Iguana Can’t Poop? 11 Important Solutions

Updated on June 13, 2020
Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa holds a Bachelor's degree in biology and is a plant and animal enthusiast with multiple pets.

If you have a green iguana or another lizard that is having difficulty using the bathroom or cannot poop at all due to neurological disease, this is potentially a life-saving article that compiles the advice of some veterinarians as well as anecdotal reports from owners, including my own, that have aided in resolving this critical issue.

My Iguana's Condition

I have a 17+-year-old green iguana who has “severe, ankylosing, proliferative osteodystrophy of the entire spinal column” (statement taken from her radiology report in 2019) which was the result of a tail infection that spread to her spine back in 2010 (she was brought to a renowned exotic animal vet who adamantly encouraged euthanasia).

While my iguana recovered from that condition with antibiotics and lived normally for many years, in June of 2019, she fell and landed on her back, which immediately resulted in significant impairment to her back legs (paresis) and the complete cessation of her ability to defecate or urinate. She was x-rayed and a "complete, compound spinal fracture" was observed which is presumed to be the cause of her problems.

This article will outline some steps that can be taken for iguana owners experiencing similar issues with their lizards that have worked for others and my personal anecdotal experiences that led me to discover some potentially imperative methods and techniques to allow my iguana to defecate. My iguana had been to eight vets in 5 months including a top veterinary college with an exotics and neurology department, so hopefully, this will save other owners money, frustration, and time.

How Long Can an Iguana Go Without Pooping?

It may be something of a relief to learn that iguanas can go much longer than humans and other mammals without defecating or urinating. Iguanas, unlike some other lizard species, possess a urinary bladder. In cats, males will sometimes get a condition that blocks their ability to urinate and this can cause death in as little as 24 hours due to toxins backing up [13], however, reptiles are thankfully different.

I was told by an exotic animal vet at a veterinary college that an iguana may be able to go without defecating for up to a month. In addition, lizards can re-absorb the material from their bladders according to this vet statement from an email: “The urinary bladder is not an excretory organ in lizards and serves as a reservoir for water from which fluids are reabsorbed. We are not concerned about the urinary bladder for Dragon”.

My iguana did not defecate or urinate for over a month without any severe apparent effects (with reduced food intake), although her behavior that resembled her actions when gravid suggested discomfort. She also had an accumulation of hard urates when she finally had the material removed. There is anecdotal evidence that iguanas can go even longer without defecating. I am stating this to suggest that there is sufficient time to explore other options before considering euthanasia.

Husbandry Check

If your reptile won't defecate, the first thing you should do is make sure the humidity levels, temperature, diet, and enclosure are adequate for your species. It might be possible that inadequate care can lead to stress and constipation for various reasons [6][10][12][18], so make sure to tick off the boxes for these specifications before proceeding, and make sure your iguana is actually eating.

After the corrections are made and your lizard still can't or won't use the bathroom, you should try the more conservative remedies first.

Important: See a Vet

It is strongly advised whenever possible to take your lizard to a vet who regularly sees reptiles or has the experience (one way to locate these vets is through the locator on The Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians' website, although there may be others not listed there).

This is mandatory if your pet is showing other signs of illness in addition to constipation [9][10].

Vets who do not regularly see reptiles may be limited in what information they can give, but you can still receive some important diagnostics like radiographs that you can use for second opinions from other vets (try emailing reptile specialist vets or posting on veterinary Facebook groups).

It is important to establish the cause of your reptile’s problem before attempting more invasive methods and procedures; however, some potential remedies, like soaking, should be harm free.

Once you establish a cause (or rule certain causes out), you can proceed to attempt the following methods.

1. Warm Bath

If your iguana or bearded dragon can’t or won’t poop, the first somewhat obvious course of action and the least invasive is to let them soak in a warm bath. Periodic bathing is beneficial even for non-therapeutic reasons; it helps tropical reptiles in drier environments shed, and of course, it can be very stimulating for reptiles in making their bowels move [8].

Be sure the bath is only lukewarm, never hot, and does not exceed the height of the iguana's head. Most iguanas love to defecate in water, therefore if you are constantly soaking and your iguana does not poop, there is likely a problem.

2. Massage

In addition to soaking, many sources recommend massaging lizards with presumed constipation lengthwise, often “from sternum to vent” along underside the animal [9][10]. This appears to be an effective method for bearded dragons, but I've had more luck addressing the sides of my iguana (more on that below).

Melissa S
Melissa S | Source

3. "Vibration" Therapy

Here is one method that would probably have the best potential to work for reptiles suffering from constipation due to fecal impaction (no neurological problems or foreign obstruction).

A veterinarian, Dr. Zoltan, attached a small vibrator with medical adhesive bandages to a constipated iguana to successfully help it poop by breaking up compacted fecal material. The specifics of this iguana's condition are unknown, but one of my iguana's many vets mentioned this method to me. I also tried this but it didn’t work, likely because my iguana has neurological dysfunction.

5. Pain Killers

If your iguana has stopped defecating after injury or trauma, there is a possibility that they’ve stopped eliminating due to pain. My iguana’s radiology report stated “fecal material may be static due to pain or primary neurology deficits” and this was proposed by other veterinarians.

If a spinal injury is suspected, your vet may prescribe Metacam, which is an anti-inflammatory and pain killer that will alleviate discomfort as well as reduce potential inflammation that could be contributing to the problem. I now believe Metacam was essential in helping my neurologically-compromised iguana.

Tramadol is another pain killer that might be more potent but unfortunately, constipation is a potential side effect of this drug.

Be Conservative

Please be sure to try the less invasive methods first, especially if you can't see a veterinarian. Some of the solutions below are considered to have some risk. This does not apply to advice from qualified vets, however be aware that there is some disagreement among certain methods even among medical professionals, as I've experienced.

4. Laxatives

There are different laxatives that are recommended both anecdotally and by veterinarians, and the safest to try would be fruits and vegetables that are already safe for reptiles to eat normally [9][20].

  • Pumpkin. This is an excellent food for gastrointestinal issues that will help bulk up the stool for animals that have diarrhea or soften conditions of hardened stool [3][5][17]. Pumpkin is safe for iguanas as long as it is not given in high amounts in the long term, which would throw off the right nutritional ratio.
  • Prunes have been shown to have some laxative effect in humans and animals [15][16].
  • Apple Sauce had been suggested anecdotally.
  • Olive Oil. This is recommended anecdotally [18].
  • Mineral Oil. Another popular remedy in reptile communities, but some people see it as riskier.
  • Xiao Zhang San. This is a Chinese laxative that was prescribed to my iguana.

Pumpkin mixed with Critical Care.
Pumpkin mixed with Critical Care.

6. Veterinarian-Prescribed Drugs

Your vet may prescribe a gut motility drug to see if that will work, as was my experience. I'm unaware if there was any benefit to the medication that I received, but I am listing this here so people know that it is an option.

7. Manual Induction (Important)

My iguana has not had a complete bowel movement on her own since the spinal injury. Through much trial and error I have made some important conclusions:

  • Iguanas seem to always urinate first. Green iguanas appear to eliminate in a specific sequence, meaning that signaling involves the release of the bladder which then stimulates the colon to empty.
  • Soaking before attempting to induce defecation may help, perhaps by triggering the iguana psychologically as they usually prefer to go in water.
  • I highly recommend that your iguana is on Metacam (from a veterinarian) while attempting manual induction and to not miss a dose.

Holding vertically and lifting the area over the vent to stimulate defecation.
Holding vertically and lifting the area over the vent to stimulate defecation.

My iguana’s defecation has been induced by three essential techniques:

  • Holding the iguana vertically. This is absolutely the most important step for my iguana, and I suspect it can help with lizards that have the same issue. My iguana has never had a complete bowel movement without the added help of being held in a vertical position and has sometimes had a bowel movement doing this only (while on Metacam). If your iguana has been given an enema and still won't poop, I highly recommend holding them this way afterwards or informing the veterinarian to do so (my iguana's first enema was unsuccessful). The iguana may be able to defecate doing this only.
  • Open the vent. If there is still no defecation, the following has also made a dramatic difference in my iguana. While holding the iguana vertically, lift the skin directly above the vent (the area where the iguana eliminates from) ‘upwards’ (towards the stomach) like in the photo.
  • Palpitation. Finally, if your iguana still can’t defecate you may need to help the bowels/bladder along by pressing up against the iguana’s left side with your fingers. Iguana’s intestines fall on the left side while the colon is located higher up and the bladder is beneath it, as my iguana's radiograph shows. Press lightly and then perhaps more firmly against the area next to the back legs while holding the iguana vertically to see if any changes occur. If the vent is observed being stimulated, be persistent; alternate between pressing and holding or pushing on the area depending on the results observed.

This may take some finagling to accomplish depending on your iguana’s size and comfort level being held. It is important to establish the exact cause of the iguana’s condition with a veterinarian to avoid potentially causing more harm (for instance, if the iguana is gravid or if there is a blockage making defecation impossible).

The yellow arrow points to the area where the poop had stalled. Notice how high this area is and why massaging the belly wouldn't access this point. The bladder on the other hand, is below.
The yellow arrow points to the area where the poop had stalled. Notice how high this area is and why massaging the belly wouldn't access this point. The bladder on the other hand, is below.

8. Fluids

The veterinary college was adamant about giving my iguana subcutaneous fluids and warm soaks with the hopes of encouraging defecation over enemas [4]. “We recommend rehydrating with subcutaneous fluids”. Hydrating reptiles can sometimes result in helping to encourage a bowel movement.

A vet can administer fluids [19] but pet owners can also try to increase water intake by syringing water into their pet's mouth (be careful that your reptile doesn't aspirate) or feeding foods like watermelon. This is a less invasive treatment that can be attempted before other means.

9. Enema

Some vets may recommend enemas to induce defecation for iguanas, but this is apparently controversial. At the veterinary college, I was told not to have an enema done as was stated in an email, “We generally do not recommend enemas due to the potential for harm and do not feel there is good efficacy with enemas in producing defecation.” The harm being discussed is the possibility of pushing fecal material into the bladder (“We do not recommend repeating an enema as it could cause more harm than good. It could result in flushing fecal material into the bladder”).

However, I was encouraged to have an enema done at another exotic pet-only practice. My iguana had 3 enemas done: the first time was at a non-exotic specific hospital and there was no defecation (I was told the enema fluid would be harmful if no defecation occurred, however, my iguana seemed to experience no issues), the second time was at the exotic-only hospital along with electroacupuncture therapy (discussed below) and there was still no defecation, and the third time was at a traditional veterinary hospital, of which some (but apparently not all) fecal material came out. This was after her deobstipation procedure (discussed below).

Do not attempt to give enemas without assistance from a vet [11].

Source

10. Electroacupunture

This procedure is not like non-evidence-based traditional acupuncture and has more in common with TENS therapy (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) [14]. It involves using thin needs to provide electrical stimulation to various areas with the hopes of improving the signaling that was made dysfunctional by spinal injuries (it is also said to relieve pain).

Using this procedure on reptiles is highly experimental with limited evidence in humans and other animals, however, there is little risk, with perhaps the only one being that iguanas do not like being handled, restrained, or having needles placed, however, there should be little if any pain.

My iguana has received multiple electroacupuncture sessions from 5 different practices. The cost varies from $25 to $100 per session and at least 3 sessions should be given.

Anecdotally, my iguana was not able to defecate until she received this therapy (including passing a small amount of urate during a session) however she underwent enemas, received other medications, and time went by which could have contributed to or have been fully responsible for the changes. I sought out this therapy after reading a case study where another iguana appeared to have defecation function fully restored after undergoing it [1].

11. Manual Deobstipation

This is a non-surgical procedure that involves manually removing the feces with a “bladder spoon” and a catheter under light sedation. It is notable that I was surprisingly told by the veterinary college that removing the feces without surgery was not possible, as this quote from an email states: “We cannot manually remove feces from Dragon without surgery. There is no other way to do that.”

Obviously this is a temporary solution to help iguanas that have not defecated after a long period and it will buy then so more time to explore other options with the hopes that diet change, medication, or natural healing of the spinal cord can take effect. There is some evidence in anoles that reptiles can regenerate spinal tissue [7].

Conclusion

  • Get a second, or third medical opinion. Exotic pets are new territory in the field of veterinary medicine, and it can be extremely helpful to get different perspectives, especially from vets with a lot of reptile experience.
  • Keep trying. Some of the methods I've described here didn't work right away or work the same way each time, and there seemed to be changes along the way for unknown reasons.
  • Don't overdo it. Be sure to give your reptile plenty of rest between using any of the strategies listed here to avoid stressing them out too much.
  • Understand the limitations. Veterinary medicine is limited in options for iguanas with neurological problems, as I came to understand, and sometimes it is a waiting game.

Works Cited

  1. Divers, Stephen J., and Douglas R. Mader, eds. Reptile Medicine and Surgery-E-Book. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2005.
  2. Burgess, Mark and Surrency, Melinda. Caring for Your Iguana.
  3. Fissore, E. N., et al. "Characterisation of fiber obtained from pumpkin (Cucumis moschata Duch.) mesocarp through enzymatic treatment." Food science and technology international 13.2 (2007): 141-151.
  4. Gibbons, Paul. CRITICAL CARE NUTRITION AND FLUID THERAPY IN REPTILES. Animal Emergency Center & Specialty Services,
  5. How Does Pumpkin Help My Pet's Digestive Health?. 1800petmeds.com.
  6. Iguana Not Pooping – Reasons For Constipation and Solutions. Lizards101.com
  7. Jacyniak, Kathy, Rebecca P. McDonald, and Matthew K. Vickaryous. "Tail regeneration and other phenomena of wound healing and tissue restoration in lizards." Journal of Experimental Biology 220.16 (2017): 2858-2869.
  8. Kaplan, Melissa. "Bathing and Swimming: Not Just A Bathroom Activity". 2002.
  9. Kaplan, Melissa. "Laxative Use In Reptiles" 1997.
  10. Kaplan, Melissa. "Constipation and Diarrhea in Green Iguanas" 2000.
  11. Kaplan, Melissa. "Constipation and Diarrhea in Reptiles" 2000.
  12. Lock, Brad. "Constipation in Reptiles". Veterinary Partner. 2017.
  13. Martinoli, Stefania. "The blocked cat: surgical options." BSAVA Congress Proceedings 2017. BSAVA Library, 2017.
  14. McKenzie, Brennen. JAVMA Article on Electroacupuncture for IVDD. Skeptvet.
  15. MM, El-Nahal Dalia, and E. F. Sayed-Ahmed. "Utilization of prune juice or puree as a laxative for constipation pregnant rats induced iron intake during pregnancy and the impact on newborns." International Journal of Nutrition and Food Sciences 2.6 (2014): 342.
  16. Piirainen, Laura, et al. "Prune juice has a mild laxative effect in adults with certain gastrointestinal symptoms." Nutrition research 27.8 (2007): 511-513.
  17. POPESCU, Adelina. "The mineral substances intake in the alimentary pumpkin." (2018).
  18. "Stacey". Ultimate Guide to Bearded Dragon Impaction: Signs, Treatments, & More. 2019.
  19. Wissman, Margaret. "Constipated Lizard".
  20. Yakabowich, Marilyn. "Prescribe with care: the role of laxatives in the treatment of constipation." Journal of Gerontological Nursing 16.7 (1990): 4-9.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

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