Authored by Christina Miller RVT, BSc, of Companion Animal Hospital, Canada.
Preventative Health Habits of Effective Herpetoculturists Part Two: Record Keeping
The basics of good reptile record keeping:
What’s important to keep track of?
Feeding, eating, and supplement usage: Noting what the animal’s normal appetite is like (which can vary seasonally, depending on the species and captive conditions), how they do when different food items are offered, and when food is refused are all important. Supplement brand and usage are also important;
I would estimate, more than half of the nutritional problems I see in captive herps are from supplement misuse.
Bowel movements, urate, and urine production: Learn what is normal for your animal, and how some foods change its waste production. Sudden changes in the stool, urates, or urine can indicate health problems.
Shedding (ecdysis): Keeping track of your pet’s shed cycle long-term can suggest how well their health is doing overall. Different taxa of reptiles will shed in different patterns, and shedding abnormally can suggest a problem.
Environmental changes: New hide? Change of enclosure? Moved the enclosure to a different spot in the home? Added a cagemate? All of these can be stressful events, and health problems related to stress do not always show up right away.
Reproductive activities: Courtship behaviours, mating, egg-laying behaviours, and oviposition itself. Reproductive problems are relatively common in these animals compared to other companion species, and are generally related to some husbandry problem. Having some accurate time frames is important when monitoring for problems, and for when your vet is making a treatment plan to address a problem.
Medical treatments: Keeping track of when and how treatments are done demonstrates compliance to your vet so we know the treatment was done properly, and helps you keep track if the treatment requires more than one “course” of dosing (like some antiparasitics). If you are doing medical treatments without veterinary supervision (which I cannot advocate for, for a number of reasons), noting the drug name, concentration, frequency it was given, and route it was given are all critical pieces of information. Dewormers and antibiotics can cause toxicities as well as resistances, so knowing that you were giving the right drug in the right way will help to rule a number of problems in or out when you do see a vet.
Temperature gradient readings: Basking spot, warm end, cool end are some important temperatures to keep an eye on. Seasonal changes in the temperature of the home often affect these readings, and catching temperature changes that are unintentional can help to explain some behavioural changes, and even flag some possible health risks.
Bulb changes: More relevant to broad spectrum (UVB producing) bulbs than anything, as their UV-B output decreases over time. If you have access to a UVB radiometer (such as the Solarmeter 6.2), regular readings can help you to monitor the bulb efficacy over its lifetime.
Aquatic habitat maintenance: Water and filter media changes for aquatic and semiaquatic animals.
Collection additions: Bring a new animal into the home? Make note of it. Stress-related health problems and communicable diseases such as from parasites can sometimes be tracked back to a new animal brought home.
Anything else of interest: Notice a strange behaviour? Vomit or regurgitation of a meal? Write it down.
Start and end of quarantine… you do have a quarantine protocol, right?
Understanding and practising quarantine, or rather the lack thereof, is one of my biggest pet peeves with herpetoculturists. Quarantine is the separation of an animal from the rest of the collection when they have potentially been exposed to contagious diseases (Studdert et al. 2011), and it is a basic component of good preventative medicine in a collection (Klingenberg 2007, Miller 1996, Rossi 2006). In this scenario, we assume that any new animal may have been exposed to something contagious, and that the rest of your collection is “clean”.
Quarantine for how long?:
A general rule of thumb is that an animal should be in quarantine for a minimum 30 (AZA 2014, Klingenberg 2007) to 90 days (Fitzgerald and Vera 2006, Klingenberg 2007) before being exposed to the rest of the collection. I personally prefer the minimum 90 day quarantine period. While 30 day quarantines are possible in other classes of animals, with current information available about the communicable diseases of reptiles and amphibians, in my experience the longer quarantine is absolutely safer. It should be mentioned that some agencies and specialists recommend a 6 month quarantine period (Funk 2002, Jacobson et al. 2002, NSWDEC 2004) as some viral diseases may take this long to show up in a collection, and can be devastating. During the quarantine period, a checkup with the vet including at least two to three fecal exams (Klingenberg 2007, Miller 1996), is important. The vet exam will establish a baseline for your pet’s health, and gives you an “in” if a health problem ever occurs down the road (more on that later).
This 90 day (or longer) period gives the animal time to acclimate to the new environment, and any subclinical or “latent” disease that was not apparent at first may surface during this period. Sometimes diseases need time to develop clinical signs or become detectable on tests (the prepatent period in parasites, or the incubation period in viruses and bacterial pathogens). A classic example of this is inclusion body disease of boid snakes, commonly referred to as IBD. Many snakes can be asymptomatic carriers (meaning that they can carry a disease without showing signs), and individuals can be asymptomatic for an indeterminate period of time before they start to show signs of being sick. Unfortunately, IBD is a fatal disease as there is no effective treatment, and diagnosis is often only confirmed after death (Chang and Jacobson 2010, Jacobson 2015). This kind of illness can be devastating to a collection.
Location and equipment:
Quarantine enclosures should be separate from the rest of your collection: There should be no possible physical contact, contact with fomites, or contact via aerosols or drainage (AZA 2014, Miller 1996). While this can be challenging in a small home, it’s critical. For example, in our two-bedroom apartment the office houses most of our pet herps, but I use the living room for quarantine (we have a reasonably quiet household, so the living room is not a noisy, stressful place for an animal undergoing treatments). If you accidentally bring home an animal with snake mites, you’ll pat yourself on the back for not putting the quarantine enclosure near your permanent collection. Quarantined animals should be attended to only after the rest of your collection has been cared for to minimize the chance of disease transmission (AZA 2014, Miller 1996).
These are for quarantined animals only, and do not enter the general equipment circulation.
These enclosures should also be easy to clean and disinfect; you do not want cage walls and floor to potentially hold onto microscopic pathogens. Non-porous cage materials like plastic, glass, acrylic glass, or screen are ideal. Wood, melamine, and tile, are not ideal (NSWDEC 2004). Keeping enclosure furniture and cage decoration to a relative minimum is important for easy sanitation, but do not neglect the species’ needs. Seeing as how I routinely have a foster or rescue animal around, I have a quarantine box in my herp supply closet with supplies and a number of easy-to-disinfect cage furnishings.
Disposable gloves. If you are concerned that you cannot spend a solid two to five minutes vigorously washing your hands after dealing with quarantined animals, gloves are indispensable. I keep non-powdered nitrile gloves instead of latex gloves around, as amphibians may react to latex (Whitaker and Wright 2001). I am not aware of any occurrences of reptiles reacting to latex gloves, and I prefer the non-powdered one to avoid irritating their eyes, nares, etc. If you are dealing with very large or messy quarantined animals, consider purchasing a lab coat or other sort of personal protective gear to act as another barrier between your quarantined and established animals.
A set of forceps (Zoo Med Stainless Steel Feeding Tongs, 10-Inch) and food handling containers (for dusting insects with supplements). These are for quarantined animals only, and do not enter the general equipment circulation.
A dedicated quarantine bucket for soaking small cage items in a disinfectant. In a pinch, I’ve used my bathtub for small cages and large cage furniture, which was later thoroughly cleaned and disinfected so that there is no opportunity for zoonotic disease transmission.
Plastic plants, both meant for aquarium and terrarium use (they don’t have to look fabulous, just offer some cover and visual stimulation). Note that I prefer plastic false plants to silk or other material, as I find they are easier to disinfect.
Hide boxes of various sizes made from plastic plant saucers and plastic food containers with an entry hole cut in the side. Cheap and easily cleaned, and if you need to discard them it’s not at a large cost.
Water/food dishes; the same plant saucers and food containers as above (without the holes).
A few smaller sweater boxes and latch-top storage containers to use as quarantine enclosures for small animals.
For very sensitive, smaller animals or aquatic species, sometimes I’ll make “sacrificial” plant cuttings of easy to establish species like pothos (Epipremnum aureum) or philodendron (Philodendron sp.), or grab a clump of aquatic plant from an established enclosure like java moss (Taxiphyllum sp.), duckweed (subfamily Lemnoideae), or java fern (Microsorum pteropus). If the animal in quarantine ends up being perfectly healthy and parasite-free, then these plants get transferred to that animal’s permanent enclosure. If not, they get discarded, because they were growing like weeds around here, anyway!
Complicated enclosures complicate treatment:
I love naturalistic enclosures. They look beautiful and provide excellent environmental enrichment and mental stimulation to our captive herps, which is often sorely overlooked. But few things pain me more than to have a client proudly show me photos of their stunning enclosure that they spent weeks (or months) setting up for their prized animal, only to have to tell them that there were some pretty nasty parasites on their pet’s fecal exam, and the whole thing needs to be ripped up and disinfected, and plants and soil thrown out. Some enclosures may be treated with an appropriate “drench” solution of antiparasitic (Mayer and Donnelly 2012), however not all antiparasitic drugs may be used this way and this method is wholly dependent on what kind of parasite needs to be treated.
Bioactive substrates are another innovative and useful tool in herpetoculture, but they essentially do nothing to stave off parasites. Many parasites transmitted via the fecal-oral route have extremely resilient life stages that can survive pretty extreme environmental conditions (Bowman et al. 2003, Camus et al. 1995), and unless you are doing a complete substrate change every time the quarantined animal defecates then the substrate will only serve to house the parasites and protect them with humidity and shelter from the cage heating source.
Paper towels and butcher paper look boring, but they will save you time and money when dealing with a quarantined animal, and abnormal stools as well as ectoparasites are much easier to spot on these substrates (NSWDEC 2004).