Care of the Elderly Reptile

Although herpetoculturists have learned a great deal about the care of reptiles and amphibians, we are still learning. One area – the needs of geriatric herps – remains largely unexplored. Perhaps there is a reason for this. Unlike many mammals, which clearly show the aging process (sometimes beginning rather early in life), aging reptiles and amphibians often show few signs – and even these are subtle – until their death from natural causes is close at hand. There is no graying of scales, and there is often no slowing of actions and reactions.

What constitutes "old" for a reptile or amphibian varies dramatically by species. There are some small lacertid lizards, for example, that are essentially annual species – hatching, breeding and dying within a year or a year-and-a-half. These could be considered old at 9 months of age.

At the opposite extreme, we have the big, slow-to-mature iguanas and monitors (as well as many smaller species) that may attain longevity of 15 to more than 30 years. These would not be considered old until an age of 10 or 15 years had been attained.

The very popular inland bearded dragon is in the middle, breeding only until it is about 5 years of age, and seldom living longer than 9 years. If well cared for, turtles and tortoises – even the very popular, pet store available, red-eared slider (often sold merely as "baby green turtle") – may live for 45 to 100 years.

Crocodilians are also long-lived. Caiman of various types usually exceed a life span of 15 years, and American alligators may live over 70 years. Boas, pythons, and many of the commonly kept lampropeltine constricting snakes (rat, king, milk and gopher snakes) often exceed an age of 15 years, and occasionally may reach the ripe old age of 30 to 40 years.

Amphibians can be equally long-lived. Although some of the more commonly kept smaller treefrogs and lungless salamanders seldom exceed an age of 10 years. Newts, toads, horned frogs, and some of the larger treefrogs can live for more than 20 years.

Signs of Aging

What You Can Do

What you can do depends upon how gracefully your pet ages. It is, however, imperative that you know your reptile and understand its body language.

Although even at a venerable age most tortoises are fully capable of tearing their vegetation into bite-sized pieces, they tend to eat more, and often more readily, when their food is chopped into smaller than bite-sized pieces (we also do this for hatchling tortoises).

How you provide for your aging reptile or amphibian will depend largely on the amount of debilitation (if any) shown by your pet. Some herps continue going full-steam-ahead until the day they die. Others may slow down somewhat and require just a bit of extra attention or slightly altered caging conditions. By learning to "read and interpret" your pets' moods and body language you will be able to provide your reptile or amphibian with the best conditions possible throughout what could and should be a very long life.