OCVH recommends that when thinking about adding a reptile as a family pet there are many things to consider. To avoid common problems ask yourself these important questions before setting foot inside a pet store and making an impulsive purchase. What is the life expectancy of this animal? How big do they get? What kind of enclosure do they require to keep them safe and comfortable? What is their normal behavior and temperament? Is this a good pet for a household with young children? What are the costs of keeping this kind of a pet? Do they have any special health concerns? And most important, have you done enough research to be confident that this future pet will be a cherished and welcome addition to your home and your life?
The popularity of reptiles as pets is growing and so is the diversity of available reptilian species. Unfortunately, some retailers may not provide sufficient information about appropriate care of the reptiles they are selling. For this reason it is best to consult a veterinarian who has a special interest and training in reptilian care and diseases before and immediately after you purchase your new pet.
The most common causes of illness in reptiles are feeding an improper or imbalanced diet, and poor husbandry. Husbandry is the care and management of your pet and its environment. This includes temperature levels, lighting, enclosure size and safety, ventilation, bedding, humidity levels and sources of water. Certain diurnal species, that is, reptiles that are active during the daytime, require UVA/UVB rays. These rays naturally come from the sun and are essential for calcium metabolism and overall health. In captivity, these rays need to be artificially supplemented with special UV light bulbs. Improper levels of this kind of light can lead to bone disease and other illnesses. It is also important to know that UV bulbs lose their strength over time. I have personally measured UV output on new and used bulbs and have found drastic differences. I recommend changing UV bulbs every 4 months in order to make sure your reptilian friend is getting the healthy amount of rays it needs.
You are what you eat! This saying is especially true for our reptilian pets. Certain species eat a steady diet of insects and it is important to make sure those insects are “gut loaded”. Gut loading is a process of feeding the proper nutrients to the prey insects so they are a healthy food source for your pet. Be sure the insects you purchase or raise for your pet’s food satisfy this requirement. Adding supplements to the diet is also important. Calcium is the most common oral supplement and comes in several forms. Dusting prey with a calcium supplement before feeding is an easy way to administer it. The same can be done for reptiles that eat mostly fruits and leafy greens. Many lizards and chelonians (tortoises/turtles) require steady diet of fruits and vegetables. As an owner of one of these reptiles you should be prepared to make lots of salads! Also, using the proper multivitamin supplement several times per week can help ensure good health.
Shedding of skin and scales is a normal process for all reptiles. Around the time a reptile is getting ready to shed, be prepared to see changes in behavior and coloration. For example, some will not be as hungry or as active and may retreat or hide. Typically scale color will become dull. In turtles and tortoises, the skin over the head, neck, and legs sheds in pieces. The layer covering the boney scoots of the shell will start to peel off. Lizards tend to shed in small sheets and over time will rub off pieces of their outer skin. Snakes will often shed their skin in one piece; however, they may shed in sections if the humidity is not right. Difficulty shedding or “dysecdysis” is a problem we veterinarians see very frequently. Retained shed over the eyes, nostrils, toes, and tails is common. If old shed is left on, over time it can cause serious eye damage and can kill tissues by strangulating the blood supply. This is a major concern during the shedding period. In general, DO NOT pull shed if it is not ready to come off easily. This can lead to serious damage to the underlying tissues. Consult our exotic veterinarians when in doubt. Learning what’s normal and what’s not normal for your species of pet is essential.
For the first time reptile owner I recommend corn snakes, ball pythons, bearded dragons, and leopard geckos. These are what I would consider good “starter reptiles” as they are easier to care for and generally heartier. Newly acquired pets should be examined by one of our exotic veterinarians as soon as possible to be sure there are no underlying problems. Our veterinarians will discuss all the important aspects of diet and husbandry so that you get off to the right start. Just as with cats and dogs, we advise examinations on an annual basis and whenever you notice symptoms of illness or changes in behavior.
A fun way to learn about what kinds of reptiles are commonly available as pets is to go to a reptile show. The New York Reptile Expo is being held in White Plains, NY, on Sunday, September 7, 2014. Hundreds of breeders and vendors will exhibit pets and products. Lots of valuable information is available and it is really fun too!
If you are really considering getting a reptilian pet it is important to be honest with yourself. What commitment in time, care and money are you willing to devote to have a healthy, happy pet? If you have questions or concerns, please call us first. It is a very satisfying and enjoyable experience when you are adequately informed and prepared. Think, learn, plan and go for it!
Daniel Golodik DVM