Not all lizards drop their tails, but those that do have ‘fracture planes’ all down the tail and can drop it at any point along the length. Lizards drop their tails as a defence mechanism when startled or threatened and so it is worth getting your lizard used to being handled to prevent this happening, because although it is natural in the wild in the rather less natural surroundings of an artificial habitat it is all too easy for infection to set in and the stressed animal could also become ill in other ways.
What Effects a Tail Break has on a Lizard
When a lizard drops its tail in the wild, it is usually in a do or die situation when it is cornered by a predator. Just because it is a naturally occurring thing it does not mean that the lizard is not stressed by it and it will need extra care immediately afterwards. Its balance may also be affected and care should be taken that it does not fall. Some lizards which store fat in their tail, for example geckos, lose a significant amount of food stores when their tail breaks off and so will need extra nutrition to put that right.
If the animal is young, it will stop growing when the tail is healing. If the lizard is an adult of breeding age, all reproductive activity will stop. If the lizard is in a group it may feel very vulnerable and would appreciate the addition of a hide in the environment where it can regroup and have a rest while its body gets over the stress.
Care of your Lizard After a Tail Break
If you spot the tail is off very soon, it is very worthwhile to soak your lizard in a solution of betadine or similar iodine based wash. If the lizard defaecates or urinates in the water, change it and begin again. If the water cools, rewarm it so as to not shock the lizard further. Flush the stump with more betadine and then coat the stump with wide spectrum antibiotic cream. The antibiotic therapy should be continued as long as the stump remains unhealed.
The environment must be kept scrupulously clean; it is possible to buy special carpet to put down in the cage to promote clean conditions and this is probably a good idea at this time. If possible, it is also good practice generally to keep the temperature at the upper end of normal for the species, to reduce stress that way.
An extra dose of a calcium supplement will enable the lizard to regrow the bone more quickly and completely. If the tail break is not complete, or the lizard has dropped his tail very close to his body, it is essential that the vet is called to make a neat amputation. The tail will still grow back through the sutures, so a planned amputation will not mean that the lizard will remain without a tail. But regrowth is never guaranteed, and it is not a sign of other problems if it does not grow back completely, even if it can be a rather disappointing outcome.
Regrowth of Broken Tails in Lizards
Although regrowth is not guaranteed, it does occur in most cases, if sometimes incompletely. The first sign that healing is successful and regrowth is beginning is the forming of a cap over the stump. The muscle groups fuse together over the end of the bone and the tail slowly grows back. It is not often exactly the same as the original tail. Sometimes it is darker in colour, thinner or a slightly different shape and there is always a ‘ring’ to show where the break occurred.
The regrown tail usually has a core of cartilage not bone and it is not usual for the tail to be shed again. This is why it is such a traumatic experience for the lizard; nature has programmed it to drop its tail in extreme circumstances only, and in the wild it would only be when a predator had left it no choice. Therefore it is worth being gentle with your lizard and not making any sudden moves or noises, especially if it has not been with you for long. Although the tail will probably grow back successfully, the lizard will be impaired while it is doing so and will not grow or reproduce for the whole time.
If Things go Wrong
Rarely, an infection can set up in the stump of a dropped tail. Signs of this are swellings on the stump which do not lessen with time and a general malaise in the lizard. If the break is very near the body, it is very important to watch out for infections of this nature as there may not be room for further amputations and if the infection becomes deep seated or widespread then there will be no real alternative but to euthanize the animal. This is why it is so vitally important to keep everything in the lizard’s environment scrupulously clean while healing is taking place.
Some owners, lulled by the belief that shedding a tail is ‘natural’ do not take these simple precautions and are rewarded by the death of an animal which has died needlessly. It is very difficult to keep a lizard clean and dry and in good health when it has suffered quite a traumatic event, but with a little care and attention, the outcome of a broken tail can be a happy, contented animal with nothing worse than a slight kink in its tail!