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When Your Reptile Is Sick

By: Dr. Jenni Bass

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By the time even the most experienced keeper suspects illness in a reptile, there is a very good chance that the animal is more ill and has been sick for longer than either owner or veterinarian can know. This is not the fault of either; it is simply a reflection of the evolution of reptiles, which has made them masters at hiding disease.

This means you should get to know your species as thoroughly as you can, through publications and clubs and your veterinarian. Records will help you to assess your pet's health objectively, but there is no substitute for careful and regular observation of your pet. If your instincts tell you that his behavior has changed, or if your records show a trend, which you cannot explain, you do not need to wait for overt signs of illness before consulting a veterinarian. Regular well-pet examinations will build a good relationship with your reptile veterinarian and expand your knowledge of reptile health and husbandry. Building your knowledge of your pet in health is the surest way to prevention and early detection of disease.

Recording Your Pet's Behavior

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. However, because reptiles are limited in their ability to show 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:

Eating Habits. Willingness to eat will help you to assess health, as well as whether the animal is being fed too much or too little. When did the animal last eat (most relevant to snakes, which may have prolonged intervals between meals)? How much was eaten? Was it eaten enthusiastically, or only after a wait? Did your pet consume only part of the meal? Did your pet regurgitate? What was the source of the food, and how was it stored (especially for carnivores)? How often are supplements used? What is the name of the supplement(s) and how much is used?

Shedding. 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? (Retained eyecaps or skin may indicate medical or environmental problems.)

Bowel movements. How frequent/regular are the bowel movements? Snakes may defecate remarkably infrequently, and even the smallest lizard can go some time without passing stool. This may be overlooked unless you pay deliberate attention. It may also be difficult to observe in the case of very small animals in a terrarium, so stricter attention needs to be paid to the animal's other habits, such as willingness to eat. Because wood shavings, corncob, soil, gravel and bark make observation and clearing of feces difficult, they 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 healthy animals. If your pet is ill, or you suspect he may be, weigh him more often. Increasing weights, in conjunction with a decreased appetite may indicate egg production, for example. Although this does not necessarily constitute a problem, it is important to be aware of change so that it can be monitored and investigated if necessary.

When possible, weight should be noted in grams, rather than in ounces. Digital scales are easiest to use, but balance scales work as well. You can find them in department and hardware stores, drugstores, medical supply outlets and kitchen specialty shops, and the cost can vary considerably, from $30 to $200. Check that the scale weighs in metric (i.e. grams); that it can accommodate a weight as heavy as 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 200 gram bearded dragon, a scale that reads in increments of 500 grams 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 be as precise as your vet's scale. But it must be consistent. If you are concerned about your scale, 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.

Whatever method you use, 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 make note of 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. Keeping a record of the number of eggs, whether they were smooth- or rough-shelled, hard- or soft-shelled, 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. You should also keep a record of any behavioral changes that might be related to reproduction. These include digging, restlessness, pacing and a decreased appetite, in spite of increased activity.

Male reptiles may also show regular behavioral changes in association with hormonal or other seasonal influences. Remember: Reptiles are limited in the range of behaviors that they can exhibit and that we can understand, and these activities may also be signs of illness, not just a reproductive cycle. A diary of your pet's behavior may make it easier to understand him.

Other influences. Be sure to include in your records those events that 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, and 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 histories, 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 deworming 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 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.

For more informatin on how to tell if your reptile is sick, see What is Normal and The Iceberg Principle.

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