Reptile Common Health Problems

Metabolic Bone Disease is usually due to improper diet (improper calcium to phosphorus ratio; diet low in calcium or vitamin D3; and/or diet high in phosphorous). Other causes include lack of ultraviolet light exposure, low environmental temperature, protein deficiency and rarely due to organ disease. Clinical signs may include loss of appetite, lethargy, weight loss or failure to gain weight, reluctance to move, swelling of limbs and/or lower jaw, bone abnormalities, easily fractured bones, inability to move limbs, muscle twitching and rarely seizures. If metabolic bone disease is suspected your pet needs prompt medical treatment and appropriate husbandry changes. It is also very important to handle your reptile gently and to remove any climbing objects, i.e. branches or hammocks, to avoid injuries and possible fractured bones.

Hypervitaminosis D (high vitamin D) is seen in reptiles fed diets consisting of mostly cat, dog, or primate food. The high level of vitamin D in these foods cause increased calcium absorption from the diet and mineralization of kidneys, blood vessels, and tissues within the body. This disease is difficult to treat and could be fatal to your pet therefore prevention is the best thing. Do not feed your reptilian pet a diet based largely on dog, cat, or primate food. It is especially important to not feed herbivorous reptiles these food sources because they are high in protein, phosphorous, and vitamin D and result in kidney damage.

Intestinal parasites can cause diarrhea in your pet, and is especially harmful in young or underweight pets. If pets carrying intestinal parasites become otherwise sick, the parasite load may increase, further complicating the problem. We recommend a yearly fecal check on all pets.

Loss of tail: many lizards will lose/drop a tail to escape predators or if picked up from their tail. The lost tail can regenerate but losing a tail in some species could be fatal as the tail is a source of fat reserves (i.e. geckos). Thus it is extremely important to never pick up a lizard by his/her tail.

Abscess is a collection of pus and inflammation within an area of tissue in response to either an infection or other foreign material. They can occur from bite wounds, lacerations, other trauma, and improper husbandry.

Burns can result from contact with heat sources. They can occur on the back due to being too close to overhead heat lamps or on the abdomen from heat mats or hot rocks. Burns are generally painful and bacterial infections can result.

Incomplete shedding (dysecdysis) can occur for several reasons; one of the most common is due to improper husbandry such as low humidity, incorrect temperature, or nutrition. General debilitation can also cause incomplete shedding. The retained skin can cause constriction and death to the fingers or poor vision and may affect appetite. Soaking reptiles in warm water helps the shedding process, as well as assists in their metabolism. The soaking requirements of different reptiles vary but in general lizards should be soaked at least once or twice weekly in shallow, lukewarm water for 15-20 minutes.

Egg-Binding: Some healthy mature female reptiles, such as iguanas, bearded dragons, water dragons, veiled chameleons and others can become egg bound without the presence of a male lizard. Signs of egg-binding may include lack of appetite, restlessness, swollen abdomen, or decreased frequency of defecation.

Gastrointestinal foreign body and/or impactions results from reptiles housed on inappropriate substrates (i.e. wood chip, sand) or those that are allowed to wander unsupervised in the home and ingest things that they should not consume. The majority of times these foreign bodies/impactions need to be surgically removed. The best way to prevent this from occurring to your pet is housing them on proper substrate and supervising them when roaming the home. Some clinical signs that may be seen include weight loss, lack of appetite, and possible prolapse.

Renal (kidney) disease can occur in some species of reptiles, such as iguanas or chameleons, and has been associated with chronic dehydration. Other causes of renal disease include improper diet, lack of appropriate ultraviolet light (UVB), chronic infections, or toxin exposure. Clinical signs often include lack of appetite, weight loss, weakness and depression which are signs that may be associated with other diseases. Other signs that may occur in advanced cases include muscle tremors, constipation, abnormal accumulation of fluid in certain areas of body, seizures, or inability to move the hind limbs.

Firefly toxicity: The light-producing chemical in Fireflies is toxic to reptile’s heart and causes clinical signs within a short amount of time and death generally within 1-1 ½ hours of ingestion. For many of these animals death can occur with ingestion of just ONE firefly. Therefore reptiles should NEVER be fed fireflies.

Salmonella: A large percentage of reptiles are carriers of Salmonella but never have any clinical signs of illness. This is a zoonotic disease that can be transmitted to humans. If someone were to handle the reptile and put their hand into/near their mouth they could infect themselves with Salmonella. Immunocompromised people, infants and young children are the most susceptible to salmonella infection. To prevent the transmission of Salmonella from reptiles to people, one should:

  1. Avoid handling reptiles if immunocompromised as you are at an increased risk of infection.
  2. Always wash your hands thoroughly with a disinfectant soap after handling reptiles or cleaning their cages.
  3. Keep reptiles away from food-preparation areas.
  4. Never eat or put anything in your mouth when working with reptiles.
  5. Keep animals cages clean to minimize disease transmission.
  6. Quarantine any new reptiles away from current reptilian pets.

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