How to Tell If Your Reptile Is Sick?
Dr. Jenni Bass
A change in your pet's behavior is often the first sign of the presence of disease. The change may be gradual and subtle, and obvious only in retrospect. Some changes may be seasonal or hormonal and perfectly natural, but since reptiles are limited in their ability to manifest or show outwardly their response to change within their bodies, or in their environments, objective assessment through record keeping is invaluable. The form and the extent of records will vary with the size of the reptile collection, but at a minimum, keep track of a few details:
When did the animal last eat? This is most relevant to snakes, which may have prolonged intervals between meals. How much was eaten? Was it eaten enthusiastically, or only after a wait, or did the animal consume only part of the meal? Did the reptile regurgitate? Willingness to eat will help you to assess health, as well as whether the animal is being fed too much or too little.
What was the source of the food, and how was it stored? (applicable primarily to carnivores)
How often are supplements used? What is the name of the supplement(s) and how much is used?
How often does the animal shed (lizards and snakes)? In the case of snakes, was the shed complete, and did it include the eyecaps or spectacles?
How frequent are the bowel movements? This is particularly relevant to snakes, which may defecate remarkably infrequently, but even the smallest lizard can go some time without passing stool, and this may be overlooked unless the owner pays deliberate attention. Your veterinarian will want to know how regularly your pet defecates. This will be difficult to observe in the case of very small animals in a terrarium, and so stricter attention needs to be paid to the animal's other habits, such as willingness to eat. Wood shavings, corncob, soil, gravel and bark make observation and clearing of feces difficult and for this and other reasons, these are not recommended substrates.
Weight: Young, growing animals should have their weight closely monitored. Daily in the case of hatchlings, weekly for juveniles and once or twice monthly for mature animals, if otherwise apparently healthy. If your pet is ill, or you suspect it may be, weigh it more often. Increasing weights, in conjunction with a decreased appetite may indicate egg production, for example. This does not necessarily constitute a problem but it is important to be aware of change, so that it can be monitored and investigated if need be.
Weight should be noted in grams, rather than in ounces, when possible. Digital scales are easiest to use, but balance scales can work well. The cost of a scale can vary considerably, from $30-$200. Department and hardware stores, drugstores, medical supply outlets and kitchen specialty shops are possible sources of scales. Check that the scale weighs in metric (i.e. grams), that it can accommodate a weight as heavy as that which your reptile is likely to reach, and that it is sensitive enough to supply a meaningful reading for your pet. For instance, if you own a 200g bearded dragon, a scale, which reads in increments of 500g, will be of no use. For a giant snake, a good bathroom scale will do well. Simply subtract your weight from the weight of you holding the snake. A useful scale does not need to be expensive, it does not even need to supply the precise reading that your vet's scale does, but it must be consistent. If you are concerned, occasionally weigh a test object to be certain of consistency in readings. Remember that the absolute weight of your pet may be less important than a change in weight.
Snakes are easily weighed when knotted into a pillowcase. Lizards may settle best on a tray lined with a towel, or when wrapped in a towel. Tortoises may need to be "high centered" on a low block or tin can, to prevent their scrambling off the scale. Some animals may need to be restrained in a box. Be sure to subtract the weight of the towel, box or tray from the total weight. In the case of smaller animals it is particularly important to weigh them at consistent times, for example before feeding and after a bowel movement, as these can significantly affect weight. It may be helpful to note whether or not the reptile has recently eaten or defecated.
Reproductive activity: If your pet lays eggs, it is always appropriate to seek veterinary advice. The best way to deal with the situation will depend on the species of reptile, your goals as an owner, and the condition of the individual animal. Making notes of the number of eggs, whether they were smooth- or rough-shelled, hard-shelled or soft-, and whether or not the animal appeared to have difficulty in producing them, will help you and your veterinarian to assess the reptile's health. Keep a record of any behavioral changes, which may be related to reproduction. These include digging, restlessness, pacing and a decreased appetite, in spite of increased activity. Please note that these may also be signs of illness-they may be associated with many conditions, not just a reproductive cycle. Again, reptiles are limited in the range of behaviors which they can exhibit and which we can understand. Male reptiles may also show regular behavioral changes in association with hormonal or other seasonal influences. A diary of your pet's behavior may make it easier to understand him.
Record maximum and minimum temperatures and humidity.
Be sure to include in your records events, which may only in retrospect be seen to have affected your pet. These would include power cuts, unusual temperature fluctuations (although, ideally your reptile's microclimate will protect him from such things) and earthquakes. New people or animals in the house, cage modifications, new foods or supplements, changes in routine such as holidays which require pet sitters, can all have subtle or not so subtle effects on your pet's health. If you have more than one reptile, it is particularly important to record the animals' origins, their medical history, their quarantine records and with which other individuals or species (if any) they have been housed. Keep your own notes of veterinary visits, treatments and the course and outcome of any illness. Record worming or mite treatments.
Records make it easy to relate your pet's medical history to a veterinarian, and will alert you to a possible problem earlier than if you rely strictly on memory. Obviously, hobbyists with large collections and breeders will require especially detailed records. This is particularly important in the case of large collections, but even keepers of just two or three animals, whether of the same or different species will benefit and increase their knowledge and understanding of reptiles through record keeping.