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Routine Health Care of Reptiles

By

Stephen J. Divers

, BVetMed, DZooMed, DACZM, DECZM (herpetology), FRCVS, University of Georgia

Last full review/revision Aug 2020 | Content last modified Sep 2020

Good sanitation and nutrition and a properly designed environment play a major role in preventing many common health problems in reptiles. However, if medical attention is required, reptiles respond best to treatment from a veterinarian familiar with their special needs. When selecting a veterinarian for your reptile, ask about experience with reptiles and select a veterinarian with an appropriate level of experience and interest.

Importance of Veterinary Care for Reptiles

Even though no vaccinations are required for reptiles, an annual health check can help make sure that your pet is well nourished and free from diseases and parasites. Because not all reptiles are cared for as pets from the time they are hatched, a prompt visit to the veterinarian for an initial examination is also a good idea. The first veterinary visit establishes a record of the animal in healthy condition. This information will be highly valuable should medical problems develop later.

Chemical Restraint, Sedation, and Anesthesia

In many cases, chemical restraint (sedation or anesthesia) is needed to perform a complete physical examination. If the reptile is likely to injure veterinary personnel or itself during examination, chemical restraint should be used. Sedation and anesthesia will be needed during surgery. Your veterinarian should have knowledge of and experience with sedating a reptile; several common anesthetic techniques are not appropriate for use in reptiles, and other precautions specific to reptiles are required.

Signs of Illness in Reptiles

A sick reptile should be housed at a temperature near the upper limit preferred by the species to improve immune system function. Reptiles are unable to produce a true fever, but when infected with bacterial agents they move to warmer areas in their environment to create a “behavioral fever.” Higher metabolic rates in reptiles with no appetite may require assisted feeding or an increased rate of feeding. However, you should consult with your veterinarian regarding feeding to avoid raising uric acid levels and damaging the kidneys in conjunction with some commonly used antibiotics. Giving the reptile fluids should be considered as well.

Giving Medication to Reptiles

Antibiotics are usually given by injection in reptiles, although they are sometimes given by mouth in extremely small animals (such as the true chameleons and smaller geckos) that lack adequate muscle mass for injection. Intravenous injections may be used in larger reptiles or when working around the head and mouth would be dangerous.

Shedding (Ecydysis) in Reptiles

Ecdysis is the process by which reptiles shed their outer skin in response to growth or wear. In snakes and some lizards, the process results in shedding the entire layer of skin as a single piece. Other lizards shed small sections of skin from time to time. Turtles shed coverings from individual scutes (plates) one at a time. Large, moderately abrasive rocks or other rough surfaces for reptiles to rub on during ecdysis help to ease a normal shed. Before shedding, snakes lose their appetite, and their color becomes mildly translucent and dull. This is especially evident over the eyecaps, which become opaque. Increased irritability and aggressiveness are frequent. The shed begins around the mouth, and the old skin is turned inside out as it is shed.

Once a reptile becomes opaque, the humidity should be slightly increased to help the shedding progress and to decrease the risk of a retained shed. Lightly misting the cage at least once a day and providing a hide box with moist sphagnum moss or a soaking container can increase the humidity of the environment.

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