How to Tell If Your Reptile Is Sick?
Dr. Jenni Bass
The first, and perhaps the most important point is to know what is normal for the species in question. Only when the reptile owner is familiar with the normal appearance and the normal behavior of his species of pet reptile will he be able to recognize the abnormal. The reptile owner must have knowledge of the animal's natural environment as well as captive husbandry requirements to understand the reptile in sickness and in health.
To educate yourself about the normal appearance and habits of your reptile species: subscribe to hobby magazines, visit zoos and reptile shows, join a local reptile club, buy books published in the last 5-10 years which have good color illustrations. Nature programs on television can have excellent footage of animals in the wild, and the very lucky may be able to take an ecotourist holiday. Pet shop, zoo and privately owned specimens may not always be healthy, but seeing as many animals as possible will widen your knowledge base. Observing your species of reptile, reading and speaking to experienced reptile keepers will greatly improve your ability to recognize a problem quickly. A good reptile veterinarian is also an invaluable source of current and practical advice. Do not rely on a pet store for assurances as to what is normal. While many pet shops are ethical, many have employees with no more knowledge than the average customer. Remember that you don't need to know anything about animals to be allowed to sell them. Many reptiles have highly specific needs, particular to the species and even experienced hobbyists must engage in research.
Once you have a sound knowledge of your pet's environmental, nutritional and medical needs, you can begin to assess his health.
Assess the following on a regular basis:
Activity level: increased or decreased? An unusually docile or aggressive lizard or snake may be ill or in pain.
Hiding: A stressed or sick reptile or one in pain may spend more time in hiding. Instinct tells him not to show himself to potential predators.
Posture and responsiveness: When you enter the room, does your lizard notice and stand? Does your tortoise wander to the cage side for a scratch? Does your snake or turtle seem aware of you? Since most of these animals are vulnerable to predation in the wild, they should be aware of movement and activity in the environment. Eyes should be bright and alert, and those species with eyelids should seldom be seen with them closed. Reptiles which lie in one spot all day, which seem reluctant or unable to move or which cannot hold their legs, tail, head or body in a manner normal for the species, may be ill. Some species, especially snakes may normally be relatively sedentary, but again, you must know what is normal.
Gait: Is your lizard, turtle or tortoise using all its limbs normally? Watch nature programs on television and gain an appreciation for the normal movement patterns of reptiles in the wild.
Color: Some species display a wide variety of normal color variations, but generalized (body wide) or patchy changes may indicate a problem. Be familiar with the normal.
Shape: Is your snake or lizard swollen in its body or limbs?
Appetite: increased, decreased or selective (i.e. picky eater).
Drinking: Drinking habits vary with species, but particularly with tortoises and some lizards, increased thirst may point to a variety of possible problems.
Urine and stool production: Generally speaking, reptile waste has three components: the clear, liquid urine, the chalky white urate (both products of the kidney) and the blackish-brown fecal component. In most cases, these three, in varying proportions (depending on species and on diet) are evacuated together. When reptiles are housed in relatively unchanging captive conditions, are fed at regular intervals and are kept in an optimal environment, their bowel movements can become highly predictable. Reptiles should be housed in such a way that their wastes are not simply trodden into deep or absorbent bedding. When clearing away feces and urine, the owner should take some note of their appearance. Is there more or less stool than normal? Relate this to how much and when the animal last ate. Is the stool of the usual consistency, or is it watery (diarrhea) or firmer than usual? Is there a greater or smaller volume of urine than usual, and is this a trend? Are the urine clear and the urate chalky white? Or does either have a yellow, green, orange or brown tinge to it? Is there blood in the waste, and if so, is it in the urine, the urate or on the stool itself? Does the animal appear to have difficulty in passing feces or urine? Signs of difficulty may include straining, passing only small quantities of feces at one time, passing waste with increased or decreased frequency.