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 exhibited by bearded dragons with ADV.
Like all other viruses, this virus is microscopic, so you cannot see it with the naked eye. There are also a number of different strains of this virus that affect different kinds of animals as well as humans.
Atadenovirus can infect many kinds of lizards. 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 this virus. ADV is also known to infect snakes, chelonians (turtles and tortoises), and there is even a report of it infecting a Nile crocodile.
Atadenovirus Symptoms in Bearded Dragons
This disease is called the "wasting disease" or "stargazing disease" for a reason. A young bearded dragons with ADV typically will not survive past three months of age and will spend its short life struggling to grow. It 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 doer." This is usually because a bearded dragon with ADV has a weakened immune system; it can be negatively affected by intestinal parasites such as coccidia, which makes it seen that it cannot ever gain weight.
Some bearded dragons with ADV can experience neurological symptoms such as body twitching and seizures. It may arch its neck and look up at the sky (stargazing) due to what the virus does to its nervous system. Bearded dragons that are infected with atadenovirus as adults typically develop liver and kidney disease, encephalitis, gastroenteritis, stomatitis, and other conditions. Unfortunately, most of these findings are only discovered after the bearded dragon dies, and a necropsy is performed. Oddly, some bearded dragons never show any symptoms and are lifelong carriers of the virus.
How Bearded Dragons Get Atadenovirus
A bearded dragon can quickly become infected with the virus if it is exposed to the feces of a carrier dragon, are handled by someone who handled an infected beardie, shares a cage with an infected dragon, or eats 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 one of the beardies begins to show neurological, stargazing symptoms.
How Is Atadenovirus Diagnosed?
To figure out if you beardie has atadenovirus, your exotics vet will recommend a fecal swab for PCR testing,(which looks for virus DNA. 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, if a bearded dragon in your collection dies, it is recommended to submit the body for a necropsy to have it tested for ADV as a possible cause of death.
How Is Atadenovirus Treated?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for atadenovirus. A dragon with ADV can only be treated to alleviate its symptoms. It should be housed alone to prevent further infection to other bearded dragons and reduce its competition with other beardies for food. It will continue to need appropriate UVB lighting and heat. If it has a secondary infection due to a suppressed immune system, antibiotics may be prescribed. If the beardie is dehydrated, warm water soaks may be recommended, and syringe feeding may also be necessary if it is not eating well. Its quality of life must be assessed regularly to make sure euthanasia is not a better option over palliative care.