Selecting a Healthy Reptile – How to Ensure Your Pet Has a Long and Happy Life

Most reptile fanatics can at least on some level distinguish between healthy and unhealthy animals.   We know that a lizard with protruding hipbones or a snake crawling with mites is worrisome, yet we still have the occasional issues after taking in new arrivals to our collections like mite infestations, or worse.  Arriving at a solution to these problems will not be brought about by a regurgitation of the basic symptomology of diseases and disorders found in reptile care books; it will require us all to take a more detailed look at how we select our reptilian companions. 

Research is Key

The first cornerstone to selecting a healthy reptile begins long before one first lays eyes on the animal – it starts at home.  Thorough research is the key to ensuring that the pet one chooses is the pet one actually wants.  Reading a web page or listening to the instructions of the well-intentioned staff at a pet store is not enough information to properly summarize the natural history of a species that took millions of years to evolve.

Over-confidence is a trait that few long-term reptile fanatics lack.  It comes with the territory of countless hours spent observing and caring for a collection.  When bringing a new species into that collection the tendency is often to believe the knowledge of general reptile husbandry will suffice.  Sometimes this attitude pays off, or at least causes minimal harm to the animal but other times the outcome is far worse.  In the author’s experience, the leading cause of reptile disease is improper husbandry – a finding that is backed by statistical data.

Detailed research arms the buyer with critical knowledge of normal versus abnormal characteristics of the species to be purchased, thus increasing the chance of the buyer detecting an unhealthy pet.  When purchasing a new reptile, overzealous buyers are also a disturbingly common occurrence.  Whether the problem is diet or intricate husbandry requirements, purchasers of reptiles often bite off more than they can chew – an issue easily solved by prior research.  Even if the animal to be bought is a species that has been kept in the past, do some research anyway! New discoveries are made and husbandry techniques are constantly being revised.  One can never know too much.

Location, Location Location

The second cornerstone to selecting a healthy reptile takes place at the location from which it is to be purchased, whether that’s a pet store or the home of another hobbyist.  The first and most important factor to be considered is the attitude of the seller towards their livestock.  If the seller views the animals as simple commodities to be traded for profit rather than respected as living creatures, you may be buying your pet from the wrong people.

It is obviously impractical for a pet store to cherish each animal in their stock as if they were personal pets, but there is a certain modicum of care and compassion that should be expected.  Look for proper husbandry setups not only for the animal you intend to buy, but for other animals in the store.  Your knowledge of the species, refreshed with the new research you’ve done, should make assessing the husbandry a breeze.  A seller who keeps filthy cages, overcrowded conditions, improper food items or apparently sickly animals is probably not going to care whether the one you buy sill survive past their ‘7 day’ health guarantee (if they even have one).

Before even viewing your pet-to-be, take a look around.  Ask to look at animals in other enclosures and check for health problems there.  If you see anything that raises alarm, or consistent poor health of other animals in the collection, walk out the door and don’t look back.  One animal with mites in a pet store, even if it is in an enclosure far away from the one you intend to buy, is not worth the risk of bringing home a very time-consuming and expensive headache to your collection.  Be careful with animals that are uncharacteristically inexpensive, especially from a vendor whose location seems unkempt.  If it seems too good to be true it probably is and you will regret your purchase.

Leave the Rescuing to Rescuers

Finally on the topic of sellers, if you have a bleeding heart or a soft spot for neglected and abused animals, please restrain yourself from purchasing the entire collection from an unscrupulous pet store.  Not only will you be guaranteeing yourself a handful of sick animals, long hours of force-feeding and heartache, but also you will have just allowed that business to refill their enclosures and neglect more animals until they can sell them to the next big-hearted person.  Use your hard-earned money supporting an ethical business and save yourself the risk of introducing a disease to your collection.

If you feel so inclined, look up a reptile rescue in your area.  Most of them lose money taking in animals and do it only for the sheer joy of helping the helpless.  They need your support.  The same rules to screening your seller apply here as well, as some ‘rescues’ are scams set up by people who want to take in animals for free and sell them at a profit.  Use your judgment and trust your instincts.  If the adoption fee is suspiciously high, the enclosures are dirty, or there is a lack of administrative procedures such as adoption forms and screening processes, get your pet somewhere else.

The Exam

Once you have done your research, investigated the seller’s location and business practices, the time has finally come to review the aforementioned symptomology of reptilian diseases, thus forming the third and final cornerstone to selecting a healthy reptile.  Your examination of the animal should be prefaced by your lengthy and complete research into the natural history and behaviour of the species.  First, observe it in its enclosure.  Look for pacing and nose-rubbing into corners or entrances looking for a way out.  This speaks to the seller’s setup as much as it indicates an animal that is weak and immune-compromised from the stress of an improper enclosure.  Also look for tremors, abnormal tongue flicking, balance issues and unusual posturing.  These can be signs of a whole host of issues from metabolic bone disease in lizards and turtles to IBD in snakes.  Look for the bowel movements in the enclosure.  Mucous-laden, bloody, runny and foul-smelling stools are signs of parasites or a gastrointestinal infection.  The urate portion of the bowel movement should be off-white to yellow.  Green urates indicate liver disease, usually from over feeding.

Now it is time for you to finally pick up and inspect your new pet.  Abrasions on the nose indicate nose rubbing inside the enclosure, and thus stress.  Deformed bones, swollen joints or shell deformities in turtles can indicate metabolic bone disease, often showing early signs in the toes of lizards.  Spinal deformities are also common.  Try holding the head of a lizard between the thumb and forefinger and pressing back on the nose with the index finger.  If you see the skull flexing when you push, that’s a sure sign that the bones have decalcified.

Begin a detailed exam starting from the nose and going down to the tail.  Open the mouth and look for redness, swelling, excess mucous or cheese-like pus collecting around the gums.  Excess mucous can indicate a respiratory infection and the redness or pus around the gums is stomatitis.  In reptiles without eyelids (snakes, geckos) the tears drain into the roof of the mouth.  If you find one or both of the eyes bulging out, this is often an infection inside the mouth blocking off the ducts that drain the tears, causing pressure to build up under the eye cap.  Bulging eyes in turtles usually indicates a vitamin deficiency.  Turtles also commonly get ear abscesses.  This will appear as a lump on the side of the head behind the eye.

Check the skin for mites and ticks, or leeches in turtles.  Mites on snakes will love to hide in the scales under the chin, or in the scales around the eye cap.  Just looking is not enough, you will have to hold the head and manipulate the scales to see if you can dislodge any mites.  Lizard mites will hide under scales, or more commonly in folds of skin around the legs, neck and mouth.  While you are checking for mites look for other skin abnormalities such as retained sheds, cuts, bites or infections.  Colour is also an indication of health in some reptiles.  The darker and less vibrant the colour of the skin, the more stressed or unhealthy the animal may be.  Warning colours (such as the throat turning black in bearded dragons) can also be a sign of stress.

Gently palpate the abdomen and feel for unusual masses, firmness, or excessive reactions such as aggression or guarding (often indicating pain).  Move down to the cloaca and check for smeared faeces or blood, which can indicate the presence of internal parasites.  Rectal prolapse (the intestines protruding out of the cloaca) is not uncommon in parasitized animals and will be very easy to spot.  Hemipenal prolapse in males is abnormal, equally easy to spot and may be seen more frequently around breeding season.

During the examination, the animal should be doing its best to resist your poking and prodding.  A lack of resistance should not be viewed as the animal being indifferent to your examination, but something more sinister.  Limpness, weakness or general lifelessness are all very serious signs of advanced disease and should not be taken lightly.  The author will add the caveat that if the reptile is cold at the time of the check-up, it may have a sluggish response to your intrusions.  Motor movements should be coordinated and clean.  A good, healthy display of defensive behaviours appropriate for the species is always a positive sign.  Other signs of disease can vary by species and are too broad to cover in detail in this article.

Reptiles are experts at masking signs of ill health.  They have few means to express pain or malaise, which is one of the main reasons that a sick reptile often doesn’t receive help until it is too late.   It is up to you as the person who will be providing a living being with its means of survival to know and be able to detect these signs.  With the proper mindset, a good base of knowledge and a keen eye, you and your pet reptile will have mutually fulfilling lives together for years to come.  All the best in reptile health!

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