Like other reptiles, bearded dragons are prone to a number of illnesses. Unfortunately, some of these illnesses are more serious than others, and adenovirus is one of them. In this blog post, we will discuss what adenovirus is, how it affects bearded dragons, and how to prevent and treat it.
What is Atadenovirus?
Adenovirus, now referred to as Atadenovirus and commonly known as ADV, is a highly contagious and dangerous virus that is frequently found in bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps). This virus has earned its reputation as the “wasting disease” or “stargazing disease” due to the noticeable symptoms it exhibits in infected bearded dragons.
As a microscopic virus, Atadenovirus cannot be seen with the naked eye. It comes in various strains and affects different animals, making it a widespread concern in the reptile community.
Atadenovirus can infect a wide range of lizards including Agamid lizards (bearded dragons, water dragons, Rankin’s dragons), chameleons, gekkota lizards (fat-tailed geckos, leopard geckos, tokay geckos), helodermatid lizards (Gila monsters, Mexican beaded lizards), monitors (savannah monitors, emerald monitors), and skinks, such as the blue-tongued skink. The virus is also known to infect snakes, chelonians (turtles, tortoises), and has even been reported in Nile crocodiles.
Adenovirus infections are not fully understood in bearded dragons but are often in conjunction with other infections, such as coccidiosis.
Symptoms of Atadenovirus in Bearded Dragons
This disease is called the “wasting disease” or “stargazing disease” for a reason. Young bearded dragons with ADV often don’t make it past their third month of life due to the devastating effects of atadenovirus (ADV). They become lethargic, lose weight, and lose their appetite, leading to a slow and struggle to grow.
As the virus weakens their immune system, it makes them more susceptible to other health issues like intestinal parasites like coccidia, making it impossible for them to gain weight. The symptoms can often be described as “non-specific” and may leave you and your exotics vet searching for answers.
The virus doesn’t just affect the physical health of bearded dragons, but it can also take a toll on their nervous system. Some may experience body twitching, seizures, and even arch their neck and look up at the sky – a behavior known as “stargazing.” Adults infected with atadenovirus are also at risk of developing liver and kidney disease, encephalitis, gastroenteritis, stomatitis, and other serious conditions. Tragically, these conditions are often only discovered after the bearded dragon passes away during a necropsy.
On the other hand, some bearded dragons may never show any symptoms at all, becoming lifelong carriers of the virus. It’s a heart-wrenching reality for bearded dragon owners and highlights the importance of being vigilant about their health.
How Bearded Dragons Get Atadenovirus?
Bearded dragons are susceptible to adenovirus and can become infected very quickly. They can get the atadenovirus through contact with an infected dragon or by contact with a surface contaminated with the virus. For example, the virus can be spread through fecal matter, saliva, or water that has been in contact with an infected beardie. It can also get infected by humans if they handle a carrier beardie.
Unfortunately, the virus is extremely contagious and carriers may never show symptoms, making it difficult to determine whether a bearded dragon is truly healthy. This can lead to unsuspecting owners exposing their healthy beardie to another seemingly healthy dragon, only for one of them to suddenly show neurological symptoms such as stargazing.
How is Atadenovirus Diagnosed in Bearded Dragons?
To diagnose atadenovirus in a bearded dragon, the exotic vet will most likely suggest a fecal swab PCR test. This test is designed to detect the presence of virus DNA.
While many pet owners may be hesitant to spend money on testing, it’s essential to ensure the wellbeing of your exotic pet. With atadenovirus, early detection is key, and a simple fecal swab test can save your dragon’s life.
The other way to diagnose bearded dragon atadenovirus is via a post-mortem (necropsy). Even after death, there is no significant visual or so-called macroscopic lesions visible, and microscopical or histopathological evaluation is necessary to see the lesions caused by the virus.
Intra-nuclear cellular inclusions characteristic with viral infections, especially evident in the liver, are only enough for a presumptive diagnosis. A definitive diagnosis can only be made by identification of the specific viral particles consistent with atadenovirus with an electron microscope.
How can I Prevent Atadenovirus Infections?
When it comes to atadenovirus in bearded dragons, there’s no denying that it’s a difficult situation to deal with. Unfortunately, there is no cure for this condition, which means the only way to help a beardie affected by ADV is to manage its symptoms.
Because bearded dragon atadenovirus infection is still largely a mystery, only general recommendations can be made with regard to its prevention or spread between animals.
It is assumed that the disease is transmitted faeco-orally, so measures such as hygiene become very important. Quarantine is, at this stage, probably the best way to identify asymptomatic carriers, but it is speculated that even after months of uneventful isolation, a bearded dragon can still be infected and spread the disease as soon as it comes in contact with other animals.
In some cases, a dragon with ADV may develop secondary infections due to a weakened immune system, in which case antibiotics may be prescribed. Dehydration can also be a concern, and in such cases, warm water soaks and syringe feeding may be necessary.
How Do You Treat Atadenovirus in Bearded Dragons?
At present, there is no treatment for the disease. In sick (but not necessarily confirmed) bearded dragons, symptomatic treatment such as antibiotics, force-feeding, and parenteral fluids (drips) appears to work in the short term and increase the survival rates of some suspected infected bearded dragons. Treatment should preferably be done under the supervision of an experienced reptile-friendly veterinarian.
Atadenovirus infection is a deadly disease found in bearded dragons and many other reptiles. It can often be prevented through good husbandry practices. If your dragon does become infected, early diagnosis and treatment are essential for the best chance of recovery.