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What is Fatty Liver Disease?

Typically, fatty liver disease is triggered by obesity caused by an improper diet.  Lizards are herbivores, carnivores/insectivores or omnivores. It is important that they are fed the correct diet for their specific species. Too often, lizards are fed a diet that is too high in fat.  Additionally, lack of exercise may also contribute to the lizard becoming overweight.  

There are some reptile pet owners that are under the misconception that cat or dog food is good for carnivorous lizards. The fat content in cat and dog food is too high for lizards. Most cat and dog foods are made with fatty organ meats, which will make a lizard overweight.  The preservative sodium tripolyphosphate, which is commonly used in cat and dog food, can also be deadly to lizards. Please do not feed your lizard cat or dog food.

Sometimes an overweight lizard gradually stops eating.  The body then sends fat to the liver in order to keep the metabolism going.  The liver is unable to metabolize the increased inflow of fat, so it stores it.  The result of the stored fat in the liver’s cell results in fatty liver disease.  The fatty liver is unable to do its job and toxins will start to build up in the body. 

Eventually, the fat within the liver cells can cause the immune system to weaken.  A suppressed immune system will make the lizard susceptible to bacterial, viral or fungal infections. 

Fatty liver disease in lizards is the buildup of extra fat in the liver cells. The disease impairs the liver to function normally. Fatty liver disease in lizards is also referred to as hepalipidosis or hepatic lididosisty.

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Symptoms of Fatty Liver Disease in Lizards

Symptoms may include:

  • Jaundice - yellow tinge on skin, eyes and gums
  • Lethargy
  • Weakness
  • Depression
  • Anorexia
  • Bloated
  • Swollen limbs
  • Edema

Causes of Fatty Liver Disease in Lizards

Causes may include:

  • Improper diet and lack of exercise
  • Diabetes (very rare)
  • Cushing’s disease or hyperadrenocorticism (very rare)

Diagnosis of Fatty Liver Disease in Lizards

The reptile veterinarian will want to go over the medical history of the patient.  If your pet was seen by another veterinarian it is a good idea to bring his medical records with you.  During the consultation, the doctor will want to know what symptoms you have noticed and the intensity of them.  The veterinarian may want to discuss your lizard’s current diet, feeding frequency, activity level, environmental conditions and habitat.

The veterinarian will then perform a physical exam on the lizard.  The examination may include weighing the patient, palpation of the abdominal area, checking his eyes and mouth.  The veterinarian may want to observe the lizard’s behavior and evaluate his overall appearance.

A complete blood count may be recommended.  Patients with fatty liver disease may have an increase of cholesterol, triglycerides and uric acid levels. High white cells may be an indication that the patient has a bacterial infection. 

The veterinarian may recommend abdominal x-rays.  The x-rays will be able to determine if the liver is enlarged. The veterinarian may also suggest an endoscopic liver biopsy or an exploratory celiotomy. The patient will have to undergo general anesthesia. The endoscopic procedure makes no incision; the instrument is inserted via the lizard’s mouth or anus.  The exploratory celiotomy makes a small incision to insert the instrument into the patient’s abdomen cavity. The veterinary usually closes the incision with absorbable sutures. The physical exam, bloodwork, x-rays and biopsy will help diagnose if the patient has fatty liver disease.

Treatment of Fatty Liver Disease in Lizards

The patient will be started on fluid therapy to ensure that he is hydrated. The veterinarian may administer antibiotics and corticosteroid medications.  If your lizard is not eating, he will need to be tube-fed.  This will stop the body from sending more fat into the liver. The patient may also be given vitamin injections and amino acid supplements.  The treatment plan may take several months to return the liver to a healthy state. In some reptiles, it may take over a year to reverse the effects of fatty liver disease.

Recovery of Fatty Liver Disease in Lizards

Patients diagnosed and treated in the early stages of the disease have a good recovery prognosis. Follow up visits will be necessary to monitor the patient’s progress.  The veterinarian may want to take additional x-rays and blood work to ensure your pet’s liver is returning to normal.  It is important to prevent fatty liver disease from reoccurring and because of this, your lizard must continue to be on a low-fat diet.  The veterinarian will advise what the proper diet and caloric intake should be for your lizard. It is also important that the lizard has daily activity/exercise.

It is recommended by reptile veterinarians that pet lizards should have checkups twice a year. The early detection and treatment of any medical condition can ensure a good prognosis.