Dysecdysis, or incomplete shedding, is a fairly common problem with many captive reptiles, including bearded dragons. Luckily, there are steps you can take to avoid this condition altogether. There are also a variety of home remedies discussed among bearded dragon owners, such as a topical treatment of coconut oil, but are they safe?
Can I put coconut oil on my bearded dragon? Technically, yes, you can put coconut oil on your bearded dragon. However, keep in mind that while it is mostly safe, it can cause some issues for them. There are other things you can do to help with shedding before applying oil to their skin.
While coconut oil is thought to be safe when applied topically to bearded dragons, it is not the best option for aiding their shedding process. There are more helpful things you can do for your beardie to help him prepare for shedding, and to shed more easily once the ecdysis (shed) has already begun.
Bearded Dragons and Shedding
As mentioned above, ecdysis is the process of shedding old skin in reptiles. Although body growth and change can initiate ecdysis, it is not typically due to those factors and merely happens to regenerate a reptile’s skin when appropriate.
Bearded dragons shed less often as they get older. As they become adults, shedding occurs for a variety of reasons. These can include self-grooming, as well as low calcium levels. The frequency in which a bearded dragon sheds is linked to hormonal changes and can also depend on external factors such as habitat, health, diet, and stress.
Sometimes bearded dragons eat their old skin after it is shed. This behavior is fairly normal. Beardies consume old skin because it contains calcium. Just be aware that this may be a sign that your dragon is not receiving enough calcium through his diet. Bearded dragons typically need a calcium supplement sprinkled over their food about four to six times per week.
When your bearded dragon is getting ready to shed, his skin will become dull. He may appear lethargic and might not want to be handled. His appetite will also decrease and you may observe raised patches on his skin, as well as eye inflation. Eye inflation occurs when bearded dragons bulge out their eyes in order to loosen the skin around them.
During the shedding period, your dragon may engage in certain behaviors that will help him to remove his own skin1. These behaviors include:
- Repetitive scratching of his body with his legs
- Rubbing his body across rough surfaces
- Rubbing himself against the rocks, branches, or bark in his terrarium
Shedding completely will take your bearded dragon approximately 2-3 weeks. During the shedding cycle, you should handle your beardie as minimally as possible. His new skin is delicate and prone to damage. Additionally, his vision can become impaired during shedding and this might make him skittish and nervous.
Please remember that no matter how uncomfortable your dragon may appear during the shedding process, it is never a good idea to pull their old skin off of them. Doing so can damage the new skin underneath and can cause bleeding and infections.
What is Dysecdysis?
Dysecdysis is improper shedding, or difficulty shedding. This issue occurs most commonly in captive reptiles, but can happen with wild reptiles as well. Caledon Vaughan Veterinary Services states, “[Dysecdysis] is not a disease state itself but rather, a symptom of disease or improper husbandry.”2
The most common external causes of dysecdysis include improper handling, poor nutrition, lower than optimal tank temperature, low humidity, and insufficient cage decor (which does not provide your dragon with ample opportunity to scratch or rub off his old skin himself).
Certain diseases can also predispose bearded dragons to dysecdysis. These diseases include ectoparasites, malnutrition, dermatitis, and dermal trauma (or trauma to the skin).3
Dysecdysis most often affects the areas of a bearded dragon that can lose circulation most easily, such as his toes, limbs, and tail, but it can happen anywhere on the body. If you notice retained sheds on the body parts listed, or if you think your bearded dragon is losing circulation, call your veterinarian immediately.
There are two major warning signs that can indicate that your bearded dragon may be losing circulation:
- Your beardie’s tail appears shriveled or you can see rings around his tail
- The color of his tail is changing quickly
Again, if you notice either of these warning signs, contact your beardie’s veterinarian as soon as possible.
How to Safely Help Your Bearded Dragon to Shed
You can take steps to prevent dysecdysis and help your dragon to shed more effectively before and after his shedding process begins.
First, be sure to maintain the appropriate heat and humidity levels in your bearded dragon’s habitat at all times. The humidity level should stay between 20-40%. Be sure to invest in a reliable hygrometer, or humidity gauge, to help you monitor the tank’s humidity.
A humidity level that is too high can contribute to bacterial growth in your dragon’s tank, which can lead to skin infections in your dragon. A humidity level that is too low can contribute to dysecdysis.
Temperatures on the cool side of your bearded dragon’s tank should range from 75°-85℉. The temperature in his basking spot should be kept around 88°-100℉. During the night, keep the temperature in the tank around 70°-75℉. These temperatures are best monitored using thermometers at each end of your beard’s cage or tank.4
Proper nutrition is also essential for bearded dragons. Bearded dragons are omnivores. This means that they need both protein, in the form of live insects, and plant-based nutrition in the form of vegetables (mostly) and fruits (occasionally).
Feed your bearded dragon gut loaded insects such as crickets, mealworms, Dubia roaches, and waxworms. The other half of their diet should be made up of nutrient-rich vegetables, such as collard greens, dandelion greens, turnip greens, acorn squash, yellow squash, carrots, bell peppers, sweet potato, and endive.
VCA Animal Hospitals suggest that most (80-90%) of the plant material given to your bearded dragon be vegetables and flowers, and 10-20% be fruits.5 As previously mentioned, you should also be providing your bearded dragon with a calcium supplement 4-6 times per week.
Your bearded dragon should always have a dish of fresh water available to him and should be given regular baths. Baths not only provide your beardie with the chance to drink, they can help moisturize and soften his skin during shedding to make the process easier for him.
Always bathe your beardie in his own designated tub. Fill his tub with approximately 1-3 inches of water (no higher than his shoulder joints) that is warm, but not hot (approximately 90-96℉). Allow him to soak for about 15-20 minutes, 2-3 times a week.
Lastly, be sure to provide adequate cage furniture for your bearded dragon. Rocks, branches, and other terrarium decor will not only give them the opportunity to climb and explore, but will allow him to rub off his own dead skin during the shedding process.
What If My Beardie Is Still Having Problems Shedding?
If you notice your bearded dragon’s old, dead skin is hanging around longer than it should, there are certain measures you can take.
First, try bathing them a bit more frequently, up to 3-4 times per week. During these baths, use a soft-bristled toothbrush to brush away dead skin. This “brushing” should really be more of a massage, and again, gentleness is key. Be sure to massage only in the natural direction of your dragon’s scales.
This is the point at which some bearded dragon owners recommend using coconut oil, as well. Please check with your veterinarian before doing so, however, and keep the following things in mind:
- Coconut and other oils can cause clogged pores when applied to certain areas of your dragon, such as the area around his femoral pores. Avoid these areas.
- Do not allow your bearded dragon to sit under his basking lamp after you have applied coconut oil to his body. The lamp can heat up the oil and burn him.
- Do not leave the oil on your bearded dragon’s body for an extended period. Let it sit for about an hour to soften the affected skin, then remove it by either giving him a bath or wiping him gently with a damp cloth.
Although coconut oil is safe for topical use on bearded dragons, you should always consult your veterinarian before applying any type of oil to your dragon’s skin. Ensure that your dragon stays healthy and is able to shed properly by maintaining the appropriate heat and humidity levels in his tank, ensuring he is fed nutritious food, bathing him regularly, and scheduling regular vet visits.
Any health concerns should always be addressed with your veterinarian before taking matters into your own hands.