Preventative Health and Herpetoculture

Authored by Christina Miller RVT, BSc, of Companion Animal Hospital, Canada.

Preventative Health Habits of Effective Herpetoculturists

It sounds harsh, but if your pets are not living up to their potential lifespan, you are very likely doing something wrong

Captive Reptile and Amphibian Health Overview:

Tortoise Check Up

Tortoise Check Up

What constitutes success in herpetoculture? In other companion species, longevity and a low incidence of preventable disease are the top of my and other veterinary professionals’ list–we all want to see our animal patients live long and healthy lives be they dogs, cats, rabbits, parrots…any species who comes through the practice door. These don’t always seem to be among valued statistics in some circles of herpetoculture. It sounds harsh, but if your pets are not living up to their potential lifespan, you are very likely doing something wrong, accidents and uncontrollable disease processes notwithstanding. Unfortunately with reptiles and amphibians, inadequate or incorrect husbandry accounts for the vast majority of health issues presented for at the veterinary hospital (Barten and Fleming 2014), and often these patients are presented in an advanced state of illness as owners typically do not appreciate the subtle, early signs of illness in many exotic species.

Herpetoculture is constantly under fire from animal rights and other advocacy groups, targeting our much beloved companion species based on accusations of injurious importation conditions (CAPS 2011, HSUS 2001, PETA 2016, Robinson et al. 2015, RSPCA 2015, WSPCA 2015), animal abandonment (CAPS 2011, PETA 2016, WSPCA 2015), and poor husbandry conditions (CAPS 2011, Kivanc 2015, PETA 2016, Robinson et al. 2015, RSPCA 2015, Tucker 2015, WSPCA 2015). It’s hard to argue these accusations as baseless: The wild caught pet trade is undoubtedly brutal, many reptiles and amphibians are abandoned at shelters because their owners can no longer care for them, and improper care and hoarding situations occur with unfortunate frequency with captive herps. Granted, other groups of animals are often implicated in these animal welfare issues, such as the importation of wild caught exotic parrots (an abhorrent trade for many reasons) and pet cat overpopulation resulting in animal shelters bursting at the seams. This is no justification for not treating our companion herps with excellent care; if anything, because the general public does not sympathize as easily with “cold-blooded” animals, the onus is on herpetoculturists to provide great captive conditions and help to educate the public on how many reptiles and amphibians make great companion animals.

The pet herp situation is improving every year with better captive conditions, improved access to captive bred animals, and better veterinary medicine. However, herpetoculturists as a whole should be constantly vigilant regarding animal welfare issues and how we are perceived by the public. This is not just for the animals’ sake as they have a right to live long, healthy, and happy lives as companion animals, but for the sake of the hobby and how it is perceived by the public.

Reproduction as a proxy for good health:

There are certainly very fragile species of reptile and amphibian who need excellent care in order to reproduce

Collected egg

Collected Reptile Eggs (Chameleon)

Does “success” in captive herps mean successful reproduction? Not always, I have touched on this topic before in other discussions and publications, but reproductive success is not always proxy for good health, as so many species will live in suboptimal conditions and maintain the ability to reproduce. Take a glimpse into the lives of dogs in puppy mills, cats in kitty mills, and even people in impoverished countries. From an evolutionary perspective, reproduction is the only function organisms do that is to the benefit of the species at the detriment of the individual, and animals will absolutely sacrifice their own well-being to reproduce. Reproduction is energetically expensive and inherently dangerous; even healthy animals can experience serious complications from reproductive activities(Bell 1980, Dimijian 2005, Magnhagen 1991, Otto 2008, Roze 2012).

But, let’s not oversimplify things. There are certainly very fragile species of reptile and amphibian who need excellent care in order to reproduce, and herpetoculturists who are succeeding with such delicate, finicky animals have accomplished some great husbandry. Also, there are many wild animals in competitive reproductive models who will not reproduce unless they are healthy, as healthier individuals (i.e. stronger, faster, more attractive to the other sex) will out-compete them for chances at reproduction.

All that being said, I am generally not impressed when a breeder, or other institution can only offer me statistics of successful reproduction, when we talk about the success of their collection.

This is only a small part of the story, and it is of great ethical concern that we do not allow our captive breeding attempts to turn into the ectothermic versions of a puppy or kitty mill. This “production over health” attitude paints our hobby in a pretty bleak light — think again of the criticism that puppy/kitty mills or even large-scale agriculture has drawn. Just because these animals are not “warm-blooded,” it does not mean they are not deserving of respectful and appropriate care going beyond how many clutches you can produce in a season.

While this sounds like harsh criticism of the reptile and amphibian breeding industry, these breeders are also responsible for providing us with captive bred animals: A generally healthier, and more ethical choice compared to wild caught imports. Breeders should be supported but should also be encouraged to constantly re-evaluate their care habits, to ensure our pet reptiles and amphibians are coming from a sustainable, healthy, and ethical source.

On captive herp health and longevity:

Lots of breeders truly love the hobby and the animals they’re taking care of, and are passionate to share their hobby with others

On the non-reproductive side of things, our pet reptiles and amphibians should have the opportunity to live long and healthy lives, as our dogs and cats tend to with good preventative care. The numbers I care about when we’re talking herpetocultural success? What is the lifespan of the individuals you’re keeping, and how does it compare to their potential lifespan in ideal conditions? What is the incidence of preventable health problems in your collection, and the mortality rate from conditions that are preventable?

Most breeders I’ve met don’t keep these statistics, and I can only speculate as to why. Ethical dog and cat breeders keep records of health problems in their animals, why shouldn’t we be doing this with exotics? Let’s not assume it is because they don’t care about their collections or how the hobby is perceived as a whole because that’s generally not true: Lots of breeders truly love the hobby and the animals they’re taking care of, and are passionate to share their hobby with others. Many of these same breeders are doing it for commendable reasons like providing healthy, captive bred animals as an alternative to wild caught animals.

Let’s talk about how breeders and even the average herpetoculturist can improve their long-term animal management.

That’s in part two…coming soon

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