Choosing a Herp Vet

When it comes to reptile and amphibian veterinarians, not all vets are created equal. Herp medicine has come a long way over the last fifteen years. When I attended veterinary school in the late '70's, early 80's (okay, I am dating myself!) I was able to take one elective course in herp medicine during my senior year. I also tried to pick up cases related to herps during my small animal rotations. That was the extent of my herp training. Once I graduated from vet school, and my interest in herp medicine continued, I found myself searching out ways to learn more about husbandry and medicine. I began attending local herp organization meetings and I began working with a herp importer and also a facility that bred large tortoises and iguanas. I was up-front with everyone that I was fairly new to reptile medicine, but I was willing to learn, and I promised that I would never make wild guesses; I would research and network before performing a procedure or recommending a treatment that was new to me. Then I began attending continuing education courses for vets on topics in herp medicine. I joined the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians when it was formed. I also began writing up interesting cases that I had seen for the Journal of Small Exotic Animal Medicine (a c-section in a cyclura, abscess surgery in an adult Galapagos Tortoise, a fungal skin disease in imported baby green iguanas). I actively pursued herp veterinary medical continuing education courses and attended as many conferences as I could.

Eventually, I realized that to be really good at herp medicine, I needed first-hand experience with them. So, I became the proud owner of some rock iguanas, green iguanas, leopard tortoises, Spur-thighed tortoises, pythons and milk snakes. I bred them all in due time. I still maintain a breeding group of green iguanas and tortoises. I have a pet Argentine horned frog that I have owned for over eight years. I truly feel that to be able to advise herp owners, it is best to have actually had some hands-on experience as an owner and breeder.

Most dedicated herp vets do much more than just read about, attend herp continuing education and treat herps. Most will have some as pets and may be active in breeding some species, as well. It takes dedication and perseverance to learn the nuances of herp medicine. While the general principles of veterinary medicine will serve as an excellent base to build upon, the multitude of variations in anatomy, physiology, theriogenology, nutrition and husbandry found among the different reptiles and amphibians requires a whole new body of information. Many vets that currently treat herps will have traveled down a path similar to the one I described for my own herpetological journey.

When choosing a veterinarian to care for your herps, whether you are a pet owner, hobbyist or professional breeder, it is important to find a herp vet who is knowledgeable about the species that you maintain, who has an enthusiasm for herp medicine and has the proper skills and equipment to properly treat your animals. While not every herp veterinarian will be a herp owner and breeder, it is important that you are comfortable with the level of competence demonstrated.

Let's go through some points to help you choose a herp vet that will be best able to meet your needs.

Find A Herp Vet Before You Have An Emergency

There are several reliable ways to seek out a good herp veterinarian. The first way is to network with other herpers at local meetings and at herp expos. Ask other breeders and hobbyists which veterinarians they recommend and use. Once you get a few names, I would recommend that you call their offices and request a tour and a chance to meet the herp vets at their clinic. Most veterinarians welcome a chance to show off their office and would be happy to schedule time for a short interview.

Some questions you might want to ask include:

  1. What is your experience level with herps?
  2. How many herps do you see on an average per week?
  3. How many vets in your practice will see herps? (If only one or a few vets see herps, what happens if one gets sick on the herp vets days off?)
  4. Who covers emergencies? (If they refer emergencies to a local after-hours clinic, are the emergency vets competent in herp medicine?)
  5. Are you a member of the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians?
  6. Have you written or published anything related to herp medicine or husbandry? (Of course, this is not a prerequisite for being a good herp vet, but it does show involvement and commitment to herp education.)
  7. What continuing education courses related to herps have you attended and how often do you attend?
  8. Are you comfortable performing the necessary diagnostics, treatments and surgical procedures on the species of herps that I own?

Communication is Vital

Even if the potential herp vet has an experience level that you are comfortable with, I think that it is vital that you establish a rapport with the vet you are entrusting your animals with. This means that if you just don't "click" or you have trouble communicating with this person, you may wish to keep looking. If you feel that the vet talks down to you or uses scientific terms that you are unfamiliar with, then you might have problems down the road. Good communication skills are vital for any relationship, so don't overlook their importance.

The Initial Hospital Visit

When you visit a hospital during the tour, pay attention to the cleanliness of the facility. Is there a separate room for hospitalized herps? Does the vet have proper caging to adequately and securely house a hospitalized herp? Can the facility supply the correct environment for a herp (heat, humidity, soaking/swimming, basking, security, diet)? Does the clinic have equipment to monitor heat and humidity of hospitalized animals? Does the clinic have the basic equipment necessary to properly treat, diagnose, feed and probe herps?

Other Ways to Find A Herp Vet

A second way to find a competent herp vet is by asking local breeders and pet retailers who they use as a herp vet. A third way to find a herp vet is to call two or three small animal veterinarians who do not treat herps and ask them who they refer herp patients to. Vets often know a bit about the skills of their colleagues, so by asking a few vets who don't treat herps (and therefore aren't in competition with these vets), they will often steer you to vets they respect and feel are competent. Once you get some names, you can then go through the same interview and tour process.

It should be noted that, at this time, no veterinarian may properly call him or herself a herp specialist. The term specialist is reserved for those veterinarians who have taken and passed an examination given by a recognized veterinary board. There is no board exam for reptile and amphibian medicine exclusively, although one is likely in the future. So, while a veterinarian may be an excellent herp vet, their staff should indicate that he or she has a professional interest in herp medicine or has a practice limited to herp medicine, and not call their vet a herp specialist. The terminology allowed by the American Veterinary Medical Association has been precisely defined so that the pet owning public will not be intentionally misled.

Experience Isn't Everything

While an experienced herp vet is a wonderful person to have as your vet, not every herp owner is able to easily use one. Keep in mind that there are many young vets out there who may be short on skill and experience, but make up for it with their interest and enthusiasm. Remember, we all had to start somewhere. If I didn't have a few breeders and pet stores who were willing to take a chance on me, it sure would have been slow going to learn herp medicine. If you have found a vet who is willing and eager to learn new procedures and is interested in advancing their skills, then you are half way there. Most veterinary schools offer much more training in herps and exotics than back in the days when I attended vet school, so younger vets should have a better depth of knowledge regarding herp medicine.

There are many resources available to interested vets. For example, vets who attend continuing education conferences will meet other interested vets whom they may contact for help. Lecturers often will be able to help new vets, as well. Networking is a great way to share experiences and information.

A few national veterinary labs offer consultations with experienced herp vets. For example, if a vet draws blood on a green iguana and isn't sure if the values are normal, or needs help on the tests interpretation, he or she can call the lab and set up a consultation with one of their staff veterinary consultants. The consultants are also available to answer general questions regarding husbandry, diet, reproduction, surgical procedures, treatments, drug dosages and diagnostic plans. So a young vet who uses such a lab will never be alone, and will always have access to an experienced vet who can offer helpful suggestions. This can really be valuable to a vet short on practical experience, as well as for the seasoned practitioner who is involved with a difficult case.

If you have decided to work with an inexperienced vet, it is very likely that you will know more about husbandry and breeding than he or she does. Be willing to share that knowledge without being condescending. You might even offer to give your vet a few surplus herps that you have bred. Certainly, offer any herps that have died, so that your vet can use them to perform necropsies (animal autopsies) in case he or she is interested in learning more about anatomy and pathology.

If you are active in a local herp society, invite your vet to join you for a meeting, and make a point of introducing him or her to the other club members. If possible, arrange to have your new vet give a lecture on a herp topic or some interesting case reports. Encourage your vet to submit articles regarding herp husbandry or medicine to your herp society newsletter.

Respect Your Vet's Medical Knowledge

While you may feel that you know more about your herps than your vet does, respect the fact that your vet has, on the average, eight years of college education, including anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, histopathology, parasitology, dermatology and a whole bunch of other ologies, too. If you have read some of the fine herp medical textbooks out there regarding your herp's suspected problem, you may have a good idea about what is ailing your herp. However, it is not a good idea to call your vet asking for whatever medication you feel will best treat the condition. For one thing, it is illegal for a veterinarian to prescribe a medication for an animal without first performing a physical examination on it. (This is called a doctor/client/patient relationship, and without one, a vet can get into serious trouble for prescribing medications). And while you may think you know what medication would be best to treat your sick herp, at least allow your vet to examine and evaluate your herp. Lab tests or the results of the physical exam might result in a different diagnosis or might suggest that a different course of treatment is indicated. So, please give your vet the benefit of the doubt and allow her to do her job, which is a lot more than just doling out antibiotics.

Invest in Your Herps' Health

While it may seem unnecessary to have check-ups and lab testing performed on herps you consider healthy, consider it an investment in their health. Ask your vet how often your herps should be examined, and then follow through with your appointments.

All newly acquired herps should be quarantined upon arrival to your home or facility. You should discuss quarantine with your vet, and follow the recommendations for how long to keep them isolated from your other herps. Your vet will also give you an idea of what testing should be performed on new herps.

You will not foster a positive relationship with your herp vet if you only show up, without an appointment, on a Friday afternoon or Saturday morning, with a very sick herp that you have known was ill since Monday. It is not a good idea to attempt home remedies, over-the-counter medications or medication prescribed for another animal when you have a sick herp. The delay in seeking veterinary help may make the difference between life and death. Also, if inappropriate medications are used, it may mask symptoms or may render certain lab tests inaccurate.

If your vet recommends a specific course of therapy, be sure to follow the directions for treatment, and give it for the prescribed length of time. If you feel that you won't be able to do the treatments, be sure and tell your vet. Often, alternative methods of administration of some medications can be chosen. If your vet recommends a recheck, this is important, as well. Often, periodic evaluation of your herp's progress is vital to ensure that the correct treatment is being administered. By skipping rechecks, your herp may be subject to relapse. Make appointments and keep them, unless you have a valid reason to cancel or reschedule. If you must cancel an appointment, make sure that you call the office so that your time slot can be reassigned. Don't just be a no-show.

Owning Herps Requires a Commitment of Time and Money

Be up front with your vet if he or she recommends diagnostics that you cannot afford. Veterinary medicine is not cheap, but an ethical vet will only recommend what is felt to be necessary for proper diagnosis and treatment. Other tests may be necessary to evaluate your herp's progress. But keep in mind that you should only own the number of herps that you are able to care for from a financial standpoint, as well as from a husbandry standpoint. So often, a new herper tends to acquire a lot of herps in a hurry, and then finds himself financially strapped and unable to afford necessary routine veterinary care. It will be impossible for your herp vet to manage your collection on other than a crisis to crisis basis unless you allow your vet to perform routine care for your herps.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Working with a herp vet will require honesty and trust by both parties. If you don't understand a diagnosis, or are unsure about the treatment prescribed, be sure to speak up and ask your vet to clarify. A good vet won't mind taking the time to explain a disease process or the rationale behind a treatment plan. If you don't feel that you can do what's asked of you, make sure you tell your vet this. And as I already touched upon, always discuss fees ahead of time and if you are concerned about the price of diagnostics or treatment, it is always best to bring this out in the open before a misunderstanding occurs. If you have any concerns regarding your pet's veterinary care, your vet will appreciated your being forthright about it.

If you are happy with your veterinarian, tell him or her, but better yet, tell your friends. Your veterinarian will appreciate the confidence you show in his care by referring your friends and associates to their office.

As a herper, it is valuable to learn and use the scientific names of your herps, as often there may be several common names for the same reptile. You should be knowledgeable about the place of origin of your herps and their natural history. By using the scientific names, there should be no confusion about the actual identification of a specific herp. Your herp vet should also learn the scientific names of herps, and you can be of assistance by providing her with the correct names when they are presented for examination.

As a final point, although you might be uncomfortable by questions regarding diet and husbandry posed by your herp vet, it will be impossible for your vet to provide correct care if you are less than truthful. If you haven't been motivated to gut load crickets before feeding your lizards, it will do you no good to tell a white lie about it. Fess up. Your vet isn't here to judge you, but to do the best job possible in diagnosing your herp's problems. And if your husbandry practices are part of the problem, so be it. If you haven't replaced your full-spectrum lighting in two years, be sure to tell your vet. In some cases, you may not be aware of special requirements for your herp, and although this might be embarrassing, it is still better to be honest. Of course, it is hoped that you will research the requirements of any new herp prior to you bringing it home, but that is not always the case. Sometimes, you may have been given erroneous information regarding a herp's care, and your vet can help you by providing the correct husbandry and diet info. So, while you might not be comfortable with some of your answers to your vet's questions, it is best to always be truthful. You and your herps will benefit in the long run.


Working with a herp vet is a two way street. A veterinarian who works on herps has invested a large amount of time, effort and money into tailoring the practice to treat herps. Respect the dedication of your vet to herp medicine, and don't ask her to compromise her abilities by asking her to prescribe without diagnosing. Your herp vet should not be used solely for emergencies, and while the occasional emergency is inevitable, get into the habit of practicing preventative medicine by having your herp vet periodically examine your animals. Your vet will respect you if you research your herps prior to purchasing them and take the best care of them that you are able. Don't overextend yourself financially, don't overcrowd your charges and don't overtax your time, or you won't enjoy your herps. As with any relationship, communication is the key to a healthy working relationship with your herp vet. As long as you keep the lines of communication open, you and your vet should be able to tackle any problems you encounter.

Copyright 2006 Margaret A. Wissman, D.V.M., D.A.B.V.P.
All Rights Reserved

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