Bearded dragons are nimble climbers and love to explore their surroundings. However, sometimes they are not as surefooted and may topple onto their backs. Does this present a cause for concern?
Can bearded dragons breathe when they are laying on their backs?
While bearded dragons can breathe on their backs, it is extremely difficult and can lead to undue stress on the lungs. Beardies typically do not lay on their backs because of this difficulty, so a dragon on its back could indicate that something is wrong.
Bearded dragons have a different way of breathing than humans. We’ll delve into how beardies use their lungs and why it can be hard for their respiratory systems to be efficient on their backs. Additionally, we’ll take a look at some veterinary procedures that require dragons to be on their backs and how these medical professionals overcome any breathing issues.
How Do a Bearded Dragon’s Lungs Work?
Bearded dragons have lungs just like you do; however, they work a bit differently than a mammal’s lungs. When a beardie’s lungs fill with air and expand, the muscles in the chest move the chest wall. The ribs also expand up through the back.
If you look at your dragon when it breathes, its sides splay out and its back moves up instead of its belly moving down. Since bearded dragons already have chest and torso low to the ground when they are naturally on all fours, it is efficient to have these areas expand outward for optimal breathing.
Why Is It Difficult for Bearded Dragons to Breathe on Their Backs?
There are several reasons why a bearded dragon’s physiological construction of the respiratory system makes it hard for these reptiles to breathe while laying on their backs. The most influential issue is their lack of a diaphragm.
Most mammals, like humans, possess a muscular diaphragm that keeps the muscles and internal organs in the chest separated from those in the trunk of the body. The diaphragm is also strong enough to inflate the lungs no matter what orientation the body is in.
However, beardies do not have a diaphragm because this organ would not allow for an efficient breathing system for this particular animal. And they’re not the only ones- ball pythons, most snakes and many other lizards like leopard geckos also lack a diaphragm.
Due to the lack of this muscle, when a dragon is laying on its back, a position that is not natural to the animal, there is nothing to keep its organs from shifting. This has the possibility of adding extra weight to the lungs from structures such as the liver Even though it might not be much, any extra work exerted to obtain enough oxygen can be taxing on the bearded dragon’s body.
Since there is no diaphragm to work for the chest muscles to inflate the lungs, a beardie’s muscles must work extra hard against the pull of gravity to get sufficient air. Additionally, the ribs typically move toward the back of the dragon when breathing in. If a dragon is laying on its back, there is nowhere for the ribcage to expand and the friction between a bearded dragon’s back and the ground may cause further discomfort.
How Do Bearded Dragons Breathe When Undergoing Veterinary Procedures on Their Backs?
Even though bearded dragons have difficulty breathing on their backs, there may be certain circumstances that require these reptiles to lay on their backs for hours such as during a veterinary procedure. However, veterinarians are aware of a beardie’s inability to function optimally while on its back, so they have special measures in place to ensure that a dragon still gets the oxygen it needs.
Before any procedure, a bearded dragon will be anesthetized so that it will lower the stress on the animal and not cause unnecessary pain. The second step to ensuring sufficient oxygen flow is to intubate a beardie by inserting a tube into the glottis at the base of its tongue.
From there, the veterinarian can hook the tube up to a mechanical ventilator that will administer a regular inflow of oxygen at intervals that mimic the beardie’s normal breathing. Alternatively, veterinarians can also use a hand pump and manually inflate a bearded dragon’s lungs. The former method is preferable because it is more controlled and accurate; however, the latter is less expensive.
What Veterinary Procedures Require Bearded Dragons to Be on Their Backs?
Although bearded dragons are not the most popular kind of pet, they are becoming more and more common, so the veterinary world is adapting to keep up. Even though surgery on beardies is less common than on a dog or cat, there are many specialized vets who explicitly perform medical procedures on reptiles.
Most surgeries require bearded dragons to be on their backs in which case the vet would have to intubate them. We’ll outline the most common procedures below which mostly involve the removal of harmful tumors or reproductive organs.
Just like any other pet, bearded dragons can get sick or sometimes swallow things they shouldn’t. In order to solve the problem, veterinarians may have to take drastic intervening methods and perform abdominal surgery.
A coeliotomy is a surgical procedure that allows a veterinarian access to the inside of a beardie’s abdomen by cutting through the abdominal wall. In order to achieve this, a dragon must be laying on its back, hence the need for intubation to help it breathe.
Coeliotomies may be performed to biopsy organs, remove foreign objects or tumors, or relieve chronic constipation in bearded dragons. Keep an eye out for what your bearded dragon wats even if it is food because some insects like cicadas can be difficult to digest and may require surgical extraction in extreme cases.
A cystotomy is similar to a coeliotomy, however, access to a bearded dragon’s internal organs is achieved towards the posterior end of the reptile. Cystotomies are typically performed to remove bladder stones from the colon which can obstruct regular bowel movements and become dangerous for a dragon.
Like coeliotomies, cystotomies must be executed when a beardie is on its back because access to the digestive system is easier through the ventral rather than the dorsal side of the reptile.
Ovariohysterectomy (Spaying Female Dragons)
If you are not interested in breeding your female bearded dragon or are concerned about reproductive complications that can occur in female beardies such as the ovaries not functioning properly or egg retention within the body, you can have your dragon spayed.
An ovariohysterectomy (or a very fancy way of saying spaying procedure) can be performed to extract all of the ovaries when a female matures. The ovaries go through active periods in which they may be easier to extract because they are larger; however, this may also put your dragon at risk for more complications.
Since this procedure is elective and can already be accompanied by risks, as any surgical procedure does, veterinarians take care to properly intubate bearded dragons because they will be laying on their backs for the surgery itself.
Here is a video of the same procedure performed on an iguana – fair warning, do not watch if you are squeamish about lizard innards:
Neutering Male Dragons
Female bearded dragons aren’t the only ones who undergo reproductive surgery. Male dragons can be neutered as well which would require the reptile to be on its back for the duration of the surgery in order to extract all of the necessary organs.
Although veterinarians take every precaution to ensure that beardies can still breathe by intubating them, some reptile vets do not recommend electing to neuter male dragons because it can be considered an unnecessary procedure.
Reasons why a male bearded dragon should be neutered include a high likelihood of reproductive organ disease and complications from severely damaged reproductive organs. Some vets recommend neutering to lower aggressive behavior, although there is not much evidence that this is effective.
Should I Be Worried That My Bearded Dragon Will Stop Breathing on His Back?
Aside from surgeries when trained professionals purposefully place bearded dragons on their backs to help resolve other health issues, beardies should not be on their backs. Frankly, they don’t like being in this position because it makes it difficult to breathe.
However, it would take a lot for your bearded dragon to stop breathing altogether on its back. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be worried though. Oftentimes, bearded dragons that end up on their backs have a neurological issue that may be caused by a head injury or a fungal disease.
If a beardie is left on its back for too long, it may suffer oxygen deficiency and high stress levels could have other major physiological consequences. A healthy dragon that ends up on its back should immediately work to flip itself back over.
If you find your beardie on its back, flip it over and check for other signs that there may be a problem with your lizard.
Bearded dragons are incredible reptiles with respiratory systems that are designed to be optimal for their lifestyle and habitat. While beardies are excellent breathers on all fours, they are not quite as adept if they are flipped on their backs.
Due to their lack of a diaphragm and the way their ribcage expands to their dorsal side when they breathe, dragons can have a difficult time breathing while on their backs. Some cases may necessitate laying a dragon on its back, but trained reptile vets will intubate bearded dragons to ensure proper oxygen flow to the lungs.
If you find your bearded dragon on its back and struggling to breathe, help it out. It may look calm and collected, but don’t assume that’s because it is peacefully meditating – it’s more than likely that something may actually be wrong.