Is That Normal?

Your pet three-year-old male green iguana has recently demonstrated behavioral changes. When you enter his room, he raises his body up and begins bobbing his head up and down, occasionally hissing and shaking his head. This is new to you. Is this normal, and if so, why has this just begun now? Could this be a sign of disease or that he is in pain? After having him examined and tested by your herp vet, and explaining what you have seen, you and your vet come to the conclusion that your male iguana is displaying territoriality. You learn that this behavior can be a prelude to serious aggression and possible attacks on humans he perceives as a threat. Seasonal aggression occurs in wild large male iguanas during breeding season (often during the fall-winter). He may patrol his territory, in search of intruding males and receptive females. It has been noted that mature males seem to recognize certain other male iguanas from a distance. The territorial male may then run and jump at maximum speed toward the intruder. This is a very similar behavior to that seen with captive iguanas that have flown across the room to attack an owner. Male iguanas have also been known to attack female owners during their menstrual cycle.

Often, with reptiles and amphibians it is hard to know if what you see with them is a sign of illness, normal variation, or behavioral changes that might be seen with maturity.

Bearded dragons will often gape when they are basking and have reached their optimal temperature. This is a normal behavior and is not a sign of respiratory distress or infection.

Green iguanas often sneeze a liquid that leaves a whitish substance on aquarium glass or objects in the cage. Iguanas have a gland that removes excessive salt from the system, which is then sneezed out. This sneezing is normal and serves a useful function.

Young, rapidly growing green iguanas may develop the appearance of muscle-bound limbs. Is this the sign of a healthy iguana? No. If a young iguana develops swollen limbs, this is often a sign of metabolic bone disease, also called nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism. This usually occurs when iguanas are not exposed to full-spectrum fluorescent lighting (replaced every six months) or natural sunlight (not filtered through glass or plastic) and their diet is deficient in calcium. As the bones get weaker, the body lays down fibrous connective tissue to try and support the weak bones. This gives the iguana a muscle-bound appearance. At this stage of the disease, the jaw may appear rubbery and it is possible for the limbs to fracture easily. The spine, ribs and tail may also become deformed from the iguana's own weight. While most commonly seen in rapidly growing green iguanas, other herps are not immune to this disease. It can also be seen more commonly in other lizards, turtles and tortoises. It is not usually seen in snakes, which usually consume whole prey, thus utilizing bones for the calcium so necessary for growth. Signs of metabolic bone disease should always be evaluated by your herp vet.

Shells (most often the carapace, the top shell) of turtles may grow to appear very dissimilar to those seen in textbooks and atlases. Is that just a normal variation to shells? The answer is usually no. Shells that grow in patterns and shapes that vary from "normal" usually are physical evidence of an inappropriate diet causing shell deformities. Many shells will grow with excessive pyramidal growth, usually evidence of too much protein in the diet, metabolic bone disease, too rapid growth (due to over-nutrition), vitamin or mineral excess or deficiency, or perhaps species predilection. These problems should be evaluated by your herp vet.

Water turtles may shed scutes. Is this normal? It can be! Water turtles may flake off portions or whole scutes, especially if the shell dries out if the turtle is out of water for a while. However, terrestrial tortoises usually shed their scutes with bacterial or fungal infection, usually precipitated by a too moist environment or from fluid build-up due to kidney failure. If this occurs, have your turtle or tortoise examined by your herp vet.

Sometimes a turtle or tortoise may show swellings in the areas over the ears. Is this normal? No. This is usually a sign of ear infections. Middle ear abscesses cause the skin, which is usually slightly concave over the ear, to bulge outwards. This usually requires surgery by your herp vet to remove the abscess and antibiotics to treat the infection. While we're on the subject of swellings, what about swollen eyes/eyelids in turtles or tortoises? These can be abscesses secondary to hypovitaminosis A (too little vitamin A in the diet). This results in blepharitis or blepharoedema and cellular debris collecting under the eyelids. Some chelonians also develop respiratory signs that may progress into pneumonia, secondary to vitamin A deficiency. Treatment of swollen eyelids requires a veterinarian to gently remove the accumulated debris from under the eyelids, as well as treating any secondary pneumonia with appropriate antibiotics (if necessary). The herp vet will also probably carefully administer an injection of a calculated dose of vitamin A once a week for two to six weeks, and then the diet must be adjusted to include appropriate amounts of vitamin A. It must be emphasized that it is possible to overdose a herp with injectable or oral vitamin A, resulting in the sloughing of large amounts of skin, so dosing this vitamin should only be administered by a qualified herp veterinarian.

We know that snakes and lizards shed their skin as they grow, but is it normal for a turtle or tortoise to shed, as well? While chelonians do shed their skin, it usually occurs in pieces, and not in an entire shed skin all at one time, as snakes do. However, it is abnormal for a chelonian to slough a full thickness layer of skin at one time. This may occur after an injection of vitamin A, as previously discussed, or with bacterial infection, a burn, or trauma.

Is it normal for a snake to not want to eat and to not be able to see very well when it is getting ready to shed? (This condition is also called in the blue or opaque). Yes, a snake will usually not want to eat when it is getting ready to shed. It usually takes about 7-14 days for a snake to shed once it first shows signs (dulling of the skin, eyes turning bluish-white). Next, there will be a three to four day period when the skin looks shiny instead of dull and the eyes clear. The snake will begin seeking out rough objects that it can rub against to begin the shedding process. During the time a snake is getting ready to shed (called ecdysis), its vision is markedly impaired, and it may therefore strike out inappropriately. The underlying skin is not fully developed at that time, and rough handling may cause damage to the skin. Once a healthy snake rubs the skin of the nose and lower jaw loose, and snags the skin on an object in the cage, it will crawl through its skin, turning it inside out. A healthy snake will usually shed its whole skin in one piece. An improper shed, called dysecdysis, is not a disease of itself, but rather a symptom of some other problem (usually due to improper husbandry or management). Soaking the snake in tepid water will usually help it shed off patches of retained skin. If the spectacle (covering the eye) does not come off during the shed, it is called a retained eye cap. These can be removed by your herp vet.

A single pet female green iguana won't normally develop eggs. True or false? Unfortunately, a healthy single female that is sexually mature (usually between two and three years of age) may ovulate and develop a clutch of eggs inside of her. It is normal for a gravid (pregnant, with eggs in the oviducts) female iguana to stop feeding, or only eat a fraction of the normal amount of food while she has a belly-ful of eggs. Unfortunately, many gravid iguanas won't successfully lay their eggs due to not having a proper place to do so. Gravid females will be stimulated to lay (oviposit) their eggs if they have an appropriate location and substrate to dig in. A female may retain her eggs, unwilling or unable to lay. If possible, providing a female with sand and potting soil in a large box indoors, or an outdoor screened-in enclosure (with the wire buried at least 18 inches down into the ground) if the weather is appropriately warm and humid, may induce a female to successfully lay her eggs. Knowing when to seek veterinary assistance may make the difference between life and death. A healthy gravid female iguana, while not usually eating, will be active and alert. If her eggs are retained too long, she will rapidly become depressed. If this occurs, it is time to immediately seek veterinary help. If a female begins digging in carpeting or at a windowsill, and lays one or more eggs, then stops for 48 hours, she should be taken to a herp vet for treatment. Some herps will lay eggs over a 48 hr. period, but if two days go by and she doesn't finish the job, then most likely, she won't. Snakes and chelonians can also suffer from dystocia (retained eggs or fetuses).

Is it normal for green iguanas to consume crickets, mealworms or waxworms? While all reptiles require protein in the diet, when it comes to green iguanas, all of their protein should come from plant sources, and not from live insects, dog food, cat food or monkey biscuits. Green iguanas are true vegetarians, in the wild, consuming almost exclusively plant material. It is possible for them to ingest the occasional bugs that are inside of flowers, but those insects would make up just a tiny percentage of the actual diet. The safest and healthiest diet for a green iguana is one composed of vegetation (primarily dark green leafies) and a small amount of certain fruits. Feeding a green iguana the occasional insect will probably not hurt it, but dog food, cat food and monkey biscuits can be very dangerous in the long run.

Is it normal for a herp vet to recommend blood tests, fecal parasite exams, radiographs (x-rays) and other tests during routine examination? Yes. While a physical exam will provide a vet with a certain amount of information, without the benefit of specific tests, it may be difficult or impossible to properly diagnose a pet or breeder reptile.

Is it normal for a vet to recommend vitamin or mineral supplements for pet reptiles? Yes, especially for herbivorous ones. Many vegetarian diets are deficient in calcium and contain excess phosphorus. This can result in metabolic bone disease.

Is it normal for a herp vet to recommend sunlight, unfiltered by glass, tight screening or plastic, even if the herp has a full-spectrum fluorescent light that is changed every six months? Yes! While full-spectrum lighting will provide a herp with the ultraviolet light necessary for the conversion of the active form of vitamin D, so necessary for proper calcium metabolism, most vets agree that nothing beats good-old natural sunlight. If it is at all possible, taking a herp outdoors for at least an hour of natural sunlight per week, is always beneficial. Of course, be careful that the herp has adequate shade and water when outside, and make sure that it is in an escape-proof cage. Harnesses have been designed for tame, calm green iguanas so that they can be "walked" outdoors on a leash. Remember that it is normal for an iguana that gets warmed up to basking temperatures may suddenly become very active, prone to whipping its tail, or scampering away up a tree!

Is it normal for the penis of a chelonian or the hemipenes of a snake or lizard to protrude from the base of the tail for extended periods of time? No. This is called paraphimosis. If this is noticed in your pet or breeder, you should have it evaluated by your herp vet as soon as possible. Turtles and tortoises possess a single copulatory organ, the penis, usually colored deep purple to black and fleshy. Snakes and lizards possess paired hemipenes, however only one hemipenis is used at one time during copulation. Neither the penis, nor the hemipenes, contains a urethra, and they are not used for urination. There are many causes of paraphimosis. Anesthesia or sedation is necessary for the herp vet to properly clean and replace the prolapsed organ. The organ is usually sutured in place, with the sutures being removed in approximately two weeks. If the organ is severely damaged, or repeatedly prolapses, it might need to be amputated, which will not affect urination. If one hemipenis of a snake or lizard is removed, it will not affect reproduction, as long as the other hemipenis is functional. However, amputation of the solitary prolapsed penis of a turtle or tortoise will effectively preclude copulation and reproduction.

It is normal for a nervous or hot snake to mouth breathe. No! While some lizards will normally gape or mouth breathe, this is always a serious sign of respiratory disease in snakes. If a snake is mouth breathing and holding the head up, gasping for air, this is a clear sign that the snake needs to be seen immediately by a herp vet. Evaluation may include blood tests, radiographs (x-rays), a culture from the trachea, a tracheal wash for culture and cytology, a fecal parasite exam or other tests. Treatment may include antibiotic therapy, deworming or nebulization therapy. Nebulization utilizes a compressor that will aerosolize antibiotic and sterile saline to small molecular sized particles that can be inhaled into the smallest portions of airways of the respiratory tract. This is much different from a vaporizer or humidifier that produces much larger particles.

Bladder stones can occur in green iguanas and tortoises. Is that a normal occurrence? No. Stones are most common in desert tortoises and green iguanas. These species possess a urinary bladder. Diagnosis can be made by careful palpation and by radiographs. Herps may be asymptomatic or may suffer from anorexia, lethargy, constipation or with tortoises, weakness of the rear legs. Surgery should be performed to remove bladder stones. If possible, dietary changes should be made (take the advice of your herp vet) based on the composition of the stones.

Some protozoans and intestinal worms can be found in normal, healthy herps. While this is true, increased numbers of these parasites can cause disease, especially under crowded conditions. This is especially true in turtles and tortoises. Pinworms (a type of ascarids) are thought by some to be harmless in green iguanas, but other vets recommend removal with dewormers. Other types of parasites found in herps should be removed by deworming with appropriate medications, as prescribed by your herp vet.

Is it normal to observe waxy plugs in the cloaca of male green iguanas? Yes, hemipenal waxy casts can be seen protruding from the cloaca in sexually mature males. Often the casts can be palpated in the cloaca if they are not protruding. They can be carefully extracted by a herp vet who will evert the hemipenes and remove them.

It can be normal for snakes to not eat for long periods of time and not be sick. Not eating is technically called anorexia. Anorexia is not a disease, but can be a symptom of a disease. To decide if a snake is truly anorexic, one must know the normal feeding patterns of the different snakes. Sedentary captive snakes often eat less often than wild snakes that must hunt for their food. Juvenile and adult snakes often eat once or twice a week. Hatchlings should be fed several times per week. Breeding females should also be fed several times per week, however, once they become gravid or pregnant, the females may then cease eating. Large boas and pythons that eat large prey such as rabbits, may only eat every 4-6 weeks. If a feeding pattern changes, this can be considered anorexia. Most often, anorexia is related to husbandry problems (environmental temperature, frequent handling, feeding practices, lack of hide-box, different prey items offered, shedding, decreased photoperiod, mites, or other snakes in the cage). Anorexia can also be related to certain infections or parasites. Anorexia can also be simply feeding a pet snake at the wrong time of the day. For example, ball pythons normally eat at night. They are generally shy snakes, and may not feed if they are disturbed at night when prey has been placed in their cage. Colubrids may not feed from August through the winter, and may not eat again until spring, if they are among the temperate species. Shorter day length, and not temperature, seems to be the cause for not feeding in these cases.

Is regurgitation normal in snakes? It can commonly occur in boas and pythons, and is usually a symptom of other disease or husbandry problems. The most common cause of regurgitation is handling a snake too soon after feeding. Parasites, especially protozoans, can cause regurgitation, as can suboptimal temperature, too large a meal, infections, foreign body or organ system failure. Regurgitating snakes should be evaluated by a herp vet who will take a thorough history and perform necessary tests to determine the cause.

Is it normal for a herp vet to request that you purchase several accurate thermometers, possibly with hygrometer (to measure humidity) for your herp cages? Yes. Reptiles all do best when kept within their preferred optimal temperature zone (POTZ). Typically, herps may bask or move around the environment to acquire the correct temperature for feeding and digestion. To keep herps healthy, a habitat must have a range of temperatures, with a gradient. There should also be differences between day and night temperatures, for most species. It is important to know the POTZ for the species that you keep, and if there should be a change in temperatures between day and night. Some species require a basking light, but it must be placed so that the herp cannot be burned by the light.

Is it normal for a herp vet to request that you quarantine all new herps for a period of time (usually one to two months) prior to placing them in with your collection? Yes, and during this time, the reptiles should be checked for anything that does not appear normal. If problems are observed, quarantine should be extended until the problems are corrected. Fecals should be performed weekly, ideally, while in quarantine. Reptiles from different parts of the world should not be housed in the same habitat to prevent exposure to different bacteria or protozoa that can cause infection.

From this paper, it should be obvious that it is best to specialize in one or a few species so that you can best learn about their habitats, POTZ, diets, habits and behaviors. This way, you will learn what is normal for those species that you keep. It is always best to research about the species that you are interested in so that you can prepare the environment ahead of time. In some cases, the research may show that you may not have the time or ability to provide the necessary specialized care for a particular species. And of course, by keeping just one or a few species, you will most likely learn what's normal for them. But, if you question if something that your pet or breeder herp is normal or not, it is always best to seek the advice and help from your herp veterinarian or from others that keep the same species that you own.

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

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