In This Chapter
- Identifying the health problems exotic pets may experience
- Making sure your exotic pet stays healthy
- Taking care of and feeding the most common reptiles, amphibians, and other exotics
Caring for an exotic pet can be a challenge, and many exotic pets suffer severe health problems just because their owners don’t understand what kind of care and nutrition they need. But today is your lucky day because this chapter provides you with the basics of exotic pet care. Be sure to enhance your knowledge by reading books and magazines about your new pet and surfing reputable Internet sites such as Melissa Kaplan’s Herp and Green Iguana Information collection at www.anapsid.org and the care sheets on the Colorado Herpetological Society Web page at www.coloherp.org/careshts/index.php. You can also consult an exotic pet vet for additional tips on caring for your exotic pet.
Bright Eyes and Scaly Tails
Finding a good exotic pet vet
– How much experience they have with your specific kind of exotic
– How many exotic pet clients they have in the practice
– How long they have been treating exotics
– Whether the vet is an ARAV member
– Whether the vet owns any exotic pets
The vet needs to clearly communicate with you about what she is doing. You want to feel included in the process so ask questions if you don’t understand something. The best vets take time to answer your questions about feeding, housing, and care, and probably keep some of their own exotic pets at home. Note that some exotic pet vets treat birds and small animals as well as reptiles, amphibians, and other exotics.
What to expect during the first exam
Be sure to ask your vet about any questions or concerns you may have and inquire about what you need to do in case of an emergency. Is the vet on-call 24/7? Is an associated emergency clinic available for you to use if your animal needs help in the middle of the night? Write down this information and post it at home where you can quickly find it.
Recognizing special health problems adopted exotics may have
– Malnutrition: Malnutrition is probably the number one health problem common to exotics abandoned to shelters, rescue groups, and pet stores. Exotic pets have very specific needs that often aren’t met, and the stress shows in their bodies.
One of the most common nutrition-related disorders in exotics is metabolic bone disease, which reptiles and amphibians can get. A lack of calcium and generally poor nutrition usually cause metabolic bone disease, which often is caused by insufficient light resulting in insufficient calcium metabolism. Signs of calcium deficiency include malformed jaws, weakness and muscle tremors, humped spines, and weakened or broken bones. You can reverse a calcium deficiency with full-spectrum light, calcium supplements, and sufficient nutrition to strengthen bones, but some of the malformations probably will remain permanent, even if the animal survives.
Malnutrition can also cause the following:
- Spindly leg syndrome in amphibians
- Tremors and seizures caused by a thiamine deficiency in reptiles or amphibians
- Vitamin A deficiency resulting in puffy swollen eyes, common in turtles
- Basic dehydration causing a dry shriveled, sunken-eyed look and eventually an inability to drink water or eat food
– Mites: Many adopted reptiles have mites. If you have other reptiles at home when you adopt your new snake, keep them separated for at least a month to ensure everyone is mite-free. Consider mites the reptile’s equivalent of a dog having fleas — these little critters multiply fast and can also transmit diseases. For more on how to get rid of mites, see the section on grooming later in this chapter.
– Constipation and diarrhea: These symptoms can result from intestinal blockage from eating something foreign or too large. Signs include bloating and going several weeks without defecating after eating. Stress, a change in water, parasites, or other health problems can cause diarrhea. Talk to your vet if you notice any symptoms.
– Mouth rot: When an exotic pet injures his mouth, he can develop an abscess that can turn into mouth rot. Signs are crusty dried pus around the mouth, mouth bleeding, and whitish areas. The animal may need antibiotics. Talk with your vet if you notice mouth rot.
– Bacterial and fungal infections: Amphibians can develop bacterial and fungal skin infections because of dirty conditions. Red leg and softshell turtle fungal infections cause skin lesions and discoloration, and mold actually grows on the skin, and pieces of skin fall off. These conditions require immediate treatment.
– Signs of abuse: Some adopted pets have been abused; cigarette burns on large snakes, dehydrated lizards, and reptiles with tails or limbs missing are all too common. People sometimes fear what they don’t understand or know, and exotics have often borne the brunt of human ignorance. If your animal has an injury caused by abuse, it must be treated by a vet.
Noticing when your exotic is sick and needs a vet
– Breathing problems: If your exotic pet demonstrates noisy breathing, difficulty breathing, prolonged panting, wheezing, bubbles in the nostrils, or his mouth hangs open, call your vet right away. Breathing problems can be caused by something as simple as incorrect lighting, temperature, or humidity, but the result can be serious, and you need to get immediate advice from your vet about what to do. Your vet may recommend that you bring in your pet, or may recommend trying some things at home first, but don’t wait around to see whether the problem resolves itself when breathing is at risk.
– Damaged body parts: A broken tail, a dangling toe, a crackled shell, or any part of your exotic pet’s body that doesn’t look normal needs immediate veterinary attention. Your pet also needs immediate veterinary attention for bites from other animals — other pets or a live mouse or rat intended as food — burns from heating elements or lights, and any kind of wound or swelling body part, including those that appear without cause. Take your pet to the vet or emergency clinic.
– Looking up: Snakes, particularly boas, can get a virus that affects their nervous system and causes them to raise their heads as if looking upward. Sometimes called Stargazer’s disease, this condition is an incurable and contagious disease, so don’t wait around if your snake can’t seem to stop looking up. Call the vet.
– Refusal to eat: Some exotics don’t eat very often, and larger snakes can go several months without eating. Ask the shelter when the snake had its last meal, and what it was. If it was a big meal, then don’t worry too much until it has been eight weeks or longer. Then, mention this problem to your vet and tell your vet what the last meal consisted of. All reptiles need to eat on a regular schedule, and lizards shouldn’t go more than two or three days without eating, turtles or tropical amphibians for more than a week, or nontropical frogs or salamanders for more than two weeks. Exotics generally won’t want to eat when they are getting ready to shed, and if it’s winter, ask the vet whether your pet is hibernating. Even when considering all these things, if it still seems your pet has gone too long without a meal, give your vet a call.
– Unresponsiveness: If your animal seems unconscious — limp, pale, or for any reason different than when he’s normally sleeping — immediately call your vet or go to the emergency clinic. Dehydration, starvation, malnutrition, incorrect temperature, or a serious health condition can all cause unresponsiveness.
– Weight loss: Exotics grow; they don’t shrink. If your pet seems to be losing weight, call your vet. If your exotic looks skinnier than usual, emaciated, or if you can see his bones or his skin looks shriveled, be sure he has plenty of water, and give your vet a call.
Identifying reasons not to be alarmed
– Hiding: Exotics like to spend most of their time buried under substrate (bedding or litter on the bottom of the cage) or hiding in little caves or shelters. They demonstrate this behavior in the wild to protect themselves from predators and to remain unseen to potential prey. This behavior is natural, so don’t spend time worrying about how to get your snake, lizard, or amphibian out and on display every minute of the day. When you dangle food, he’ll probably come out and have a look around.
– Shedding: Reptiles and amphibians shed their skins as they grow. Before they shed, their eyes get cloudy, and they lose interest in food. Snakes may rub their snouts on rough surfaces to help break the old skin so they can wiggle out of it. After they shed, they’re often hungry and look their shiny bright-eyed best. Some reptiles and amphibians eat their shed skin, which also is normal.
– Sneezing: Iguanas sneeze frequently to clear salt out of their bodies. This symptom is normal, but breathing difficulties, spasms, gagging, or other respiratory issues are not normal for any exotic.
Exotics and kids: What you must know
Remember that all reptiles carry salmonella bacteria in their intestines and shed them in their waste, so anything that has touched reptile waste and goes into a human mouth can cause salmonella infection. Salmonella infection in humans can cause severe abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and fever. Therefore, don’t forget these salmonella safety tips:
– Always wash your hands with hot soapy water after handling a reptile, cleaning its cage or cage parts like food and water bowls, or cleaning up or touching anything the reptile has touched.
– Never allow kids to handle reptiles unsupervised or to pass reptiles around to their friends. After children have touched reptiles, make sure they wash thoroughly with soap. If you aren’t sure whether your child can obey these rules, don’t keep the reptile in his or her room. Supervision is the key to safety.
– Never let reptiles roam free in the kitchen or the bathroom, where people often eat or touch their faces. Don’t keep caged reptiles in these rooms, either. Use a large bucket or portable washtub in a separate room or outside to clean reptile cages and equipment — don’t clean them in the kitchen or bathroom.
– No matter how cute your reptile may be, don’t kiss him! Don’t eat or don’t even drink a beverage while handling your reptile.
Exotic Meals: Feeding Your Exotic Pet
Snacks for snakes
Never leave your snake alone unsupervised with a live rodent. Although you might think watching your snake eat a mouse or a rat is fun, feeding live food to a snake can sometimes result in injury to the snake when the rodent defendsitself. A bite or scratch can get infected. Many hobbyists recommend acclimating snakes to eat freshly killed or frozen thawed rodents, an economical and convenient alternative, by warming up the killed animals and using longhandled tongs to make them twitch enticingly.
Never handle snakes for at least a few days after feeding. The stress can cause them to vomit their meal before it is digested.
– Never feed spinach to a lizard (or any reptile) because it binds valuable calcium, making it unavailable.
– Iceberg lettuce is nutritionally void and not worth feeding.
– Some people like to catch wild bugs to feed their bug-eating lizards, but don’t do this if the bugs have been exposed to insecticides, herbicides, or any other chemical toxins, such as people might use on their lawns in neighborhoods.
– A few insects are downright poisonous to lizards, so never feed your reptile fireflies, bees, centipedes, roly-polies (pill bugs), butterflies, wild maggots or houseflies, or any kind of ants, just to be on the safe side.
– Iguanas need a correct diet to be healthy. They’re entirely herbivorous and they need no animal products whatsoever, including insects. Instead, iguanas need a daily dose of freshly chopped leafy greens, fruits, and vegetables. The best choices are grated carrots, squash, zucchini, berries, tropical fruits, such as mango, papaya, and kiwi, and some flowers including hibiscus, nasturtium, and dandelion.
Limit cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower, which can contribute to thyroid problems. Bananas are okay in small amounts, as a treat. Always have fresh pure water in a bowl and spray down the cage and the iguana daily with a mister. Change their food daily to keep it from getting moldy and attracting bugs.
– Anoles eat a wide variety of insects in the wild, but to be safe and ensure chemical-free meals, purchase live insects for your anoles to chase around the cage. They like a real smorgasbord, so look on the Internet or ask if you can special-order a variety of insects from the pet store. Anoles don’t do well if they just get crickets or mealworms. Be sure to review the information at the beginning of this section on which insects not to feed a lizard.
– Leopard geckos can thrive on a diet of crickets and mealworms dusted with a calcium supplement.
– Bearded dragons eat insects, such as crickets, mealworms, and clean roaches, and a daily dose of chopped greens — collards, turnips, dandelions — and other vegetation including hibiscus blossoms, apples, berries, and squash.
– Box turtles are omnivorous and benefit from a mixed salad of dark leafy greens, fresh chopped vegetables, fruits, flowers, and bugs like crickets and mealworms, prepared fresh daily. They can also eat high-quality canned dog food, but only as a small part of their diets. Adult turtles also need calcium and vitamin supplements every week. Baby turtles need supplements about three times per week. Vary the turtle’s diet every day so he’s constantly getting different healthy foods — that’s the best way to keep him healthy.
Box turtles also tend to hibernate from fall to spring, burying themselves in their substrate and not moving. Stop feeding your box turtle in the fall and give him plenty of water to bathe in so he can purge his body of digesting food before hibernation. If you’re worried about hibernation, talk to your vet about what to expect. It isn’t necessary to hibernate a turtle, but if you do it, be sure the turtle is at a nice heavy weight. Because the temperature must be decreased and your turtle won’t be eating for awhile, a vet visit is important before attempting to let your turtle hibernate. Or just don’t allow the turtle to hibernate, making sure the turtle gets enough daylight so he doesn’t go into hibernation on his own.
– Sliders and other aquatic turtles need bugs and tadpoles to munch on as well as aquatic plant matter when they are young. Older sliders become more vegetarian in their tastes and needs, eating mostly aquatic plants, lettuce, apples, berries, leafy greens (not spinach), and commercially prepared high-quality aquatic turtle food. You can even throw in a few tiny pieces of puppy chow for these guys, when they’re large enough to eat it.
– Small frogs generally eat small insects like crickets.
– Large frogs sometimes eat smaller frogs, large insects, and even small rodents.
– Salamanders and newts generally eat a variety of insects, worms, and small fish.
Arachnids and other “bug” basics
– Tarantulas eat mostly insects — crickets and mealworms. Larger tarantulas enjoy the occasional pinkie mouse. (Pinkie mice are baby mice that don’t have fur yet.)
– Giant centipedes and scorpions also eat crickets, mealworms, and pinkie mice.
– Giant hissing cockroaches prefer to eat chopped fresh vegetables and fruit, and the occasional piece of dry dog food.
Hungry hermit crabs
Herp Hygiene and Grooming
Exotics don’t normally get fleas, but one common grooming-related problem they do have is mites. Mites can be a big problem with adopted exotics, particularly reptiles. How can you tell whether your exotic has mites? You can see the little critters if you look closely. They look like tiny brown or black bugs crawling on and under your pet’s scales. In snakes, they sometimes collect around the eyes, or you may see them floating in the water. In severe cases, you may also see signs of skin damage such as ulcers, sores, or just a dull appearance to the skin. The animal may rub against rocks or bedding because mite infestations itch.
Tarantulas can get mites, too, which is problematic because both mites and tarantulas are arachnids, and any mite insecticide also would kill a tarantula. Never use any insecticide on a tarantula! Instead, carefully remove as many mites as possible using a cotton swab dipped in petroleum jelly, then move the spider to a fresh clean cage. Repeat daily for a week or two. Watch for a molt and remove the freshly molted bug immediately. A mite problem on a tarantula can be dealt with, but it takes much dedication and vigilance, and mites cause many people to lose their spiders.
by Eve Adamson