Julie Harris’ family has a variety of household pets – a dog named Jaxx, two cats named Army and Navy, and a two-year-old female bearded dragon named Chip.
Bearded dragons are part of the lizard family and are named for the “beard” they sport. When stressed or threatened, the underside of a bearded dragon’s throat turns black.
Last August, Harris’ sons were playing in the backyard with Chip. They saw a toad and thought it would make a fun playmate for Chip. However, Chip went after the toad and appeared to bite it. The boys separated the two and Chip was taken to her cage inside.
Before turning in for the night, the Harrises noticed something wrong. Chip didn’t look well at all. “She looked dead,” said Harris. “Her neck and tail were black.” They rushed Chip to Ryan Hospital’s 24-hour Emergency Service (ES).
Dr. Raffaella Corsi was the attending clinician in ES that evening. Although the ES vets see many different species, their priority remains the same for all of them – stabilizing the patient and starting supportive care.
“Chip’s prognosis was considered guarded to poor at that point,” said Dr. Corsi. “The Harrises really wanted me to give Chip a chance, so we proceeded with treatment.”
Chip was cold, comatose, and exhibited bradycardia, a slow heart rate, and bradypnea, slow breathing. Dr. Corsi worked side-by-side with emergency nurse Colleen Rees all night to keep Chip alive. Most important was warming Chip and providing her with enough oxygen. She also required two doses of Atropine to increase her heart rate.
In addition, Chip needed fluids to support her cardiovascular system. Dr. Corsi and Colleen inserted an intraosseous (IO) catheter into one of the bones in Chip’s left rear leg and began fluid therapy. IO catheterization is useful on small animals when the veins are too small to be used.
The next day, Chip was transferred to the Exotic Companion Animal Medicine and Surgery (ECAMS) service, under the care of Dr. Sharonda Meade and senior clinician Dr. Nicole Wyre, with input from service head Dr. La’Toya Latney.
They did research and pooled their knowledge for an antidote to the toxicity. They even found a laboratory in California that could test reptile blood for toxin levels. A definitive diagnosis is rare, but in this case, the test results confirmed that Chip was suffering from toad toxicity.
Toads secrete mucous through their skin, which can be poisonous to predators. The toxic agent is similar to a human heart medication called digoxin and is so deadly that victims usually do not survive.
Chip soon developed a heart arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, and was transferred to the Intensive Care Unit.
The Harris family was terribly upset. The kids searched the backyard for the toad, but with no luck. The ECAMS team called Poison Control and was alerted to a pharmaceutical drug called Digibind. ECAMS nurse Mary Baldwin located a supply down the street at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
Digibind is an antidote for digoxin toxicity that works by binding to digoxin and preventing it from working its way through the body. It is an expensive drug, and it only works for four hours due to its particular binding properties.
The Harris family decided it was worth giving it a shot. Dr. Meade and her team determined a dosage and administered it to Chip once every half hour for the four hours.
The Harrises visited Chip every day. For a while, it seemed doubtful that the Digibind had worked. Chip was slow to come out of her comatose state. But eventually, her vets noticed some eye movement. Then her leg moved. Her progress continued. The blackness of her beard faded to gray. The heart arrhythmias ceased.
Chip was ambulatory when she was transferred back to ECAMS. By then, only a few small black spots remained in her beard. After seven days at Ryan Hospital, Chip was discharged. Dr. Meade reported that “Chip was very bright, alert, responsive, and mobile.”
Chip made a full recovery and is doing well at home. Ideal pets, bearded dragons “are the Golden Retrievers of the reptile world,” according to Dr. Meade. The Harris boys continue to have fun playing with Chip, but are now wary about finding other playmates for her.
Said Harris, “We really thought she wasn’t going to make it. The fact that she is alive and thriving is a miracle.”