IN PAST CENTURIES, PEOPLE SUFFERED FROM A DISEASE CALLED GOUT. Usually a disease of the wealthy, upper class, the reason for the painful swelling of the limbs and inflammation of the joints and internal organs was an overindulgence of rich food, too much fat, protein and alcohol. Iguanas can also suffer from a condition often described as gout.
The metabolic process that causes visceral or articular gout or the resulting liver (hepatic disease or cirrhosis) and kidney disease (nephritis) in iguanas is caused by a number of factors. A diet high in protein, especially animal protein like dog and cat food or meat, cannot be metabolized by the herbivorous iguana causing a high level of uric acid salts that can reach toxic levels quickly. The excess urate crystals or granuloma collect in the internal organs and the damage may become so advanced that the organs can no longer function. But animal protein is not the only source of uric or other salts that cause kidney or liver damage.
Because people who purchase iguanas from pet stores are, more often than not, given the wrong information, many young iguanas do not get a very good start in life. With an inadequate diet and an improper environment, damage can be done early that will come back to haunt the iguana in later life. Even iguanas that are fed properly can develop damaged organs due to inadequate UV exposure, use of sun lamps, dehydration, hypervitamintosis due to oversupplementation, or improper use of antibiotics.
Iguanas have kidneys that process and excrete insoluble uric salts like sodium, potassium and ammonium urates. Keeping the urinary system healthy and hydrated prevents the system from poisoning itself. The kidneys help maintain the delicate balance of body fluids, filter out toxins, regulate electrolytes and the uric acid content.
Kidney failure is a leading cause of death in the older iguana. Part of the problem is recognizing the symptoms of kidney and liver failure because they tend to be non-specific – lethargy, increased thirst due to dehydration and refusal of food (anorexia).
Besides making sure that your iguana is getting the proper diet and sun exposure, it is equally important to make sure that your iguana is always fully hydrated. Dehydration causes the blood plasma to become more concentrated allowing uric acid to reach toxic levels.
When the kidneys try to process the high levels of urates, crystals form and the kidney’s tissues are damaged. Prolonged dehydration concentrates the insoluble salts in the internal organs and then begins to deposit metabolic wastes in the joints, as well.
It is critical to interrupt this process before it becomes too toxic to the kidneys. Once the urate crystals are deposited in the tissues, they resist removal because of the insolubility of the salts.
Hydration is critical at this point. Hydration should be a regular part of your routine and can be achieved by soaking your iguana at least twice a week in a warm water bath for between 10 and 20 minutes.
Iguanas can absorb fluids through their cloaca vent at the base of the tail. Submerging the vent end in warm water will allow the fluid to be drawn into the iguana’s urinary tract.
You must always make available a small bowl of fresh water for your iguana to drink. Make sure that the bowl of water is too small for your iguana to get into. As we know, iguanas like to poop in water so select a bowl that is small and is only large enough to drink from. However, an iguana that is observed drinking from a water bowl regularly may be suffering from dehydration. An iguana that sneezes out a lot of salts is trying desperately to get control of metabolic salts that are building up in his or her system.
You can add a humidifier to your enclosure area to raise the humidity level but actual moisture content from soaking, feeding fresh greens, and additional fluids will go a long way in preventing organ damage.
Excessive heat from improperly placed heating units can cause dehydration as can the use of sun lamps. Sun lamps can also deliver excessive amounts of ultraviolet light causing hypervitamintosis.
You can give your iguana fluids in the form of regular water, Pedialyte (which has electrolytes to battle dehydration,) or Gatorade. Plain Pedialyte is preferred over Gatorade as it has no sugar or fruit juice. If you suspect, or your vet has diagnosed, that your iguana has kidney or liver disease, avoid fruit and fruit juice (except for cranberry) because it can raise the acid content of urates.
You can administer extra water with a squeeze bottle, plastic syringe or turkey baster. Use bottled water if your municipal water has high chlorine content. If you live in an area that has hard water with lots of minerals, use that water as it has beneficial minerals, iron and calcium – unless your iguana is suffering from liver or kidney disease. Bottled water is the safest. See the accompanying article and diagram on the care you must use when administering fluids to your iguana through the mouth.
There are many things you can do to prevent and treat kidney and liver damage including proper diet, rehydration, acid reduction, probiotics, herbs and herbal teas, and vitamin/mineral/enzyme supplementation. See the accompanying articles for ideas and suggestions.
THE KIDNEYS (RENAL SYSTEM)
The kidneys help maintain the delicate balance of body fluids, filter out toxins, regulate electrolytes and the uric acid content. When the kidneys process urine, the insolubility of the urates can build in the kidneys if blood circulation is inadequate. The kidneys need high water content to process and expel these urates or damage to the kidney’s delicate tissues can occur. The kidneys cannot heal themselves as readily as the liver so damage that occurs from excessive uric acid salts like sodium, potassium and ammonium can be permanent.
The liver is miraculous because of its diversity of life-sustaining functions. An amazingly complex organ, the liver virtually affects every physiological process of the body. It is the largest organ in the iguana’s body. It produces bile which helps to break down fats in the intestines and hindgut. It is the filter for the bloodstream and removes toxins, carbohydrates, proteins and fat, and removes red blood cells that have outlived their usefulness. It regulates metabolism and has amazing regenerative properties – it can heal itself.
One of the most important things you can do to improve the health of your iguana’s internal organs, especially those organs that process metabolic waste like urine, is to keep the concentration of the urates at manageable levels. If your iguana has been diagnosed with liver or kidney malfunction, you must keep the acid content in the food you feed him or her at low levels. It is critical to control acidity and reduce uric acid content. Do not feed acidic fruits, although supplementing with liquid vitamins including Vitamin C is important. Vitamin C is an important component to a balanced vitamin regimen and an animal suffering from liver or kidney damage should get vitamin supplementation in the form of liquid vitamins with enzyme. Your health food store can show you a well-balanced vitamin/mineral/enzymatic liquid supplement. We will discuss the role of vitamins and minerals and the use of probiotics in next month’s issue.
Do not feed high protein items as we have discussed. You can also give your iguana a small amount of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda – not baking powder) to de-acidify the urine. You can also give ranitidine (Zantac) at a dose of 5mg./kg – 5mg./2.2lbs. once a day. Ranitidine is a powerful gastric acid inhibitor. However, ranitidine is medication so care must be taken that the proper dosage is given. If your iguana is suffering from kidney or liver disease, talk to the vet about adding sodium bicarbonate or ranitidine to your daily regimen.
If your iguana has been diagnosed with liver or kidney disease, you can help him or her by feeding several small meals a day instead of one great big meal. The less food the body has to process at one time, the easier it is on the organs that must process the urates created by the digestion of the food. And remember – fluids, water, hydration is critical. How do you recognized if your iguana is dehydrated? The skin of a dehydrated iguana is not loose and pliable. When you pinch the skin, it stays elevated for a second or two.
Understanding the role of the kidneys and liver and the part they play in the health of your iguana will help you understand how to keep your iguana’s organs functioning properly.
Therefore, prevention and early detection of problems will not only help your iguana live a longer, healthier life but will mean less trips to the vet and intensive care to try and repair damaged organs.
Remember that your iguana should be living in a rainforest with temperatures in the 80’s or 90’s, lots of vegetation to eat and the sun to bask in for the necessary internal processes to function properly. It is our responsibility to make a reasonable attempt to create as healthy an environment for the animals in our lives as we can.