Reptile Feeding Conundrums: Prey & Diet in Herpetoculture

Feeding & Diet in Herpetoculture

Prey items or food for reptiles has gone through some major upheavals over the past years. Only a few I know of, have made a large impact on the herpetoculture industry so far. We can all agree (I hope by now) most snakes and some lizards will take, what we here at the Reptile Apartment Group refer to as ‘whole prey’. This is somewhat of a misnomer in my thought process. It may be, just semantics but when feeding one ‘animal’ to another that would constitute as ‘whole prey’. The picture is my idea of ‘whole prey’ for humans.

When it comes to vegetarian, herbivorous, & even omnivorous reptiles, herpetoculturists tend to agree, a diet in ‘greens’ is healthy. Even so, there’s often mistakes made when feeding our reptiles. Whether that be a ‘whole prey’ item, a rodent, humanely and properly euthanized using Carbon Monoxide or purchased Frozen.  This is a topic in and of itself which people will argue with their hollow arguments of ‘natural’ prey, etc. These arguments are based in ‘anti-emotional’ thinking.

At an extreme level I could contrast the following. At 12 years old everyone should be taught to hunt & fish. Then, anyone over the age of 12 should be ‘forced’ to obtain their own foods.

Civilization, choice, & Feeding Reptiles

We can all agree it’s simply not something we do today. Why not? It worked for the first people’s for a good long time until Europeans introduced ‘Civilization’. Yet another topic entirely.

Civilized persons ‘care’. Now let that sink in, ‘care’ four letter word often said enough but not practiced. When we ‘care’ for something or someone there’s an emotional attachment to that something.

We have emotional attachments to objects, yet dismiss the now known ‘fact(s)’ showing animals do experience emotions. Should we not provide them the same rights, privileges, and favors which we at least offer our captive human prisoners? That’s right, I said just that.

Without going on about it, I think it safe to say, we should all now understand there’s no general acceptable reason for feeding live mammalian or avian prey at all.

Insects as Feeders

I know what some are thinking, what about insectivores? In other words,

‘is it ok to feed live crickets, mealworms, etc? If the other animals have emotions is there evidence that invertebrates do to?’

Simple answer, as of this writing I don’t  know. Presumably, from my experience it’s completely plausible. I will be blunt though, I’m fairly distanced from the arthropod life forms. Ants & Hymenoptera are seemingly intelligent & we don’t often feed them to reptiles.

On this subject Tribe Member Dave L. Johnson added

‘Even when feeding live insects some can in fact damage the skin of some lizards and even kill smaller invertebrates who can become overwhelmed if there are too many fed at one time.’

So what gives John? Are you suddenly a Tree Hugging hippie who’s going to say we shouldn’t own reptiles?

Some days, that answer would be a resounding YES. Then I remember how I came to respect both flora & fauna. I remember understanding the complete ‘Circle of Life’ without the aid of some cartoon lions.

Choice & Distance from Food

Maybe that’s it, we’re too coddled as a society as to watch the news where thousands of humans die & not bat an eyelash but we will go to ‘extreme’ lengths to block out the idea of the cow we just passed will be on our dinner table tomorrow or next week. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not saying we should be allowing torture of farm animals because we can distance ourselves from the horror of bolting a cow.

That’s WHY I PAY for the slaughterhouse to do their job. I know what has to happen, I deferred that duty to someone else and pay for their service. I have a…wait for it now…


That’s right folks, humans are capable of reasoning. More often they are capable of sound reasoning, other times not so much. Look at any new couple on the street then speak to them in six months, you’ll get it. So if this is the case why are we choosing to endanger the life of an animal (without choice) in our charge?

Regardless of supervision, we cannot predict everything. Accidents will happen. I think once we ‘human-up’ and admit some people are ‘thrill kills’ and that’s just not OK when you own an animal or have children for that matter.

You can try telling me, ‘it’s natural,’ so is you hunting for your food, it’s why we evolved the way we did. Reptiles are less evolved and are prisoners of our will. So why would we, being so much more evolved, believe, when all evidence presented is to the contrary, that we should be feeding live mammalian or avian prey?

Sheri Monk had this to add.

‘The reptile hobby, like the livestock industry, is frequently under public scrutiny. It’s imperative that we have a positive story to tell. We need to behave in a manner that treats our charges with respect — regardless of whether we’re handling the predator or the prey.’

Before leaving this topic let me make a few things clear.

‘I have too many snakes to feed to use Frozen/Thawed.’

BULL: Own less.

‘I’ve always fed live.’

BULL: Simply because a serial killer has ‘always killed’ doesn’t make it right.

We invite all relative and responsible comments on our Facebook Fanpage, before skipping down though; please do read the following section regarding Feeder Diets.

Feeder Diets

So what about gutloading? Should we feed live crickets? Are we that distanced as to not care about an insect life? What is the extreme? Who’s asking and who’s judging? Hell if I know? For all accounts and purposes we’re discovering everyday what we’ve been taught prior is all in question now. I half expect a discovery any time now claiming Bhudda was a sadomasochistic. I digress, my point being, taking it to the insect level for me personally is an extreme.


Now then, moving on to actual gut-loading, pre-feeding, or conditioning whatever you want to call it this week. You’re feeding nutrients to the insects in the hopes, these nutrients will then be passed on via the digestive process of the stomach and other digestive organs. Does this actually happen? I don’t know, I’ve not seen documented evidence of it. According to one source Clay Ghann of Ghann’s Cricket Farm crickets may eat and process food within hours.

MBD in Tupinambis

MBD in Tupinambis

I’ve seen what happens when calcium isn’t offered. I’ve also seen lizards raised completely without UVB which are normal. Prior to this it was believed impossible to raise these particular species without UV exposure.

As of this moment, do you really ‘know’ what the crickets you’re buying are fed prior to being fed to your reptile? What are the biological balances regarding vitamins and minerals in captive reptiles to help them thrive? What nutrition is being passed onto the reptile via the gutload we feed?

We gutload with grains and vitamin/mineral powders as well as mixed greens. With that said, we are changing the perspectives of just how we do things, some of these, as the above shows radically alter herpetoculture long time thinking. Some ideas are simply accepted, others take years to catch on to the mainstream. This brings me to the crux of this section.

New to the Game

Since I’ve been in herpetoculture I’ve known two people whom produced a vitamin and or calcium supplement which since day one I would recommend. Why is that?

Respect amongst their peers.

Calcium Carbonate structure

Fast forward about 10 years. I begin seeing more and more individuals creating these gut-load companies, or reptile vitamin and mineral supplement companies. Honestly, I half ignore most of them as I’ve got no reason to care who they are. I don’t know them, they’re not recommended by a respected colleague, and I don’t want to spend money and effort on a potential risk to my reptiles health.

This is wholly enhanced by the fact that when questioned, your ‘company’ cannot reveal its ‘secret recipe’. Here’s a clue, you’re NOT Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken so quit acting like it. This is business and whether you’re a new breeder or manufacturer until the industry ‘knows’ you don’t get pissed when I ask

“What’s in the box?”

Tribe member Marcy had this to add

“If someone asked me I would tell them that I carefully considered everything I put into the chow. I did research on the ingredients and basically thought about each one and they had to pass the filter what would I do if my reptile ate this?”

That’s a fair answer, she even went so far as to explain this as well. ‘I’d love to be able to tell everyone what is in it but to actually get a patent on a recipe is hugely expensive.  More expensive than a small company we are can even think of.’

Why quote Marcy? Number one she’s straight Tribe, she’s Tribe because Marcia McGuiness of Golden Gate Geckos one of my closest and longest Tribe members introduced me and said Marcy was good folk. See how that worked?

Now then on the subject of gut load and calcium. Has anyone else noticed some things are odd? As in, why is there such a variance in brands of calcium carbonate? Added vitamins and minerals in supposedly regimented amounts but when it comes to dosage it says dust lightly, then another says two tablespoons, yet not one of them when asked can produce verifiable proof of concept much less proof their product works?

Or can they?

Spinach Leaves

I mean most of what we ‘know’ today is are you ready for it, based on human consumption and dietary requirements. Calcium blocking vegetables have never actually been tested in reptile blood serum tests to see if they’re blocking calcium at significant levels. Nor has anyone requested such from product manufacturers. We’ve simply bought into the hype really haven’t we?

Natural sources of calcium carbonate abound, crushed/ground oyster shell anyone? Then we come to the ‘too much’ aspect of things. Too much calcium can cause just as much if not more damage when not properly dosed.

You’re right to wonder, what IS properly dosed?

Can we really know?

Tribe Member Dan brought this up which is a valid point.

“We can compare the analysis on the label for comparison.”

While true, we still (to my knowledge) don’t understand the necessary amounts of elements needed in our reptiles. We’re just guessing it would seem. I can tell you this. I trust Sticky Tongue Farms and Repashy and a limited amount of others in regards to their foods and or supplements. Again, whether or not you trust those brands is based on a direct result of our past dealings. Whether that was here, at a show, or even the corner market.

I think when we share and explore (as did Brandon Fowler in his recent interview) the various techniques in herpetoculture that we should be sharing with one another so that we once again have the COMMUNITY we once had. For example, can someone tell me why manufacturers still make ‘Hot Rocks’ & coloured lights? We’ve shown through various studies, etc., that these elements are not efficient and dangerous. Almost every book on care says they’re bad. Yet, manufacturers still create them.

Why is that? Because this INDUSTRY has lost touch with it’s supporting COMMUNITY and shuns the new inexperienced keeper by berating them anytime a question is asked. That’s even if they are brave enough to ask after seeing their friends ripped to shreds by so called ‘professionals’.

A little humility and patience goes a long way to building the important relationships some of us enjoy. If you TRULY want to SUPPORT herpetoculture, take your eyes off the dollars and look around at where you can interact with the public or even within our own industry. I’m not speaking of donations and auctions RAACA is AWESOME don’t even think we don’t support them. We are talking about taking back the industry to the community level where WE help one another not detract and bad mouth. Here’s looking forward to an incredible 2015!