Atadenovirus is a contagious disease that can cause serious illness in bearded dragons. Older literature refers to it as “adenovirus”. It may also be known as “wasting disease” and “star-gazing disease” among other terms.
Infected baby bearded dragons are often unthrifty. They may not grow as fast as healthy dragons, may lose weight, may spend a lot of time hiding, and often may die without any other signs. If an infected baby dragon lives long enough to become an adult, it may have trouble fighting other infections. Atadenovirus infected dragons may become seriously ill from intestinal parasites such as coccidia, flagellated protozoa, amoebas, and worms. Others go on to develop bacterial infections. Some dragons end up with damaged livers and intestines and never seem to gain weight and sleep a lot. In some dragons the virus spreads to the brain and spinal column and causes as twitching of the toes and tail tip, arching of the head and tail (sometimes known as stargazing), seizures, uncontrolled rolling, and death. Dragons that become infected as adults may suddenly die from neurological problems but more often they go on to develop liver disease and other health problems. Some adult dragons appear to be resistant to infection.
An ill baby bearded dragon infected with atadenovirus. It spends a lot of time sleeping, is weak, and doesn’t eat.
This bearded dragon demonstrates “star gazing”, a serious neurological problem caused by the atadenovirus infecting the brain and spinal cord.
Atadenovirus spreads easily from dragon to dragon by direct contact. Some dragons may become infected just from being exposed to tools that were used on infected dragons and not properly disinfected. Many breeding colonies of bearded dragons are infected with atadenovirus. It can be passed from mothers to babies. Some infected dragons live normal lives and do not need any extra medical care. Others may have flare-ups where they lose their appetite, sleep a lot, have diarrhea or constipation, and may even develop swellings of their belly or beneath their chin. Some dragons develop even more serious signs from the infection spreading to the nervous system. There is no way to predict which dragons can do well with atadenovirus infection and which ones are going to become so sick that they die or need to be put to sleep (euthanized).
Atadenovirus inclusion (large white circle inside the red blood cell on the left) from a heavily infected bearded dragon that was severely ill.
Unfortunately there is no known drug that eliminates atadenovirus. Medical care usually includes antibiotics, assist-feeding, calcium supplementation, milk thistle and other nutriceuticals, anti-inflammatories, and other drugs depending on the bearded dragon’s clinical signs. As stated above, many dragons go on to become so sick they die or need to be euthanized.
Every dragon that has atadenovirus should be considered a threat to other dragons that are free of the infection. It is important to keep the atadenovirus-positive dragons by away from healthy dragons. If you want to adopt or keep an atadenovirus-infected dragon, you are responsible for keeping it away from other dragons so it doesn’t spread the disease and make these other pets ill. You must be willing to seek help for it if it develops health problems. You need to be willing to euthanize your dragon when it is no longer humane to keep it alive.
It is possible to screen breeding colonies to produce healthy uninfected babies. Unfortunately, many breeders do not test their dragons and some even knowingly sell babies from infected parents so it can be difficult to find clean babies. If you already have bearded dragons, get them tested for atadenovirus. A simple DNA test can identify an infected dragon from a swab of its cloaca. If you have a large collection, you can group together swabs from all the dragons in a single cage rather than individually test them. It takes anywhere from 7 to 14 days to learn the results. When you get a new dragon you should keep it in quarantine in a separate room for at least 60 days before introducing it to the same room (or same cage) your other dragons. Get your dragon tested for atadenovirus within the first week of bringing it home. If you discover that a dragon is infected, talk to your veterinarian and develop a lifelong preventive medicine plan.
Kevin Wright DVM
Arizona Exotic Animal Hospital