For many years in the UK, the central bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps) has been one of, if not the most popular species of pet lizard. As with all reptiles, they require comparatively complex husbandry and, unfortunately, mistakes often happen. Alongside this, the somewhat limited gene pool of mainstream breeding animals will inevitably lead to genetic issues. These issues can easily be passed through generations due to the reduction in natural selection, whereby only the strongest animals are able to breed (Osterloff, 2023).
Dental disease is commonly known as “gum disease” in human medicine. In its simplest definition, dental disease effectively refers to a series of inflammatory conditions in the tissues surrounding the teeth, which have a negative impact on function and welfare. Without treatment, dental disease is progressive, developing from gingivitis through to periodontitis (Figure 1). In the latter stages, the gum pulls away from the teeth causing degradation or loss of the bone.
Studies of bearded dragons have shown that dental disease or abnormalities were present in 50 percent of the studied animals (Mott et al., 2021).
What is the basic physiology of bearded dragon dentition?
Bearded dragons have acrodont dentition, which means their teeth are directly fused to their jaw bones. Acrodont teeth are triangular-shaped teeth and are laterally compressed in shape. During development, a mineralised matrix replaces the pulp of the teeth, an action which fuses the teeth to the bones on the mandible or maxilla (Pollock, 2018). As such, bearded dragons’ teeth are permanent and non-replaceable, so when damage or degradation occurs, a tooth is “lost”. With growth, new teeth are added caudally (Mott et al., 2021).
The gums attach to the lower lingual and buccal aspects of the jaw bones, which means a higher risk of bacterial colonisation. Infection can, therefore, track from the teeth into the jaw bones more easily.
While genetics can mean an individual is predisposed, the biggest causes of dental disease in bearded dragons are the artificial environments they are kept in and the diets they are fed
While genetics can mean an individual is predisposed, the biggest causes of dental disease in bearded dragons are the artificial environments they are kept in and the diets they are fed. The importance of correct husbandry for reptiles is well known and, as such, will only be mentioned here. However, it is always worth bearing in mind the importance of ultraviolet spectrums for vitamin D and therefore calcium for bones and other bodily processes, as metabolic bone disease or even trauma can cause dental disease.
How does a bearded dragon’s diet affect its dentition?
Bearded dragons are omnivorous, and while they primarily eat insects as younger dragons, they develop a more balanced diet as they age. In the wild, they consume vegetation and animal products native to their arid/semi-arid habitat in varying quantities depending on the season (Oonincx et al.,2015). While the nutritional components of the insects are important, so is the “texture” of the insects themselves.
Brushing teeth is recommended for dogs and cats to assist with dental health, but this is not true for bearded dragons. This is because dietary insects with a hard exoskeleton, such as Dubia roaches, act as nutrition and dental hygiene/cleaning simultaneously. It is commonly believed that feeding soft-bodied insects, such as waxworms, will not have such a positive effect and will contribute to periodontal disease over time.
Brushing teeth is recommended for dogs and cats to assist with dental health, but this is not true for bearded dragons
Similarly, the vegetation fed is just as important, with soft foods having the same negative effect. If soft foods also have a high sugar content, this will break down the enamel faster than other food items. It is worth noting that a recent article showed that difference in live foods did not have a noticeable impact (Mott et al., 2021); however, previous studies have shown a soft-food-based diet, particularly one inclusive of fruits, can have an impact on dental disease in bearded dragons (Mehler and Bennett,2003).
Calculus can build up over time, and as with most dental diseases, bacteria can develop in larger quantities, heightening its impact.
Initial diagnosis of dental disease in bearded dragons is relatively straightforward through visual assessment. The use of a dental probe while conscious (if the individual allows it) can be an excellent way of locating any problem areas and further assessing the depth of calculi present (Figure 2) (Hedley, 2016). As with most mammalian species, a probe can assess inflammation and bleeding around the gums.
If periodontal disease is found to be present, it is recommended that radiographs are taken to check for osteomyelitis as its presence may determine treatment decisions.
If disease is suspected, then it is likely that the individual will require dental treatment. Treatment for dental disease in bearded dragons is varied, and the reality is that in cases of end-stage periodontal disease which has caused osteomyelitis, euthanasia needs to be considered.
The affected individual should be put under anaesthesia so a scale can be performed with an ultrasonic scaler to remove any calculus build-up. Scaling may also expose any further issues which have been hidden from view up to that point. Any areas of dead bone should be noted before a decision is made for post-cleaning treatment options.
Treatment for dental disease in bearded dragons is varied, and […] in cases of end-stage periodontal disease which has caused osteomyelitis, euthanasia needs to be considered
Post-cleaning options include antibiotics, analgesia and chlorhexidine oral flushes (Warren, 2020). Following this, regular monitoring should be performed, and corrective husbandry protocols should be applied depending on disease severity.
While the damage from osteomyelitis may never fully reverse, the implementation of improved care alongside medical management as needed should help prevent further degradation.
Though often sold as a “starter” lizard, central bearded dragons are a complex species with varied dietary and husbandry requirements. An imbalance or failure in these provisions can have a serious impact on an animal’s well-being, including its dental health.
Despite treatment being an option when caught early enough, there are always cases where treatment is not possible, and the outcome for the individual is negative.
As with most cases of dental disease in reptiles, preventative measures are the best method to stop dental issues occurring, rather than relying on reactive treatments.