Spay and neuter advice goes for reptiles too

Thor the female bearded dragon

Story by Nicola Di Girolamo, DMV, GPCert (ExAP), MSc, PhD, DECZM (Herpetology), an associate professor in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at the Oklahoma State University Center for Veterinary Health Sciences.

Spaying and neutering dogs and cats is common and fundamental to prevent reproductive and other disorders.

But this advice applies to most animals — and reptiles are no exception.

A spay recently performed at Oklahoma State University’s Veterinary Medical Hospital was definitely “exotic” — done on a bearded dragon named Thor. Thor is a 3-year-old female bearded dragon who was initially believed to be a male (as you can see from the name). Once she grew up, the owners realized Thor was actually a female but decided to keep her name.

When Thor was brought to OSU’s Veterinary Medical Hospital for a health check, her owners were quite astonished that veterinarians suggested spaying Thor, the same as they would for a dog, cat, or rabbit. In fact, certain female reptiles are commonly affected by reproductive problems. Lizards (including bearded dragons, leopard geckos, and iguanas), aquatic turtles, and terrestrial tortoises are all frequently diagnosed with problems related to reproductive activity.

The most common disorders include pre-ovulatory and post-ovulatory stasis. The pre-ovulatory stasis is a process where the normal cycle of the follicles does not happen. The ovaries typically remain extremely large for several weeks, creating discomfort. The post-ovulatory stasis, also called dystocia, occurs with the inadequate expulsion of the eggs. Eggs that remain in the oviduct (basically the uterus of reptiles) are prone to break and may result in infection of the abdomen (coelomitis).

Often, the only evident signs of these problems in female reptiles are lack of appetite and decreased activity. Because these signs can be ascribed to many diagnoses, veterinarians may need to perform several additional tests including blood work, radiographs, ultrasound, and even a CT scan for a final diagnosis. These problems may be detected late, therefore, the animal may not be in ideal condition for surgery and could require hospitalization for several days before its problems can be resolved. An early spay resolves most of these problems.

Thor was admitted for a normal spay, but her ovaries were already altered. There were many hemorrhagic follicles, and the size of the ovary was consistent with active ovulation and potentially pre-ovulatory stasis. Thor required a full-body blood transfusion and two additional days of hospitalization because the follicles were already so altered when they were removed. Everything went well, and Thor is currently at home, enjoying life.

There is no common recommendation for all reptiles because they are extremely different from mammals. There is significant variability not only between species but also between individual animals. Instead, owners should book an appointment with a veterinarian who specializes in exotic animal health care to discuss this important issue. OSU’s Veterinary Medical Hospital has two board-certified specialists in avian, exotic, and zoo medicine for exotic animal owners.