Keeping Reptiles Newsletter
  Issue 5 Vol 7 June 2011
Signs that Signal Problems or Illness in Reptiles In this Issue

By Roberta A. Avila-Guevara CVT

Reptile keepers make the commitment to provide for their animals. In doing so, they also commit to identifying changes that signal their pet may not be healthy. Reptiles are not like companion animals when it comes to health and disease. What seems like a sudden onset of clinical signs or illness, in reality, takes weeks, months, or even years to develop. This article will focus on key signs that keepers should recognize that signal something is wrong.

Improper Shed

gecko with a poor shedHealthy reptiles maintain a regular shedding cycle that is dependent on their environment. Temperature, humidity, photoperiod, light, and hydration status all play a role in this cycle. The condition of a reptile's skin is contingent on its overall health (1).

In order for keepers to recognize a problem shed, they need to know what a normal one is. Normal will depend on several things including the species of the reptile, its age, type of environment, time of year, and eating patterns. Juveniles will shed more often than adults due to their rapid growth rates. Many reptiles, such as snakes shed in a single piece, while others shed in pieces (1). Keepers should know what is normal for their specific pet.

Anything that affects a reptile's physiological well being affects the shed cycle in a negative way. Improper sheds are a sign of underlying problems. If a pet has an irregular shed, an investigation should take place to find the problem. It can be a disease process, parasites, malnutrition, husbandry mismanagement, stressors, past injuries or scars.

Specific shedding problems that may be seen:

  • Constricting bands: These are pieces of retained skin that if not removed appropriately, will cut off circulation to the toes or ends of tails. It can result in amputation due to lack of blood supply (1)
  • Retained ocular spectacles: Dry eye or impaired vision can result when retained skin remains within one or both eyes. If left untreated, the pet will stop eating due to blindness (1)

Physical Signs

While it may seem that physical signs would be obvious, in many instances they are not. Unless the owner is familiar with what is normal for the pet, some physical signs can go unnoticed. They can range from lameness due to trauma to half-closed eyes signaling illness. Even broken limbs can be disguised so that a reptile can remain incognito in its environment.

Changes in coloration can also indicate stress and illness and in many cases are accompanied with physical signs. Many lizards, such as Bearded Dragons, Green Iguanas, and Anoles, will turn brown or even black when problems are present. Reptile keepers are encouraged to periodically check their pets for physical changes, including scars, bumps, bruises, and swelling.

Behavior Changes

Abnormal behaviors can be associated with pain due to medical problems, or captive induced stress. It is worth mentioning that reptiles hide signs of illness in order to keep predators from finding them (2). Nevertheless, reptile keepers should be able to recognize changes in their pet's behavior. Subtle changes, such as reluctance to posture or decreases in activity, are recognizable by the trained eye or keepers who know their pet's normal behaviors. Other subtle behaviors include hunched posture, elevated extended head, lethargy or restlessness, easily startled, rapid respiration, withdrawal, and avoidance.

When natural behaviors are not understood and addressed, captive reptiles will experience stress that results in elevated cortisol. High levels of cortisol suppress the immune system and thus, lead to disease (2). Behaviors that require high amounts of energy, such as ectothermal behaviors, may decrease considerably. Captivity in general can promote behavior changes that can be detrimental to a pet. Excessive handling of shy species, inter-species cohabitation, companion animals roaming free near the enclosure, and other unnatural issues associated with captivity can induce an array of behavior changes and future problems (3).


iguana with metabolic bone diseaseA pet's lack of appetite has a scroll of potential problems. Many species of reptiles will normally go through periods where they stop eating. For some, such as turtles and some snakes, this is just before they go into hibernation. Ball Pythons are known for being problem feeders, going for months without eating. Seasonal changes can also cause brief periods of anorexia for some reptiles such as Leopard Geckos.

Chronic anorexia however, should prompt an investigation. If left untreated, the pet will become debilitated and eventually die. In the author's experience, most cases are due to dietary and husbandry mismanagement or a combination of both. Incorrect feeding protocols are a primary suspect.

These can include:

  • Wrong food
  • Wrong time
  • Wrong location
  • Lack of variety

Diurnal pets will eat at specific times of the day, usually after they have been basking in the sun for a few hours. Nocturnal reptiles will begin looking for food as soon as day turns into night. While general overviews of reptile care are a good place to start, specific needs of a species must be researched.

Medical conditions can be a causative factor. These include various forms of cancers in the mouth or gastrointestinal tract, foreign bodies and impactions, mouth rot, internal parasites, oral abscesses, or respiratory infections (4). The veterinary healthcare team can treat any of these medical conditions and help clients with inappropriate management practices that may be the root cause of anorexia.

Reptile keepers have a responsibility for the health and well-being of their pets. To do this, they must know what is normal for their pets in order to recognize what is abnormal. Early recognition of potential problems will ultimately influence the outcome of the pet's well-being and overall health in captivity.



  1. Fitzgareld, T., Kevin, DVM and Vera, Rebecca. Dysecdysis. In: Mader, D., DVM, 2nd Eds. Reptile Medicine and Surgery. St. Louis: Elsevier Saunders;
    2006: 778-785.
  2. Mayer, Jorg, and Bays, B., Teresa. Reptile Behavior. In: Bays, B., Teresa;
    Lightfoot, Teresa; and Mayer, Jorg. Exotic Pet Behavior. St. Louis: Elsevier
    Saunders; 2006: 110, 149-154.
  3. Denardo, Dale. Stress in Captive Reptiles. In: Mader, D., DVM, 2nd Eds:
    Reptile Medicine and Surgery. St. Louis: Elsevier Saunders; 2006: 120.
  4. Funk, S., Richard. Anorexia. In: Mader, D., DVM, 2nd Eds. Reptile Medicine
    and Surgery
    . St. Louis: Elsevier Saunders; 2006: 739-741.


Roberta A. Avila-Guevara CVT is a practising Certified Veterinary Technician and has been published in several veterinary technician journals. 

  1. Signs that Signal Problems or Illness in Reptiles
  2. What's For Dinner?: 5 Common Snake Feeding Mistakes You'll Want To Avoid
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What's For Dinner?: 5 Common Snake Feeding Mistakes You'll Want To Avoid


Snakes are some of the most popular and well-loved reptile pets, but learning to care for them is a unique and educational experience for the brand-new reptile lover or pet parent. In particular, feeding your snake can present unexpected challenges, especially for the unprepared. Although much of what you'll learn about caring for your snake is something you'll figure out through trial and error, you'll save you and your snake a great deal of pain and frustration if you simply avoid these common feeding mistakes from the beginning.

1) Schedule Your Feeding Times

In general, the average snake needs to eat approximately once a week. This may vary slightly, depending on the age of your snake, its size, and what type of snake it is. However, in terms of advance planning, being prepared to feed your snake once a week means you'll never find yourself lacking a proper dinner for an angry boa constrictor when he needs it. If you learn through your personal experience that your snake isn't really interested in eating every 7 days on the dot, adjustments can be made. However, making a plan to feed your snake at approximately the same time of day, and even on the same day of the week each week, will help him adjust to a routine. It will also help keep you from hurriedly driving home at 2 AM because you just remembered that you forgot to feed the snake. (Incidentally, snakes can go weeks without eating, if necessary. Yours may be a little cranky if you accidentally skip his weekly feeding, but it can wait until tomorrow.)

Also, many owners allow their snakes to bromate ie cool the cage down and not feed them for a few months. This is dependent upon the snake and the climate where it is normally found. For example Diamond Pythons can be found in quite cool temperate zones and often hibernate or bromate for quite a few months of the year.

2) Feed Your Snake in His Cage

There's a bit of controversy on this one, as there are many pet owners that prefer to move the snake to a separate feeding area for dinner, but the majority seem to fall within the opinion that a snake is happiest and safest in his cage. Snakes are very sensitive to changes in temperature and surroundings, and removing yours from his environment at a time when the snake is naturally excited and overwhelmed, like feeding, may have some implications for you or your snakes feeding habits. Allowing the snake to eat in comfortable surroundings, on his own time, may be best for all concerned. in many cases, where the snake is quite anxious about feeding, removing them may be a safer alternative. Particularly if they are a bit snappy. Another aspect is that when they are removed, they do not associate your presence with only food, but they associate the container you use to feed them in with food.

3) Sticking Your Hand in a Cage Is Not Smart

You may think this one goes without saying, but it doesn't. A majority of incidents involving owners being bitten or attacked by their pet snakes occur when the owner was attempting to improperly feed the snake. There are not many animals that will accept food calmly and non-aggressively from a person's hand, particularly when the hand is invading its home, and the snake is certainly not one of them. A snake hook for handling the snake and tongs for feeding the snake should be standard tools for any reptile parent.

4) Dinner Should Be Served Warm

Like many humans, snakes that have been living in captivity for awhile may begin to grow finicky and demanding about their dinner. In the wild, snakes capture their prey while it's still alive, and eat it immediately. Only when a snake is very hungry and food is in short supply is he likely to resort to dead, cold, unappetizing prey. While some reptile parents solve this problem by feeding the snake live prey, others see this as inhumane, impractical, or just plain icky. If you're one of those that's planning to serve your pet snake a pre-killed, frozen meal, make sure to defrost it first. The most effective way is to drop the frozen prey into warm (not boiling) water, and remove it when the food has defrosted and appears warm and interesting to your snake. In the same way as you wouldn't eat a frozen hamburger right from the freezer, your snake's dinner needs some basic preparation, too. They also do not care if the food gets wet.

5) Schedule Quiet Time after Feeding

After a human finishes a large and satisfying meal, he often feels happy, sedate, and ready for a nap. This, however, is not the case with snakes. After feeding time, your snake's natural predatory instincts have been awakened, and it is safer to keep your distance, lest he mistake you as possible prey. It is not so much that your snake is still hungry, angry, or unhappy with your presence, it's simply that he's still in feeding mode and on alert for anything else that may come his way. Most experts recommend not handling the snake for 48 hours after feeding, which is another winning argument for feeding your snake in his own cage, rather than in a separate feeding tub. It also allows them to begin the digestion process without any stress or intervention.

It is important to remember that, while your snake may be a beloved pet, he is also a wild animal with potential dangerous natural predatory instincts. Exercising extra caution and discretion at feeding time is the best way of ensuring your safety, while also keeping your snake as comfortable and happy as possible.

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