Tarantula Fecal Impaction Revisited
Back in September of 2014, I lost a seemingly healthy juvenile H. villosella a couple months after its most recent molt. Said specimen seemed to experience no difficulties during the shedding process, and after a hardening period, resumed eating as normal. She ate twice, displaying the ravenous appetite I had come to expect from this spider as she easily consumed two larger prey items. However, when I dropped in what would be her third meal after her recent molt, she refused it. A week later, she refused her fourth.
A few weeks later, she was dead.
At first, I was totally perplexed as to what could have caused her untimely death. She had been provided water, and I had caught her drinking on a couple occasions. She had been eating okay after her molt, which I thought would indicate that there were no issues. A closer examination of her revealed some clues. Despite the fact that she hadn’t been eating, her abdomen was quite plump and a bit hard. She also had chalky white stuff—stool—caked around her anus. When I looked closely, I could also see a tiny hard plug blocking the opening itself.
After doing a bit of research, I realized that I had likely experienced my first occurrence of tarantula fecal impaction. An impaction occurs when the tarantula’s anus becomes obstructed, rendering it unable to defecate. The spider will often continue to eat and drink normally, giving the keeper little indication that something is amiss even as the waste builds up inside it. Eventually, the poor animal will become sluggish before finally succumbing to the ailment and dying.
Fast forward to late 2016… After my prized Euathlus parvulus molted in October, I assumed that the process had gone well. Although she had a small patch of exuvia stuck to her abdomen, it was easily loosened and removed with some warm water and a Q-tip. Three weeks after she molted, she took her first meal, a B. dubia roach, and had no issues consuming it. For the next few months, she continued to eat every three weeks or so, and I even caught her drinking a couple times.
However, as February rolled around, she started to appear much more lethargic. She usually presented as a lively spider, often rising from a resting state to full alertness with the slightest disturbance. Now, when I moved her cage to feed her, she barely responded. At the end of the month I dropped in a cricket which immediately walked right up to her. In the past, she would have snatched this oblivious feeder right up. This time, she seemed to just sit there for a bit before making a half-hearted attempt at grabbing it. The cricket escaped, and it took her almost a day before she finally subdued and consumed it.
At this point, I became worried, as her behavior was definitely abnormal. I was concerned that with the heat running (it was quite cold outdoors) it might have become too dry for her. I kept her water bowl full and tried moistening down a corner of the substrate to give her a choice. She didn’t seem to show a preference for the wet spot at that point, and there was no change. Still, she ate again for me, so I hoped maybe she would pull through. During the last week, I saw her rubbing her abdomen against the ground and walls, almost like she was webbing, yet it didn’t appear that anything was coming out. When eating her last meal, she was also using her back legs to scratch at her abdomen, a seemingly normal behavior as I’d seen other Ts scratch.
Finally, I came home one afternoon to find her looking very weak and curled up a bit in the corner of her enclosure. When I gently prodded her, she moved, but it was obvious something was wrong. Before trying to place her in an ICU, I decided to add some moist substrate to her enclosure to raise the humidity a bit, just in case. I also offered her a second much smaller water dish, and sprayed some water on the side to allow her to drink there if she wished.
Unfortunately, it was too late.
The next day, we discovered her in a death curl next to the water dish. As I took her out to examine her, I noticed a couple disturbing details. First, one of her spinnerets was swollen at the base and fully extended, unable to fold back toward the abdomen. Second, there was white feces caked around her anus, and the orifice seemed to be blocked by a hard plug.
The source of her abnormal behavior now seemed obvious; she was suffering from fecal impaction.
With the tarantula still showing signs of life, I realized that I had to work fast if I had any hope of saving her. Keeping the poor girl on her back, I got a cup of warm water, a small syringe, and a couple of cotton swabs. First, I used the cotton swabs to gently clean the area around the anus to try to dissolve or dislodge the plug. When that didn’t work, I used the syringe, filled it with warm water, and carefully sprayed the area in hopes that would work.
As a last-ditch effort, I used a pair of tweezers and tried to dislodge the plug. Finally, the obstruction cleared, releasing copious amounts of feces. I’ve seen tarantulas defecate before, and the amount that poured out of this poor spider was well above and beyond the normal amount. It continued to run freely from her for the next five minutes as I used the syringe to carefully keep the area clear. Even after the stream slowed, feces would still well up at the opening, and gently pushing on the area around the base of the spinnerets would cause more to flow out.
After about 10 minutes of this, my girl started showing new signs of life. Almost motionless when I started this process, she began moving some of her legs again. Hopeful that this was an indication that she was experiencing relief and would come around, I worked to get the rest of the impacted feces out of her. For another ten minutes, I used the syringe and cotton swab to get as much of the waste out as I could. I also gave her several drops of water in her mouth in case she was dehydrated from the process.
With the spider cleaned up and seemingly improving, I put her back upright in an ICU with some moist paper towels and hoped she would make it.
Unfortunately, she didn’t survive the night. When I checked on her at around 1 AM, she was in a tight death curl and showing no signs of movement. By all appearances, she was dead. Just in case she was still clinging to life (and as not to make her suffer any more), I put her in my garage that was currently below freezing to ensure she had passed on.
So, what’s to be learned from all of this?
A keeper doing a quick search online will find a handful of forum posts about impaction and not much else. In most cases, the animals die. There are quite a few disturbing photos of the deceased animals surrounded by a seemingly impossible amount of feces when their keepers were able to clear the obstruction. In a couple of instances, keepers were able to prolong the lives of their spiders by repeatedly cleaning them off. In one of these instances, the spider eventually died. In the other I found, the keeper stopped posting updates, so the outcome is unknown.
Although tarantula fecal impaction seems to be an uncommon occurrence overall (which is great news for keepers) it’s very possible that there are many more instances of this malady that go unrecognized and, therefore, unreported. Since posting a video up on YouTube about this experience, I’ve had some keepers come forward to say that they now suspect a previously mysterious death was likely due to impaction. The fact is, the hobby is still relatively new, and there is still so much we don’t know about these animals. They are also not the most expressive of creatures, making it very difficult to discern when something is wrong. Much of what we know about their husbandry and maladies comes from trial and error.
My hope is that by detailing my bouts with this ailment and passing along the information I’ve found researching this topic, it might raise some awareness around impaction and encourage others to share their experiences. Although I don’t think that this is a common issue (I’ve only experienced it twice that I know of), I DO believe that it’s the type of issue to go easily unrecognized.
The truth is, hobbyists are still not sure as to what may cause impaction, but there are a number of theories.
A bad or wet molt – This is one of the most supportable theories. Several of the reported instances of tarantula impaction followed bad or wet molts by spiders. In these cases, it’s suspected that some unseen internal damage due to the difficult molt has blocked of the passage of waste, causing the spider to become impacted. I know that in both of my cases, the deaths happened as the spiders were putting weight back on after molts.
An internal injury from a fall – In this scenario, a fall or injury has caused the spider some type of internal damage that has obstructed its anus or the flow of waste. This could happen due to a hernia or abscess around the abdomen. Also mentioned is an infection at the base of the spinnerets.
Sediment in the water dish – I’ve heard folks claim that sediment or substrate in the water dish could cause an impaction, although I find this to be quite unlikely. In the wild, spiders would have to drink from any available water source, including muddy puddles. I don’t think that they would have lasted millions of years if they could be taken down by some sediment.
A dubia diet – I’ve read a report that suggested that feeding your spiders dubia roaches could be a cause of this sickness. While this might be possible, I know plenty of keepers that have used dubia for their feeders for years and have never had an impaction death. I do wonder if this idea came from the belief that a dubia-heavy diet is thought to cause impaction in some reptiles.
Overfeeding – Another thought is that overfed tarantulas are more prone to this malady. Some have pointed to the fact that tarantulas that die from impaction often have very “fat” abdomens, a sign of over-indulgence on food items being a cause. Personally, I would like to point out that tarantulas that die from impaction do so because of an enormous amount of impacted feces trapped in their bodies. These poor specimens aren’t “fat”; they have distended abdomens from the trapped waste. Anyone who has experienced this personally, or folks who have seen video of the amount of feces that comes out, can appreciate that the amount of waste can definitely make a tarantula appear to be obese. Some even reported their T looking “deflated” after the feces was released. I’ve also noticed that in many of the reports, folks have said that their T hasn’t eaten that much after its last molt, so the animal definitely wasn’t overfed. Although I understand the thought process behind this theory, I really don’t think that the anecdotal evidence supports it.
The fact is, we really don’t know what causes this, and any of the above (or a combination of more than one) could be to blame.
The Signs and Symptoms
If you’re worried that your tarantula might be ill, here are some signs to look for.
Excessive drinking – Some have reported catching their spiders drinking much more often before recognizing an impaction.
Dragging its abdomen on substrate but not webbing – This seems to be a very common symptom. A tarantula with an impaction will drag his abdomen on the substrate and against the sides of the enclosure as he tries to dislodge the obstruction. Some have said it looks like webbing behavior, but no webbing comes out. Both of the tarantulas I suspect died from impactions displayed this behavior.
Scratching at its abdomen with back legs – This is another sign that may go unrecognized as tarantulas will often scratch and groom themselves. An impacted tarantula will often scratch at its abdomen with its back legs as it tries to free the obstruction. Although some Ts may scratch, those with an obstruction seem to do so more often and with more urgency.
White feces around anus – This is a pretty obvious sign. Some specimens suffering from impaction will have a white, chalky “crust” surrounding their anuses. This is obviously the feces.
Hard plug in the anus – Upon close inspection, some tarantulas suffering from an obstruction will have what appears to be a small hard plug blocking their anus.
Listless or lethargic behavior – Once the tarantula has been impacted for some time, it will start to slow down and become more sedentary and lethargic. Both of mine spent the majority of their time in a corner looking distressed, and their reaction to prey items slowed down considerably.
Other uncharacteristic behavior – There may also be other signs of strange or unexplained behavior. A burrowing species may start hanging out above ground. A nervous T that usually bolts to its hide may suddenly stop reacting and stay out in the open. Terrestrial Ts may start to climb the sides of their enclosures. Conversely, arboreal spiders may start hanging out on the ground.
Hard abdomen – Those who have had impacted tarantulas have discovered that portions of the abdomen were hard, almost to the point of ossification.
Misshapen abdomen – Due to the heavily-impacted waste, tarantulas with this issue may have misshapen abdomens or abnormal bulges. In the instance of my E. parvulus, the right side of her abdomen was bulging a bit when compared to her left.
One of the biggest issues with tarantula impaction is that the spider may not display any obvious symptoms until the end when much of the damage has probably been done. Still, an observant keeper who recognizes early that something is “off” with his or her T may keep an eye out for some of these signs and have a better chance of possibly saving the animal.
Tarantula First Aid for Impaction
Unfortunately, at this point the prognosis for an impacted tarantula is not great. Those who have managed to clear the obstructions do report their animals getting better for a bit, but in most cases, the animal soon becomes impacted again. In my research, I think I only stumbled on one instance where the T molted out and was seemingly fine.
To perform some of these steps, you will have to either pinch-grab your tarantula or anesthetize your T to slow it down.
(For a wonderful technique to anesthetize your T, please follow this link) http://www.theraphosidae.be/en/vogelspinnen/first-aid/
Clean its anus with warm water and cotton swabs – This is pretty self-explanatory. Get a cup of warm water, some Q-tips, and gently clean off the anus. This can be done when the spider is upright, but it is usually not as effective as flipping it over and having a go at it.
Rub some glycerin around the anus – Some have reported that rubbing glycerin onto the anus, especially if it’s visibly plugged, can help to loosen the obstruction and allow the T to defecate.
Use a small syringe to gently run warm water over the area – Again, this to clean it and to loosen the obstruction.
Finally, and this should only be attempted as a last resort, you may try to carefully pierce or remove the obstruction/plug with tweezers or a toothpick – This should only be attempted if the tip of the plug is visible and if the animal is obviously in dire straits. It needs to be noted that trying to remove the plug could cause injury to the tarantula.
Now, before anyone bolts away from this article in a panic to go check their tarantulas for impaction, understand that this does not appear to be a common issue. In my years in the hobby and with over 150 specimens in my collection at any given time, I’ve only had two deaths I attribute to this.
That said, we are left to wonder if this may be an under-reported ailment as symptoms go overlooked. I’m even looking back at a recent death of a P. vittata and wondering if it could have been a death due to impaction.
Have you experienced an impaction death? If so, please let us know in the comments!