Four Secrets For Keeping Your Pet Reptile Healthy

Ron Hines DVM PhD

Temperature, humidity, adequate natural sunshine and proper diet are the four great factors in success in keeping reptiles as pets. Problems I encounter pretty much come in the door in that order.

When temperature drops below 85F, snakes lizards and turtles do not digest their food properly. Just as importantly their immune systems no longer function well and they become susceptible to infection by ordinary household bacteria. Infections of the digestive and respiratory system often occur. Once these infections are established, especially infections of the lungs, they are exceedingly difficult to cure. When the lungs are affected, a cheese-like material builds up in the lungs of these animals, which cannot be eliminated naturally as occurs in a mammal’s immune system. Often the problem can only be controlled or brought into remission with antibiotics. By this point, bringing the temperature up will help the situation but may not cure it. One needs to establish a gradient of temperature in the animal’s container from about 85-100F using a heavy-duty heating pad placed under the terrarium and by placing it in a sunny area. To do this right, several spirit thermometers designed for a fish aquarium are needed. I am not a fan of hot rocks and heat lamps often scorch the pet because they just don’t seem to rapidly get out of contact with excessive heat. As would be expected, I see most of my sick reptiles in the winter months.

Humidity needs mimic the natural area where this reptile originated. An Atlas is helpful in determining this, as is the advice of experts who successfully keep the same species. One major problem is that the international trade in wild-caught reptiles is in constant flux, so that the animal’s natural conditions are not widely known. Animals from moist jungle areas need high humidity. This can be accomplished by placing bowls of water with a natural sponge in the pet’s habitat and by partially covering the top of the terrarium with clear plastic. Moistened sphagnum bedding also helps. Check both the sponges and the moss frequently to be sure they are not being eaten. The amount of water that needs to be added to the air varies according to your climate, the season of the year and your home heating system as well as the area of your home where the pet resides.

Reptiles, birds and mammals all require exposure to certain portions of natural or artificial sunlight in order to produce vitamin D. Ordinary fluorescent lamps do not produce the needed light waves and even light passing through a window pane looses some of its effectiveness. D is a perfidious vitamin. Too much of it is as bad as not enough and it is very hard to know how much to add to an animal’s diet. Vitamin D is involved in the laying down and taking up of mineral within the body. It is stored in the liver for a long time, so problems are slow to show themselves. When too little D is present, the animal’s bones become soft and subject to bending and fracture (rickets). Many of these changes are irreversible. When vitamin D is too high, areas of the body, such as the kidneys, begin to mineralize and loose their ability to function. I have found that keeping a reptile in an area that will support the health growth of a Ficus plant or philodendron will usually allow the reptile to produce enough vitamin D. One can also sprinkle the pet’s food with a vitamin mineral supplement in moderation.

Successful reptile owners tend to have another thing in common. They feed their pets a variety of things. Herps may be able to survive a few months in a pet shop on a monotonous diet of crickets but they cannot live on a single entrée indefinitely. It is important not to over feed reptiles. They will often go on eating long after their nutritional needs are met. Remember, they are cold-blooded animals that need only a fraction of the amount of food we mammals eat. Variety in diet is very important. It is also important to use bedding and materials in the animal’s habitat that it will not ingest.

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