What Is an Impaction in Reptiles?
Reptiles, like any species, are prone to numerous health issues. Many of these health issues can result from poor husbandry and many are preventable. When it comes to impactions in reptiles, the condition can quickly turn fatal, which is why it's important to understand proper husbandry protocols in order to determine when you should take your reptile in to be seen by a veterinarian.
What Is an Impaction?
An impaction is a condition in which the digestive tract is blocked by a solid or a semi-solid mass. If it is not treated, it can become fatal.
Causes of Impactions in Reptiles
Impactions can be caused by various sources, the most common of which is housing your reptile on loose substrates. Some additional hazards are listed below as well.
- Loose substrates: Loose substrates can become accidentally ingested, especially by juveniles and babies. They are the most common cause of impactions in reptiles.
- Large feeders: Feeding reptiles food that is either too large or inappropriate can cause this condition. You should never feed insects that are larger than the width of a reptile's head (excluding snakes, in which case the rule of thumb for feeding is that the feeder rodent be no larger than the largest part of the snake). Feeders that are too large can get stuck in the digestive tract, causing a blockage.
- Hard-shelled feeders: Feeder insects that have a hard outer shell can also cause an impaction. You should only feed these types of feeders to larger reptiles, never babies or juveniles.
- Low temperatures: Low temperatures can cause inadequate digestion, which is one more reason to make sure you have proper temperatures. If the reptile requires belly heat versus air heat, make sure that you include an under-tank heater as a part of their enclosure. Make sure that the basking sites of diurnal reptiles are appropriate temperatures as well.
- Dehydration: One other cause of blockages is dehydration; always provide your reptiles with fresh water.
The Dangers of Loose Substrates
Impactions caused by loose substrates develop over time, so the symptoms are more gradual. Most of the time, symptoms will go unseen until it is too late. Calci-Sand, Vita-Sand, and other calcium-based sand is a BIG no-no. Do not trust the manufacturer's label if it says the substrate is "digestible."
If a substrate contains calcium, reptiles are more likely to eat it, but where calcium is good, sand is not. Calc-Sand clumps together when it is wet, so imagine what it will do inside a reptile. When wet, it doesn't dissolve either (so what makes the manufacturers believe it will in a reptile's body?). Other high-risk substrates include:
- Play Sand
Other risky substrates include corn cob, crushed walnut shells, gravel, cat litter, and pebbles. Any other pellet-type substrates should not be used in a reptile's enclosure either, as they too can cause blockages if ingested. The safest substrates that you can use are tile, slate, reptile carpet, and paper towels.
Symptoms of Blockages
The first symptom that you may notice is that your reptile's fecal matter may contain loose substrate. For example, their feces may be covered in sand, but you know that they did not kick sand onto it because there are no holes in the substrate. So, if a blockage has occurred, the following symptoms might be noticed depending on severity:
- Straining to excrete fecal matter
- Slight leg trembles
- Slight bumps along the spinal area
- Lack of appetite
- A blue/bruised area on the abdomen
- Difficulty breathing
When paralysis occurs in one or both back legs, the impaction is likely in the lower digestive tract, but when it involves one or both front legs, the impaction is likely in the upper digestive tract.
Treating Impactions in Reptiles
Your reptile should always see a vet first if you suspect something is wrong. In milder cases that are not considered critical, you can attempt to manage the condition at home with veterinary approval.
If you are able to catch an impaction early on, you can set up your reptile in a different enclosure or reformat the current one. Here's how:
- Include an under-tank heater to help achieve appropriate temperatures.
- Use paper towels as the substrate, as they are disposable and easy to clean; using paper towels also ensures that your reptile will not be able to ingest any more loose substrate.
If your reptile is showing more moderate to severe symptoms, you will need to take them to a reptile vet ASAP.
If your reptile is showing mild symptoms, you will want to first set them up in an enclosure that is free of loose substrate. Then, follow the method below:
- Talk to your vet about getting a vet-approved, reptile-safe "laxative." Refrain from using olive oil and other substitutes until you have discussed your options with your vet.
- Give your reptile warm soaks at least once a day. Make sure to not let the water get hotter than the species' normal basking temperatures.
- Try to give as much fluid to them as you can without too much force.
- Do not give the reptile any solids, yet. Try to provide them with different baby foods. Bearded dragons and omnivorous reptiles can eat fruit or vegetable baby foods, and insectivores can be offered chicken and turkey baby foods. Make sure to add supplements to the baby food.
- Consider using a dropper to feed your reptile the baby food, but see if they will eat on their own, first.
This method may take several days to get the blockage moving through your reptile's body, but do not let it go on for more than that.
The next option really isn't an option at all. If your reptile is not doing well, you should take them to the vet ASAP. Hopefully, you know or have found a good reptile veterinarian in the area. The vet will try to flush the impaction out by giving your reptile an enema. NEVER try this on your own!
How to Prevent Blockages in Reptiles
If you want to prevent an impaction, start your reptile on a solid surface; do not use loose substrates. In addition, take extreme care not to house reptiles under one year on loose substrates. Also, consider the following:
- Feed size-appropriate foods. Make sure that crickets aren't too big for your reptile and chop all fruits and veggies up to into a smaller size.
- Make sure that the temperatures in the enclosure are not too low or too high. By using a digital thermometer with a probe, you can accurately determine the temperatures in the enclosure. Fluker's manufactures a digital thermometer with a probe that not only measures temperature but also humidity, which can be very important in creating the proper enclosure for your reptile.
- Keep a bowl of calcium in the aquarium at all times.
- Keep fresh water in the enclosure.
As always, take your reptile to the vet if you notice any health issues. The sooner, the better, as waiting can result in major illness or death.
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.