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HEALTH PRECAUTIONS

Prevention is always better than a cure, and you can prevent almost all health problems in your reptile by applying the following principles:

  • An adequate quarantine period
  • Appropriate food
  • A proper environment
  • Sound housecleaning (husbandry)
  • Regular medical checkups

Those are five rules of reptile ownership. If you follow them, you and your pet can live happily together for many years.

Quarantine

Whenever you acquire a new reptile, you must quarantine him from your other pets to prevent the spread of disease. In general, a one-month quarantine period will suffice.

Keep the quarantine tank simple, and make sure it allows for easy observation, feeding, and cleaning:

  • Line the container with newspaper or paper towels so that you can observe your new pet's bowel habits and collect samples for culturing.
  • Provide a heat source and a simple hiding place.
  • Provide species-appropriate food and water.

During the quarantine period, observe your new pet for symptoms such as a runny nose, loose bowels, spots, lumps, bumps, and lethargy. If you see any indication of disease, take him to a veterinarian for a thorough checkup. If all is well after a month, you can introduce your pet to his permanent quarters.

Good Husbandry

Since your reptile may bathe, drink and eat in his water supply, you must take steps to keep his water impeccably clean. Dirty water can cause bacterial skin infections, mouth rot, shell rot and a host of other diseases.

If your pet belongs to a non-aquatic species, he'll need only a small bowl of dechlorinated water (large enough for bathing in, though). A ceramic bowl is ideal. Wash the bowl with soap and water and rinse it thoroughly with dechlorinated water every day before refilling it, and disinfect it with a bleach solution weekly. Also, completely wash terrarium walls and decorations once a week with soap and water. Disinfect them once a month.

For a member of an aquatic or semi-aquatic species, invest in a water filtration system such as an external power filter. In addition, replace 25% of the water every two weeks if your pet is semi-aquatic, and 30% to 60% of the water if your pet is aquatic. Once a month, change the water completely. To simplify water changes, use a water-changing kit that attaches directly to your faucet, eliminating the need to fill buckets and siphon water. If your pet's aquarium contains a substrate, replace the material during regular water changes. Use an under-gravel filter. Be sure to remove your pet from the cage before cleaning, and rinse the cage and accessories thoroughly in dechlorinated water.

Remove feces, food and other debris with a net to prevent decomposition. Rotting food can cause illness. Disinfect tools between uses by soaking them for 30 minutes in a bleach solution and then rinsing thoroughly. (Be sure to remove all traces of bleach, or use an alternative disinfectant made specifically for herp applications.) Never use the same tools in other enclosures - each environment should have its own cleaning equipment.

Environment

An overly humid environment can cause fungal infections; one that is too dry can induce constipation. Inappropriate temperatures are also problematic - if it's too cold, your pet will be lethargic and prone to respiratory infections. If temperature fluctuations are too extreme, he will get stressed. Stress, in turn, lowers immunity and leads to a variety of illnesses, including parasitic infestations.

It is your responsibility as a reptile owner to find out what the best environmental conditions are for your pet. Read the literature on the topic and consult your veterinarian - then make sure you have the right equipment for regulating and monitoring your reptile's environment.

Humidity

The wrong humidity level can cause molting problems, diarrhea, constipation and fungal infections. Fortunately, you can easily adjust the humidity in your reptile's environment. Use a hygrometer to monitor humidity, and make adjustments as needed.

To lower humidity:

  • Reduce the size of your pet's water bowl.
  • Place the bowl in the coolest part of the enclosure.
  • Top the terrarium with a screen.
To raise humidity:
  • Increase the size of the water bowl.
  • Place the bowl in the hottest part of the terrarium.
  • Use a glass terrarium topper.
  • Add plants.
  • Mist daily.
Temperature

Since your reptile depends on the environment to regulate his body temperature, it is vital that you keep his terrarium at the proper temperature. Most reptiles thrive at temperatures between 78 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, you must provide both warm and cool spots where your reptile can "thermoregulate" (change his body temperature as needed). Poor temperature control can cause colds and stress.

To heat land areas of your herp's enclosure, you might want to try a ceramic infrared heat emitter. You can heat water areas with an undertank heater, lighting or a water heater such as a submersible heater that's placed where your pet can't come into contact with it and get burned.

Generally, you will need two thermometers: If you have a semi-aquatic reptile, you will use one thermometer to measure temperature in the dry-land area and one to monitor water temperature. If your pet is non-aquatic, you will need to monitor temperatures in both basking and non-basking areas.

Lighting

Diurnal reptiles need ultraviolet light to remain healthy. Without it, they will suffer from vitamin D deficiency, which can soften bones or cause shell deformities. To provide artificial sunlight, use a fluorescent lamp that omits light rays in the 290 to 320 nanometer (nm) range (UVB).

Diet

Ask your veterinarian what you should feed your reptile. An incorrect diet - or one lacking variety - can cause vitamin deficiency diseases such as softening of the bones, loss of teeth, swollen or damaged eyes, skin infections, digestive problems, loss of color and limb paralysis. Vitamin supplements are probably a good idea, but use them only under the guidance of your veterinarian. Excess vitamins can cause internal bleeding, bone overgrowth and circulation problems.

Don't overfeed your reptile. Overeating can cause liver, heart and kidney problems. Ask your veterinarian about instituting fasting days. To prevent obesity, weigh your reptile regularly and record the results, and then make the necessary adjustments.

Veterinary Care

Annual veterinary exams are a wise precaution. Find a veterinarian who has a sizeable herp practice and significant reptile experience. During the exam, the vet will assess your pet's overall health and check his stool for parasites - regular fecal exams are important since they can uncover problems before they become serious.