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My Bearded Dragon is Not Eating: What to Do

Head and

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Bearded Dragons (Pogona vitticeps) are among the most popular of all reptile pets and a great choice for both new and experienced lizard enthusiasts.  But apparently-healthy specimens sometimes refuse to feed, or lose weight despite feeding, and there is still much confusion as to why this occurs.  My work with Bearded Dragons and hundreds of other lizards in zoos and at home has (I hope!) provided me with some useful insights into this problem.  When presented with a non-feeding Bearded Dragon, we must check our husbandry protocol (UVB, temperature, etc.) and investigate the possibility of a disease or injury. Other potential problems, such as the effects of circadian rhythms (“internal clocks”), may be less obvious, yet very important.

Feeding

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Is My Lizard Hibernating?

Hibernation (or brumation) is not the neat, tidy process I learned about as a child – there are varying degrees of dormancy. Depending upon where they live within the natural range, wild Bearded Dragons may experience severe winters, and will become dormant for several months each year. However, those in milder regions may remain active (please see the article linked below to read more about their natural history).

Pets sometimes cease feeding in the fall, despite being provided with 12-14 hours of daylight and high temperatures.  Although all Bearded Dragons in the US pet trade are several generations removed from the wild, the tendency to hibernate may persist.  “Internal clocks”, or circadian rhythms, can cause pets to become lethargic and refuse food during the winter.  To confuse matters further, some reptiles enter dormancy when winter arrives in their native habitats…even if it happens to be summertime in their present home!  I’ve seen this among captive Indian Gharials (fish-eating crocodiles) and other reptiles.

The Bearded Dragon Habitat

Bearded Dragons vary in their response to crowding.  Moving your pet to a larger terrarium may help, and this will also make it easier for you to establish a thermal gradient. Thermal gradients, which allow reptiles to move from hot to cool areas, are critical to good health. A 30 gallon long-style aquarium is the minimum size that should be considered for an adult…a 55 or larger is preferable.

Basking

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Inappropriate temperatures will cause your lizard to slow down its feeding, and will impair digestion. An incandescent spotlight bulb should be used to create a basking site of 100-110 F. The rest of the terrarium should be kept at a temperature range of 72-85 F.

 

Like all desert-dwelling diurnal lizards, Bearded Dragons require high UVB levels. If a florescent bulb is used (Zoo Med’s models are excellent), be sure that your pet can bask within the distance recommended by the manufacturer. Mercury vapor bulbs broadcast UVB over greater distances, and provide beneficial UVA radiation as well.

Beetle Grub

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Diet

Wild Bearded Dragons feed upon a huge array of plants, invertebrates, and the occasional small lizard, snake or rodent. A diet comprised only of crickets, mealworms and a simple salad will not support good health long term. Offering different types of insects can also incite new interest in feeding.  We see this most commonly in chameleons, but the enthusiasm your Bearded Dragons will show for novel foods will leave you with no doubt as to their value.

Please see the articles linked below to read more about adding silkworms, house flies, sow bugs, wild-caught insects and other important foods to your pet’s diet. Studies have shown that some lizards will alter their diet in accordance with changing nutritional needs…your pet’s poor appetite may indicate that more variety is needed.

Stress

While female Bearded Dragons usually co-exist, males are intolerant of other males and cannot be kept together. If you keep your lizards in a group, make certain that each is able to bask and to obtain enough to eat. Dominant animals can frighten others even without direct aggression…merely seeing a “bully” in another terrarium may be enough to inhibit an animal from feeding. Appetite-suppressing aggression is also common among young lizards that are being raised in groups.

 

Locating the terrarium in a noisy part of the house, or where there are vibrations from machinery, may also depress appetites and contribute to other health concerns.

 

t420Disease, Impactions and other Health Issues

An impaction from substrate (swallowed with meals) is one of the more common reasons that Bearded Dragons cease feeding. While many have been successfully kept on sand, others seem to have problems almost immediately. The exact type of substrate used, composition of the diet, calcium intake, hydration levels and many other factors likely play a role in explaining the differences we see. Washable terrarium liners are the safest substrate option.

 

Unfortunately, highly-contagious Atadenoviruses are well-established in US Bearded Dragon populations. These viruses are spread via body contact and improperly cleaned tools; afflicted females may also pass infections along to their young. Some of the illnesses they cause, including Wasting Disease and “Star Gazing”, are accompanied by a loss of appetite and/or weight. Please see the article linked below for further information.

Internal or external parasites, and a host of other less common ailments, should also be investigated if your pet stops eating, or if it feeds but continues to lose weight. Please post below if you need help in locating a reptile experienced veterinarian.

Hi, my name is Frank Indiviglio. I’m a herpetologist, zoologist, and book author, recently retired from a career spent at several zoos, aquariums, and museums, including over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo.

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.

 

Further Reading

 

Atadenovirus in Bearded Dragons

 

Hibernation in Bearded Dragons

 

Collecting Insects as Food for Reptiles

14 comments

  1. avatar

    “To confuse matters further, some reptiles enter dormancy when winter arrives in their native habitats…even if it happens to be summertime in their present home! I’ve seen this among captive Indian Gharials (fish-eating crocodiles) and other reptiles.”

    I find this utterly fascinating! Are there any additional studies or research being done to discover why and how this could happen?

  2. avatar

    Thanks for your interest Mel…it is amazing, and understanding it is the key to breeding many species..i.e. those that need a chill in order to develop eggs, etc. We always work on this when seeking to breed rare reptiles..holds true in other animals as well..i.e. axis deer at the Bx Zoo adjusted to our sessons, whereas Sambar continued to give birth in the winter here in NY.

    The gharials were 17 years out of the wild, yet became dormant in tune with winter in N. India, despite being kept warm, long light cycle…they moved about, basked, but did not feed for 3 months, yet lost no weight.

    Wild caught temperate zone turtles, i.e wood turtles, often cease feeding in winter when kept indoors, yet the young of these same animals tend to remain active year round…and so on!…lots of room for work in this area,

    Best, Frank

  3. avatar

    my 48 week female bearded dragon as gone off her diet food such as peppers lettuce tomatoes strawberries ect
    she will still eat live food but thats it
    can some one help please ?
    thanks

  4. avatar

    Hello Len,

    If the animal is in winter slowdown as described in the article it may just accept favored foods. Otherwise, changing the types of greens/salad offered and keeping it hungry may help to stimulate interest in food. Well fed animals sometimes choose favorites only…a fast will do it no harm. Please keep me posted, Frank

  5. avatar

    I have a female bearded dragon who hasn’t eaten in over a week. She sleeps alot is very weak and doesn’t seem herself. Can anyone help

  6. avatar

    Hello Melissa,

    Please send some info on day/nite temperatures and UVB exposure. If it’s not temperature related, then a vet visit would be necessary to diagnose the problem, as those symptoms are typical of just about all illnesses. Best, Frank

  7. avatar

    I am pretty new to having a bearded dragon I have a 1 year old female beardie, who I have owned 6 months and she wont eat her livefood. she was eating around 10 large locust a day and more if I let her but now I am lucky if she will eat 2!
    luckily she does look healthy, alert, colourful and a nice white belly and will eat salads. she is full of energy which is nice to see as since October she has been brumating on and off. I just cant put my finger on why she wont eat insects, I tried her with crickets and she ate about 5 but then no interest again she just looks at the food the me and runs off

  8. avatar

    Hi Kirsty,

    It’s normal for them to switch from insects to a largely vegetarian diet as they mature…many pets do not, but in the wild this is what they would do. She may go through periods when insects will be taken more often, depending on her nutritional needs. Try adding different vegetable and greens to the diet, and powder these with calcium and vitamin supplements 2-3 x weekly. You can also try other types of insects (see here for ideas) but no need to worry about the diet change. Best., Frank

  9. avatar

    I am seeking advice about my baby beardie. I had got him for a valentines day gift and he is about two months old. Every morning I put about 5-6 mealsworms in his cage to eat. I only put so little bbecause he never eats them. I have seen him eat about 3-4.. But not lately. He never eats his greens that are freshly put in everyday. I read that he could just be stressed. I do hold him everyday. For about 10 minutes. Which is what the pet store manager said so he can get use to me. I’m scared he may be starving himself.. Please help!

  10. avatar

    Hello Jessa,

    Can you please let me know what temperatures you are keeping at the basking site, and in the rest of the tank, and also at night? Low temperatures are the most common reason for lack of appetite. Also, what type of UVB bulb do you have?

    Stress is also important..the animal should not be handled until it is feeding well; after that, it will be simple to handle if you wish – they take to it well, and do not need to get used to you.

    Mealworms should only be offered rarely, if at all. Please see this article for more on bearded dragon care and feeding, and send along the temperature info and I’ll check if any changes may be useful.

    best, frank

  11. avatar

    1r old male beardie won’t eat. Built outdoor enclosure 2014 with 2 tortoise. Aprox. 12/5/14 went into hiding brumation? Came out of hiding 1/27/15. (Live in south Florida below Orlando) “Spike” hasn’t ate since. then on 2/13/15 he ate 3 super worms! Refuses to eat any greens – tried many different greens to no avail.
    I bring him inside his 40gal tank for in climate weather (rain/cold spells) to dry & warm up. Keep temperature aprox. 105Degrees (day time) includes uvb light. He will only take little water from me from a syringe. He gets quite feisty at times trashing his terrarium (assuming he wants outside) but then seems to be desperate to escape outside enclosure at times.
    I’m frustrated and concerned. Any advice appreciated.
    Also, I can’t seem to find a dragon vetenarian in my area (Port St. Lucie, FL 34953) can you refer me to one nearby? Thanks so much man.
    Greg

  12. avatar

    Hello Greg,

    I’ve forwarded 2 links for lists of reptile experienced vets in Fla; if none are convenient, call the closest and ask for a reference, as there will be others not listed; local herp societies generally maintain lists also.

    A vet visit would be your best option. I have kept them and related on natural substrates, but impactions can occur; also, I’m not sure what temps the animal experienced outdoors, but too much of a drop can impact immune system, cause problems when they become active.

    Tortoises typically carry a variety of parasites that are not troublesome to healthy tortoises, but which can cause fatalities in lizards and snakes. We’ve had many problems re this in mixed exhibits in zoos, and now test/medicate tortoises before introducing other reptiles…especially common in outdoor situations.

    Please let me know how all goes, frank
    http://www.nytts.org/nytts/helpnet.htm#FL
    http://www.anapsid.org/vets/florida.html

  13. avatar

    Hello Frank,

    I would like to ask you about some strange health issues which is my bearded dragon experiencing.

    At first I would like to apologise for any mistakes in my English.

    I have two bearded dragons females and one of them started to have head tremors (vibrations) after laying eggs. She is also not eating well, I have to help her with feeding, it looks like she can’t aim crickets and roaches well. All these problems started after laying eggs. I give her calcium (every day), vitamins (3 times per week) and green vegetables + crickets. They have UVA + UVB in their tank + daylight fluorescent tube.

    I visited our local vet for reptiles and he has done some radiograph to check possibility for eggs retention. I saw that picture and there were still some small eggs, he said there are clumps of sand and told me to hydrate bearded dragon and feed him and that was all. I guess he is some amateur vet. I don’t know any reptile specialist vet here. Anyway, after this visitation, my bearded dragon were laying small eggs, about 3 eggs per every second day for 2 weeks. Strange. She was also twisting to her back (it looked as epileptic fit), stargazing (I thought it could be Adenovirus). After one month, she stopped to have these symptoms (it was 5 months ago) and she was better and better. Still unable to eat by herself.

    After next 2-3 months, she was able to eat herself when I was moving food near her mouth, her tongue was still shaking.

    Some days ago, she was laying eggs again and she started to have these symptoms again. Do you have any advice what could it be or how to make her better?

    My second bearded dragon is fit, without any signs of problems.

    Thank you very much in advance :-)

  14. avatar

    Hello Adam,

    Thanks for posting here. Unfortunately, adenovirus can elicit a variety of symptoms, and we still have much to learn; see here. Not much that can be done if that is the case. Low calcium levels can cause some related symptoms, and this is especially common in females, which tend to over-produce eggs in captivity. CA gluconate injections may help, but blood CA levels would need to be evaluated. Unfortunately, there are a variety of illnesses about which we know very little, and symptoms are not always useful in diagnosis. Sorry I could not be of more help..please keep me posted, as each observation is valuable, 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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