Exotic Care and Feeding

Love Dog

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.

In this chapter, you find out what health problems are serious for your adopted exotic, how to track down the elusive but essential qualified exotic pet vet, what to expect when you take your pet in for a checkup, and the basic care and feeding requirements for the most common exotic pets likely to find themselves in need of second homes. Bone up on these basics, and you can give your new exotic pet a second chance at a healthy life with everything he needs to grow, thrive, and be his unique and beautiful — because beauty is a relative term — scaled, slimy, or hairy self.

Bright Eyes and Scaly Tails

Adopted exotics can thrive in captivity if they are given the opportunity to get or stay healthy, but some adopted exotics have some health hurdles to overcome, right from the start. For that reason, visiting an exotic pet vet as soon as you adopt your exotic is important — or even before you decide for sure on the exotic pet for you.
As for what you can do at home to keep your exotic healthy, remember that for exotic pets that live most of their lives in cages or tanks, environment really is everything. A dirty home, poor food, filthy water, the wrong temperature, the wrong humidity, and the wrong lighting — all these factors can make an exotic pet sick.
Fortunately, you have the power to control your exotic pet’s environment, so you have the power to help him regain or maintain good health. Feed your exotic an appropriate, fresh, nutritionally complete diet. Correct nutritional deficiencies with vitamin supplementation. Give him a large and appropriately furnished space and keep it at the right temperature, humidity, and with the right lighting for your pet’s needs. Provide plenty of fresh clean water, and keep his home scrupulously clean. That’s all you have to do!
That’s all, you ask? Well, sure that’s a lot, but keeping any pet is a big responsibility, and it does take time. In this next section, you find out what to do to provide your exotic pet with an environment that gives him the best chance at vibrant health and a long life.

Finding a good exotic pet vet

Some vets don’t see exotics, so it can be a challenge to find a good and qualified exotic pet veterinarian. But it is a great idea to find an exotic pet vet, even before you adopt your pet. That way, as soon as you know when you’re bringing your exotic home, you can set up an appointment with your vet to get your new animal checked out.
Although the vet who has always treated your dogs and cats may know something about exotics, chances are, she probably doesn’t specialize in this area. Your vet may know other vets in the area that do treat exotics, however. Ask for a recommendation, or ask other local vets, reptile clubs, or local hobbyists what vet or vets they recommend for the type of exotic you’re adopting.
You can also search for exotic vets in the phonebook, looking for vets with ads that say they treat exotic pets. If you can’t find a vet with such an advertisement, call a vet and ask whether he or she treats exotics or knows a vet who does. You can also call a nearby veterinary school to find an exotic vet. The school may have some on staff.
Or, check out the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians (ARAV) Web site at www.arav.org. You can search the site by state for ARAV members, many of whom are exotic pet vets or who know how to refer you to one. The Herp Vet Connection also allows you to search for member-recommended herp vets by state at www.herpvetconnection.com. A good exotic pet vet is worth driving a little extra distance.
If you are a long distance from an exotic vet, you can still be served well by a vet who has little experience but is open to learning. Because many exotics have many needs that are not yet known, and data on bloodwork, radiograph techniques, and other aspects of disease treatment and diagnoses still are limited, a true expert in exotic pet medicine is rare. Many vets are willing to acknowledge they still are learning and will investigate the information that’s available and talk to experts on the vet Web sites to find the answers. Those vets who feel they know it all may not be the best in this situation. As long as your vet can perform a general exam safely on your exotic and is open to discussing a plan of action and learning together, that is a great start.
When you’re checking out vets, you can find out a lot just by asking. Before you make an appointment, call and talk to the vet’s office. Ask the vet a few questions, such as:

– 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

Depending on where you live, you may not have much choice when selecting a vet. You may want to consider a newer vet. A vet who is new to the field may be a wise choice because she may be more up-to-date on the latest developments in exotic pet care. If you find someone who seems qualified, make an appointment and bring in your pet. You need to feel comfortable with the way the vet handles your pet and that the vet is capable and confident, with a herp bedside manner that impresses you.

Remember

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

You may be a little hesitant to take a tiny tree frog or a little lizard to the vet. You’re probably wondering: Do I really need to pay for an office visit? Even if your new exotic seems healthy, this initial vet visit is vital.
The vet’s practiced eye may recognize problems you don’t know how to spot. If your adopted exotic is suffering from a nutritional deficiency, a parasite like mites or ticks, or any other health problem, your vet can tell you exactly what to do. But even if the final pronouncement is that you have a healthy pet, this information is valuable and gives the vet a point of reference and comparison, if anything goes wrong with your pet in the future.
At the first vet visit, your vet gives your exotic pet a thorough once-over, examining him for any signs of disease, injury, and pests such as mites. The vet will probably weigh your pet and record that weight, as a baseline for future visits. Unless you have a concern or the vet detects a problem, your vet probably won’t need to do any tests.

Tip

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

Every exotic pet has certain health problems that it can potentially develop, but adopted exotics tend to have a few in particular. These problems are the kind your adopted reptile can have and that the vet should check for during your first vet visit. If you suspect any of these problems or notice something like mites or ticks, be sure to mention it to your vet on that first vet visit:

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

You also want to have a vet (and an initial vet visit for your exotic pet under your belt) so that when emergency strikes, you already know where to take your pet. If your exotic pet exhibits any of the following signs, immediately call the vet or, when noted, rush your pet to an emergency clinic without hesitation:

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

If you notice your exotic pet demonstrating the following conditions, don’t worry. The following behaviors are all perfectly natural for exotics:

– 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

Kids think exotic pets are cool, but they don’t always understand how to handle these pets correctly and safely, nor do they always have the self-control to be gentle or supervise the animal while he’s out of his cage. Never let kids handle exotic pets without direct supervision by a responsible adult.

Warning!

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.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), no child younger than 5 should handle a reptile, and no household with a child younger than a year old should even own a reptile. That same rule also applies for households with people who have compromised immune systems.

– 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

Everybody loves a good meal, and one of the best ways to encourage good health in your exotic pet is to make sure he has the right nutrition. In this section, you’ll get a quick primer on the basic nutritional needs of popular exotic pets. Start here, but also talk to your vet and other hobbyists about the latest research in exotic nutrition.

Snacks for snakes

Snakes are carnivorous. In other words, they need meat, in the form of mice or rats of varying sizes. Some snakes need or will happily eat other kinds of meat, such as lizards or frogs, small birds, other snakes, or insects. Some hobbyists recommend feeding snakes in an enclosure that’s different from where they live so they don’t associate hands coming to pick them up as prey and so they know that food only comes when they’re in that special container. Any clean container works, even a new sterilized garbage pail or bucket. Just don’t leave your snake in there unsupervised without a ventilated lid tightly attached.

Warning!

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.

Some snakes eat killed food easily as long as it’s warm. You can warm up thawed rodents under a heat lamp or put them in a sealed plastic bag and float them in hot water for a few minutes. Note: Never microwave a dead rodent, because it will likely explode and can burn your snake internally. If your snake doesn’t take to the boring limp bait, hold the dead rodent in a long pair of tongs and give it a few wiggles, or dangle it temptingly over the snake. Many snakes soon figure out to take this prey. Be very careful doing this, because many snakes have a vigorous feeding response, and you don’t want your fingers to get in the way of those powerful jaws.
Ball pythons can be very picky eaters and tend to stick with what they know, so you may have trouble convincing a ball python accustomed to live food that a dead mouse is a worthy meal. If your ball python suddenly stops eating altogether (ball pythons are notorious for going on hunger strikes), talk to your vet about what to do.

Warning!

Never handle snakes for at least a few days after feeding. The stress can cause them to vomit their meal before it is digested.

Lizard lunch

Lizards need a varied diet, but what that diet consists of depends on the lizard. A few general caveats apply:

– 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.

Specific environments and diets for the most popular lizards include the following:

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.

Warning!

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.

Turtle tidbits

The most common pet turtles are land-dwelling box turtles and waterdwelling sliders. Here is what to feed them:

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.

Remember

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.

Amphibian appetizers

Beyond their need to stay clammy-cool and slimy-wet, amphibians also need proper diets:

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

You might be surprised at what arachnids and other bugs eat:

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

Feed hermit crabs a high-quality commercial diet supplemented with leafy greens, broccoli, carrots, fresh fruit, little bits of fish and meat, nuts, seeds, and sheets of seaweed, called nori. Crabs are omnivorous, and a fresh varied diet helps them thrive.

Herp Hygiene and Grooming

You don’t groom an exotic pet the same way you groom most other pets. You don’t brush and comb them, spray them with conditioner, tease out their tangles or even brush their teeth. But exotic pets need good grooming, too. It’s just that for these guys, good grooming is all about cleanliness.
Reptiles, amphibians, arachnids, and all other exotic pets need scrupulously clean environments, and they need to be kept clean themselves, too. No, you don’t need to give your snake a shower or your tarantula a bath, but animals that shed their skins do need moisture. Snakes and lizards sometimes enjoy long soaks in buckets of lukewarm water, and amphibians need constant access to fresh water. Hermit crabs soak in it, and even spiders need light misting within their enclosures to stay hydrated and healthy.

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.

If your exotic has mites, follow these steps to get rid of them.
1. Soak your reptile in warm water to drown the mites.
While your reptile is soaking, completely clean your reptile’s tank. Throw away all litter, scrub everything with hot soapy water, and rinse well. You can let your reptile soak unattended as long as you’re sure he can’t get out and other pets can’t get to him. Some people use a large bucket and put a screen over the top with a weight to prevent escape but allow for ventilation.
2. Pick off as many mites as you can, and use a cotton swab to gently remove mites on your reptile’s face.
Some people also suggest coating the reptile in olive oil, but that can get pretty messy.
3. If necessary, use an appropriate insecticide product.
Ask your vet about the best mite treatment to use and attack those little critters aggressively until they’re gone. Be careful with insecticides, however. Many are toxic to certain reptiles, so ask your vet before choosing and using one. Some people recommend keeping a flea collar made for a dog or cat outside the tank, but don’t put it inside, because this insecticide can be too toxic for your pet.
Some reptiles can also get ticks, which need to be plucked off carefully — use rubber gloves or tweezers — and flushed down the toilet.

Warning!

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

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