Bearded Dragon Tail Rot: Causes, Treatments and Signs

If you have ever owned a bearded dragon you know how hardy these lizards are.

Most health problems can be avoided with good care and husbandry. Yet it is still likely that an owner will encounter at least one illness while keeping these lizards.

Tail rot in bearded dragons is one of the most common illnesses. It is a bacterial infection that causes a bearded dragon’s tail to appear black and shrunken. Tail rot can be fatal if left untouched, but is easily treatable if caught early.

How do you recognize tail rot and what causes it?

Continue reading for the answers to these questions and more.

Bearded Dragon Tail Rot

Tail rot in bearded dragons
(c) Chase Hildebrand

Is your bearded dragon’s tail turning black and patchy? This could be a sign of tail rot.

Tail rot in bearded dragons is a serious health issue that should not be ignored. It may look unimportant in its early stages, but if left untreated it can cause serious injury and even death. For this reason it is vital to know what it is, what causes it and how to treat it.

Bearded dragon tail rot (necrotic dermatitis) is the result of an aggressive bacterial infection both on the scales and within the tissue of their tail. The infection begins when a lizard comes in contact with harmful bacteria in its enclosure or environment.

It is normally a result of poor hygiene and improper husbandry on the part of the owner.

The bacteria that cause tail rot can commonly be found in small amounts in a reptile’s enclosure. In small amounts the bacteria are usually not a problem provided the lizard is healthy and the tank and substrate are kept clean. With poor hygiene, however, the bacteria will multiply to unsafe levels.

As the infection progresses it causes rapid cell death of the tail which leads to dry and brittle scales, loss of nerve function and eventual loss of the tail itself. In the worst case scenario it can even be a cause of death.

Tail rot makes a bearded dragon’s scales pale gray or black. Whereas normal scales are hard, slightly glossy and firmly connected to the skin, infected scales are dry, ragged, and peel away from the skin. In severe cases the tip of the tail can appear completely shriveled and deformed.

Bearded dragon tail rot begins in the tail, and occasionally in the toes, but it is not isolated to these body parts. Over the course of four weeks tail rot can progress from a minor annoyance to a life-threatening infection.

Rapid cell death leaves them vulnerable to secondary infections which can trigger septicemia.

Septicemia occurs when harmful bacteria in the tail spread through the bloodstream to other internal organs, such as the liver, kidneys, or heart. This leads to organ failure, shock and death.

Tail rot in bearded dragons can affect an individual of any age and any species. Their size, sex, or breeding status does not matter. It will more easily infect individuals who are stressed, have injuries, open wounds, or are generally unhealthy.

Symptoms

Tail rot can be tricky to detect in its early stages. When starting out this infection often appears very minor or hardly noticeable at all, especially in juveniles. There are four major symptoms of tail rot. As it progresses and the bacteria multiply these symptoms become easier to spot.

Recognizing tail rot in its early stages can save your bearded dragon’s tail and potentially its life.

Scale Discoloration

Scale rot gives scales a washed-out, faded look.

Infected skin first turns light gray, before becoming dark gray and then finally brown. This color change occurs because the bacteria within the tail restricts blood flow to the scales, cutting off their nutrient and oxygen supply. This leads to cell death and the rotting effect of the tail.

The discoloration caused by this illness looks similar to the discoloration of skin that is about to shed.

It can be hard to know if it is bearded dragon tail rot or shedding.

Shedding skin will turn lighter in color and eventually detach. Regular shedding skin breaks away in large patches and leaves a fresh layer of scales underneath.

Skin affected by tail rot will continue to grow darker and spread up the tail. Rotted scales will also fall away individually without a healthy, underlying scale layer.

Scale Dryness

The more the scale rot impacts blood flow the more it causes scales to become dry and brittle. This is easier to notice when looking closely their tail.

Healthy scales are firm, colorful and slightly glossy.

Dry scales are dull, crumbly, and may flake off when touched. They can also give a bearded dragon’s tail a grainy appearance, especially as the illness progresses.

Tail Deformity

Infected tails first appear to be a different color. After a few weeks they subsequently become thin, uneven and kinks or sharp bends may develop.

The tails of bearded dragons with tail rot gradually lose their shape and become thin and bony. Eventually parts of the tail may start to break off beginning at the tip and moving up towards the lizard’s body. This is because the tissue of the infected tail does not have a healthy blood supply. Parts may break off

Severe tail rot can result in the loss of the entire tail.

Healthy bearded dragon tails are firm, straight, and taper evenly towards the tip. Males have a tail that is usually wider and thicker at the base, but both genders have tails that are straight and taper evenly.

Behavior Change

The behavior of bearded dragons changes naturally as they grow and age, but an overnight change in behavior is cause for concern.

A sudden change in behavior is another common sign of tail rot.

If your bearded dragon suddenly begins to refuse food or starts acting listless or irritable it may be the result of a bacterial infection. Behavioral signs are often just as informative as physical symptoms.

When stressed from illness or injury bearded dragons often stop eating, become lethargic, or act more aggressively than normal. You may also notice differences in the frequency or appearance of their poop, which can also be a helpful indicator of health.

Infections can be fairly common in reptiles so it is important to regularly watch and handle your bearded dragon. Check for any new or unusual changes in behavior, discoloration, patchiness, spots or injuries.

Causes

There are many factors that can cause bearded dragon tail rot. Normally this illness happens because of a combination of:

  • Poor tank hygiene.
  • Improper care and husbandry.
  • Injury or trauma.

Tail rot requires two conditions to occur in a short period of time:

  1. An injury to a bearded dragon’s tail.
  2. The presence of harmful bacteria in their tank.

Tail rot starts when their tail becomes injured. Injuries can occur from the tail getting pinched by décor in the enclosure, bitten, scratched, or constricted by retained shed. Injuries cause a gap in their protective scales which means that bacteria can potentially enter.

A healthy bearded dragon in a clean environment has a strong enough immune system to fight off bacterial infections. If an individual’s immune system is weakened by malnutrition, stress, or extreme temperatures, it may have trouble fighting the harmful bacteria.

Poor tank hygiene is one of the top contributors to bearded dragon tail rot. A dirty enclosure, especially in conjunction with high humidity, promotes the rapid growth of dangerous bacteria.

Leftover food, poop and old substrate are major harborers of bacteria. Even if their enclosure does not look dirty you should spot clean it daily and do a deep clean once a month. This will stop bacteria from multiplying to unsafe levels and reduce the risk of infection.

Poor husbandry can also cause tail rot. Bearded dragons fed the wrong diet, or a diet without proper vitamin and mineral supplements are not able to maintain a healthy immune system.

High humidity, too low or too high temperatures and a small enclosure size can also increase stress levels and weaken their immunity.

RELATED: Bearded Dragon Care, Tank Setup, Food, Lifespan & More

Tail rot in juvenile bearded dragons is more common as they are more vulnerable. Adults usually have a more robust immune system that is able to fight off infections, whereas juveniles are still developing and not as strong.

Younger bearded dragons are also more susceptible to injuries because they are smaller, delicate and more active.

The best way to prevent tail rot is to make sure you regularly clean their enclosure with a reptile-safe disinfectant and feed a nutritious diet.

If you notice your lizard does injure its tail then maintain excellent husbandry practices until it recovers fully and spot clean twice daily.

Treatment

Early cases of tail rot may be treatable at home, but you should always take your bearded dragon to the vet if you suspect it has any health problems. The bacteria associated with bearded dragon tail rot are especially hard to kill without specific antibiotics. Immediate veterinary care can prevent the loss of their tail and potentially save their life.

The vet may prescribe two main treatments based on the severity and stage of the infection.

Antibiotics

If the tail rot is less severe and in its early stages then antibiotics are often the most common place to start. Antibiotics prescribed by a vet are stronger than most commercial medications and are specially formulated to be safe for reptiles.

These medicines often come in a powder form to be eaten by your bearded dragon. Sometimes they are topical and will need to be applied directly to the tail.

The cost of a course of antibiotics depends on the type of medicine and the duration of the treatment. $50 to $70 for the entire treatment is usually the average, though it can be more or less expensive depending on your vet.

Surgery

In moderate to severe cases amputation of part or all of the tail may be required. Though this may sound extreme it is often the only way to save your bearded dragon’s life once tail rot has progressed.

During an amputation the vet will sedate your lizard and remove the infected part of the tail. After surgery your vet will give you any antibiotics, painkillers and husbandry tips for caring for your bearded dragon during its recovery.

Bearded dragon tail rot surgery costs can run to $300 for the exam, surgery and medications. Though expensive, this procedure can be a necessary and lifesaving one.

Home Remedy

DIY and home remedy treatments for bearded dragon tail rot work best for mild cases. The effectiveness of this treatment varies widely and it is not guaranteed to cure the infection. You will also need to make sure the underlying causes of the infection (like poor hygiene) are corrected as well.

How To Treat Tail Rot Bearded Dragon:

  1. Move your bearded dragon to a temporary quarantine enclosure with paper towels or newspaper as a substrate.
  2. Clean everything in the original tank with a solution of 1 part bleach to 32 parts hot water.
  3. Rinse the bleach mixture off completely.
  4. Gently clean the affected portion of your bearded dragon’s tail with warm water.
  5. Mix 3 parts warm water to 1 part Betadine. The color of this mixture should resemble tea.
  6. Allow their tail to soak in this solution for 5 minutes, making sure the entire tail is immersed
  7. Dry the tail carefully with clean paper towels.
  8. Once the tail is completely dry, apply a thin layer of Neosporin to the discolored part of the tail. Make sure the Neosporin does not contain any painkillers—these can be deadly to reptiles.
  9. Repeat steps 4-8 twice a day for one week.

If you do not see an improvement after one week of home treatment then take your lizard to a vet. DIY treatment can be helpful in cases where you cannot see a vet, but reptile vets are normally the best option for treating tail rot.

A vet will be able to confirm whether your bearded dragon has tail rot. They are trained to spot the signs of tail rot and can take a blood sample or biopsy of the tail to positively identify the bacteria. Vets can also advise you on the best course of action for treating the infection and pinpoint the root cause of the infection.

Pictures

Bearded dragon tail rot picture gallery.

Tail rot in bearded dragons
(c) Chase Hildebrand
bearded dragon tail rot
(c) Alyssa
severe tail rot in bearded dragons
(c) Quora

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is The Difference Between Tail Rot And Shedding?

Shedding is a natural process for reptiles that happens many times during their lives. It happens because the tough outer layer of skin that surrounds their scales does not expand with them as they grow. When it gets too tight the layer naturally separates and falls away leaving a healthy layer of new skin underneath.

Tail rot in bearded dragons causes the loss of all layers of skin, not just the tough outer layer.

Any scales that appear loose, flaky, or missing could be a sign of an injury or infection.

When a bearded dragon loses scales due to tail rot it loses the entire scale, not just the top layer. This causes open cuts that can become infected by secondary bacteria.

What Does A Healthy Bearded Dragon Tail Look Like?

Healthy bearded dragon tails are long, slender and taper evenly. They start out thick at the base and then gradually taper to a sharp point. A healthy tail shares the same colors as the rest of the body without any noticeable discoloration or patchiness. When gently squeezed the tail should feel smooth and firm.

Infected tails appear to be a different color, become thin, uneven, and can even kink.

Any changes to the appearance of your bearded dragon’s tail that happen relatively quickly (such as overnight or over the span of two days) should be monitored closely.

Can Tail Rot Kill A Bearded Dragon?

Yes, tail rot can kill a bearded dragon if not treated quickly.

Tail rot in bearded dragons often does not look like a serious issue during the infection’s early stages. An infected lizard may continue to eat and act as normal for several days. Do not be fooled by this behavior!

The health of a bearded dragon with tail rot will rapidly deteriorate after the bacteria multiplies past a certain threshold. This threshold varies from reptile to reptile based on their age, health, and immune system strength.

External symptoms of tail rot like dry scales, color change and flaking are only the tip of the iceberg.

The bacteria growing on the skin of their tail is also growing within the tissues of the tail itself. This causes much more damage than meets the eye. While tail rot may appear on the outside to only affect the tail, the infection can circulate through the bloodstream around the body.

Once the bacteria spreads to internal organs it can cause organ failure and death.

Tail rot is a very serious health problem that is often worse than it looks and should not be ignored.

Is It Contagious?

Tail rot is not considered contagious because it is primarily an internal infection. A bearded dragon with tail rot will not directly pass the disease to another beardie. However, if the tank conditions are right for one beardie to develop tail rot, other individuals living in the same tank are more likely to develop it. This is more of a concern for babies that are housed together as adults should not be housed in the same enclosure.

Summary

Bearded dragon tail rot is an aggressive bacterial infection. The infection begins when a lizard comes in contact with harmful bacteria in its enclosure or environment.

Tail rot turns the tip of an infected bearded dragon’s tail black. Eventually the disease causes cell death and can potentially cause the tail to drop off completely. While the infection begins in the tail it progresses to the vital internal organs. Without treatment infected individuals can die within a few months.

Mild cases of tail rot can be treated at home, but it is best to take your bearded dragon to a vet for treatment.

Good husbandry and hygiene are essential for avoiding tail rot. Poor hygiene causes bacteria to multiply quickly in a lizard’s enclosure. Poor husbandry results in a sick, stressed, or injured lizard that is more susceptible to infection.

Knowing the causes and signs of tail rot, along with your pet’s normal behavior can help you catch and treat this infection before it poses a danger.

Do you have any tail rot questions we didn’t answer? Feel free to leave them in the comments below.

Nigel Robert

Nigel Robert

Nigel is the managing editor at More Reptiles. He is a lifelong reptile lover, biologist and wildlife consultant who brings a decade of experience working in reptile conservation and consultancy. He joined our team in 2020 and when he’s not reviewing reptile care sheets, he’s out looking for reptiles in the wild! Nigel is dedicated to herpetology and conserving wildlife which is why he is a member of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, Zoological Association of America, iNaturalist and the Nature Conservancy.

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