Our pet reptiles have skin that is very different from our own. Bearded dragons, for example, have skin that evolved to enable them to survive in the hot, dry desert spaces of Australia; it protects them against the sun and the drying effects of their environment, and is spiky enough to make any predator think twice about making a meal of them. We have skin that is stretchy and relatively thin that constantly renews itself, but theirs is not like this so it must be replaced regularly.
When a bearded dragon sheds, the process is called ecdysis. Beardies shed to grow, to replace worn skin, and to heal skin injuries. The new skin develops underneath the old one, and when it’s ready to come off the old skin begins to break up along lines of scales, and comes away in patches.
Young, healthy bearded dragons appear to be constantly shedding, starting at their noses and peeling away all the way down to the tip of their tail – and then starting again at the nose! This is totally normal for a youngster, but would be very odd for an adult dragon. Each dragon has their own pattern of shedding; some shed their limbs and then the body, others in random patches.
Failure to shed properly – dysecdysis – can be caused by many different things.
- Too cold.
- Too hot.
- Old age.
Remember that a failure to shed well is a symptom, rather than a disease – there is always an underlying cause. So what should you do if you’re concerned that your beardie isn’t shedding as they should?
Check husbandry. Start by taking the temperatures in your enclosure – basking spot, warm end, cool end, night and day. Too warm, and your dragon runs the risk of dehydration, kidney failure and sudden death. Too cold, and their bodies cannot function properly. Double check all your temperatures and adjust them if necessary.
Nutrition. If your dragon is having an unbalanced diet, they are going to struggle to maintain normal bodily functions. Water is part of this – if they don’t like to drink from a bowl, you can spray them with warm water in the morning. Hydration is vitally important! Ensure that there is plenty of variety in the diet, and don’t forget that as adults the diet should be around 80% vegetarian and 20% bugs. Vary the livefoods rather than allowing your dragon to insist on a certain food, and don’t forget to feed the livefood well.
Supplements. A lack of minerals can cause all sorts of health issues, and one of them is a failure to shed. Always, always make sure that any food item has a covering of calcium or multivitamin/multimineral powder. Make sure that your multivitamins are still in date – yes, they have a ‘use by’ date! Once they are open they begin to oxidise (degrade on contact with air), and the vitamin and mineral content begins to drop. Calcium is fine, but if in doubt replace your pots – they’re not expensive, and it can save a lot of trouble later on. If your dragon doesn’t like the taste, perhaps try a different brand.
So you’ve checked your temperatures, nutrition and supplements and they’re all fine. But your dragon is still struggling with their shedding! What next?
Consider your dragon for a moment. Are they old or young? An elderly beardie is likely to need a little more help shedding than a youngster; they might be a little stiff with arthritis, or be a touch overweight and find it hard to rub the patches of loose skin off. Older dragons need a little more care, so offer warm baths once a week and give them a gentle daily spray with warm water. That might be all that’s required.
If not, or you have a young dragon that’s causing you concern, then you need to look a little more deeply.
Make a note of what, exactly, the problem is. Is the shed coming off in patches, or is it not coming off at all? Are there changes in colour, or pattern? Lumps or bumps in unusual places? Take the time to run your hands over your beardie, and note their reaction. Are patches sticking or is the skin flaking, is there any soreness, swelling, redness, discharge?
External parasites are usually quite obvious. Snake mites are black and can affect bearded dragons, and look like tea leaves with legs! They tuck themselves into crevices and creases in the skin, and can even make your dragon anaemic and really quite poorly. Check under their arms and legs, the vent, around the chin and the eye sockets. There are several different types of parasitic mites, some are red and some are brown, but they can all be found between the scales. If you do find parasites, there are several ways to treat them but if you’re still unsure then take your dragon to see a vet.
Internal parasites are a little more tricky. It’s unusual to see worms in the faeces but if it does happen don’t panic! Take a sample in a clean jar to a vet, or if that’s not possible then take some pictures with something in the frame for size reference, like a pencil or a ruler. Even if you don’t see anything suspicious in the actual poo, it’s worth taking a fresh sample and getting it to your vet. They will be able to send it away to be tested, and will be able to tell you if your beardie is affected by parasites, what type they are and how to treat them.
If that’s not the problem, then it’s time to consider other diseases – and this is where we would absolutely advise that you let your vet take over. They will be able to do in depth diagnostic testing to find out what’s wrong with your dragon.
One disease to be aware of is known by several names – yellow fungus, yellow scale, fungus disease or CANV (Chrysosporium anamorph of Nannizziopsis vriesii). This is a particularly nasty fungal disease that affects mostly bearded dragons but can affect other lizards too, notably water dragons, chameleons, and iguanas. It usually begins with either a crusty patch of scales with a grey or yellowish colouration which fails to shed off correctly, or a patch of skin that doesn’t shed and begins to build up into a thickened lump. The crusts or the lump will eventually fall off, exposing an ulcerated area that will spread and eventually lead to the beardie succumbing to blood poisoning from secondary infection. The yellow colouration spreads in patches across the skin, and more of the crusty or swollen areas develop along with the discolouration. It’s painful, debilitating, and fatal if untreated.
The fungus spreads in dirty conditions, and affects dragons with open wounds and a suppressed immune system, usually through stress due to poor husbandry. Overcrowded, dirty housing and an insufficient diet lead to the spores spreading quickly amongst the group.
Unfortunately, by the time external symptoms appear the fungus has worked its way into all the major organs.The only treatment is large doses of antifungal medication, accompanied by low stress, high quality husbandry and a really good, varied diet. Because these drugs can have serious side effects, then monthly (or even sometimes weekly) blood tests are required to monitor the function of the major organs. Even if caught early and treated aggressively the disease is incurable, although it can sometimes go into remission. If your dragon is confirmed with yellow scale, the kindest option is often euthanasia.
Be aware that the fungal spores can be incredibly difficult to get rid of, so if you do want to use second hand vivariums then please, please disinfect them with a solution that is antifungal as well as antibacterial and antiviral. It should say on the label what it works against, and how to use it most effectively.
Above all: if you think your dragon is ill – take them to your vet!
A final word on silkback bearded dragons. Silkbacks are mostly scaleless, with a few individual scales here and there across the skin, and they have incredibly bright colours and patterns. They also usually have terrible trouble shedding, as their skin seems to be tougher than that of a normal bearded dragon (because they lack scales for protection, they appear to compensate with thicker skin) and have no scale lines to fracture along. They are very susceptible to dehydration, and sunburn from strong UV; they are the only bearded dragon we would recommend a lower strength UVB bulb for, as well as a large amount of cover so they can regulate their UV exposure.
There are many suggestions for skin treatments (udder cream, E45, hand cream), but we found the most effective was a product specifically designed to help shedding in reptiles. Avoid giving warm baths, as this can dry the skin out and only seems to make the problem worse. Whatever you do, DO NOT help the silkback by tugging at the skin as it finally begins to come away. You will tear the skin underneath and leave a weeping, shallow open wound which is asking for trouble with secondary infection.
Because the skin doesn’t have the fracture lines (scales) that a normal or a leatherback beardie does, and because it is thicker and less likely to crack in the first place, silkbacks are very prone to losing toes, tail tips and even whole feet due to the constriction of skin that should be shed. Splitting the skin manually can cause horrible injury, so all that can be done is to soften the skin so that it splits naturally, and allows the dragon to shed.
We have heard reports that keeping silkbacks in a full bioactive system can help them shed naturally; a well put together system will allow the dragon to regulate their own humidity exposure, is as low stress as it gets and allows for natural feeding patterns to be established. We haven’t tried this ourselves, but it does seem to make sense.
We honestly didn’t realise that silkbacks have such extensive skin problems until we bred some – and now we do know, we will never breed or sell this morph again. If you have one we’re more than happy to share our experience so that you’re dragon has a more comfortable life, but if you would like to buy one then we can’t help. In short – don’t!
We hope you’ve found this article helpful, and remember that we’re always available to discuss any of the points raised here. Remember to enjoy your dragons, and happy shedding!