While bearded dragons are exotic pets, they do have unique personalities and express themselves through their actions such as cuddling or puffing up their throats. So, if a bearded dragon flips on his back, is that a quirky social signal or a sign of something wrong?
Bearded dragons may flip on their backs for various reasons ranging from neurological conditions to nutrient deficiencies to just plain clumsiness. Most of these reasons do not cause bearded dragons to voluntarily flip themselves over. However, they could also purposefully flip over to play dead in order to avoid attracting a predator’s attention.
There are a lot of reasons to explore when it comes to solving the mystery of your bearded dragon flipping on his back. First, let’s assess how he got to laying on his back, then we’ll really delve into each possibility.
Why Is My Bearded Dragon Laying on His Back?
Bearded dragons are sure-footed creatures who typically do not flip themselves upside down as part of their normal behavior. It’s important to try to determine how your bearded dragon got on his back in the first place.
Even as adept at climbing as bearded dragons can be, there’s no telling when one will lose its footing. It’s possible that your bearded dragon fell on its back simply because it lost its balance.
Certain disorders that can affect the brain will also cause a bearded dragon to lay on its back, like how humans may involuntarily go into a state of seizure.
Another way that your bearded dragon can end up on its back is by flipping himself over if he believes that a predator is nearby. His instincts tell him that if he mimics being dead, the predator is more likely to pass by.
The final reason why your bearded dragon may be on his back is sad but true – he could be dead. Check for normal signs of life to make sure he’s not playing dead or flip him over to see if he will reanimate, just to be safe.
Hopefully, your bearded dragon’s flipping behavior is less nefarious than death itself, but you still may be wondering what is causing this reaction. Let’s look at the possibilities so you can start helping your dragon get back to its normal upright self.
Reason 1: Infection
Unfortunately, a bearded dragon on its back can be an indicator of illness or infection including one of the most common diseases that can affect bearded dragons: yellow fungus disease. This fungal illness can spread rapidly between bearded dragons and is easily introduced via cuts or tears in the skin.
If yellow fungus disease goes untreated, it can begin to affect the gastrointestinal system causing appetite loss and nausea. Because of lack of nutrition and nausea, bearded dragons can become easily disoriented, lose their balance, and flip themselves over.
If you discover your bearded dragon on its back in conjunction with a loss of scales or yellow crust on parts of its body, call your vet right away because your reptile most likely has yellow fungus disease and is in need of immediate attention.
Reason 2: Metabolic Bone Disease
Metabolic bone disease is another common issue that affects bearded dragons, especially juveniles. The illness will eat away at the reptile’s bones until they are soft and weak. Eventually, metabolic bone disease will affect the brain and could cause seizures that would result in your bearded dragon flipping on its back.
Hypothetically, you should be able to notice the earlier warning signs of metabolic bone disease such as softening and swelling of the hind legs and jaw, so that you can get treatment right away. However, if you catch metabolic bone disease at the stage where your pet is displaying neurological issues, it might be too late.
Reason 3: Atadenovirus
An atadenovirus can affect bearded dragons as well as other reptiles, sometimes leading to neurological issues. While most atadenoviruses cause gastrointestinal problems, some variations can also affect the brain and cause back flipping in bearded dragons.
At this time there is no cure for an atadenovirus, but there is a PCR test available that your vet can use to test your bearded dragon to see if the virus is the cause of your dragon’s behavior.
Reason 4: Brain Tumor
Just like humans, bearded dragons are susceptible to brain tumors, also commonly referred to as blood cysts, blood blisters, or aneurysm syndrome. These vessels typically appear at the back of a bearded dragon’s head and can affect neurological function. Aneurysms can cause your dragon to lose its balance and flip over.
While this may not seem very harmful, cephalic or brain aneurysms are ticking time bombs and any intense jarring, such as falling on its head, could make the vessel burst. Cephalic aneurysms can be removed with surgery but will be fatal if they are not properly addressed.
Reason 5: Head Trauma
Bearded dragons don’t have to be sick or infected with a fungus to experience neurological damage. Head trauma can easily occur if a bearded dragon falls, is dropped, or hits its head hard enough against another object.
If you witness any of these things happen to your bearded dragon and then it begins flipping itself over on its back, you may want to have your vet check for brain damage. Laying on its back could indicate that your bearded dragon suffered severe head trauma from a seemingly harmless accident.
Reason 6: Hypocalcemia & Hypercalcemia
Major injuries and illnesses can be overwhelming to handle, especially if you’re thinking about the future of your bearded dragon, but don’t despair just yet. Back flipping may also be easily explained by a nutrient imbalance that can be just as easily corrected.
Hypocalcemia, or a lack of sufficient calcium, is one of the most common problems experienced by bearded dragons that can be amended with the addition of a calcium supplement. When bearded dragons don’t get enough calcium, they can suffer from muscle twitches or even seizures that would cause them to flip over.
You can see an example of a post-seizure flip here:
On the other hand, hypercalcemia is when your bearded dragon has too much calcium coursing through its veins. This can cause the blood to thicken and slow down the flow to the heart which decreases oxygen. As a result, your bearded dragon may become dizzy or nauseous and flip onto its back.
Both of these conditions can be fixed by ensuring your bearded dragon’s calcium intake is at an optimal level either by adding calcium supplements or cutting out some calcium-rich foods.
Reason 7: Vitamin D3 Deficiency
Vitamin D3 concentrations go hand in hand with optimal calcium levels for your bearded dragon. Wild bearded dragons live in environments where they are naturally exposed to lots of sunlight, thus absorbing ample UVB rays which they convert to vitamin D3. Without enough vitamin D3 in their blood, bearded dragons cannot absorb calcium which can lead to neurological issues that would cause your reptile to flip over.
Install a UVB light to ensure that your bearded dragon is producing enough vitamin D3 to compensate for its calcium intake and prevent it from laying on its back.
Reason 8: Dehydration
The solution to your bearded dragon’s back flipping behavior may be as simple as making sure he’s got enough water to drink. Dehydration and loss of electrolytes can cause a bearded dragon to become lightheaded and dizzy, which may end up with him losing his footing and flipping on his back.
Reason 9: Loss of Balance
We all know – especially those of us who are more prone to clumsiness – that sometimes you lose your balance just because you’re not paying attention to where you’re going, or you misjudge a sturdy foothold. Bearded dragons can be guilty of the same mishaps.
Bearded dragons love to climb, and more likely than not, your reptile’s home has lots of rocks and structures for him to scale. Or he may just love scrambling up your shirt to perch on top of your head. Either way, if a bearded dragon gets distracted or loses purchase on a slippery or loose structure, he could easily fall onto his back.
There isn’t any immediate cause for concern in this case, however, you should monitor him to make sure there is no subsequent head trauma. Also, make sure he isn’t stuck on his back without the ability to right himself.
Reason 10: Feels Threatened
The likelihood of your bearded dragon laying on its back because it feels threatened is probably minimal because it is not fending for itself like it would be in the wild. However, if you have a cat or a dog or even if your dragon perceives another human as a threat, it may instinctually play dead by laying on its back.
Most predators of bearded dragons are not scavengers and prefer a fresh kill. By pretending to be dead, the bearded dragon protects itself by assuming the façade of an unpalatable meal.
Should I Be Worried If My Bearded Dragon Is on His Back?
A bearded dragon laying on its back does not necessarily indicate that there is something wrong, but there are a lot of worrying reasons why your dragon could be on his back. Illness, head injury, dehydration, or nutrient deficiency can all contribute to a bearded dragon’s back flipping behavior.
Try to note additional symptoms or behaviors that may help clue you into the cause behind your dragon’s affinity for being on his back.
If you discover your bearded dragon on his back, flip him over immediately. Compression of his respiratory system can make it hard for your bearded dragon to breathe when he is on his back. Monitor your dragon carefully in case he exhibits the behavior again to avoid any respiratory issues.
While back laying in bearded dragons isn’t always a cause for concern, there may be some extremely serious, if not potentially fatal, reasons why your bearded dragon is doing this.
Check through this list and talk to your vet to see if any of these reasons seem likely for your dragon.
The sooner you know why your dragon keeps flipping over, the sooner you can help keep him upright and back to normal.