Bearded dragons, like other reptiles, are prone to a variety of diseases. Some of these diseases are more serious than others and atadenovirus is unfortunately one of the more serious ones.
What is Atadenovirus?
Atadenovirus, formerly known as Adenovirus and also commonly referred to as ADV (not to be confused with ADV in ferrets or skunks), is a highly contagious virus that is prevalent in bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps). Many people call this disease the "wasting disease" or "stargazing disease" due to the symptoms bearded dragons with ADV show.
The virus itself is, like all other viruses, microscopic so you cannot see it with your naked eye. There are also a number of different strains of this virus that affect different kinds of animals as well as humans. The Atadenovirus that we recognize as a reptile problem can infect lizards of many kinds. Agamid lizards (bearded dragons, water dragons and Rankin's dragons), chameleons, gekkota lizards (fat-tailed geckos, leopard geckos, and tokay geckos), helodermatid lizards (Gila monsters and Mexican beaded lizards), monitors (savannah monitors and emerald monitors), and skinks such as the blue-tongued skink can all be infected by the atadenovirus. ADV is also known to infect snakes, chelonians (turtles and tortoises), and there is even a report of it infecting a Nile crocodile.
What Symptoms Does Atadenovirus Cause in Bearded Dragons?
This disease isn't called the "wasting disease" or "stargazing disease" for no reason. Young bearded dragons with ADV typically won't survive past three months of age and will spend their short life struggling to grow, will be lethargic, lose weight, and not want to eat. The symptoms may be described as "non-specific" or your exotics vet may simply say your beardie is "wasting away" or is a "poor do-er". This is usually because bearded dragons with ADV have a weakened immune system and they are negatively affected by intestinal parasites such as coccidia so they can't seem to ever gain weight.
Some bearded dragons with ADV experience neurological symptoms such as body twitching and seizures. They also may arch their neck and look up at the sky (stargazing) due to what the virus does to their system. Bearded dragons that are infected with the atadenoviurs as adults typically develop liver and kidney disease, encephalitis, gastroenteritis, stomatitis, and other signs. Unfortunately, most of these findings are only discovered after the bearded dragon passes away and a necropsy is performed. Stranger still, other bearded dragons never show any symptoms and are lifelong carriers of the virus, shedding it throughout their lives.
How Do Bearded Dragons Get Atadenoviurs?
A bearded dragon can easily become infected if they are exposed to the feces of a carrier dragon, are handled by someone who handled an infected beardie, share a cage with an infected dragon, or eat leftover food from an infected dragon. Since the virus is extremely contagious and carrier bearded dragons may never show symptoms, it is easy to think a bearded dragon is healthy, expose it to another outwardly healthy bearded dragon, and then find one of the bearded dragons showing neurological, stargazing symptoms.
How is Atadenovirus Diagnosed?
Your exotics vet will recommend a fecal screening for intestinal parasites and a variety of blood work.. Many owners are wary of costs associated with testing for diseases in their exotic pets but tests must be run to confirm ADV in your bearded dragon. Alternatively and unfortunately, if a bearded dragon in your collection passes away it is recommended to submit the body for a necropsy to have it tested for ADV and other causes of death.
How is Atadenovirus Treated?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for atadenovirus. A dragon with ADV can only be supported symptomatically. He should be housed alone to prevent further infection to other bearded dragons and competition for food and given the appropriate UVB lighting and heat. If he has a secondary infection due to a suppressed immune system antibiotics may be prescribed, if he is dehydrated warm water soaks may be recommended and syringe feeding may also be necessary if your beardie is not eating well. Their quality of life must be assessed regularly to make sure euthanasia is not a better option over palliative care.