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Care of your Reptile



     Lizards, snakes, turtles and other reptiles can make interesting pets if properly taken care of.   These pets are ectothermic, which means that their body temperature is regulated by the surrounding air temperature.  Being too cold or too hot can be detrimental.  It is important to note that all reptiles naturally are solitary, and in captivity should be housed alone.

     Housing is an important consideration.  All habitats need a hiding spot, which can be anything from a hollow log to an upside down bowl.  We recommend the items you place in a habitat to be able to be periodically cleaned and disinfected.  Aquariums can make ideal homes, but we recommend that the “air tight” hoods are not to be used.  Too much water or humidity can be harmful (some reptiles, such as boas or some lizards, require a bowl of water in the aquarium for humidity). Most reptiles require a dry climate, and usually only a bowl of water is the maximum amount of humidity required.  A few arboreal species of lizards may need to have water sprayed onto foliage for them to ingest water.  Water condensation or a fungus growth indicates too much humidity is in the air.  Screens on the top are the best remedy for too much moisture.  A fungus growth on the skin of a reptile indicates a veterinary exam is required.  The flooring usually is a small gravel or coarse sand.  The very fine sand may lead to an impaction if the reptile eats it (when eating their food).  If you use a carpet for the floor it should be taken out and washed regularly; any loose nylon fibers are not to be ingested by any animal.  Any aromatic wood shavings, such as cedar or redwood, are to be avoided in any pocket pets or reptiles.  If you want to clean the habitat, a dilute white vinegar and water solution is recommended.  Heat needs to be considered, and a temperature of 65-85 degrees is ideal.  If you are planning to use live plants in the habitat, ask for our list of poisonous plants for animals.  The lower range of temperature should include a “hot rock”, where the pet can warm up when they want, but the whole house doesn’t have to be hot.  These electrically heated hot rocks are usually needed with lizards.  Light bulbs can occasionally overheat the reptile’s home, and if used try to keep one end of the aquarium heated near 85 degrees and the other end at a cooler temperature (60 degrees at lowest temperature, 70 degrees is adequate).  Placing the aquarium near a window can result in overheating.  A temperature over 90 degrees can cause most reptiles to become hostile, especially snakes.  Periodically use a thermometer inside the habitat to monitor the temperature in various areas.  Too high or too low temperatures can result in stress and health problems developing.  We recommend the UVA and UVB light bulbs specifically made for reptiles.  A wire screen, and not glass, should be between the bulb and the reptile.  Lizards shed their skin in different pieces.  Lizard sexing cannot be done by a snake probe, but Iguanas can be sexed with a blood test.  Male lizards are usually brighter in color than females.  In Iguanas the males have larger dorsal spines, larger shields (operculum on either side of the head, below and behind the ear opening). 

     A variety of food is important.  The most common medical problems we see in reptiles are related to poor nutrition.  A vitamin and mineral supplement with vitamin D3 is strongly recommended for all snakes, lizards, turtles and other reptiles.  Buy a vitamin supplement for reptiles, not birds, dogs, cats, etc.  The type of food requirements vary with each species.  Some lizards require live food, such as insects, mealworms, crickets, small earthworms, fruits and vegetables. Carrots & sweet potatoes are high in oxalates, while cucumbers and zucchini are low in nutritional value, and these vegetables and yams should be limited to a very small amount of the diet.  Moist worms can be placed in a bag with vitamins and shaken in order to give the lizards their required supplement.  Fireflies, lygaeid bugs, Monarch and queen butterflies are toxic to reptiles.  Iguanas require mostly a vegetable diet, with low protein dog food to be limited to less than 5% of the diet.  You may also place the vitamin/mineral supplement on fruit or vegetables, mixed in food or also in the water.  Most lizards and other reptiles may not drink very much water.  Lizards are usually fed 3 times a week.  Herp?diet and other commercial diets are available.  To teach a reptile to eat commercial diets we recommend you start to feed them insects in a bowl.  Later add the commercial diet on top of the worms, larvae, fish, crickets and other prey.  Gradually reduce the prey amount.  Please ask for our Feeder Insect handout if you have snakes and/or other reptiles which do not easily adapt to a complete diet.  We recommend feeding reptiles in a bowl or similar container within their habitat.  

     Snakes routinely are fed live food also, although some do eat dead or weak animals.  Never leave your snake and a live mouse or rat unobserved; some mice will attack and kill the snake.  It is best if you can have a separate habitat for feeding your snake.  If the snake does not eat within 15 minutes, they may not be hungry.  Feed every 1?2 weeks, approximately 10% of the snake’s weight in food.  Remove any uneaten food within 2?4 hours.  Sometimes egg yolk or fish can be rubbed over new foods that are being tried.  Fish, insects and amphibians also can be fed to most snakes.  Snakes can live without feeding for weeks; although any time a snake has not eaten for 2 weeks, you need to pay close attention to the reptile for indications of sickness.   Signs of sickness are cloudy eyes, very little activity, and general listless or anorexia.  It is normal for a snake to shed its skin periodically.  If the snake has retained its skin for an unusual length of time, soak the snake in a warm water bath; hold the snake, as they may not be able to swim.  Normally the skin is shed in one piece.  If the skin or eye spectacles are blue, it is best not to handle a snake or lizard while they are shedding.  If shedding is prolonged gently rub the skin off to expose the new skin underneath.  Do not try to remove any molting or “eye caps” before the underlying skin has matured and is ready to be exposed.  Should external parasites be found, we advise an examination to determine the source and type of parasite.  Oiling the snake, or the use of an oral systemic insecticide to the snake can easily be applied.  The housing must also be treated if parasites are diagnosed.  Sexing of the snake is possible, by using “probes”??only advised by use of an experienced person.  In snakes the males have pelvic spurs, males also have cloacal pores larger the females.  Snakes are solitary animals that normally should be housed alone.  We do not advise housing or feeding more than 1 snake per container.  Placing artificial grass in the snake’s aquarium can be adequate, or use the customary gravel or shavings.  Snakes can live 10?40 years, with the larger species living the longest.  We have a book on each species, should you desire more information.  A snake larger than 3 foot should not be housed in the typical aquarium.  Snakes have 2 rows of top teeth and 4 rows of bottom teeth that slant backwards, which requires one to pry open the mouth if you’re ever bitten.

     Turtles are usually aquatic, and the reference here will usually consider tortoise or land turtle.  As with the lizards, a variety of food and supplements need to be considered.  The tortoises are used to dry climate and humidity should not be encouraged.  Dry bedding helps prevent pneumonias.  The tortoise is mostly a herbivore and can be fed seed sprouts, mixed vegetables, melons, bananas, oranges.  Pumpkin is high in Vitamin A.  It is important to rotate and provide a variety of fruits and vegetables.  We also recommend a low fat dog food (dry preferably but canned is adequate) plus some tuna or chicken.  Do not feed over 10% of the diet as lettuce, celery, cucumbers, and cabbage; these foods do not have very much nutritional value.  Tortoises can sometimes be sexed, with the male having red irises, and the female’s eyes having brown irises.  The female tortoise usually has a flat plastron or stomach while the male’s plastron may be curved. In turtles and tortoises the female has a shorter, narrower, tapered tail.  Most turtles have longer claws on the front feet (tortoise feet look like a small elephant’s foot, as they are mainly non?aquatic).  If you desire to let your box turtle or tortoise hibernate, provide them a box in a 50 degree area such as a garage.  Newspapers in the box are ideal cover.  Every month (2 months maximum), bring the pet out into a warm area to eat and drink water.  Gradually awake the turtle from their hibernation when doing this.  Do not allow a sick animal to hibernate, as they will awaken too sick to live????have them treated and physically in condition first; they do not have to hibernate.  If you have aquatic turtles, it is best to feed them in a different aquarium, which will help keep their water clean.

     All reptiles can harbor the bacteria Salmonella within their intestinal tracts.  In the 1970’s the sale of very small turtles was discontinued because of the high percentage of Salmonella found within this type of turtle.  WE ADVISE THAT YOU WASH YOUR HANDS AFTER HANDLING ALL REPTILES, especially their feces.  All species of animals can have Salmonella bacteria found within their digestive system, including cattle, horses and even yourself.  To prevent this problem we recommend that you do not give warm water baths to your reptile in the kitchen sink or bathtub.  If you are concerned we can run a fecal culture on your reptile pet and provide more information on salmonella.  Unfortunately the treated patient will again become infected with the salmonella, and does not usually cause a problem in reptiles.  Diarrhea is a sign of the Salmonella infection.

     This is only a general guide for reptiles and we highly recommend the individual species books available for the wide variety of reptiles.  As an example some lizards, such as the desert iguana need an environment 10 degrees warmer than the desert banded gecko, which both live in the same area.  The gecko is nocturnal (hides in the day and comes out at night) while the iguana is diurnal (comes out in the day). We have more information within our library that you may read at the clinic.  We advise that you bring in a stool exam of all animals, including reptiles, so that we may run a fecal test for internal parasites.


The Staff at the Nelson Road Veterinary Clinic




     We have many other reptile species care handouts available, including switching diets from a live insect or rodent base to a more complete diet.  We also have handouts regarding the proper care of the insects and prey to feed to reptiles.