Trends in the Health and Well-Being of Herps

In the past, it has often been a struggle for the interested herp owner to provide a suitable habitat and correct diet for most pet reptiles. The reason for this is because until recently, a dedicated herp owner had to make do, improvise, scrounge and generally figure out a way to put together a proper habitat with the correct cage furniture, substrate, humidity level and lighting to meet the needs of a specific reptile species. Then, there would often be another quest to ascertain the nutritional needs of the species that the herper was interested in. Once the dietary needs were identified, it became a matter of trying to provide the correct nutrients, in what was hopefully a natural balance, and then convince the creature to consume the diet provided.

But all that is changing now. The nutritional requirements of many commonly kept species have been studied and now commercially prepared diets are available, in canned or dry pelleted forms. In addition to species-specific diets being available, there are now formulations tailored to juveniles and adults, which have different nutritional needs.

New feeding devices are designed to simulate live prey items, thus obviating the need for keeping and offering live insects and invertebrates in some cases. This is a huge step forward for the owner who keeps herps requiring live food.

Habitats and cage equipment are now being designed and offered for sale that meets the specific needs and requirements of the various species (including escape-prevention mechanisms). Methods for heating environments and providing humidity offer an almost infinite variety of options. Lighting has evolved to provide the proper ultraviolet spectrum for optimum calcium utilization.

Trends In Nutrition

New supplements are available in the probiotic group. These supplements provide Acidophilus, Lactobacillus, and Bacillus, or combinations of them. While it is thought that each species of animal has its own specific genus and species of the probiotic organisms, by providing even generalized probiotics, it is thought that the organisms will compete with potentially pathogenic enteric organisms that might cause a dysbiosis (enteritis caused by antibiotics disturbing the normal gut flora). They may not be able to colonize the portions of the gastrointestinal tract permanently, but they probably offer some benefits to the herp that has received antibiotic therapy, to provide "good" bacteria to the gut. Some species, such as the green iguana, Iguana iguana, rely on hind-gut fermentation to help digest the plant material that is consumed as the normal diet. Pet retailers, Kevin and Maryse Mead of, are very happy to offer probiotic preparations for herps.

Great strides have been made in the area of species-specific diets for herps. This is great news for herpers who might sometimes have problems procuring live food on a regular basis for omnivorous and carnivorous reptiles (excluding snakes, which do best consuming whole prey items). There are now commercially available diets for adults and juveniles of several commonly kept species. Diets for bearded dragons, water turtles, box turtles, land tortoises, green iguanas and agamids are thought to be balanced and nutritionally complete, based on the knowledge we have today.

Some arboreal geckos and other gecko species consume a liquid nectar as a portion of the diet, and for these species, several companies now offer a dry powder that can be mixed with water to provide essential nutrients as well as allowing the normal lapping behavior.

Pelleted or canned diets are very convenient to offer to herps, and many bearded dragon breeders have had great success using pellets as the foundation of a balanced diet for both growing juveniles and adults. While many breeders still offer live food (crickets, mealworms, superworms, waxworms and the occasional pinky mouse) and fresh vegetables (and the occasional fruit), on the days when time is running short, it is very convenient to skip the live and fresh foods and just offer pellets occasionally.

There is much excitement about the new canned prey items being offered for sale for herps that normally consume live prey. It is now possible to offer grasshoppers, crickets, silkworms, mealworms, crickets and snails (without the shells) from the convenience of a resealable can. Insects cooked in the can will maintain nutritional value, yet the exoskeleton of the insects is softened, making the insects more digestible. Since canned insects have the same nutritive value as live insects, live insects no longer need to be fed to herps that will consume them.

Since movement is the trigger for many herps to hunt down and capture insects or other live prey, it is necessary to provide a delivery system that will attract herps to the food. Leopard geckos are notorious for not eating if the prey items are not moving. Several types of feeding dishes are now available that are battery-operated and provide high-frequency vibrations that simulate the movement and motion of live insects on a feeding platform. The newest one is remote-controlled so that it can be activated without the need for physically disturbing the herps at feeding time. According to Lia Bryant of Underground Reptiles, the vibrating feeders are great, if you can entice a herp to consume food items off of it. She noted that older models can be difficult to clean and sanitize, as the unit is not submersible, but the newest vibrating feeding dish has a feeding platform that can be removed from the stone for ease of cleaning.

For herps that are still being offered live prey items, new cricket delivery systems are available that look like rocks. Crickets are placed into the central storage area, and they will exit, one at a time, through the strategically placed opening. This simulates a more natural feeding behavior, is easy to clean and it can be used to coat crickets with vitamins, minerals or other supplements. Live mealworms often escape from their feeding dishes and then burrow in the substrate. Newer mealworm feeding dishes prevent the escape of live worms.

Variety of food items is the cornerstone of any good nutritional program for herps, and researchers are constantly on the look-out for new prey items for herps to consume. The newest emerging insect is Hermetia illucens, a fly larva being studied by Dr. Sheppard, a university research entomologist. The larvae, technically maggots of a fly (not the pesky housefly), are available in several sizes, are higher in calcium than other commonly fed feeder insects and are readily accepted by most herps. Often herpers collect insects during the warmer weather in order to provide variety to the diet of their insect-eating herps, and this new fly larva should be a welcome addition to the other commercially available insects.

Two new items are available for herpers to collect native insects from the environment. One contains a fluorescent lights to attract and capture live insects outdoors. Another unique device has a scoop-like handle to facilitate capturing wild insects without the need for handling them. It has a mechanism to easily release captured insects into a herp habitat.

Some herpers have expressed concern recently that live insects could contain parasites and organisms that could prove detrimental to the health of their insect-eating reptiles. Since the newer canned insects are cooked, this process should kill potentially harmful bacteria and parasites, greatly reducing the risks involved with feeding live prey.

According to Michael Massey, owner of Pretty Bird International, new on the horizon are nutraceutical supplements for bearded dragons, green iguanas, aquatic turtles and box turtles. Provided as a powder that can be sprinkled on vegetables, such as lettuce, these supplements will contain protein, fats, vitamins and minerals, and when the vegetables are used as a base, which provides the fiber, this should result in a complete diet for omnivores. The powdered supplements also contain abundant nucleotides and immunoglobulins, which should prove helpful for the immune system.

New, too, are gut loads, according to Massey. A gut load for mice that will be used as prey items is to be fed to the rodent shortly before feeding it to the herp. This gut load will contain concentrated nutrients, nucleotides, immunoglobulins, amino acids, essential fatty acids, enzymes and probiotics, which all should enhance the nutritional value of rodents as prey animals. A similar gut load for insects will be available late this year, as well, according to Massey. The supplement can be used as an edible gut load for insects, and it is provided as an ultra-fine powder that will easily stick to the external surfaces of prey items. They will also offer a nectar-containing powder that can be mixed up as a gruel for nectar-eating geckos, and will be a complete diet.

Foggers, misters and commercial drip systems can all provide water and humidity to creatures that won't drink from a bowl.

Lighting and Heating

There are many options available today to provide a herp with suitable lighting. Fluorescent bulbs can provide high visual light output, as well as UVA, which stimulates appetite, activity and reproductive behavior, and UVB which promotes vitamin D3 synthesis that is necessary for proper calcium metabolism. Light controllers with timers can simulate dusk and dawn effects. Some lights can also be used for heating herp environments and can provide a focal hot spot for basking. Ceramic heat emitters provide infrared heat, with no light emitted, so it cannot disturb normal photoperiods. When it comes to providing heat, substrate heaters, heat strips and heat tapes all can all be utilized, in addition to the heat emitted by the different lights. Heat cables, which are flexible and water-resistant, can be wrapped around branches or cage furniture. While in the past, rocks that had an embedded heat emitter for conductive heat thermoregulation were frowned upon, as the more primitive ones could overheat, resulting in serious thermal burns for herps. Newer units automatically shut off when a certain surface temperature is reached, which prevents burns or hot spots.

One new gizmo that is useful as well as important for the health of herps is the infrared temperature gun. Just point the device at the basking spot or any location in the habitat and get an instant reading of the temperature in either Centigrade or Fahrenheit.

Disinfection and Cleaning

There are new water conditioners, terrarium disinfectants and cage furniture cleaners. Water conditioners remove chlorine and chloramines from tap water, neutralize ammonia and also provide essential electrolytes and ions. Newer disinfectants can both clean and deodorize cage equipment and habitats, as well.

Carbon cage liners containing activated charcoal can remove odors from reptile habitats, and can decrease ammonia vapors, as well. These are disposable and excellent for use in reptile habitats.

Cage Substrates

There are now a myriad of choices of cage substrates for the different species of herps. Calcium carbonate sand, compressed coconut fiber, sphagnum moss and cypress mulch are just a few of the choices. Beddings should contain no toxic resins or oils and should provide the herp with the appropriate substrate for digging, for those species. Coconut fiber can increase humidity in enclosures when moistened.


There is much going on the herp world today regarding species-specific diets, appropriate, escape-proof habitats that are visually pleasing, yet are also a good fit for the herps being housed and methods of keeping habitats clean and disinfected. Today, it is much simpler to provide herps with the appropriate temperature and humidity ranges, with all the heating and lighting equipment to choose from. Food and water delivery systems have also come a long way. All in all, it is much easier for the herp hobbyist and serious breeder to meet all the needs of the species being kept with the advances in equipment available today.

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

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