The majority of emergency vets spend so much time dealing with dogs and cats, that it is difficult for us to be well versed in the care of exotic species. However, we generally have a good basic knowledge for emergency purposes and in our practice are fortunate to be able to refer to some wonderful veterinarians who spend their lives dealing with birds and exotic pets.
Amongst the more unusual pets we see are reptiles. There are definitely some vets who are not brave enough to deal with reptiles. I personally don’t have an aversion to reptiles, but am always reminded of how my parents laughed about my fear of spiders. “What are you going to do if someone brings you their sick pet spider, ha ha ha!”. So try not to be too hard on the vet who refuses to see your special friend, there may be a very good reason for it!
One of the biggest causes of health problems in reptiles, and probably any species for that matter, is husbandry. Most husbandry issues do not present as emergencies, however, the majority of emergencies tend to result from husbandry issues. It is so critical to equip yourself with good knowledge of how to keep these special creatures if wishing to own them as pets. It is important firstly, to remember the majority of these animals are not well equipped at captivity. As a group they have only recently been adapted to captive conditions and essentially remain wild, so firstly they require the respect they deserve as wild animals.
This means they need an environment as close to natural as possible, otherwise their life spans will be shorter and fatal diseases will take them. Every species is different, some requiring desert-like conditions, others requiring moisture and high levels of humidity. Knowledge of the environmental and biological requirements of reptiles in captivity is essential to both help prevent and treat/cure disease.
Some of the key factors to look into, and they will be different for different types of reptiles, include:
Some reptiles like relatively high levels of humidity and may need misting systems installed in their tanks. Poor control of humidity often leads to skin conditions.
Being “cold blooded”, a reptile’s body temperature is influenced by the environmental temperature. They will tolerate a range of temperatures, however there is a specific “preferred” body temperature (PBT) at which their metabolism will function optimally to keep them in good health. Many will prefer heated rocks and radiation to ambient temperature adjustments so they can control their body temperature. The ambient temperature should never exceed their PBT and they should be provided with a temperature gradient within their vivarium so that they have some control over their body temperature.
Correct lighting is essential for all diurnal animals (those who like the daylight). If they are awake during daytime hours, it is not enough to provide them with access to light, it must be access to UV light and the correct wavelengths of UV light (specifically UVb light). Providing a diet rich in calcium is wasted if UVb light is not made available, since it is required by the body to synthesise vitamin D3, which is essential for metabolism and utilisation of calcium. UV globes must be changed regularly also because the life of the UV output will not be as long as the lifespan of the bulb.
Again there are individual variations and some may need material to burrow in, while others will require water for bathing/swimming or areas for basking. Hiding places are always advisable. The material used for the base could be natural, such as sand or bark, or more clinical and hygienic such as newspaper or tissue paper, which is easier to change and clean. Changes in substrate can occasionally lead to problems if the reptile ingests the material. Most importantly, the environment should be designed to allow the animal to exhibit normal behaviours as it would in the wild. This is an extremely important part of providing a good mental as well as physical environment for the animal, and is also necessary for maintaining optimal health.
It goes without saying that a balanced diet is necessary and one which is appropriate for the animal. Dietary requirements may be dictated by such factors as species, age, size, season, nutritional and breeding status and environmental factors. Reptiles can be fussy but this should not prevent a balanced diet from being offered, as some will behave like small children and may only wish to eat one item or another. Persisting in offering non-favoured items is essential to keep the balance.
I recently treated a Bearded Dragon for constipation. His owner’s were doing their best to provide an enriched cage for him with a good balanced diet and calcium supplements. However, unfortunately they had not been well informed on providing adequate UV light exposure, and felt that daylight through a window might be adequate. Despite his diet, his blood calcium levels were very low because he was vitamin D deficient and not able to metabolise calcium properly. Without appropriate UV exposure, his gut was not working so well and a slightly high temperature gradient may have contributed to dehydration and impaction. Fortunately he was given calcium injections and hydrated, and pooped before we discharged him the next morning.
So every species is different and it is extremely important to do your research before purchasing an unusual pet. Feeding and housing dogs and cats is fairly familiar territory for most of us but if an unusual pet is decided upon, it is essential to read thoroughly and speak to others who have have experience with such pets. Actually, there are many times when new owners of cats and dogs should be doing their reading and research. Lots of pet owners need to be better informed and I hope to be able to help with these blogs!
I would also urge all new, unusual pet owners to locate a veterinarian with an interest in these species and have a “new pet check up” just as you would do with a new puppy or kitten. It is vitally important they are cared for appropriately to ensure their needs are met and they live a long healthy life too.
I love to look at reptiles and they are beautiful creatures, however, I must admit I prefer them where they belong…in the wild. This could get me onto a discussion of how critical wildlife conservation is, but I may leave that for another blog!