Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Why see a reptile vet?

©1996 Melissa Kaplan


This document was originally written to a parent who refused to take her son's sick iguana to a vet. It could just as easily be written to the many - far too many - people who send email, post in forums or call on the phone, wasting time when they should be beating down their nearest reptile vet's door. Like the woman whose pet turtle lay in a cardboard box in the corner of her living room, bleeding from its cracked shell and mouth for the two days from the time she ran over it with her car until she finally called a turtle rescue - two hours away from where she lived - and left a messaging starting with "This isn't an emergency..."

Or the father of the tearful young woman who called because her father said of the turtle she'd had for 10 years, "Let the damn thing die! I can buy another one at the pet store for $10."

Or the person whose wife wanted to know the best way to pierce their ball python's swollen eye to "let out the excess fluid."

Or the owners of too many iguanas, bones breaking under the meager weight of their bodies, bones with the density of sugar crystals due to advanced metabolic bone disease, who keep insisting I tell them how much calcium powder to put in the iguana's food, refusing to accept that fact that their iguana is beyond eating, let alone ingesting enough oral supplements to make a difference.

Or the reptile owners who are furious with me because I did not respond to their email within a couple of hours of their writing to me, during which time their reptile died, people who blame me for their "beloved" pet dying, rather than the store or friends who gave them bad information to begin with, and themselves for not taking the suffering creature to the vet weeks or months ago when it probably could have been saved. No one is responsible for an animal's health and well-being - and access to proper veterinary care - but the owner. No reptile forum host, no email recipient, no pet store, no friend: just the owner. Keeping pets is a privilege and ongoing responsibility, not a right. If you aren't prepared to spend money on a vet for any of your pets, you should not have pets. It's just that simple.

Why See A Reptile Vet?

(Note: while this article was originally written for iguana keepers, it really applies to anyone who buys or otherwise obtains any reptile or amphibian species.)

Many iguanas sold in the trade are 'farm-bred' or merely 'farmed.' The former means that they were hatched of eggs laid by captive bred females and males. Others are merely farmed: hatched from eggs laid by wild caught (and released after laying) females or from eggs dug up in the wild and brought to the farm for incubation. Rather than picturing some idyllic, clean, well-tended farm with happy, bright green iguanas lolling about on trees while their needs are attended to, picture a huge corral filled with hundreds of filthy, highly stressed iguanas, the ground a mass of decaying vegetation, feces, sick and dying animals. In some areas, the eggs are sliced out of the female, the female crudely sewn back up and let go, the assumption being that she will survive to lay again. Observers in El Salvador note that most iguanas being exported from that country are wild caught. No wonder iguanas and so many other reptiles are listed in the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Appendix II (Threatened).

The baby iguanas are kept in huge pens where food is thrown in. They are not handled other than to be roughly grabbed and thrown into packing crates, dozens to a bag, dozens of bags to a crate, all rolling in their own and each others feces. The crates are then shipped around to the ordering importer/wholesaler. There the iguanas are dumped into other bins, generally with the dead and dying iguanas left in there with the still living ones. If they are lucky, some form of food and water is thrown in with them. They are then grabbed and stuffed in shipping containers to be sent to pet stores.

Most arrive at the stores emaciated, dehydrated, full of internal and often external parasites, with minute scratches in their skin from the overcrowding into which bacteria from the feces, decomposing bodies and rotted food (if they were lucky enough to be offered food) can gain entrance into their bodies - thus some are suffering from various systemic infections as well. Since most stores are clueless about proper care, iguanas are not heated, fed or watered properly in the store, and most never receive any prophylactic treatment (hydration, worming) by store staff, let alone a vet.

All other wild-caught reptiles are similarly treated. Since the price paid to the collectors is so low, and the price paid by the importer in the country of destination to the exporter is so low, there is no way to keep, package and ship the animals with the care they should, as we saw in the bird trade years ago, too many arrive at their country of destination dead or dying, those still living staving, dehydrated, and parasite ridden.

At this point, you begin to see why 50-90% of iguanas - all imported reptiles, actually - die within their first year in captivity. As of the year this article was written, imports of iguanas into the U.S. topped 1 million. With wholesale prices as low as $2.50 each, you can see why they are cared for as they are within the trade, and why most pet stores don't deem it fiscally sound to have a vet look at them or even treat them themselves. [1998 update: imports this year were 638,000, with the average wholesale price per iguana of $1.33.)

Reptiles are wild animals. Young reptiles, and adults of small species are at the bottom of the food chain. To survive, an animal has to appear as healthy and alert as possible to avoid being someone else's dinner. So they often look and act normally (at least, to someone who is not intimately acquainted with species' behavior) until it is too late. The 'crash and burn' as it is called, can be sudden and dramatic.

I have seen iguanas in the last stages of metabolic bone disease and renal failure look bright and green and tail-whippy - right up till they died. When I picked one still-alive iguana up from its owners, they cooed "Oh, doesn't he just look great!" Despite what I could do for it (and I can usually bring them back from the brink), it died within a couple of days from advanced metabolic bone disease. And it did look great - the the uninitiated: bright green, chubby (rock-hard) back legs, cute (typically malformed due to prolonged calcium deficiency) rounded head, very tame (had been too far gone to move for some time). Wild-caught reptiles of other species have starved to death because the environment was wrong or the wrong food or wrong sized food was offered or, as is too often the case with ball pythons, the new owner believed the pet store when the store told them the snakes can go for a year or more without eating.

Iguanas, cared for properly, can live 15-20 years. Like a long-lived dog, they will be a family member for a long time to come. Tamed and socialized properly, iguanas are no less tame than dogs, and are intelligent lizards. A vet visit is an investment in the future of a long-term family pet.

Pets of any sort are a responsibility. Scaly or furred, there is no excuse to not take a possibly sick or injured animal to an experienced veterinarian.

For information on finding a vet, see Finding A Reptile Vet.

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