Reptile health is dependent largely on husbandry and diet. There are some genetic disorders, injuries and reproductive issues that seem to more related to bad luck than preventable causes, but for the most part, the keeper plays a big part in keeping captive reptiles healthy. Mere survival is not the goal; we should strive to provide these magnificent animals with the proper care, diet and enrichment that mimic nature, but in a safe, controlled environment.
Note: We are continually updating this page. This information is provided for general information purposes and is not intended to replace qualified veterinary care from reptile experts.
While each reptile species have varying and specific needs, all reptiles need safe, secure enclosures. These must provide the proper heating, lighting, humidity required for your pet, and offer enough shelters or hides that the animal feels comfortable. The reptile must not be able to escape and they need to be protected from nosy intruders, such as pets (especially cats), children and inexperienced adults. If you do keep venomous reptiles, please ensure the enclosure is locked and inaccessible to the rest of your household!
Providing water or humidity in some form is necessary, but some animals meet all of their moisture needs with food while most require drinking water and a few aquatic or semi-aquatic reptiles need large pools for bathing, soaking and swimming. Most animals do well with humid retreats, even for dry climate species, as many desert species spend half of the day underground in burrows that offer milder temperatures and higher humidity. Too little humidity can cause dehydration and shedding problems; too much invites the risk of respiratory infections (RI) and bacterial or fungal skin problems. Be sure to research your individual species, as reptiles vary on their humidity requirements. Ignoring this information can be a fatal mistake!
Feeding and bathing may be done outside the enclosure. In enclosures with sand, dirt, moss, bark or other substrates, food bowls should be placed on a platform or otherwise elevated so that substrate does not get into the feeding dish to avoid impactions. Although snakes don’t necessarily take food from bowls, it is often recommended to feed in a separate enclosure; tong-feeding is also an option.
Shy species or new arrivals should not feel like they are on display and need a variety of hides in their enclosures. Additionally, taping paper over glass during acclimation or breeding can further reduce stress, which is a slow killer as it suppresses the appetite immune system.
Diet & Health
Some reptiles make it easy to provide optimum nutrition. Snakes, for example, swallow whole prey that contains all of the nutrients they need to survive and thrive. Provided, of course, that the prey was also fed properly and doesn’t suffer from parasites or deficiencies. Making sure that prey is as healthy as possible by providing the necessary nutrition is called gutloading the prey. The predator then has all of its nutritional requirements taken care of. This is easier with vertebrate prey, as the bones supply the essential calcium. The prey also provides preformed, fat-soluble vitamins, such as A and D, which are often no easy for a reptile to convert from other sources.
When providing food for an insectivore or herbivore, you need to work a little smarter to provide enough calcium and other nutrients. Varied prey and properly balanced supplements – neither too little nor too much – help supply the nutritional requirements of each species. There is no one-size fits all routine, but research and discussions with other keepers can help you provide the best diet for your scaly friends.
Check out our in-depth guide to reptile nutrition!
Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD)
MBD is mostly seen in insectivores and herbivores, as pure carnivores such as snakes are usually fed whole prey that contain bones that supply the body’s need for calcium. Often it is seen in young animals who have grown too quickly without adequate calcium (and other necessary nutrients as outlined above). Breeding females can also develop MBD if they are not properly supplemented as well. Read more about the causes, symptoms and treatments on our MBD page (focused on crested geckos).
Many reptiles are genetically hard-wired to eat at any opportunity, as they often endure seasonal shifts in food availability. Many reptiles actively seek out their next meal, and as keepers we interpret this “hunger” signal as the best time to feed them. Therefore, many keepers overfeed, and the result is overweight reptiles.
Captive environments produce stress, which lowers immune system responses leading to poor appetite, lethargy, parasite surges, overall reduced health
Chronic dehydration can lead to health problems such as gout.
Other Reptile Facts
Most reptiles have short periods of apnea (not breathing) as they have different lung structures than mammals. They can take in a lot of volume, but the lung surface isn’t as full of capillaries. Combined with their lower metabolism, their respiratory system doesn’t have a high oxygen requirement and levels can drop pretty low before breathing is triggered. Also, a buildup of CO2 in the blood doesn’t appear to trigger breathing, either. Mammals breathe more often and more regularly compared to reptiles, who can take in a few big gulps of air when they need it or are stressed and not take another breath for awhile.
The rapid (or not so rapid, as during sleep) throat movement is called buccal pumping or gular pumping, depending on the source. It’s not really breathing, it’s a way of recycling the oxygen without needing to take a breath. You can see their chest moving in and out around their rib-cages when they need oxygen, or are stressed. They may not take another breath for awhile afterwards. Heavy breathing around the chest is a good sign an animal has been running around or is stressed out from handling.