photo by T.A.Z. Photography
Basic Reptile Care – Imitating Mother Nature
Reptiles and amphibians are one of the most difficult groups of companion animals to keep happy and healthy. Successfully raising these animals is a true challenge. It takes a commitment of time, energy and money to provide them with what they need for optimal health. Most people are amazed to learn that reptiles and amphibs have enjoyable, individual personalities. They can be as responsive and loving as any warm fuzzy we share our lives with. All too often though, we see patients come in that haven’t been taken care of properly. Often people receive improper or incomplete instructions from pet store employees and other sources on their proper care. Sadly, many reptiles come to us in such a sickened state that little can be done to help them. There are several things you can do to optimize the living conditions you provide for your scaly friends.
Key to Success
The key to success is to remember that you have to mimic Mother Nature for them. All animals have developed to survive efficiently in the environment into which they are born. This is especially important for cold-blooded animals like reptiles and amphibians. You have to provide them with an environment and diet that is closest to what it would be like for them in the wild. It’s hard. But you can do it.
This is the biggest challenge in living with all of these animals. Reptiles and amphibians are cold-blooded (poikilotherms). They are not able to internally regulate their body temperatures. Their temperatures therefore match their environment. Consequently many come from warm parts of the planet. Each animal has a physiologically optimal temperature zone (POTZ). This is the range of temperatures in which they are able to maximally function and survive. What’s your POTZ? For people it’s actually a pretty narrow 68-78 degrees F. For an iguana it’s 82-95 degrees F. This means you need to provide round the clock supplemental heating for reptiles and many amphibians. Their bodies cannot survive at temperatures comfortable for us. Each species of animal has its own POTZ. You need to find out what that is for your reptile.
Heating and Lighting
Again, the goal here is to mimic Mother Nature. You can provide the POTZ with proper use of external heating pads, basking lights and ceramic heaters. I do not recommend use of a “hot rock” or heating device that is placed on the bottom of the cage. I have seen lizards and snakes burned by laying directly on one of these for too long. An experienced reptile veterinarian can provide you with the exact recommended set-up for your animal. If you have a reptile that is normally active in the day time, you also need to provide a balance of ultraviolet light, both UVA and UVB, to properly mimic that provided by sunlight. Many “reptile” bulbs sold today don’t provide both of these. Make sure you get the right information and provide the appropriate source of heat and light for your reptiles.
You also need to mimic an animal’s natural environment. A desert lizard needs hot, dry conditions but won’t need to climb, while a tropical jungle lizard needs hot, humid conditions with materials to climb. All environments should provide a secure place for the animal to hide. Substrates (the stuff you put on the bottom the tank or cage) should be appropriate for the animal and easy to clean and change regularly. Your reptile veterinarian can tell you what’s best for your animal.
Mimicking Mother Nature is hardest in this department. It’s nearly impossible to provide the variety of foods a reptile would find hunting and foraging in the wild. The biggest key is to try to provide the biggest variety possible. It’s often frustrating because, just as a finicky cat, many reptiles will decide to eat only one type of food no matter how much you provide. But you shouldn’t stop trying. Those that eat meat need to be offered more than just crickets. The bugs that you provide also need to be healthy, well fed and from reputable sources in order to provide optimal nutrition. While Rachel Ray hasn’t licensed a reptile food yet, there are other sources of prepared diets that can be tried as well. It’s much easier to provide variety for vegetarian reptiles. Keep in mind that the balance and type of nutrition provided is as important for them as it is for you. I usually recommend trying this excellent salad recipe from noted reptile veterinarian Dr. Melissa Kaplan:
Basic Salad Recipe
1/2 cup shredded raw green beans
1/2 cup shredded raw orange-fleshed squash (such as acorn, banana, kabocha, spaghetti, and pumpkin) – you can occasionally alternate with carrots
1 medium or 2 small raw shredded parsnips (in areas where these are seasonally hard to find, you can substitute with asparagus or cooked or canned lima, navy or kidney beans that have been well rinsed and minced or mashed. If you use beans, add extra calcium to offset their high phosphorus) *
1/4 cup mashed/minced fruit (strawberries, raspberries, mangos, papaya, figs, cantaloupe, cactus pear)
Multivitamin and calcium supplements
* If parsnips are a seasonal vegetable where you live, you can use 1/2 cup shredded asparagus, trading off with 1/2 cup drained, rinsed, and chopped canned cooked lima beans, plus additional calcium to make up for the lousy calcium:phosphorus ratio in beans. Cooked beans are acceptable for short term use only due to their phosphorous content and other chemicals that can impede the uptake of minerals and trace elements. Asparagus is comparable in protein to parsnip, but does contain oxalates, so should not be a long-term staple.
** The quantity of alfalfa you use will depend upon the alfalfa product you are using. You want to add about 15 grams of protein. That is about 1/2 cup of alfalfa rabbit pellets, or about 1/4 cup or less of alfalfa leaf tea or a tablespoon or so of alfalfa powder. The older the healthy iguana is, the less protein they need, so you may end up using only a couple of teaspoons for an adult iguana.
Thoroughly mix all the Basic Salad Recipe ingredients together. Makes about 3.5-4 cups.
Add in a multivitamin supplement (any multivitamin supplement for birds or reptiles is fine, but the best, actually, is powder from a crushed Centrum tablet) and a calcium supplement. You do not need to get a calcium supplement that has phosphorous or D3 in it, as the iguana is already getting considerably phosphorous from the plants and multivitamin, and their D3 is best manufactured in their bodies by regular exposure to direct sunlight or special UVB-producing fluorescents.
If you will be freezing any of the food, mix in some thiamine (B1) to replace the thiamine that will be lost when the green vegetables are thawed.
Serve the salad in the morning.
Never Buy a Wild Caught Reptile or Amphibian
Sadly this is still going on in the pet trade. Make sure you purchase a healthy animal from a reputable store or breeder. These animals are already trained to eat the foods we can provide that makes them easier to care for. Wild caught animals have great trouble adapting to captivity often refusing to eat. Leave them where they should be. Think it’s fun to catch a turtle or frog and bring it home? Leave it alone. If you really have to bring it home for everybody to see, keep it only for 2-3 days and then release it back where you found it.
This website, www.anapsid.org, has the best information about care of reptiles and amphibians in general and many specific species in particular. Find an experienced reptile veterinarian in your area (we’re often few and far between). Ask for information and advice.
Reptiles Grow and Live Long Lives
Remember that many reptiles live a long time (150 years for some tortoises) and can continue to grow to quite large sizes. Make sure that you think about what your plans are when that cute little iguana grows to six feet. These guys are a true commitment in so many ways.