give on this matter. He is otherwise healthy, no parasites, healthy size, good appetite. From what I can figure out he could be just a carrier and not affected by the virus, at least so far. Thanks, Kelly

  13. avatar

    Hello Kelly,

    My compliments on checking… too few people take the time and expense. The virus is, as far as we know, spread via direct contact between an infected animal and another, or contact with the animal’s feces, saliva, tools used in cleaning etc; substrate over which the animal has walked may also be a source of infection, so it is best to maintain separate exercise areas outside of the cages. i hope all goes well, We have much to learn about this and other diseases, so please keep me posted, Thanks, frank

  14. avatar

    Hello Frank,
    You state DNA testing with a cloacal swab…what about PCR testing?? I did direct fecal swabs. I understand that there can be a false negative,,but never a false positive. Therefore, I will be retesting my girl several times…the good thing about the PCR test is that it is affordable. What are your thoughts on this?

  15. avatar

    Hi Kelly,

    Thanks for raising this point; I’ve not had much experience with Polymerase Chain Reaction testing outside of zoos, but it is widely uised by zoo vets and the articles I’ve read suggest that the test is effective. best regards, frank

  16. avatar

    Hi Frank–I never got back to you after our trip to the NH reptile show–it was discouraging to chat with beardie breeders who kept claiming adenovirus is no big deal–everyone has it. My daughter was ready to change to skinks–lately I have really encouraged her “to keep looking” and researching.. We really cant afford a vet visit for adenovirus for any beardie we may acquire. FINALLY i think we have made progress. One daughter works for a vet who is a longtime family friend. I was wondering if we could do our own test and send it under her name to a lab in TX doing the PCR testing. Then Kat found a woman who has a deal with the lab and we can collect samples ourselves and send thru her. I havent gotten prices yet but it is very doable.
    Then Kat found a breeder in Manitoba who has tested and tested through the lady i previously mentioned and now has an adenovirus free colony. Northern Dragons is her name.
    Any advice with this new information??

    Thanks for all your help
    Connie

  17. avatar

    Hi Connie,

    I hope you and yours are well. Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with the breeder. Given the limited information we have on this disease, the best yu can do is to follow the advice of a vet that you trust…there’s not much going in on the way of research/funding, as far as I know, so there will always be an element of risk, including risk from ailments about which we know even less. Sorry I could not offer more useful advice, best, Frank

  18. avatar

    Hello Connie,
    You must be talking about Tracie Kretzcshar for the testing, and it is very affordable. $18 per test. And Nancy McBride who owns Northern Dragons in Manitoba. The only problem is that unless you live in Canada, you would not be able to purchase a dragon from Nancy. She is working on getting her liscense to ship to the U.S. though…hopefully it wont be too long. Both are wonderful women with alot of information to share.

  19. avatar

    We recently got a young bearded dragon, we offered him some crickets but he would not go for them, so we than tried 2 small meal worms and he ate both of them. But now he is not wanting to eat very much. What else can we try that might get him to eat?

    Also we have a Pac Man frog that is not wanting to eat…he did eat crickets when we first got him and he is large enough for mice and he readly ate one feeder mouse, but now he is not eating and nor is he being aggressive like they nornally are. What else can we try to feed him?

  20. avatar

    Hi Melissa,

    The problems are more likely related to the animals’ environments, or perhaps a health issue, rather than the type of food offered. Please send some info concerning temperatures, UVB exposure (for the lizard), substrate, tank size and set up, etc and I’ll get back to you with some suggestions. best, Frank

  21. avatar

    Hi frank I saved a pair of beared dragons yesterday from someone they aren’t very well looked after at all.Male has a deformed tail didn’t have correct lighting for a long time but eats good.Females one eye looks if the eyelid is damaged it keeps tearing but she also feeds real good must I worry about her eye get her to a vet for some medi or what to do I am new at keeping bearded dragons and need a lot of help still thanks Sindy

  22. avatar

    Hello Sindy,

    The eye should be examined by a vet, as there are a number of problems that can cause tearing; not possible to diagnose by symptoms alone. Please let me know if you need help in locating a reptile-experienced vet.

    Please see this article on bearded dragon care..(note temperature and UVB requirements) and let me know if you have ay questions.

    Enjoy, best regards, Frank

  23. avatar

    Hi from Australia. We have had a male beardie for 7 years. No contact with any other reptile. Wasting away in front of us, rarely moving and not eating. Stimulated by smell of food (application added) but will not move towards food. Will not accept food from hand. Bathed in diluted gateraide (electrolyte) will revive temporarily. Won’t drink. No detectable swelling and no stools. Help?

  24. avatar

    Hi Lynda,

    Unfortunately no way to diagnose w/o a vet visit, as symptoms typical of so many problems. A blockage (swallowed substrate, undigested food) is commonly involved, especially where there’s been no contact with others, but x-ray would be needed to confirm. Do you have an exper. vet available? Best, Frank

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About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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