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

Emaciation (Starvation) Protocol

©2000 Melissa Kaplan


The body requires a certain amount of energy to keep basic life systems functioning, such as keeping the heart beating so that blood circulates through the body and brain to keep all the organs function. The body needs additional energy to accomplish things like growth and repair. The body also requires fluids which keep the blood thin enough to flow, help with the process of digestion, transport wastes to the holding area for defecation and voiding, and help the body rid itself of toxins and other undesirable or no longer needed by-products of digestion and daily functioning.

An animal that has been starved has also generally been deprived of sufficient fluids. Before starting an animal on food, a period of rehydration must take place to begin to restore the body’s fluids. Failure to do so may send a severely dehydrated animal into fatal hypovolemic shock.

Reptiles may starve not only through being deprived of food, or the appropriate food for the species or size of the individual reptile, but they may also starve by being kept too cold or too hot to eat. Starvation may also occur when metabolic bone disease is advanced enough to halt peristalsis, which stops digestion. Heavy intestinal parasite infestations and partial gut obstructions due to the ingestion of foreign objects (such as bark, sand or gravel substrates) can lead to malnutrition as the passage of food is slowed through the intestine, or the lining of the intestine and colon (hindgut) become inflamed. All of these conditions can lead to a die-off of the commensal (beneficial) gut flora that are responsible for breaking down reptile ingesta, especially herbivorous reptiles such as the green iguana, prehensile-tailed skink, desert iguana, Uromastyx, most tortoises, and primarily herbivorous omnivorous reptiles. The combination of the environmental and/or metabolic conditions and the die-off of gut organisms lead to an involuntary starvation.

Starved animals are generally emaciated – their fat stores depleted, their body has catabolized the protein from their muscles, resulting in the wasted "skin and bone" look. Reptiles who starved due to being kept in temperatures that are too cold for them will take much longer to waste away; when first rescued, they may look fairly well fleshed, but are still unable (appearing to be unwilling) to eat due to being dehydrated, severely weakened by prolonged non-feeding and inadequate temperatures, and loss of the necessary numbers of gut organisms.

Forcing such a reptile to eat is potentially dangerous. When the gut organisms die off in sufficient numbers, food that is eaten or forced into an herbivore will sit there, undigested. In other instances, so little digested that the reptile fails to rally and the drain on the already greatly reduced store of energy may be enough to send it into a fatal downward spiral.

My article on Fluid and Fluid Therapy discusses how to rehydrate reptiles, including specific recommendations for green iguanas. This article addresses how to get a starved reptile, especially herbivorous reptiles, to safely start feeding again.


If the reptile has been hypothermic, you do not want to warm them up rapidly. Doing so may cause cellular destruction. Instead, warm them up slowly, over a period of a couple of hours. Ways this can be done include:

Run a lukewarm bath and gradually keep adding warmer water. Since the reptile may be too weak to hold its head above water or raise it long enough to breathe, you will need to make sure the reptile is well supported in the water so that it cannot drown. When adding the warm water, let some of the water drain out so that the water level doesn’t keep rising. Once the water is the temperature you would normally use for that reptile’s bath and he has warmed up to that, you can move him to his heated enclosure or lounging area.

Air re-warming is done by first placing the reptile in the cooler side of the thermal gradient in his enclosure or lounging area. Once he has been there for 30-60 minutes, he can be moved closer to the basking area. Another way to do this is to layer towels between the reptile and his heating pad (or use a human heating pad for this purpose) and lay a towel over him. After 30 minutes or so, remove a layer of toweling. Do this every 30 minutes or so until the reptile is warmed up to basking temperature.


Follow the recommendations in the Fluid and Fluid Therapy article for rehydrating. Small amounts of fluids may be given during the rewarming period. Since the reptile is going to be very weak, with slowed reflexes, especially during the early part of the rewarming, administer very small amounts of fluid at a time, allowing the reptile plenty of time to swallow the fluid. Be sure to warm the fluid first – it should be tepid to start, gradually getting warmer as rewarming progresses. Once the reptile has been moved to the basking area, warming the oral fluids to normal bath water temperature (85F / 29.4C) will help in the overall rewarming process.


Continue rehydrating for 24 hours. Watch the reptile carefully during this time. If he shows an inclination to thermoregulate by moving back and forth along the thermal gradient, allow him to do so. If he tries to hide, provide visual screening (such as by hanging a towel or blanket across the front of the enclosure, or placing one or more hide boxes along the gradient, or a towel that can be crawled under at any point along the gradient) to promote a feeling of security and enable the reptile to remain in the warmest area needed for this stage of rewarming.


Boosting Gut Bacteria
There is a product that has been available in pet stores for years. Bene-Bac (which stands for "beneficial bacteria") is a palatable cream that contains assorted beneficial bacteria. Originally marketed for birds, it has been repackaged for reptiles. Unfortunately, it does not seem to work well in herbivorous reptiles.

Fortunately, there are two alternative products that do work well in herbivorous and other reptiles: liquid acidophilus, and nonfat yogurt containing live cultures (which are the same cultures found in acidophilus products). Acidophilus is found in the refrigerator section of health food stores. Yogurts containing live cultures are generally available wherever yogurt is sold. By law, such yogurts have to have a certain amount of live cultures in them and must state their presence on the packaging. In addition, they may display the logo of a national yogurt association certifying their bacillus content.

Only a small amount of the acidophilus or yogurt is needed. For a small reptile, ½ cc once a day for one or two days should be enough. For larger reptiles, 1-2 cc’s once a day for one or two days.

For herbivores, you can help the remaining gut bacteria a second way, by giving them something easy to digest. Liquefy some alfalfa (pellets, tea or powder) in water, making a slurry you can pull up in an eyedropper, syringe with a feeding tube, or offer by spoon. Administer some of the slurry an hour or so after you give the first dose of acidophilus or yogurt.


Once the reptile has been warmed and rehydration is well progressed, and gut has been prepared by providing it some beneficial flora, you can start providing nutrition in a form that the still fragile gut can most easily use. Keeping in mind that it takes energy to digest food, you want to provide nutrition in a form that the body doesn’t have to expend a lot of energy trying to break down. You also want to administer it quickly so as to reduce the stress on the animal as stress burns energy as well.

In the case of carnivores and omnivores, this usually means using a feeding catheter or dosing needle (a long metal tube that, like the catheter, fits on the end of a syringe) to administer a meat-based slurry.

While it is preferable to use a plant-based slurry for herbivores, it is difficult to find an easily digestible one. By their very nature, plants are difficult to digest. So, instead of starting off with a plant-based slurry, Ensure, a human food product is used. Blended with a banana for extra calories, it is very easily digested by the fragile gut. Used for just a few days, it is then gradually replaced by a plant-based slurry if force feeding is still required. To graduate from one slurry to the other, use ¾ Ensure slurry and ¼ plant slurry on the first transition day, then ½ Ensure slurry and ½ plant slurry on transition day two, continuing until the entire slurry is plant-based.


Slurry Formulas
Slurries are administered at the rate of 2% of body weight per 24-48 hours


Hill's a/d thinned with Pedialyte, 1:1 solution of Gatorade and water, or plain water.

Omnivore I

Equal amounts of Hill's a/d and baby food vegetable, thinned with Pedialyte, 1:1 solution of Gatorade and water, or plain water.

Omnivore II

Herbivore slurry mixed with equal parts Hill's a/d, thinned with Pedialyte, 1:1 solution of Gatorade and water, or plain water.

Herbivore I (Ensure)

1 can regular Ensure®* + 1 mashed banana, thinned with Pedialyte, 1:1 solution of Gatorade and water, or plain water.

Herbivore II (Plant)

Soaked alfalfa pellets, pureed squash, pureed fruit, reptile multivitamin, and reptile calcium supplement, thinned with Pedialyte, 1:1 solution of Gatorade and water, or plain water.

* Depending on the herbivore's underlying health problem, there are newer Ensure products that may be more appropriate: Ensure® High Calcium for those with MBD, and Nepro® for those with kidney disease or kidney failure.

Note: Ensure® is also packaged under a second label, Entrust Nutritional Drinks.










Reptile vet/nutrition researcher Susan Donoghue, developer of the Walkabout Farm's Quantum reptile food and vitamin mixes (the only one I recommend for those needing a well-researched, healthy, safe alternative to a fresh-food diet for their reptiles), has developed a line of enteral (assisted feeding) products for reptiles. Check the site for details and ordering information. (Note: As of January 2006, Dr. Donoghue has sold her food product manufacturing to RockSolidHerps, and continues as a consultant to them on the line of foods she developed based on her research.)


Encouraging Self-Feeding
Ultimately, you want your reptile to be feeding freely on his own. Since being force-fed isn’t a great deal of fun, most reptiles will readily take to self-feeding once they are strong enough to do so.

Mammal & bird eaters:
Warm their prekilled prey if it was previously frozen and defrosted. Ways to do this include warming briefly in the microwave, or placing it in a plastic bag and submerging the bag in hot water. Reluctant eaters may be induced to eat by dipping their prey in a bit of warm chicken broth. The reason for warming the prey is to increase its odor and heat signature, both of which are important for animals who smell with their tongue and detect prey thermally.

Insect eaters:
Some may have problems initially tracking prey or being fast enough yet to catch it, so you may find you need to hold the prey for them. A long pair of tweezers, stamp (philately) tongs, or forceps are ideal for this purpose, keeping your fingers at a distance from the prey and providing a bigger prey surface area for your reptile to zero in on and grab at.

Fish eaters:
There’s not a lot that can be done to assist other than to make sure that the fish don’t have too much room to swim around in to escape your reptile.

Plant eaters:
Initially, the slurry can be used as a sort of base for a "stew." Mix some of their regular plant food (for example, iguana vegetable-alfalfa-fruit salad) in with some of the plant slurry, gradually decreasing the amount of slurry over a period of 2-4 days, depending on how weak the reptile is.

To give your recovering reptile as much of a chance to eat, repair and recover, and build up strength as quickly as possible, feed him more frequently. If you normally feed your snakes once every 10-14 days, feed weekly. If you normally feed weekly, feed every fifth day. Feeding smaller prey is better than feeding large prey – smaller prey is more easily digested. Insects should be freshly molted and gut loaded for at least 24 hours prior to being fed out. Plant food should be prepared in small pieces (shredded vegetables, finely chopped fruit, torn greens), again to maximize gut flora efficiency.

Once your reptile is feeding regularly, digesting food properly (as evaluated by the appearance, frequency, consistency and smell of the feces) and has visibly gained weight and filled out, you can convert him to a normal feeding schedule.

Related Articles

Feeding Prekilled Prey

Ball Python Feeding Problems

Feeding Troublesome Hatchlings

Picky Eaters

Feeding & Housing Invertebrate Prey

Live, Active and Probiotic: Yogurt Culture

Herp Care Products Translations and Equivalencies - useful for those outside the U.S.

Syringes of various sizes can be obtained from your reptile vet or through mail order suppliers such as Upco. Upco carries feeding catheters; dosing needles can be obtained from Feeding Tech. Both suppliers can be found linked to my Mail Order Suppliers page.

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