*With special thanks to Carroll and Baguana, Natalie and Primrose, Des and Vega$, and Kim and Hopper.
Why Spay? If you have visited our Breeding Season Issues page, you know that most healthy female iguanas develop eggs in their ovaries every year, regardless of whether or not they have mated. When females have developing eggs in their bodies, they are said to be gravid. If all goes well, females will eventually lay all their eggs over a period of a few hours, and that year's cycle will be complete. As discussed on the Breeding Season Issues page, being gravid takes a lot out of females. They eat less and less as the eggs develop and often stop eating altogether as laying approaches. Because of their lack of appetite, they lose weight and often become dehydrated. Their behavior changes as well, as they become increasingly focused on finding a good spot to dig a nest and lay their eggs. Hormones cause changes in their mood and blood chemistry. Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD) may result as the female's calcium reserves are used to build egg shells. As the eggs near the end of their development, females are at risk for complications such as eggs breaking in their bodies - a very serious condition that leads to an infection of the body cavity called peritonitis. There is also a risk of egg-binding (dystocia), which is when the female cannot lay some or all of her eggs. This is also a serious condition that requires immediate treatment. Sometimes the female's body will resorb the eggs before they are shelled and laid. This can eliminate risks such as egg-binding, but the other impacts on the female's health are still present.
As a result of these issues, many owners end up getting their female iguanas spayed - that is, the veterinarian removes the ovaries and other reproductive organs to prevent future episodes of gravidity and egg laying. This surgery is often performed while the female is gravid, which helps the vet visualize the ovaries and surrounding blood vessels. The exact motivation to have a female spayed varies in different situations, but often comes about when the iguana has had complications or is at risk to develop complications. For instance, two owners, Natalie and Des, elected to have their respective females Primrose and Vega$ spayed after broken eggs and peritonitis were suspected. Another owner, Kim, had her iguana, Hopper, spayed after Hopper exhibited problems with laying and behaviors that Kim had not seen in the two previous gravid cycles Hopper had experienced. I opted to have my own female, Donnie, spayed after blood work done during her routine check-up came back showing elevated levels of phosphorus that the vet felt were not only caused by Donnie being gravid, but were also putting her health at risk. Carroll had her iguana Baguana spayed after the vet confirmed her suspicion that something wasn't right - Baguana's gravidity was essentially "stalled" and wasn't moving forward as it should have been. Carroll suggests keeping a log of your iguana's behavior. She explains, "It's too hard to rely on memory for specific details and you never know when that kind of information may come in handy. Because of the journal I had started about her activity level, pooping patterns, color changes, behavioral oddities...I was able to detail for the vet the differences in her behavior from last year to this and it helped me be able to clarify in my own mind exactly why I was becoming worried about her this time through." It is important that owners trust in their own instincts when it comes to decisions like this. Carroll stresses, "If you have a ‘gut feeling' about your ig, and your vet ‘pooh-poohs' it for any reason, get a second opinion." Carroll ended up taking Baguana to two vets before the second one agreed that something was not right and that a spay was necessary.
Sometimes owners will opt to have a female spayed if her past health history is questionable - for example, if she has had MBD in the past, or has a spine deformity or other problem that may put her at increased risk for laying problems. Some owners decide to have their females spayed when they detect that they are gravid, not because of specific problems, but simply to avoid the stress and potential health problems that gravidity can cause.
Whatever the reason a person decides to spay their iguana, it can be helpful to have some idea of what is involved in a typical procedure and what follow-up care can be expected. As usual, exact details will vary from vet to vet and iguana to iguana, but hopefully the following information will help owners prepare for the spay of their females.
Basic Procedure: An initial check-up will probably be required before a spay can be scheduled. The vet may want to take radiographs to check the iguana's bone density and how far along the eggs are in development. If peritonitis is suspected, blood will be taken and a white blood cell count will be performed. The female's overall health will be evaluated during this check-up.
The vet should fully discuss the procedure with the owner. Things to be addressed before the surgery is performed include the entire cost of the surgery, including anesthesia, dressing, antibiotics, pain medication, and boarding/observation, what post-op care will be necessary for the owner to give at home, follow-up exams to be expected, etc. This way everyone knows what's what before the surgery takes place, and surprises and unpleasant situations can be avoided.
Owners should be sure to discuss pain medication with their vet. Using pain medication on reptiles is, surprisingly to most owners, still a fairly recent development. There is still a great deal of uncertainty regarding how iguanas and other reptiles respond to pain itself, as well as how they respond to pain medication, how their bodies break it down and excrete it, what side effects are possible, and what dosages should be used. Some vets do not routinely use pain medication when they perform surgery on reptiles, unless the owners request it. All owners I have spoken to regarding spays feel strongly that, given how their females moved and reacted to touch after their surgery, it is a painful experience for them. For this reason, it is important that owners discuss pain medication with their vet prior to the surgery itself. Some pain medications are given by injection right after surgery, and only one dose is given. Other medications are given orally, and several doses may be given over a few days. Owners should discuss the various options with their vet. Each vet has his or her own preferences, based on experience and knowledge. One pain medication that should be avoided with iguanas is called Rimadyl. Although Rimadyl is approved for use on iguanas, it may cause problems in some. The problems that Des and Vega$ experienced serve as an example of why this medication should probably be avoided with iguanas. The Rimadyl Vega$ was given after her surgery seemed to cause her to be hyperactive, and it thinned her blood. These two things together led to the re-opening of her incision and bleeding after Des had taken her home from the clinic. This made her recovery process longer and more difficult, and necessitated several visits back to the vet clinic in the days immediately following the surgery. As you can see, it is important that owners know what pain medication, if any, their vet plans on using, and how it will be administered.
After the surgery has been completed, the vet may send the iguana home the same day, or may hold her overnight for observation. This seems to depend on the vet. Hopper and Vega$ went home the same day, while Primrose, Baguana and Donnie were kept overnight. I think that it may be in the best interest of the iguana if her owner requests that she be kept overnight, if possible. Natalie agrees, and says, "...they can ensure that the iguana is warm, restricted in movement, not having extra bleeding, etc. We do it for dogs and cats as a routine thing [at the vet clinic] where I work..." If the vet does not initially plan on keeping the iguana overnight, owners may want to discuss it, assuming that they are prepared to pay the extra cost this will add to the surgery bill.
Home Care: Once the female is home, things will have to be done differently for a while until she recovers. One of the most important things owners must be sure to do is restrict the female's movements. Allowing the iguana to walk around and climb will likely result in torn stitches and/or bleeding, and will hamper healing. Some vets use staples instead of stitches, which seems to help prevent the incision from re-opening. However, a really active female can still cause problems. Owners should plan on removing climbing materials from their females' habitats, or restricting them to a small area such as a carrier or bathroom for a day or two following the surgery until they are a bit stronger and less likely to injure themselves. Owners can provide soft materials to lie on, to lessen the pain of the incision. This may also encourage the iguana to get as comfortable as possible and stay put. Carroll made Baguana a "pillow" by blowing up a Ziplock baggie and covering it with a pillowcase. Baguana liked it and used it a lot. Heat pads should be avoided, because they increase blood flow to the belly and may increase swelling and/or bleeding. Owners should handle their iguanas as little as possible at first, and should be extremely careful to avoid touching or putting pressure on the incision area.
No baths or soaks should be given for several days after the surgery. My vet recommended nothing but daily misting for ten days, while Natalie's vet allowed Primrose to have a bit of water in her daily tub sessions to encourage her to have bowel movements. However, soaks were not allowed for ten days or so.
Speaking of bowel movements, this is another aspect that seems to vary from iguana to iguana. Most seem to get back into normal pooping habits rather quickly after surgery, but others may take a bit longer for their bodies to recover. Donnie did not have a bowel movement for six days after her surgery, despite eating every day and getting plenty of wet foods. My vet assured me that I did not need to worry. Baguana took a bit longer too; her first bowel movement was five days after her surgery. When Donnie did finally go, her urates were bloody-looking -- another startling development that sent me scurrying to the phone to call the vet. I found out that this was residual blood from the surgery and was not unusual or a focus of concern. Carroll remembers that Baguana's urates were also bloody for several days. Vega$ and Hopper had normal bowel movements very soon after surgery, while Natalie reported that Primrose exhibited signs of painful defecation and also produced bloody-looking urates at first.
Most females begin to eat right away after they get home. Many have lost much weight during their gravid period, and their appetites come back in a big way. Of course, this does seem to vary a bit from iguana to iguana. Donnie seems to have taken much longer than most to recover from her surgery (perhaps because she was older than most and also had a kidney biopsy done at the same time as the spay), and really didn't get her normal appetite back for a month, although she ate at least a bit every day starting the day after surgery. It may be helpful for owners to chop foods up into pieces that are a bit smaller than usual, to help their iguanas eat more, digest better and gain weight back quickly. Helping the female to avoid dehydration is another important issue. Surgery is hard on the body, of course, and fluids are lost. The inclusion of very wet foods, such as grapes and watermelon, in the salad, along with spraying the salad with water before serving will help. This may be easier than trying to wrestle with a very sore female to get her to take fluids via oral syringe!
Most vets will prescribe an oral antibiotic, usually Baytril, for about 10-14 days to prevent infection after the surgery. Injectable antibiotics may be given if the owner is willing to administer the injections. The vet must demonstrate the proper procedure, of course. If peritonitis or other infections were present prior to the spay, a longer period of treatment may be required. Antibiotics of any kind are hard on the kidneys, so this is another reason to emphasize hydration. If an owner is lucky, his or her iguana will take the pill when it is hidden in a piece of favorite food, such as banana or bread, or wrapped in a piece of collard greens. If the iguana will not take the pill in foods, then it will be necessary to open her mouth and force the pill in. The vet can demonstrate this technique before the iguana goes home. Another note about antibiotics is that they not only kill off the "bad" bacteria that may cause illness and infection, but they also attack and kill the "good" bacteria that is normally present in the body and which perform important functions for the host organism. In iguanas, the gut bacteria which are so important for proper food digestion are often reduced by antibiotics. As a result, iguanas on antibiotics may have difficulty properly digesting food, or may produce runny stools. To help counteract this side effect of antibiotics, it may be beneficial for owners to treat their iguanas with Acidophilus - a helpful bacteria that is a part of iguanas' natural gut fauna. Acidophilus is available in a couple of forms. It is commonly one of the bacterial types used in the production of yogurt. Feeding an iguana small amounts of yogurt containing live Acidophilus cultures for a short time during antibiotic treatment is an easy way to provide a boost to gut bacteria. Another method of supplying Acidophilus which does not include the feeding of a dairy product is to find Acidophilus tablets, commonly available at most pharmacies and health supplement areas of grocery and department stores, crush them up, and sprinkle them on the iguana's food before serving.
Iguanas take a long time to heal. As a result, the stitches or staples will need to stay in longer than most owners would expect - anywhere from 4-8 weeks, depending on the veterinarian's preference, how well the iguana is healing and whether or not she rubbed or tore any stitches off during the recovery period. Most vets will not require any follow-up visits between the surgery and stitches/staple removal. However, if infection was present or suspected prior to the spay, blood work may be required to be sure the infection is cleared up.
The Importance of a Good Vet: As is emphasized over and over again throughout this web site, it is extremely important for iguana owners to have a good relationship with a knowledgeable and experienced reptile vet before their iguana needs surgery or treatment for other health problems. Bringing the iguana in for regular check-ups and blood panels allows the vet to get to know what is and isn't normal for a particular iguana, what the iguana's past health history is, etc. If problems do develop, it helps when an owner has a good relationship with the vet and can discuss options and issues related to treatment. When Vega$ had difficulties with the Rimadyl after her spay, Des' vet knew how to take care of things, especially since he'd been seeing Vega$ for regular check-ups for several years and knew her well. This is always a plus for any doctor - whether he or she treats people or animals.
Sometimes things can and do go wrong with spays, as is true for any medical treatment. Hopper's owner lost her two years after her spay. Here is what happened, in Kim's words:
"...she died two years after the spay from complications, but I don't feel the spay was done improperly. The comments I've received from my current vet and others (I haven't spoken with the vet who did the surgery) lead me to believe that what happened to Hopper is very unusual, but not unheard of. Briefly, what happened is: Hopper had lost a lot of weight and was being treated for internal parasites. Midway through her second course of meds, she still had not gained any weight and seemed to be losing muscle tone also. The day before I had an appointment to take her in for blood work, she suddenly became very weak. (Prior to that, she had been eating and behaving normally.) She appeared to have trouble keeping her balance and holding her head up. I took her in immediately to see the vet. She died that night while we were waiting for lab results to come back.
A necropsy showed that her ovaries had regrown and were producing eggs that were released into her body cavity (having no way to exit her body anymore). I believe the official cause of death was peritonitis. Her liver was also enlarged and very hard -- the vet believed that was likely due to her body trying to fight the infection caused by the eggs. My current vet (who performed the necropsy) believed that small pieces of her reproductive organs were inadvertently missed during the spay surgery. They were then able to grow back and her ovaries began producing eggs. I know the vet who performed the surgery was experienced, and he told me he removed all the reproductive organs. I do not feel like he was negligent or incompetent in any way. It was just bad, bad luck. Perhaps not so strangely, it was almost exactly two years between the spay surgery and her death. I guess her body was still keeping her normal reproductive season."
As Kim said, what happened to Hopper is very unusual, and not something that owners should worry about. However, the fact that Kim had a good relationship with the vet that did the surgery helped her deal with what had happened. To prevent the problem of ovary regrowth, some vets remove the ovaries but leave in the oviducts. This way, if the ovaries do grow back and eggs develop, they have a way to exit the body. This is something that owners may want to discuss with their vet prior to the surgery. Being sure your vet is experienced and knowledgeable about iguana spays is very important. Inexperienced vets can make mistakes, such as removing the oviducts but leaving in the ovaries, which can lead to problems like Hopper's. You can see how important it is to have a comfortable relationship that encourages good communication with your iguana's veterinarian.
Conclusion: Spaying a female iguana has many benefits and may be a wise choice in many instances. As stated before, the exact experience for both the iguana and the owner will vary depending upon a whole host of factors, but hopefully this article gives you an idea of what is involved and what you can reasonably expect. As always, educate yourself on the issue, speak to your vet, and make the decision that is right for both you and your iguana.
For more information about and photos of the spay procedure itself, visit Long Beach Animal Hospital's Website. Scroll down to the DISEASE SEARCH box on the homepage and select "SPAY (Iguana)". You can then read through their article.
Melissa Kaplan's article, To Spay or Not To Spay discusses some of the risks of spaying and may help owners decide if spaying their female is the right choice for them.