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Tail Issues in Green Iguanas

Melissa cares for a variety of exotic animals and has completed a certificate in veterinary assisting and a bachelor's degree in biology.

tail-issues-in-green-iguanas

One of the first features people notice upon viewing an adult green iguana is its long, gorgeous and striped tail.

A lizard's tail is a caudal extension of its vertebral column and is used for swimming, defense, and locomotion.

In the wild, the iguana's tail is often adorned with long spikes, which tend to be shorter in most captive situations. Unsurprisingly, the iguana's tail, which takes up about 2/3 of its body, is unfortunately prone to damage from accidents, inadequate enclosure size, infection, and other issues.

What's Wrong With My Iguana's Tail?

When iguanas are kept as pets, they face some unique challenges that can cause harm to the tail region. The most common tail-related problems iguanas face include:

  • Trauma (injury and breakage, this is a frequent occurrence in captivity)
  • Dysecdysis (difficulty shedding due to poor humidity that can damage the iguana's spines and the end of the tail.
  • Infection, including "tail rot", or dry gangrene, abscess, fungal, etc.
  • Avascular Necrosis occurs when the blood vessels become obstructed from severe dysecdysis causing unshed skin to choke the end of the tail.
  • Tail Necrosis due to injuries like burns or embolisms.
  • Abnormal growth or development, or "kinks" such as when the tail appears bent. This can also be due to an internal injury.
  • Parasites (external parasites such as mites that can also affect the rest of the body).
  • Neoplasia. An uncontrolled, abnormal growth on the tail can be benign or malignant.
  • Metabolic Bone Disease can cause defects in the tail and other bones in the body.

What Should an Iguana's New Tail Look Like?

Unfortunately, if a green iguana loses its tail, it will not grow back with its usual sleek, green, striped appearance. Initial new tail growth will have a knobby, greyish, or black appearance that feels smooth and scaleless. Scales may eventually develop and the tail can appear somewhat normal, although darker and slightly thinner. The vertebrae will not be regenerated; a cartilaginous stem forms instead.

Upon maturity, Iguana, Cyclura, and Ctenosaura species lose their ability to autotomize and regenerate the tail. When a disease is involved, the tail might not grow back at all in some cases.

Husbandry Standards for Best Tail Care

  • Cage Size: If your iguana has a tail problem, you may want to give your overall husbandry a reassessment. Of course, the best treatment for tail issues is prevention, and to accomplish this, your iguana will need a sufficiently sized enclosure relative to its length. This means that the enclosure should be large enough so that your iguana's tail doesn't get crammed into the corners, which promotes breakage. Iguana enthusiasts often recommend a size of around 6 feet long, by 6 feet tall, by 4 feet wide, which may need to be larger depending on the adult size of the iguana, the arrangement of the cage furniture, and the iguana's activity level.
  • Humidity: Green iguanas should also have high humidity levels; try to shoot for at least 70%, with 80% or higher being ideal.
  • Maintain a Hygenic Environment: Be sure to keep your iguana's environment clean to prevent bacterial contamination. The enclosure can be cleaned with a mild bleach solution (make sure to remove animals before cleaning), or for a safer alternative, diluted vinegar. Many iguana owners are successful with "potty training" their pets, utilizing a bin filled with water.
tail-issues-in-green-iguanas

When to See a Vet

Some tail problems can be dealt with at home, however, if the iguana is presenting behavioral changes such as lethargy, it is important to see a veterinarian (please note, however, that sometimes animals that need a vet show no symptoms). If there is an open wound on the tail, or if there are severe changes to the tone of the tail internally, such as stiffness or reduced thickness, the iguana should be assessed by a medical professional.

List of Iguana Tail Problems and Treatment

Not all tail issues in reptiles can be treated at home. It is important to consult a veterinarian for most problems if possible. In some cases, mild husbandry changes along with observation are acceptable, and sometimes no treatment is needed at all. However, it can never hurt to consult a veterinarian, and for people who do not live close to a vet experienced with reptiles, sometimes online options exist so it can at least be determined how severe the problem is.

tail-issues-in-green-iguanas

Kinks and Deformities

If your iguana's tail is abnormally shaped, it can be congenital, a genetic defect, a result of disease process, or due to internal trauma.

Congenital Causes

Kinks in an iguana's tail that are present from birth can be caused by genetics or environmental factors (during the tail development). They often present as bends in the tail and typically require no intervention. The tail's appearance may change as the lizard grows.

Tail Breakage and Trauma

Iguanas can drop their tails as a natural defense mechanism, however, sometimes the tail vertebrae can fracture without loss of the tail, or the skin or muscle tissue can tear without the vertebrae fracturing. These partial breaks can heal on their own, often leaving a kink or bump on the site of the injury. In some cases, a fractured tail with the skin intact can be splinted by a vet.

In other cases, the end of the tail can lose its blood supply, which leads to tissue death and stiffening of the region. When this happens, that part of the tail can break off, which sometimes leads to infection, abscess, or dry gangrene. With quick medical intervention, sometimes a lacerated tail can be successfully repaired.

tail-issues-in-green-iguanas

Two or More Tails

In some cases when the tail fails to break off completely, the animal begins growing another one in response while the old partially attached tail remains and heals. This leads to the development of "two tails", and in another case, an iguana had three tails due to two partial breaks. Another iguana was found with eight tails.

Deformities From Disease

Metabolic bone disease (MBD) is a common group of illnesses in captive iguanas that results from poor diet and lack of exposure to the proper spectrum of UVB/UVA lighting. Deformities can occur from this disease and persist even when the problem has been corrected. With MBD, bones can bend or break, and when they heal, bumps and bends may solidify, becoming permanent. As long as the iguana is healthy, these issues shouldn't require medical intervention.

In this photo, you can see the devastating damage infection can do to the tail's interior. The infection traveled to the pelvic region, so it is too late to resolve this condition with amputation. This patient was treated with antibiotics.

In this photo, you can see the devastating damage infection can do to the tail's interior. The infection traveled to the pelvic region, so it is too late to resolve this condition with amputation. This patient was treated with antibiotics.

Complete Loss of the Tail

What should you do if your iguana's tail falls off? It is a common occurrence for iguanas to drop their tails (also referred to as autotomy) due to accidents, cage mate aggression, cramped living spaces, and improper handling that leads to defensive behaviors (tail whipping or attempts to escape). Many lizards have a preformed fracture line in the vertebrae designed for this purpose.

While the iguana's body is designed for this, and it's possible the tail will just heal up on its own, this injury can also lead to severe illness in some cases.

Open Wound Care

If for some reason a veterinarian is not accessible at the moment, it is important to keep open wounds on the tail clean. A good over-the-counter choice is Vetericyn spray and gel. It's a good idea to stock up on this product for emergencies. Betadine (povidone-iodine) can be added to a soaking tub for the iguana with warm water. Allow the wound to soak in the solution for around 15 minutes, then use the Betadine full-strength to flush the wound.

An antibiotic cream may also be applied. A popular choice for easy-to-find over-the-counter treatment is Neosporin (the kind without pain relief) or triple antibiotic ointment.

Internal Flesh Protruding From the Wound

Sometimes when an iguana's tail breaks there are muscle fibers protruding from the wound. This requires a veterinarian to intervene. A vet can cut off these tissues and either close the wound or bandage it.

What to Expect With Tail Amputation

Your pet will be placed under anesthesia or sedation with a local numbing agent (lidocaine) for this procedure. Your vet will seek to cut a little above the affected region to ensure all of the damaged tissue is removed. They may prefer to "snap" the tail along the fracture plane because it is more "natural" and reduces bleeding. If the infection is closer to the point of attachment, the snap method might not be preferred.

The tail may be left unsutured (it will be bandaged) as to allow for natural regeneration. With sutures, the tail may not regrow, and larger iguanas may lose this ability regardless. Sutures may be required if the amputation is performed closer to the point of attachment.

Mishandling can lead to mishaps. . .

Mishandling can lead to mishaps. . .

Tail Rot, Infection, or Dry Gangrene

One of the most serious diseases of the tail involves infectious diseases from opportunistic bacteria and sometimes the rare occurrence of fungal organisms.

What might seem like a relatively mild condition could swiftly lead to osteomyelitis (infection of the bone) in the upper vertebral column of the iguana which can be life-threatening.

Severe tail infections are treated by amputation of the affected tissue by a veterinarian if it is caught early enough, however, once the infection climbs up the tail to the pelvic region, the presence of vital organs, such as the kidneys and reproductive organs, prevents any further removal. Once this occurs, aggressive antibiotic use can be implemented, but this condition can still be lethal. It is extremely important that iguanas with suspected dry gangrene and other infectious diseases in the tail see a veterinarian for easy prevention of these serious complications.

tail-issues-in-green-iguanas

Dysecdysis (Abnormal Shedding)

When iguanas are kept in inadequate humidity levels they may suffer from a condition called dysecdysis, which is difficultly with or abnormal shedding of the skin. Skin layers that unsuccessfully shed may wrap around the tail (other commonly affected regions include the toes) over time, leading to the blood vessels becoming constricted, causing a condition called avascular necrosis. The affected part of the tail may then become discolored stiff and brittle, and infection can travel up the tail, causing systemic illness or spinal deformities.

Concerning Symptoms

Your iguana's tail may present a range of symptoms. Some tail-related symptoms are more concerning than others. Once again, if in doubt, please see a qualified veterinarian. If anything, the peace of mind will be worth the trip and cost.

tail-issues-in-green-iguanas

Iguana's Upper Tail is Skinny

Does your iguana's pelvic region (right where the tail begins, behind the legs, and slightly above the cloaca) appear "thin" or "boney", even though the iguana seems active, healthy and the rest of the body seems well-nourished? Is your iguana a sexually mature female? She might be gravid, which means she is carrying eggs. Iguanas often lose weight in this region to assist with laying.

If you believe this is the case, check for the following signs:

  • "Digging" behavior, such as scratching at the bottom of the cage.
  • A "bloated" appearance in the stomach
  • Restlessness and lack of appetite

It is important to distinguish between gravidity and illness, and it is extremely important to recognize the symptoms of dystocia, or egg binding, where the iguana is having difficulty laying her eggs. This is a medical emergency.

tail-issues-in-green-iguanas

Wounds on the Tail

If an open wound is present on your iguana's tail, it is important to distinguish between a superficial lesion that was caused externally and a wound that results from a brewing internal disease.

The above photo shows wounds in the upper region of the tail that has healed over. The infection in this case affected the bone and traveled to the pelvic region, causing permanent changes to the iguana's entire spinal column for the rest of her life. Any wounds on the tail need to be assessed by a veterinarian, and the wounds should be kept clean in the meantime.

Iguana's Tail Turning Black/Discolored

If your iguana's tail darkens or turns black, it can be a sign of tail necrosis (tissue death) or infection with bacterial or fungal organisms.

tail-issues-in-green-iguanas

Swelling of the Tail

Swelling in the tail may be an early sign of tail necrosis. It is usually followed by discoloration, shriveling, and rigidity in the same region. This part of the tail may fall off on its own, but there is a possibility of the infection spreading up the tail. Some vets may prefer to watch this area to see if it resolves without treatment. They may also prescribe topical silver sulfadiazine cream, antibiotics, and pain medication.

Iguanas should have a flexible tail.

Iguanas should have a flexible tail.

My Iguana's Tail Feels Stiff

Stiffness in the tail is a tell-tale sign of dry gangrene, osteomyelitis, and other infectious processes that require amputation of the affected region. Sometimes this condition can affect the entire tail internally without showing visible signs, ultimately reaching the pelvis and spine. Don't wait; get your iguana's tail problems treated in a timely fashion.

Healthy Iguana walking

Healthy Iguana walking

My Iguana Is Dragging its Tail

Normal iguana locomotion involves the animal lifting the part of its tail that is close to the point of attachment. If your iguana is dragging its tail and pelvis (it might still be able to lift its chest area) this is a common sign of early-onset metabolic bone disease. As this condition progresses, the iguana will lose its ability to lift itself while walking. This condition, if caught early, could possibly be corrected with proper husbandry, however, it is important to see a vet if at all possible.

Works Cited

  1. Axelson, Rick. Iguanas: Problems.
  2. Divers, Stephen J., and Douglas R. Mader, eds. Reptile Medicine and Surgery-E-Book. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2005.
  3. Divers, Stephen J., and Scott J. Stahl, eds. Mader's Reptile and Amphibian Medicine and Surgery-E-Book. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2018.
  4. Garner, Steven. Metabolic Bone Disease in Iguanas.
  5. How I treat Tail Necrosis in Lizards. June 19, 2016
  6. Dorianne, Elliot. Introduction to The Reptile Integument. 9 Dec 2016
  7. Kaplan, Melissa. Dry Gangrene of Tail and Toe. 1996.
  8. Kaplan, Melissa. Green Iguana: Preparing for Egg Development, Laying and Incubation. 1994.
  9. Kaplan, Melissa. Kinks and Bends in Tails. 2001
  10. Kaplan, Melissa. Tail Breaks and Drops. 1996.
  11. Yarmouth Veterinary Center. TOE, TAIL AND LIMB NECROSIS.
  12. ZWART, P., and A. GRÖNE. "PATHOLOGIES OF TAILS IN REPTILES."

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.

© 2022 Melissa A Smith