Snakes, Lizards, Geckoes, Turtles and frogs all have different needs when being kept in a captive environment. Each species has its own needs and these should be thoroughly researched before deciding on your new friend. However, some things are universal to all of these animals:
Reptiles and amphibians are called ectotherms because they need an outside (ecto) heat (therm) source to warm themselves, metabolise food and to make energy to move around. In the wild they would bask in the morning sun to ‘energise’ themselves for the day ahead. In captivity we have to offer them this option as well. A heat lamp or pad placed at one end of the enclosure is a must. This provides a heat gradient throughout the enclosure and the reptile can choose the temperature at which it is most comfortable. Some reptiles will try to climb directly onto the bulb or pad so it is important to prevent burn injuries by having a protective barrier between the animal and its heat source.
Reptiles need heat to digest food, if it is not provided then the food will start to decompose in the stomach which could become toxic and result in the death of the animal. It is not necessary (or acceptable) to feed live mammals or birds to reptiles and most will accept pre frozen items. Live insects should be fed with tweezers to ensure none escape into the enclosure. It can be dangerous to leave live food items in with your reptile as they may be so frightened that they bite back and cause serious injuries. Reptiles do not need to eat everyday and often in winter will choose not to feed for several weeks or months – this is not a problem as they use the energy from food to grow rather than to move like in mammals. This also means that the more your reptile eats, the larger it will become in a shorter amount of time.
All reptiles require direct sunlight for at least 30mins, 2 times a week to absorb the UV rays and make vitamin D. Without this sunlight they can develop deformities and brittle bones. The UV rays can also be offered by a special light that can be mounted in the cage and turned on several times a week, but nothing beats natural sunshine. Most reptiles will require some vitamin supplements in their food; these can be purchased form pet suppliers in powder or liquid form and added to food as required.
When a reptile grows it has to slough (shed) its skin. To do this it needs a warm, moist environment, a bowl of water to soak in and rough rocks and branches to rub itself on to remove the old skin. Any water offered should be chemical free. Tap water should be left to stand for a few days or treated to make it safe for drinking and swimming. It is important to make sure that all the old skin is removed because if not, it can start drying out and shrinking. This can result in the restriction of blood flow to limbs, toes and tails which will then fall off.
Reptiles need a yearly health check from a veterinarian. It is important to find a vet that is confident and has some knowledge about reptiles’ needs and biology. Vets can find out the sex of your reptile by anaesthetising them and performing an internal examination. Reptiles need worming at regular intervals, this can be done by your vet with an injection or the medications can be inserted into favourite food items or syringe fed. Amphibians are different because they can absorb liquids through their skin. This is an easy way to treat them but can be a problem for handling. Always wear clean, moist gloves if handling amphibians and be sure to not let them dry out or come into contact with any chemicals, the results could be fatal.
Exercise and Enrichment
Reptiles need exercise to keep their muscles strong and healthy. By providing an enclosure with areas for climbing or swimming (depending on the species) this can be easily accommodated. Reptiles that tolerate handling are easy to exercise by allowing them to climb on you, the household furniture or running around on the floor. This is also a form of enrichment (making their lives more exciting). Enrichment can also be new vegetation to smell, rearranging and changing enclosure furniture and different surfaces to explore. Enrichment and exercise are important in all animals’ lives and can often be combined.
Reptiles are generally clean animals and only defecate after a meal has been digested. Their urates and faeces are expelled together in a solid mass that can be easily removed on a daily basis. Substrates and furniture should be changed regularly to prevent disease. It is important to disinfect the enclosure with an animal safe product which is then thoroughly rinsed clean and dried before the animal is returned to its home.
Reptiles can make wonderful pets but can also live for a long time. This needs to be considered before adopting one.
In some states, such as Queensland you need to have a permit issued by the Environmental Protection Agencies Eco-access department before purchasing any reptiles. It is illegal to take them from the wild, instead the must be purchased from a licensed breeder with all records kept.
For Queensland: Department of Environment and Heritage Protection weblink: www.ehp.qld.gov.au