Unfortunately, our pets can’t tell us when they’re sick.
This means that no matter what kind of reptile you enjoy keeping, you’ll face one common challenge: You must try to interpret your pet’s health status by considering things like physical signs and behavioral patterns.
And unfortunately, scaled critters are typically rather stoic animals, who don’t show many obvious signs of illness.
That’s part of the reason it is wise to do things like weigh your pet lizard, snake, or turtle regularly, and record food refusals, shedding cycles and anything else unusual or noteworthy.
But there’s one more thing you’ll want to do to help ensure your pet remains healthy: You’ll need to monitor your pet’s stools. This is particularly important (and helpful) for bearded dragon keepers.
Below, we’ll explain what you should look for when examining your dragon’s droppings, as well as the ways in which you can distinguish healthy bearded dragon poop from those that may indicate a problem.
The Basics of Bearded Dragon Poop
Before you learn to spot problems with your bearded dragon’s poop, you need to familiarize yourself with what normal, healthy bearded dragon stools look like.
One of the first things to understand is that bearded dragons – like most other reptiles – produce stools that look a bit different than those you pick up while walking your dog or the ones you sift from your cat’s litter box.
So, we’ll try to compare and contrast the differences in mammalian and reptilian waste products below, to help you understand what you’re looking at.
Mammalian Waste Products
Most mammals process feces and the byproducts of protein metabolism (urine, in the case of most mammals) via entirely different systems.
Feces is produced via the intestinal tract and expelled from the rectum, while urine is made in the kidneys and pumped out via the urogenital system.
Animals may often expel both types of waste around the same time, but this isn’t a fundamental necessity.
The passage and presence of material in each system (the bladder and the intestines) may influence the way the other functions, but they are both independent systems.
Reptilian Waste Products
Snakes, lizards and turtles have very different anatomies than mammals, which causes changes in the way that they produce and expel wastes.
Snakes, lizards, and turtles all have a structure called the cloaca, which serves as a central collecting chamber for the products of the digestive, urinary, and reproductive systems.
In other words, when your bearded dragon’s body creates feces, urine or eggs, they’re first passed into the cloaca, before being expelled to the outside world.
This means that most reptiles tend to expel a combination of feces and urinary wastes at the same time.
Accordingly, bearded dragon droppings are typically comprised of two distinct substances – one that is fairly solid and brown to black in color, and another, which is whitish and varies from a paste-like to chalky consistency.
Essentially, bearded dragon poop often resembles bird poop (which is not surprising, given the close evolutionary relationship of birds and non-avian reptiles).
The brown portion is feces, and it is produced in the same basic method that mammals produce feces.
It is what’s left over after the animal’s food is digested, with a hefty helping of bacteria thrown in. The white portion, on the other hand, is typically a combination of uric acid and urea.
Uric acid and urea are produced by slightly different mechanisms than urine, but they’re essentially urine without very much water. Reptiles produce urea or uric acid rather than mammals as a method of conserving water.
Common Signs of a Problem
A bearded dragon in very good health will usually produce firm, dark brown to black stools along with a small amount of semi-liquid urates/urea.
Waste that differs from this can indicate a health problem. Some of the most common differences you may notice include:
1. The Presence of Visible Food Material
You may see identifiable food material in your dragon’s poop, such as portions of insect exoskeletons, legs, wings or antennae, as well as plant matter.
This may occur every time your bearded dragon produces waste, or it may only happen from time to time.
In either case, as long as the remnants are relatively small, this isn’t usually cause for concern.
However, you may want to scale back the size of the food you’re providing if the identifiable ingredients are particularly large, as bearded dragons can become impacted by consuming things that are too massive or otherwise difficult to digest.
2. Unidentified Items in Your Dragon’s Feces
Spotting pieces of insect legs or blackberry seeds in your bearded dragon’s waste is one thing but seeing things that you can’t readily identify is a different matter entirely.
Try to take the time to figure out what the material is, if possible. Use good lighting and brainstorm about potential answers. Are you looking at small pieces of wood substrate? Is it sand? Are you looking at hair your cat shed that somehow found its way into your bearded dragon’s belly?
In some cases, you won’t need to do anything after finding unusual items in your pet’s waste. Cat hair, for example, shouldn’t be a problem, as long as your lizard is passing it without issue and the quantities involved are small. Alternatively, you may want to switch substrates if you’re routinely seeing pieces of wood in your dragon’s droppings.
If you’re unable to determine what it is you’re looking at, you’ll want to seek veterinary assistance. Double bag the poop in a pair of sandwich bags, toss it in your fridge and get over to the vet ASAP.
3. Soft, Poorly Formed Stools
Soft stools are a pretty common issue for many reptiles. At times, they can represent nothing more than a minor intestinal malfunction, but they can also indicate the presence of a very serious health problem. For example, soft stools could be caused by a bacterial infection, parasites, tainted food, or various types of internal illness.
Your vet can help you determine the cause for your dragon’s soft stools and prescribe a prudent treatment. So, just be sure to seek your vet’s guidance if your pet produces soft, poorly formed stools for more than a day or two.
4. The Presence of Blood
A variety of problems can cause blood to appear in your bearded dragon’s poop. Your lizard may have ingested a sharp piece of substrate, he may be suffering from internal parasites, or pathogenic bacteria may be damaging his intestines.
But no matter the cause, the presence of blood often indicates a serious health problem, so you’ll want to head over to your vet’s office pronto. Just be sure to double bag and refrigerate the bloody stool and bring it with you to the vet.
5. Very Hard, Rock-Like Urates
Your bearded dragon may produce very hard, rock-like urates (the white portion of his waste) from time to time. This is typically caused by dehydration; your bearded dragon’s body is being forced to conserve water, so there isn’t very much available to help rid his body of ammonia and other urinary wastes.
If this occurs in an isolated fashion, it isn’t a terribly troubling problem. Make no mistake, you don’t want your bearded dragon to become dehydrated, and if left unchecked it can lead to serious illness or death. However, mild dehydration is usually pretty easy to fix.
Simply increase the amount of water you’re providing to your dragon and double-check your temperatures and the humidity level of his habitat. It may also be helpful to begin soaking your lizard for 15 minutes or so every day, and you may also consider adding more water-rich vegetables to his diet.
However, if your pet is routinely producing very hard urates, you’ll need to take a trip to your vet and ensure that your lizard isn’t suffering any more serious problems.
6. Oddly Colored Feces
Bearded dragons may occasionally produce oddly colored feces. Instead of being dark brown or black, your lizard’s stools may appear slightly green, yellow, or orange.
Most commonly, this is caused by things in your dragon’s diet. For example, if you feed your lizard more carrots than normal, his stools may be somewhat orange colored the next day. Similarly, things like blueberries or squash may tint the color of your bearded dragon’s poop.
As long as your lizard’s food seems to be the culprit, this is no cause for concern. Just avoid giving him the presumed offending item for a day or two and ensure that his droppings return to normal color.
Just be sure to contact your vet if your dragon’s waste does not return to normal. This could indicate any number of problems, ranging from intestinal infections to organ failure to parasites.
7. Excessively Firm, Dry Feces
Very firm, dry feces is typically caused by dehydration. Accordingly, you will likely see this happen at the same time that your lizard begins producing hard, chalk-like urates.
If your bearded dragon’s feces looks harder, firmer or drier than normal, increase the amount of water you provide to your lizard and look for their consistency to soften slightly over the next few days. If they do not improve, seek veterinary assistance.
Note that your bearded dragon’s droppings will often firm and dry pretty quickly once deposited on the substrate. This is particularly true when they’re deposited under the heat lamp or on top of something desiccating, such as sand. So, if you’re worried about the consistency of your dragon’s droppings, try to observe him while he’s actually defecating. This is the time at which they should have the highest moisture content.
8. Particularly Foul-Smelling Waste
Bearded dragon waste normally smells pretty bad. But you should learn to recognize the typical odor over time. So, always take note of different odors you may notice.
As with many of these other noteworthy symptoms we’ve discussed above, this usually isn’t a problem if it occurs in a one-off fashion. Stinky poops happen from time to time, and they’re no big deal. Specific foods may cause odors, or they may be caused by minor, short-term bacterial blooms in your pet’s intestines.
But foul odors may also precipitate from serious health problems too. In such cases, the odor will tend to be relatively consistent, and you’ll need to seek veterinary care for your pet.
What Should You Do If Your Dragon’s Stool Indicate Illness?
It is always important to note (and ideally, document) when your bearded dragon produces problematic or otherwise noteworthy stools.
But poor stools don’t always indicate serious illness – most animals suffer from occasional bouts of intestinal upset that resolves without any type of medical care.
So, the first thing you must do is judge the severity of the problem. Is your bearded dragon’s stool slightly soft, but otherwise normal, or is it nearly liquid and terribly foul-smelling?
You’d certainly want to note the former and pay close attention to your dragon’s elimination habits over the next few days to ensure they return to normal.
But if your dragon’s waste is very unusual looking, such as described in the latter example above, you probably want to make an appointment with your vet or at least give him or her a phone call.
Consider the duration of the problem too. A single bad poop is rarely cause for concern, but repeated poor stools – even if they are only slightly “off” – are always worth a trip to the vet.
Your bearded dragon’s poop is certainly not the most fascinating thing to think about, but it is important to catch potential problems quickly. If you do suspect that your bearded dragon is suffering from a health problem, take immediate steps to address any husbandry issues that may be contributing to the problem and consider contacting your vet.
Not every atypical poop will require veterinary attention, but it’s usually wise to err on the side of caution. As always, you’ll just have to consider the specifics of the situation and make the best possible decision you can on behalf of your pet.