A sick pet is always a worry. Fortunately, modern veterinary science has a whole arsenal of products available to help ill reptiles, but as always, the sooner you can begin treatment, the greater the chances of a speedy and full recovery. That, of course, means that being aware of the more common illnesses and diseases that could afflict your animals – and knowing how to recognise them – is an important aspect of keeping them healthy.
With that in mind, here’s a quick guide to a few of the most often encountered.
Many of the commonest ailments any reptile-keeper is likely to come across are what might best be described as fairly general ones – the sort of condition which can affect almost any kind of reptiles, such as:
- Respiratory Problems – often found in reptiles that have been chilled and especially prevalent in some kinds of tortoises; look out for nasal discharges and listen out for wheezy breathing.
- Skin Conditions – incomplete shedding of the skin can lead to problems and this can often be avoided by making sure of a good tank humidity at shedding time; other causes include insect or parasite bites or physical damage to the skin, which can lead to necrosis.
- Salmonella – this is arguably the most significant bacterial infection of reptiles, but many show no clinical signs. The principal danger is to reptile keepers and their families, rather than to the reptiles themselves, so precautions are needed when cleaning out tanks which house susceptible animals – particularly terrapins – to avoid problems.
Some kinds of reptiles are prone to specific diseases which affect them alone. It is clearly very important for all owners to make sure they’re aware of any particular ailments that are likely to affect the species that they keep, know the symptoms to look out for and know what measures, if any, can be taken to reduce the risk. Good research is an essential part of every aspect of caring for these animals – and keeping them healthy is certainly no exception! Examples of the better-known ones include:
- Inclusion Body Disease (IBD) – an incurable disease of boas and pythons, thought to be caused by a retrovirus, which affects the central nervous system, eventually causing loss of muscular coordination, paralysis and ultimately death.
- Viral papilloma – a contagious and disfiguring condition affecting Lacertid lizards which causes them to develop warty skin growths; the warts can be removed surgically, but often recur.
- Fatty liver disease – many species can suffer from this condition, but it seems to be a particular problem in captive Bosc’s Monitors (Varanus exanthematicus). A prolonged loss of appetite in a Bosc that has previously fed well should be treated with suspicion and veterinary advice swiftly sought.
In the wild, reptiles have evolved in such a way that their diet gives them all that they require to live and grow healthily, but obviously in captivity, they are entirely dependent on what food we provide for them. Some kinds of the more exotic items on their natural menu can be difficult, if not downright impossible, to obtain in the UK and that often means substituting available food items to make up the gap. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself, but it does mean reptile keepers have to take extra care to make sure that the right balance of essential nutrients, minerals and vitamins is maintained. Some of the most commonly encountered dietary-related problems are:
- Metabolic Bone Disorder (MBD) – probably the most common health problem of all; a range of factors can play a part in it including genetic predisposition, insufficient calcium, or too much phosphorus in the diet, vitamin D deficiency or a lack of exposure to UVB light, and the net result leaves soft bones.
- Vitamin A deficiency – typically the first symptom of this is swollen eyes and it’s something to watch out for since major kidney damage often follows if it is not treated. Swift treatment, usually a series of injections by your vet, can allow affected to reptiles to make a complete recovery.
- Anorexia – loss of appetite is never a good sign and there are many reasons, ranging from mouth infections, such as necrotising stomatitis, to stress, so any prolonged period of fasting should be investigated to see if there’s a more serious underlying cause. That said, for some species, this may be part of their natural behaviour; Royal Pythons (Python regius), for instance, seldom feed during their breeding season – so it pays to know your species!
Keeping your reptiles in good health largely comes down to vigilance and good husbandry. If you buy healthy, captive-bred animals from reputable suppliers in the first place, provide them with clean surroundings, appropriate living conditions and a suitable diet – and keep a careful watch on their well-being – you shouldn’t have too many problems. Then, even if you do have the misfortune to have one of your pets become ill, it should have the necessary physical reserves and a strong enough immune system to help it fight the disease – with a bit of help from your vet, of course!