If the iguana is in a pre-ovulatory stage and is in good condition, I prefer to send her home with husbandry and nutrition instructions. I always send the gravid iguana home with a calcium supplement, specifically, Neocalglucon (calcium glubionate, Sandoz). The recommended dose is 1 cc/kg, orally, twice per day. This is a fruit-flavored liquid, and the patients generally take it voluntarily.
If the patient has stopped eating, I have the owners try to estimate how long this has been going on. Using that information, I can then calculate when the pregnancy will be in its eighth week (remember, four weeks of eating plus four weeks of noneating).
If the animal gets worse before the estimated eight weeks are up, or if it starts eating (a sign that the female has resorbed her ova), I have them come back in for a recheck at that time. If by the eight-week mark there is no change in appetite, and no eggs have been produced, I have them come back for either medical management (necessitates a repeat X-ray to determine if the eggs are now post-ovulatory) or surgery.
If at the eight-week recheck the animal is still pre-ovulatory, or as sometimes is the case, it cannot be determined, I recommend that the owners start to think about having the pet spayed. If the animal is doing well and the owner wants to continue with supportive care, I review with them the importance of proper husbandry, and again send them home with instructions to watch for signs of impending oviposition or signs of trouble.
If at the time of the eight-week recheck the eggs are now post-ovulatory, or if the patient is doing poorly (lethargic, weight loss, tremors), I recommend hospitalization and attempting to induce oviposition with calcium and oxytocin. I will typically set a limit of 24 hours. If I can't induce the iguana to lay its eggs within the first 24 hours of hospitalization I recommend taking the patient to surgery.
A cesarean section (C-section) is a medical process where the surgeon removes the babies (or eggs) but leaves the reproductive tract intact. In a spay procedure, the surgeon removes the entire reproductive tract. When performed properly, a C-section leaves the animal reproductively intact for future reproduction. A spay renders the animal incapable of breeding.
Since iguanas are not ecologically delicate animals, I recommend spaying them rather than trying to salvage their future reproductive potential. It has been my experience that most of the iguanas that have egg-related problems once will have them again.
During the actual surgery, I remove the entire reproductive tract. This includes both shell glands and both ovaries. After removing the organs, I suture the skin on the iguana's abdomen. Reptile skin heals differently than mammalian skin. Rather than suturing the skin cut end to cut end, reptile skin has to be apposed underside to underside. Although this looks strange at first, it offers the best healing potential. Once the sutures have been removed (they must be left in at least four weeks), the skin flattens out, looking like normal belly skin.
It is not uncommon for the post-operative iguana to undergo a shed shortly after the surgery. Remember that these animals have been under severe duress for several weeks, and many have not eaten for over a month. Suddenly, post surgery, they have energy and an appetite to match. Many patients will shed off their belly sutures before they ever get back for a recheck.
The important thing to remember is this: Not all gravid iguanas are egg-bound! It is a common misconception that all iguanas brought to veterinarians gravid are in life-threatening danger of being unable to pass eggs. All too frequently, I hear about iguanas that have been spayed because their owner was told that "it was egg-bound, and it would die unless it had surgery."
If you remember the normal stages of pregnancy, you will be better prepared to assess your pet's need for surgery. Some veterinarians are advocating spaying all iguanas. As previously mentioned, in mammals early spaying helps prevent many serious health problems such as mammary cancer and pyometra (uterine infections). Although the former is not a problem in iguanas, the shell glands are susceptible to disease.
I don't think there is anything wrong with spaying young, healthy iguanas. It sure is a lot easier and safer than doing surgery later on an animal that is depressed, hypocalcemic and near death.
I have many clients who have very healthy pet iguanas that are many years old. Each year their iguanas lay infertile eggs as a matter of routine. The choice should be made on an individual basis. If cost is a factor, it is usually less expensive to have the procedure performed prior to maturity, and much less costly than waiting until the animal is ill, requiring oftentimes substantial additional supportive care.
The bottom line is this: It is important that iguana owners plan ahead. You can prevent most of the anticipated problems by providing proper housing and nutrition, and offering an appropriate nesting substrate during the breeding season.