At the Green Iguana Society, one of the most common emergency questions we receive is “My iguana’s tail has fallen off! What do I do?” In this article, we plan to address how and why an iguana’s tail breaks, discuss the aftercare, and address the treatment required for more serious tail injuries and infections.
Why do iguanas lose their tails? Like many lizards, iguanas can "drop" or autotomize their tails. Iguanas have muscle bundles with special attachments to the vertebrae in the tail. These are areas where it is easier for the tail to break, should a predator grab hold of the iguana’s tail. In the wild, of course, attack by a predator would be the likely cause of a tail break. The detached piece of tail thrashes and wriggles to distract the predator while the iguana runs to safety. In captivity, there are many reasons an iguana may lose its tail. Sometimes, the iguana causes the breakage itself, by whipping its tail against a hard surface like a wall in your house or in the cage. Injuries to tails in pet iguanas rarely happen by themselves when an iguana is living in a properly sized and built cage with correct UVB producing lights and a correct diet. A cage that is too narrow for the iguana to turn around easily can result in tail injuries. Owners sometimes get their iguana's tail stuck in a door while shutting it, or step on the tail. Iguanas also do fall, on occasion, and can injure their tail that way. This injury is more common in an iguana that hasn’t had the correct care, as mentioned above. The largest cause of injury to an iguana tail is having someone grab the tail while the iguana is running away, and having it break incompletely. Either a person is grabbing for the tail, or another pet in the household has been left unsupervised with the iguana and feels that grabbing the tail would make for a fun game.
How should I care for my iguana after it has lost its tail? The aftercare of a minor tail breakage is simple. Make sure the area has stopped bleeding. You may use styptic powder (which can be bought in pet stores in their nail trimming section) or cornstarch or flour to help stem the bleeding. Usually, there is little blood loss after a tail break. Cleanse the area with Betadine (providone-iodine), making sure that all the powder is cleaned off. You can either blot it dry with a clean piece of gauze or let it air dry, and apply Neosporin ointment (or any triple antibiotic ointment) to the end of the tail. Repeat the cleaning and Neosporin routine twice daily for a week or until the wound has healed over. Watch closely for signs of infection or gangrene (see below).
Should I take my iguana to the veterinarian? More serious breaks require veterinarian intervention. These breaks are usually the ones that are higher up on the tail, or have broken but the skin hasn’t torn with the break. Tail infections also require veterinarian attention, and in both cases tail amputation is a possible outcome.
While there are several reasons for tail amputation, infection is probably the most common. It is more common for the tail to become infected and need surgery than it is to suffer an injury and need an amputation. Generally, the end of the tail has turned gangrenous, which often is due to injury but frequently just seems to happen for no known reason.
Gangrene means that the tail has become infected, and the tissues are dying. In order to save the live tissue in the rest of the tail, the infected area must be removed before it spreads to healthy tissue. Dry gangrene is the typical type of presentation that the infection has. The tail tip turns dark or black and becomes dry, as if the fluid has been removed from the area. Less common is wet gangrene, where the area is darkened and soft and mushy. Gaseous gangrene nearly never happens when the tail tip is involved. It involves pockets of gas forming from the bacteria in infected tissue under the skin.
How will the veterinarian treat my iguana for tail loss? So, you have the iguana at the veterinarian’s office for assessment. What’s next? The vet will examine the infection or the break/injury, and decide if it can heal with medication or if it needs to be amputated. If the tail tip is infected, and it is a very small section of tail, the vet may decide to treat it with antibiotics and possibly application of DMSO. DMSO is a chemical that is a byproduct of wood pulp production, and is not something to be used lightly. If you get it on your skin, you get a garlicky taste in your mouth. It is used to treat minor infections of the tail because it increases blood flow, and even humans use it, such as diabetics with wounds that won’t heal because their circulation is impaired from the disease. With more antibiotic filled blood flow to an infected area, there is a chance that the amputation may not be necessary. However, if the infected area is too large to be treated this way, or if this treatment works only to have the infection come back repeatedly, then amputation is the treatment of choice.
A break, however, has fewer chances of avoiding amputation than an infection does. There really isn’t a way to splint an iguana’s tail. It just doesn’t work well, just like trying to splint a cat’s tail. If the break in the tail hasn’t broken the skin, the blood flow beyond the break appears normal and the angle of the break is not too severe, the veterinarian may choose not to amputate and to let the tail heal on its own. A splint may be fashioned from materials in the vet’s office such as tongue depressors and gauze, and it may actually stay on and be effective in healing the tail as straight as it possibly can get. Chances are, your iguana will always have a kink in its tail as proof of the break. The location of the break will also affect the decision of the vet to amputate or not, in the case of a break where the skin has not been broken. A break higher up on the tail has a better chance of being splinted and healed than one near the end of the tail, merely because the end of the tail tends to move around more and get whacked on things.
If the break in the tail has broken the skin on the iguana’s tail, it most likely will need to be amputated. There are two ways that this can be done. If the break is incomplete, the vet can continue cutting through the break to finish the job. The other choice is that the vet can locate the natural breaking points in an iguana’s tail, and amputate it through that joint by disarticulating the joint (separating the bones, instead of cutting through the bone itself). Doing so can often encourage more re-growth of tail than cutting through the tail at a non-natural breaking point. More on re-growth will be discussed later in this article.
In many cases of amputation, the iguana has several options for anesthesia for the procedure. In minor cases, when the very end of the tail needs to be removed, often the only things that are given are injections of a numbing agent. The iguana is rolled up well in a towel (iguana burrito) and held in place to prevent unexpected movement, and the cut is made into healthy tissue for an infected tail, or at whatever spot was decided for an injured tail. Bleeding is stopped usually with styptic powder, which is later cleaned off. The tail tip is bandaged for a period of time after the amputation, generally about 24 hours. After care usually consists of cleaning the wound with a mild antibacterial cleaner like Betadine and applying a strong antibiotic cream, which tends to be Silvadene. Silvadene is a cream that is commonly used on people who have badly burned themselves, and is stronger than your typical triple antibiotic that you can pick up at the local pharmacy.
In more severe cases of amputation, where the amputation is higher up, the iguana is often given a sedative along with a local anesthetic. The sedative does double duty. Not only does it calm the iguana down and help prevent movement, it also acts as a pain reliever during the procedure. Generally in amputations that are higher up the skin is sewn shut over the end of the wound, so aftercare really just requires that the wound is kept clean and dry. It may or may not have to have an antibiotic cream or ointment applied, as the iguana may or may not be given antibiotic injections. It depends on the reason for the amputation (injury or infection) and the overall condition of the iguana.
The photo below shows an iguana that has just had her tail amputated at the vet's office. The iguana is sedated. Luckily for this well-cared-for ig, her owner took her to the vet immediately when she began to show symptoms of tail infection. Photo by Mike Cohen; used with permission.
The most severe amputations, which result from a traumatic injury such as being attacked by another iguana or by a dog, often require suturing additional injuries besides the tail amputation. In these cases, the iguana is generally given an anesthetic that renders it completely unconscious, usually by gas, similar to how humans and other pets are put under for surgery. Their aftercare varies depending on the severity of their injuries, but suffice it to say that the care requires diligence from the owner to ensure good healing results.
As far as amputations that are in the middle of the tail go, they may or may not be sewn up. This really depends on the opinion of the veterinarian, along with input from you, the owner. As mentioned before, sewing the end of the tail with an amputation at the end of the tail discourages growth. In the case of an amputation that is higher up on the iguana’s tail, you need to discuss with the veterinarian the pros and cons of leaving the wound open. The pros would be possible tail re-growth, and the cons would be a possibility of more difficult healing because of the size of the open wound.
Can I perform amputation of my iguana's tail at home? No. Amputation should be done only by experienced veterinarians or those involved in rescue/rehab who have been taught proper amputation technique by a vet. Vets have many tools/drugs at their disposal and can perform the amputation safely and with less risk of infection. They can also determine whether amputation is really necessary and if so, where the point of amputation should be. They can properly restrain your iguana and can treat it to lessen its pain. They can provide a sterile environment in which the surgery can take place. Amputation is a serious medical procedure that should never be performed by untrained owners at home.
Will my iguana's tail grow back? Iguanas do not re-grow their tails as quickly or as consistently as some species of geckos, which can drop their tails, run off, and in a month or so have a brand new tail. Tail re-growth in iguanas depends on a few factors. These are the age of the iguana, the health of the iguana, and to a certain extent where the tail was amputated. The younger the iguana, the greater the chance of re-growth. The healthier the iguana, the greater the chance of re-growth. And if the amputation was near a natural breaking point, there is a slightly greater chance of re-growth. The re-growth will never look like a normal iguana tail. It tends to be more club-like than tapered and the scales are not the same as the rest of the scales on your iguana’s body. The scales tend to be smoother than those on the body. The color of the tail also won’t be the same as it was before. It appears that the color of the tail takes on the shade of color where the break occurred. If the break occurred in a dark band of your iguana’s tail, it’s likely that the re-growth will be dark. If it occurred in a light area, chances are the re-growth will be lighter. It also won’t reach the length that an intact tail would. Sometimes, for whatever reason, a young iguana’s tail won’t grow back. On the other hand, an older iguana’s tail might just grow a significant amount. There is no way to predict whether or not there will be any re-growth.
Conclusion: Although minor tail injuries or breakage can be very worrisome for iguana owners, if proper care is given after the break or amputation, chances are that your iguana will heal well and will be no worse for wear. Iguanas act the same with minor tail loss as they do with their tail intact. The key points to keep in mind regarding minor breakage or injuries are: avoid situations that can cause or contribute to tail loss, seek veterinary advice for tail trauma, keep the wound clean and watch for signs of infection, and provide your iguana with a healthy diet and proper habitat conditions to encourage fast healing and possible re-growth of the tail.
Be aware, however, that the loss of large amounts of the tail, such as after a serious amputation, will require some changes to your iguana's habitat. Loss of more than half of the tail will affect your iguana's balance and climbing ability. Your iguana may be unable to maneuver well for a while after the surgery. Special ramps and lower shelves may be needed. Lights and heating devices may need to be moved to the bottom of the enclosure until your iguana is able to climb again. However, with some special care, your iguana will be able to live a happy, healthy life.