An intestinal impaction is a serious, life threatening condition where the intestine gets blocked with faeces. In Leopard geckos it is most often caused by the ingestion of sandy or gravel substrates.
Although substrates can be swallowed accidentally from time to time, there are usually one or more underlying causes for spontanious consumption of a substrate. In rarer cases where the substrate was not the cause, underlying deficiencies or the overconsumption of harder-to-digest feeder insects can also case impactions.
Risk factors and signs
Leopard geckos are at risk for getting impactions when:
- Being kept on a particlelised substrate such as sand, gravel, pellets, etc.
- Seen eating the substrate
- Inadequite calcium supplementation is given
Your Leopard gecko might have an intestinal impaction when one or more of the following signs are observed:
- Anorexia (not eating well or eating at all)
- Dehydration (seen as a wrinkly skin)
- Tail getting thinner
- Bloated abdomen
- Hard pieces felt in the abdomen
- Excessive soaking behaviour
First look at the substrate
The substrate is what is placed on the floor of your Leopard gecko’s enclosure. Many keepers use substrates such as sand, paper, carpet, gravel, etc. There is no perfect substrate to be used in Leopard geckos, but safety with regard to ingestion should be a keeper’s main concern when choosing one. Also see suitable substrates for Leopard geckos for more information.
Sandy substrates are the number one cause of impactions in Leopard geckos. Apart from being easy to ingest, sand eating (geophagia) is seen with Leopard geckos with underlying metabolic bone disease (MBD). When the body is deficient in calcium, Leopard geckos often resort to eating sand to try to full the gap. Together with the large quantities of indigestible sand, calcium deficiencies also lead to intestinal stasis (the inability of the intestines to contract properly). Together these two factors leads to the inability for sand to move through the digestive system – causing an impaction. Also see supplementation through ‘dusting’ for more information.
Theoretically any substrate that can be ingested by a Leopard gecko can cause intestinal obstructions. Although seen less frequently, substrates like gravel, bark, pellets, etc. can cause an impaction either because they get stuck somewhere in the intestine or they cut into the lining of the intestine causing pain and reluctancy to defaecate.
Other causes of impactions in Leopard geckos
Albeit far less common, other causes for intestinal impactions in Leopard geckos are food items that are either too large or that is difficult to digest. Overfeeding can also cause this problem.
More about sand impactions in Leopard geckos
The severity and definitive diagnoses of a sand impaction can be made by taking an abdominal radiograph. Impactions can be divided into mild and severe.
Mild sand impactions in Leopard geckos will usually cause no visible harm and will usually go unnoticed. Mild impactions that is diagnosed to cause problems can be treated by rehydration and appropriate laxatives.
Intensive treatment is indicated for severe intestinal impactions. These are best treated by an experienced reptile friendly veterinarian. Treatment will include hospitalisation, parenteral rehydration (drips), antibiotics, laxatives, force feeding and enemas. In very severe cases surgical removal of the gut contents might be recommended. Drastic intervention usually carries a poor prognosis and many owners elect to euthanase.
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