Guide to Common Reptile Health Problems
The information that follows is a guide to the more common reptile health problems. We have tried to include information and advice that will help you with 'non emergency' problems. However, if your reptile is seriously unwell, collapsed, seriously injured or in a state of 'extremis' please do NOT waste time reading here. You need veterinary support beyond any advice we can offer here.
We will not recommend or attempt to prescribe medication in this guide but may suggest basic home or 'over the counter' remedies. We will give advice that works for us but can not take responsibility for outcomes. If in doubt your first port of call should be your vet.
For the non emergency situation you are of course welcome to contact Grinning Gecko & Smirks for advice. You can contact us via our contact page or Facebook Page. If you have purchased a reptile from us, you will have our contact telephone number. You are welcome to ring at anytime for advice. Please leave a message if we dont reply and we will get back to you asap.
Please remember for emergencies you need a vet. Please make sure you have your vets contact details readily available before that dreaded emergency arises.
My reptile wont eat.
One of the most frequent problems people ask us about is that of their reptile refusing to eat, or to give the problem its proper name, anorexia.
There are several reasons for any reptile to become anorexic. Some of the causes of anorexia are easy to fix whilst others require more complex intervention. Thankfully the most common causes are easy to fix.
Many reptiles will go for very long periods without food and come to no harm. They do of course normally need some fluid. It is a good idea to weigh your reptile regularly. A drop of up to 10% in body weight is not normally cause for concern. However a sustained or rapid drop in weight demands urgent investigation.
Here are a few reasons why your reptile might refuse food and the strategies to employ to get it eating again.
Environmental : If a reptile is not eating, the first consideration should always be its environment. A reptile will not eat if the temperature within its enclosure is incorrect. It will be reluctant to eat if it feels insecure or any of the conditions within its environment are wrong. Check every aspect of your reptiles environment. It is easy for a heat mat to fail or a thermostat to go out of range without the owner noticing. Simple correction of the problem often results in the animals appetite quickly returning.
Relocation Stress : When we introduce a reptile to a new enclosure it enters into what is regarded as a period of 'relocation stress'. During this period the reptile will be reluctant to eat. It needs time to adjust and settle into its new environment. Once it is feeling secure it will usually start eating. It does not matter if this is a newly purchased reptile or moving an established reptile into a new enclosure, the solution is the same.
Helping a reptile get over relocation stress is quite simple and the more disciplined you are in regards to keeping to the following regime the more quickly the stress period will pass.
For a new reptile simply pop it into its newly furnished enclosure. For an established reptile transfer some of its old enclosure furnishings into its new home. This will give it familiar scents.
Once the reptile is in its new home, absolutely strict HANDS OFF until the animal is eating. It is tempting, especially with a new reptile,to get it out and begin handling it. To do so will simply prolong the period of relocation stress and the reptiles anorexia.
Do not try to coax or tempt it with food, just offer its normal food and water each evening. You may think you are helping your reptile by wiggling a juicy worm in front of it but you are actually adding to the stress. If you are offering food in a dish, worms for example, watch to see which hiding spot is favored by your reptile and place the dish close to that spot. (For snakes offer food after one week). The quieter the room that the enclosure is in, the less human traffic passing by, the more quickly the reptile will recover from relocation stress. For nocturnal species, a towel draped over half of the front glass of a vivarium can help the occupant feel more secure. Drape it over the side that the animal appears to settle in.
You will know when your reptile is eating when it starts depositing poops in its enclosure. Once you see poops deposited on a regular basis you know that it is eating and its time to start handling it.
Seasonal : In spring, some female reptiles go off their food during periods of ovulation. Again this is of no great significance providing weight is maintained.
Similarly, males often go off their food as their focus is on finding a female to mate. Thankfully in both these instances, hunger eventually takes priority over the desire to reproduce.
Speaking with other keepers and breeders via Internet reptile groups and forums can often provide reassurance at these times. Seasonal anorexia is a common problem faced by many reptile keepers and it often causes a bit of anxiety. A healthy reptile kept in optimal conditions is however unlikely to starve itself.
Parasites : We will discuss parasites further down the page. However internal parasites such as pin worm or hook worm can cause anorexia.
Impaction : Impaction or blockage of the gut is another of the more serious cause of anorexia and is discussed further down the page.
My reptile wont drink and is becoming dehydrated.
This is a slightly less common problem than anorexia but it is vital that it is corrected swiftly. A reptile will succumb to dehydration much more quickly than to anorexia. Even species from the driest of areas need some form of hydration.
The first steps in regards to dealing with a reptile that isn't drinking is of course to check environmental conditions are optimal.
Are you using the correct method for offering your reptile water to drink ? It would be easy,but wrong, to assume that all reptiles will drink from a bowl.
Many species will only drink droplets of water off leaves and cage furnishings. For these a daily (or more frequent depending on species and conditions) spraying will meet their hydration needs. Others will only drink water that is dripping. Some, for example many species of chameleon, will only drink from moving droplets of water. For these the use of a 'drip system' with the droplets falling onto a leaf or branch will often suffice.
Others will drink from a bowl, providing the bowl is in an area where the animal feels secure and the bowl is of a depth suitable for the animal. Obviously caution is needed to ensure that the bowl is of a size and depth so that the animal cant drown.
Is the water quality good for your reptile ? If water is stagnant,contaminated with faeces or dead insects your reptile probably wont want to drink it. Tap water often smells of chlorine which would again put your reptile off drinking. For this reason we recommend the use of filtered water for all reptiles. If you do not have access to a filter then allow the water to stand in an open container for 24 hours before offering it to your reptile. This will ensure any chlorine dissipates before offering it to your reptile.
It is also worth pointing out that a lot of a reptiles fluid requirement is met through its live food. For this reason it is vital that your livefood is hydrated before it is offered to your reptile. Inclusion of moist fruit and vegetables in your 'gut load' will contribute towards ensuring your feeder insects are hydrated.
The dehydrated reptile: A dehydrated reptile is a serious concern and urgent action is needed to rehydrate it.
The eyes of a dehydrated reptile will look dull and sunken, the mouth will appear dry, its skin will feel drier and less elastic than normal. The animal will appear sluggish and lethargic. This is bordering on an emergency situation and if the situation is not corrected swiftly then an emergency veterinary appointment is needed.
If the species will tolerate it, a soak in a bath of warm water for 10 or 15 minutes may provide the hydration needed. This is a typical first aid strategy for larger lizards such as bearded dragons. If this is not practical, as with smaller species, gently spraying short bursts of warm water onto the reptile and surrounding enclosure furnishings may stimulate the animal to lap up water.
Alternatively, a small amount of water dripped onto the snout of the reptile may be lapped up as it trickles down to the crease between the jaws. Be careful to ensure that water does not run into the nostrils.
You can use commercial reptile rehydration products such as Komodo Revitalive if your reptile is clearly dehydrated. There are several such preparations on the market and it is a good idea to keep one of them in your 'reptile first aid' kit. These preparations correct both fluid and electrolyte loss and many include glucose to provide the animal with a source of energy. It is essential that you mix these products exactly as the packaging recommends. A rehydration solution that is under or over concentrated can do more harm than good. Over concentration for example can cause diahorrea which results in further fluid loss and worsening of dehydration.
A dehydrated reptile is a sick reptile. If symptoms or the problem are not swiftly brought under control please seek veterinary advice as a matter of urgency.
My reptile is struggling to shed properly.
This is another problem that is often caused by environmental or husbandry problems. Shedding is a natural occurrence with all reptiles periodically going through a period of shed. In most instances the reptile sheds without intervention from its owner.
Sometimes we don't notice when a reptile is coming into shed. It will often hide away and emerge when the shed is complete. The first the keeper knows of the shed having taken place is their pet looking resplendent in its bright new skin. With most species, prior to shed the skin looses its vibrant colour and takes on a dusty hue. Immediately prior to shed, the layer of skin to be discarded begins to loosen from the skin below.
All reptiles benefit from a little extra humidity at times of shed. This often involves little more than a few extra sprays of the enclosure for species like crested geckos,or a moist hide moved partially onto the heat source for leopard geckos, even a soak in a warm bath for bearded dragons. Your research prior to acquiring your reptile should have provide information on the species normal shedding behaviour and the actions you need to take leading up to a shed.
Unfortunately, even if conditions are perfect, some reptiles have problems at times of shedding. Often the remedies are simple and the problems quickly resolved. Key areas of concern following a shed are the eyes, tips of toes, tips of tail and any areas where stuck shed can constrict blood supply.
A useful product to have in any reptile keepers 'first aid' kit is a bottle of ZooMed Reptile Shedding Aid. This product is available from most reptile shops or online reptile stores. Sprayed directly onto the stuck shed and gently rubbed in, it usually helps the stuck shed melt away. If you do not have access to this product, a smear of pure olive or vegetable oil may help soften and loosen the stuck shed.
For smaller lizards and geckos with shed stuck to their toes it is sometimes possible to pop them into a small tub for a soak and sauna. Place a folded wad of kitchen roll in something like a cricket tub and add warm water till it is slightly higher than the paper. Put the lizard in the tub ensuring the water is not too deep and put on the lid. Place the tub on top of the enclosure heat mat for approximately 15 minutes. The humidity and warm water will loosen any stubborn shed. If you do attempt this method it is very important that you do not leave the reptile unattended. If it appears distressed or in difficulty it is of course vital that it is removed and returned to its enclosure.
For larger lizards and snakes a soak in a warm bath, either a large bowl or tub, will result in stuck shed coming away with ease.
One important consideration with snakes that have shed is ensuring they have not retained eye caps. A snakes eyes are protected from scratches by a layer of skin. As the snake comes up to shed, a fluid is secreted under this protective layer in preparation for peeling away as the skin on the head sheds. It is this fluid that gives a snake its 'blue eyes' as it comes into shed. The eye caps generally peel away as part of the full shed leaving a new protective layer over the eyes. When your snake sheds it is always a good idea to unravel the shed and check that the eye caps have come away. (photo awaited)
If you suspect your snake has retained an eye cap there are methods for remove them. However these should only be attempted if you are confident in handling and restraining your snake for the procedure. For the novice keeper we would recommend that you speak to an experienced snake keeper first. Done correctly, the retained caps can be removed quite easily but done incorrectly, damage to the delicate eye is possible.
Tail Loss ~ Caudal Autotomy
Many species of gecko and lizard have a last resort defence mechanism for distractin a predator. This is the ability to 'drop their tail'. When the reptile feels its life is in imminent danger, it detaches its tail, normally at the base. The detached tail will wriggle and squirm for up to 15 minutes. The hope is that the predator will seize the discarded tail giving its owner the chance to flee. The process of detaching the tail is quite fascinating. It involves the use of powerful muscles, fracture plates at the base of the tail and blood vessels that rapidly constrict ensuring the lizard doesn't bleed to death from the wound left by the dropped tail. Some species can regenerate their tails whereas others are destined to spend the rest of their lives tail-less.
Leopard Geckos are one of the species that is able to regenerate its tail, although the 'regen tail' will never have the same shape as the original. It will still serve its purpose as a fat reserve though. A crested gecko can not regenerate its tail. Cresties without tails are often referred to as 'frog bums'. Interestingly, when cresties were discovered it was thought to be a species of gecko that evolved with out a tail. None of the specimens captured from the wild had tails. !! It was only when bred in captivity that it was discovered cresties do in fact possess tails.
What to do if your gecko drops its tail : Providing the gecko is handled carefully 'tail drop' is not a common occurrence. Most incidents of tail loss are the result of accidental injury, such as the tail caught in a door or aggression from enclosure mates. Obviously encounters with potential or actual predators outside of the geckos enclosure are likely to induce tail drop.
If some unfortunate situation arises and your gecko or lizard drops its tail, the first thing to say is , don't panic. There is actually very little you can do. Check the animal over for any other signs of injury. There should be minimal bleeding from the tail stump and we don't generally recommend applying anything to the wound. The wound will dry up very quickly and within few days you will see the healing process is well underway. Ensure your gecko has optimal conditions within its enclosure. On the rare occasions we have had leopard geckos drop their tail we simply switch to kitchen roll in their moist hide for a few days. For species such as crested geckos, just keep their enclosure clean and keep up with the spraying etc. The most important thing you can do is ensure that the gecko or lizard has the best possible nutrition. It needs this for the wound to heal, for the tail to regenerate and to replenish any fat reserves lost with the tail.
If the animal can regenerate its tail you will soon see the nub of a new tail beginning to show. You will be amazed by how quickly the regeneration process takes place.
Minor Cuts and Grazes.