By Vanessa Voltolina
For the unsuspecting pet parent, having a lizard lose or drop its tail can be unnerving. However, the good news is that, like magic, most lizards can regrow their tails completely.
But why does it happen in the first place, and can you prevent it? We spoke with two experts to learn more about why lizards lose their tails and how you can keep your pet as healthy as possible during this situation.
Do All Lizards Lose Their Tails?
Most, but not all, lizards have the ability to "drop" their tails. According to Margaret Wissman, DVM, avian and exotic veterinary consultant, reptiles such as green iguanas and bearded dragons will drop and regrow their tails, while others, such as crested geckos, can lose their tails but will not regrow them.
This defense mechanism, termed “caudal autonomy,” happens when a lizard is grabbed by the tail or feels threatened, says Lisa Abbo, DVM, MS, at Woods Hole Science Aquarium and the Capron Park Zoo in Massachusetts. When this occurs, the tail separates from the body along a natural fracture line and continues to move independently from the body, likely to distract the predator and to allow the lizard to escape. This defense is often a last resort, after the lizard has used other less-costly attempts at escape.
“A lizard’s tail won’t drop if, say, your dog is barking at it,” said Wissman. However, it might drop if a person accidentally steps on it, grabs it, or a heavy object falls on it, she added.
When—and How—Do Lizard Tails Grow Back?
Tail regrowth is a fascinating research topic among scientists, said Abbo. Tail regrowth can take weeks to months and depends upon environment, diet and a host of other factors. The new tail may be shorter and different in color or texture from the original tail, and research has shown that regenerated tails are often made up of long tubes of cartilage (rather than vertebrae) and contain longer muscles that span the length of the new tail. At first, the new tail may look like a stub on your lizard until it is able to grow back to a decent length, said Wissman. Also, the regrown tail may be a more muted brown color than the original, brighter colored tail,
What to do for Tail Loss
Once the tail has been detached from the body, many blood vessels and nerves are damaged and there is no way to reattach it, said Wissman. Fortunately, when a lizard loses its tail, there is usually little to no bleeding. If an owner observes excess bleeding, however, applying firm pressure with clean gauze or a clean hand towel is advised, as well as calling your exotics veterinarian, said Abbo.
After your lizard’s tail has dropped, feel free to pick it up and throw it away. “Lizards don’t need to mourn the loss of their tails,” said Wissman, so there’s no benefit to your pet by keeping it.
Caring for Your Tail-Less Lizard
One of the most important things a pet parent can do after tail loss is to ensure a lizard's living space is clean and has appropriate temperature gradients, said Abbo. Neither Abbo nor Wissman recommend cleaning the site of the tail loss, bandaging it, or applying anything topical, like antibiotic ointment, to the site where the tail has broken off, as doing so can interfere with healing and cause irritation.
“Tail loss is a natural phenomenon, and the body is adept at healing itself, as long as the animal has proper nutrition and a clean, stress-free environment,” said Abbo. Of course, if you are concerned about how the site is healing or how the tail is regrowing, contact a veterinarian who specializes in exotic animals.
As mentioned, it’s paramount to keep your lizard’s environment clean after it loses its tail. It is a good idea to use paper towels or packing paper as bedding in your lizard’s environment to prevent impaction of any debris, like sand or bark, on the site, recommends Abbo. This substrate makes it easier to see soiled bedding and therefore easier to clean your lizard’s living space regularly.
Can Pet Parents Prevent Tail Loss?
What is the best way to prevent tail loss in lizards? Reduce stress and handle lizards in a way that makes them feel safe and secure. Abbo recommends holding lizards behind the forearms, with the belly supported underneath. “If they struggle and whip their tails, then the tail can be stabilized by gently holding it at the base, right up against the body,” she said.
Other tips include:
- Practice good husbandry: In addition to a stress-free environment, husbandry practices optimal for the species of lizard include providing ideal nutrition, space, enrichment (such as branches to climb on) and adequate heat, with a temperature gradient generally between 70 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit for most lizards (but variable depending on species). Check for temperature specifics with your veterinarian. Wissman says that iguanas may suffer tail breakage due to dehydration which compromises the blood supply to their tails. The solution, she said, is to provide iguanas with a giant kiddie pool to swim in all of the time.
- Watch your hands! Never grab a lizard by the tail. Since lizards can drop their tail in response to a threat without necessarily being grasped by the tail, said Abbo, make sure you and all family members know how to properly handle your pet lizard.
- Add a barrier: Natural predatory threats to a lizard include domestic species, such as dogs and cats, and larger lizards, so providing a visual barrier near the lizard’s enclosure—in addition to avoiding interaction with these other threatening pets—can help your lizard feel more secure and may be important to prevent tail loss.