Signs of Illness and Stress in Reptiles
©1997. 2002 Melissa Kaplan
There are many factors that go into making and keeping a reptile healthy. Internally, they must be healthy, with all systems functioning properly. While they may not be completely parasite- or infection-free, a healthy animal's immune system functions strongly and easily keeps the colonies of parasites, bacteria, or fungi under control so that they do not reproduce to such an extent as to interfere with the normal functioning of the body. The skin of a healthy animal looks right for its species. For most reptiles, this means well rounded and filled out, with few or any the lateral folds associated with dehydration. The color is full and clear. A healthy animal behaves normally for the species, alert to its surroundings, thermoregulating during the course of the day, eating, drinking, and defecating on a regular basis based on normal circadian rhythms and digestive cycles. Shedding is regular, occurring every 4-6 weeks or so, sometimes more often for younger animals during the peak growing seasons during the year, more slowly during any annual slow period (for example, the period of most rapid growth for most reptiles occurs in the spring/summer, with slowdowns usually occurring in the winter. For many reptiles, these periods relate to periods of greater and lesser food abundance in the wild, as well as to pre- and post-breeding seasons when the animals would typically feed heavily.
What goes into making a healthy reptile? Just buying one isn't enough. (Just thinking you can buy one a problem: most reptiles sold in the pet trade and at too many expos and swaps are anything but healthy...). The many factors that must be dealt with include:
Reading over this list it becomes apparent that unless one knows what the species' requirements are for the animals one has, one is going to have some problem meeting some or most of these requirements. If you don't know what a reptile needs to be maintained properly in captivity, it is going to be difficult to ensure you are providing a proper environment for it. If you don't know how a species should behave, you may miss the early signs of stress or illness, and thus not realize that something is wrong until the animal is very ill.
Even very small things that are wrong or just slightly off can, over time, lead to big health problems. Stress onset can be sudden and acute (an earthquake topples an enclosure; the owner moves or gives the animal away; the power goes out for three days; a new cage mate is introduced; the new family dog spends its time slavering in front of the enclosure; etc.) or it can be slow and insidious (reptile not drinking enough because the water bowl is too difficult to access; the crickets fed are just a little too large; there is no day/night cycle of temperatures in the enclosure; temperature gradients are not broad enough; temperatures are too hot or too cool; insufficient or improper hiding places provided; domineering cagemates; etc.). Sudden onsets bring about immediate and dramatic changes in color and behavior that even the only moderately observant owner can pick up on. Slow, constant stress, however, may result in slow, gradual changes in behavior and color. Behaviors such as thermoregulating, hiding, prolonged soaking, reduced appetite, irregular defecation, attitude, regression/increase in tameness, and more can all indicate signs of stress and illness.
to look for
Check the overall appearance of the reptiles:
Check for changes in feeding habits:
Look for changes in the appearance, consistency and amount of feces and urates:
Check for any changes in behavior:
Check for changes in shedding:
Check for physical signs of illness an injury:
If any of these signs occur, the environmental requirements of the species must be checked against the conditions actually occurring in the enclosure and any inadequacies or failures corrected.
If the proper physical environment is well established, the social environment needs to be looked at in enclosures where more than one animal is housed together. It should be noted that aggression and dominance behavior is not always overtly physical - there need not be any actual fighting. Subtle behaviors on the part of the dominant animal may result in a subordinate animal staying away from basking areas and food, slowly dying of stress-enhanced hypothermia and starvation.
If the physical and social environments inside the enclosure are not a problem, then the macroenvironment must be evaluated. Has the placement of the enclosure been changed (to a different room or different part of the original room)? Are children or pets annoying or scaring the reptile (think food chain/predator-prey relationships here as well as the annoyance factor of children)? Have you moved your household? Had to evacuate due to a natural disaster? Had the in-laws over for the week, totally disrupting your usual animal maintenance (and playtime) schedule? Been gone on vacation? These are all things that may seem like they wouldn't intrude on the life of our captive reptiles but, for many of them (especially iguanas and other social lizards), most definitely do.
There are also the things that go on behind your back... One woman found out from neighbor, who observed what was going on through the window while the owner was at work, that her cat would sit staring into her iguana's enclosure, nose pressed up against the glass, for hours at a time when the owner was at work. Since the cat never engaged in this behavior when the owner was home, she never thought there was a problem with the cat. Another woman found out that her husband was turning off the heating equipment in her reptile's enclosure at night after she went to bed "to save money - it's a cold-blooded animal, so it doesn't need heat all the time" was his rationale when she finally figured out why her reptile was sick and stressed. So, just because you are not directly observing something going on doesn't mean that something isn't happening to result in fear and stress in your reptile. You may need to become a sort of detective in carefully and deeply assessing everything that goes on in and around your reptile's enclosure as well as exploring as much as you can of the animal's natural history before you will be able to figure out what isn't right.
Please note that if your conditions have not been set up appropriately before reading this material, the shedding, defecation, and growth patterns you have come to expect from your reptile may in fact be abnormal. Reptile owners who have no previous experience with healthy reptiles believe that since their reptile is alive, eating, and defecating, that they are healthy. One 4-H reptile program leader informed me, for example, that ball pythons never shed in one piece. Her snake was covered in patches of unshed skin representing 3-4 different sheds, its eyes deeply dented from retained eye caps. Her snake was not healthy, but she insisted that, since that was the way her snake had always been, and that since it was alive and moving around, that it was "normal" for the species! I frequently encounter iguana owners who tell me that their iguanas defecate only once or twice a week even though they are eating daily. This tells me right away that their temperatures are too low. Once they are raised to the proper levels, the owners are often dismayed to find that, not only does the iguana increase its food intake, but its digestion speeds up to the proper rate, resulting in often copious defecation one or more times a day, depending upon the season. Most of these owners also find that their iguana isn't really as tame as they thought it was.
If possible, it is always best to get the reptile to start self-feeding rather than resort to long-term forcing feeding or tube feeding. Once you have assured that the reptile is healthy and in a properly established environment, certain tricks may be employed if the reptile is still not self-feeding:
Changes in Temperatures
You may need to boost the humidity artificially more during the winter and winter months than during the Fall, for example. Hygrometers can be used to measure humidity and may be used as a guide to alert you when you need to boost the humidity or back off. Unfortunately, more is known about the temperature requirements of species kept in captivity than is known about their humidity needs. In the absence of specific humidity data, you will have to learn how to judge the adequacy of humidity based on the above points.
During the the winter, the fall in outside temperatures results in a lowering of the temperatures inside our homes. This drop in ambient room air temperature often results in a lowering of the temperatures inside the reptile enclosures. Always monitor the temperatures with several thermometers placed inside the enclosure. You may find that during the colder months you many not only have to boost humidity inside the room or enclosure, but you may have to add stronger or additional heating equipment just to be able to maintain the proper temperatures. One final factor that must be mentioned is the human tendency to demand that animals share the human's time schedule. Many people work during the day, coming home tired at night, often with an hour or more of chores to be done before they can settle down to relax. At that time, they may want to feed their reptile, or take it out for some together time. The problem is that if their reptile is a diurnal (active during the day) species, it needs to sleep at night. Constant disruption of the sleep cycle, as well as being forced to eat at night rather than during the day, results in long term low levels of stress. The same is true for people who work or otherwise stay up all night and sleep throughout most of the day. While this life style may be okay for nocturnal reptiles (other than the fact that nocturnal species do still require darkness at night to function normally), it is stressful for the diurnal and even for many crepuscular species. When we keep animals, we must accommodate their needs; they should not be forced to accommodate our schedules.
So, what does all
of this have to do with my reptile's health?
Reptiles take a long time to die. Because of their ectothermy, their cold-bloodedness, they are able to conserve energy to maintain basic body functions for a long time, long after a mammal or bird would have succumbed or have deteriorated to the point where the owner would notice. Reptiles do not die "suddenly." When someone says that, what has happened is that their reptile was sick for a long period of time but, according to the nature of wild animals (which, after all, most reptiles still are, even if they were captive bred), they hid their distress: in the wild, it is the sick and the weak who are preyed upon. Those animals most adept at suppressing signs of ill-health or injury are those that will have a chance to recover before being eaten. In the wild as in captivity, reduced activity and increased hiding are behaviors associated with attempts at conserving energy (the less one moves, the fewer calories burned, a common reaction to slow starvation and to giving the body more calories to put into healing, for example) and trying to hide to avoid predation when the animal is too weak (or too cold) to effectively defend itself.
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