What To Do If Your Pet Reptile Is Sick

Reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates are masters of hiding any injuries and illnesses they may have. This is an important adaptation to keep them safe from predators in the wild that will prey on weak or sick animals. As important as that is in the wild, it can cause some frustrating predicaments for people who keep these animals as pets. Often, by the time you notice a problem or unusual behavior with your pet, its illness has progressed to a point of potential detriment. With these animals being so good at hiding their illnesses, how do you catch it early and what do you do when you do notice it!? Let’s discuss some early warning signs that something may be wrong and what you can do.

Even When They're Healthy, Keep Track Of Their Behavior

As a caretaker, the first thing that needs to happen is seeing the signs that your pet is sick.  This will most likely be by seeing differences in their behavior.  These can be very subtle, but most of the time they are noticeable if you pay attention.  Keeping records can help you track changes in behaviors.  Have a small notepad near your pet’s habitat and note when it eats and how much, when it sheds or uses the bathroom, the temperatures within the habitat, any habits they have or any odd things you may notice like sleeping more often that usual.  By creating this baseline while your pet is healthy, it will be easier to notice subtle differences in behavior.   Now, let’s focus on some early signs that something is wrong: 

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 Change in Behavior

As predators and prey in the wild, these animals are highly alert and inquisitive when it comes to their surroundings. You have probably noticed your pet sees you come into the room and watches you as you walk through or spend time exploring its enclosure and smelling every nook for the 200th time that week. This is normal active and healthy behavior, though for nocturnal species you’ll see this at night.  If your pet begins to slow down and spend most of it’s time laying around or sleeping, it’s not smelling or tongue flicking its surroundings, or it stops interacting with your or it’s environment, this is a big red flag that something is wrong. If this happens in the Fall start tracking your pets weight incase it’s experiencing brumation due to the weather change.  During other times of the year this behavior warrants a veterinary visit. Many things can cause lethargy and inattentive behaviors and nearly all of them will need veterinary medical assistance to correct the problem.

Eating Habits Decrease

The most obvious, and usually the first sign that your pet is feeling under the weather, is refusing to eat.  When an animal refuses its regular food, this is your first indication that something has changed.  This doesn’t mean your pet is sick, but a change in its environment or health has caused it to stop eating.  For the tropical species we keep, it’s usually a change in the weather around us that stimulates brumation behaviors during the winter months.  During this time, your pet reptile or amphibian will slow down or stop eating completely, become lethargic, and spend much of its time hiding and sleeping.  This is completely normal and not something to worry about as long as your pet continues to keep its body weight at a normal range.  If this behavior begins to happen in the Fall, make sure to weigh your pet and note it as soon as you can.  This way you can track if it loses weight.  If it loses more than 15% of it’s body weight, it’s time to head in to see your local exotic specialty veterinarian.  Please note that this brumation behavior may continue into the Spring.  Other reasons for ceasing to eat can be gastrointestinal blockage, parasitic infection, and pregnancy.  By tracking the weight loss and feeding, you’ll catch these issues faster and can schedule a veterinary appointment.

Pay Attention To Poop Frequency and Consistency

While keeping track of your pet’s bathroom habits may seem a bit odd, it really does help identify a potential problem. Changes in the frequency, complete failure to defecate at all, and changes in consistency and color can be warning signs that something is wrong.  Before getting too worried about frequency, note that temperature can have an impact on your pet’s metabolism which will affect how often they go to the bathroom.  When looking at the frequency, if temperatures and feeding habits haven’t changed, then it should be fairly consistent within a few days difference for most animals.  Snakes should use the bathroom within 2 weeks of eating. If it’s taking your pet twice as long to go to the bathroom, or if it’s been longer than usual and you’re concerned, give them a 30 minute soak in warm water.  This can help them relax, hydrate, and most of the time reptiles and amphibians will use the bathroom while soaking.  If that doesn’t work, it’s time to schedule a veterinary checkup. If frequency is normal but the consistency changes, this can be another sign of something wrong.  Changes in diet can often cause changes in consistency, so if you’ve recently changed your pets diet make sure to wait a week or two before being concerned with changes in their bathroom habits.  Runny or oily stool can be a sign of a parasite or bacterial infection, too much fat content in their diet, and other internal complications.  This is always a sign of a problem and a veterinary appointment should be made.

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Finding an Exotic Veterinarian Near You

Luckily, the increased popularity and growing trend of keeping reptiles and amphibians as pets has greatly increased the number of veterinarians knowledgeable and even specializing in exotic animal medicine.  Continuous research and university studies are helping us to broaden and deepen our knowledge on the health, wellness, and care of these amazing pets.  Exotic animal medicine is broken up into categories and the organization that specializes in reptile and amphibian medicine is the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians (ARAV).  Each year ARAV holds a conference where thousands of reptile loving veterinarians meet to exchange knowledge and information.  ARAV also works closely with many institutions doing veterinary research with herptiles and publishes a quarterly scientific journal.  Their website has a plethora of information, but the most useful for the public is their “Find a Vet” link on the top right of the web page.  There you can type in your zip code and it will show you veterinarians with reptile medicine knowledge in your area.  To check it out, head to

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