⚠Warning! Graphic images below⚠
So today I wanted to take some time to talk about reproductive disease in bearded dragons. There are a few conditions which can occur including cloacal prolapse, dystocia (egg binding) and pre-ovulatory follicular stasis. Pre-ovulatory follicular stasis is the one that I want to talk about today because it seems to be the most prevalent in female bearded dragons.
Follicles are produced by the ovaries, but, due to inappropriate husbandry or underlying disease, hormones are thought to become imbalanced and ovulation does not occur. There are some things that can contribute but the reason this condition occurs is not fully understood. Predisposing factors include: sub-optimal nutrition, secondary nutritional hyperparathyroidism (metabolic bone disease), absence of males, secondary bacterial infection. In tortoises lack of normal seasonal patterns or lack of hibernation can contribute.
Therefore, because the follicles do not ovulate (to become eggs), they remain on the ovaries and increase in size. Often animals become anorexic as a result of space occupying masses. Secondary bacterial infection can occur and follicles can rupture which releases yolk. This leads to inflammation and yolk peritonitis which can be life-threatening if left untreated.
Signs for owners to monitor for include lethargy, anorexia, coelomic (abdomen) enlargement , back leg paresis (difficulty walking), dyspnea (trouble breathing), attempting to nest (hyperactivity or digging) or partially laying a clutch of eggs. Most bearded dragons will lay an average of 16-24 eggs per clutch. Therefore it is important to provide female bearded dragons with a suitable place to nest with a box filled with potting mix and coconut fiber.
Often reptile veterinarians will become suspicious for pre-ovulatory follicular stasis based on history and physical examination findings. To confirm however, coelomic ultrasound is recommended. The image below illustrates the use of ultrasound to visualize and measure the size of follicles (dark circular structures). Additionally, blood work can be helpful to assess blood cell counts (for infection or anemia), organ function and blood calcium levels. Other imaging such as x-rays or CT scan may also be recommended to further help with surgical planning (especially in turtles and tortoises).
Often animals present in very poor condition and may have other concurrent diseases (cloacal prolapse) present. Treatment aims to provide stabilization with fluid therapy, nutritional supplementation (calcium) and providing appropriate husbandry but if there is no improvement and eggs are not laid then surgery (spay) may need to be considered.
In cases where surgery is required, due to animals often being in poor health anesthetic risks are increased. Additionally if egg yolk peritonitis present then this also carries a poorer prognosis. The goals of surgery are to remove the ovaries and any of the yolk material that may be present. The picture below shows ovarian follicles which were removed during surgery.
Disclaimer: This article is intended to be informative and should not replace the recommendations made by your reptile veterinarian.