Snakes, lizards, and turtles! Oh, my! These scaly creatures are not for the faint of heart. However, far from the frightening animals they seem to be, exotic animals like reptiles can make great pets with rewarding companionship.
Exotic pets are quickly becoming recognized for their household pet potential. While commercial diets can be specialized for the various species of small mammals, reptile care tends to be slightly vague regarding nutritional requirements.
Always refer to manuals and species-specific guides for general care and overall nutrition. However, one of the most common veterinary complaints for reptiles is Hypovitaminosis A. This is deficiency in Vitamin A usually from a lack in the diet. All reptiles are susceptible to Hypovitaminosis A though some will display it differently than others. Turtles are the most commonly affected species and will show signs such as palpebral edema in which both eyelids are swollen. Often the eyelid swelling will be severe enough to cause the eyes to be completely swollen shut. Another sign of Vitamin A deficiency is an aural abscess. This is an infection in the ear that causes a thick wad of pus-like material to develop and lodge behind the tympanic membrane. The abscess will cause the tympanic membrane to stretch and appear as a swelling on one or both sides of the head. Other species, such as chameleons, will show poor shedding especially around the eyes or at the tip of the tail. Most species will tend to show lethargy or poor appetite.
Severely lethargic or anorexic pets can get a subcutaneous injection of Vitamin A solution to treat the nutrient deficiency. However, HYPERvitaminosis A (or too much Vitamin A) can cause illness in reptiles and high dose vitamin injections can cause skin damage. The best treatment for mild cases and for prevention of the nutritional disease is Vitamin A supplementation with vegetables in the diet (for both herbivores or omnivores) or gut-loaded meal worms (for omnivores or carnivores). Vegetables that are a good source of Vitamin A for reptiles include squash, sweet potato, or parsnip. Slightly warming these veggies in the microwave can improve the taste for the reptile. The Vitamin A veggies are also good options to feed to the mealworms intended for the reptiles’ diet. Feeding the veggies to the mealworms over a period of 24 hours is called gut-loading the worms. This is a method to improve the nutrient content within the mealworm by letting them consume the vitamin rich foods before the reptile eats the worm. You can gut-load your worms by placing them in a small clean glass or plastic terrarium with a newspaper substrate and food options. Mealworms stay in their larval stage for eight to ten weeks and can be gut loaded throughout the entire time if needed. Gut-loading can also be used to prepare crickets and other insects for reptile diets. Don’t forget that some insects can injure or attack the reptile if too many insects are present or left in the terrarium for too long.
Starting these good nutrition habits early in the reptile’s routine will help to prevent avoidable illness and veterinary visits. Just remember to stick to your species’ general requirements for environment, temperature, humidity, and general diet to ensure a happy, healthy scaled friend for years to come.