As many of you with reptilian pets would know, they can be challenging to read sometimes! Signs of illness can be very difficult to spot – because often there aren’t any! Reptiles are very adept at hiding any evidence that they are sick, often until they are severely compromised and are so sick that they can’t afford to expend the energy hiding it anymore. At this they start to decompensate and are heading downhill – fast!
How can I pick up signs of illness before it is too late?
The answer to this question is to get into a regular routine of checking your reptile’s behaviour, appetite, droppings, and weight.
- Have you noticed if your reptile is becoming less active? This could be a sign of weakness or hypothermia. Check the temperature in the enclosure is correct for your pet’s species; if it is, take your pet to a reptile vet.
- Are there any changes in your reptile’s appetite? Reptiles have a slow metabolism, and sometimes it is quite normal for them to stop eating for a while (e.g., if they are brumating, about to lay eggs, or about to shed), but persistent loss of appetite without an obvious reason is worrying. If you have any concern about your reptile’s appetite you should take them to a reptile vet for a check-up.
Note: Brumating is a state of sluggishness, inactivity, or torpor experiences by reptiles during extended periods of low temperature. Brumation is similar to hibernation in mammals but unlike hibernating mammals who are inactive for long periods without stirring, brumating reptiles stir occasionally to drink water but may go without food for several months.
- Are there any changes in your reptile’s droppings? Is there diarrhoea? Or is your reptile not producing any droppings? Excessive urine, or none at all?
- Weighing your pet weekly or monthly can help identify a problem. Growing reptiles should be slowly and steadily gaining weight. Adults should be maintaining their weight. A sudden drop in weight, or a steady decline can both be concerning. If you have any concern about your reptile’s weight you should take them to a reptile vet for a check-up.
If you have a routine of checking your reptile at least every week, you will pick up many problems before they get out of hand.
What does a sick reptile look like?
Sometimes disease can occur suddenly, before there is time for any of the changes described above to take place. Other times the changes creep up so slowly, you might miss them. So, it is handy to be able to recognise other signs of disease. If you see any of the following signs, take your pet to a reptile vet promptly:
- Lameness on one or more limb
- Body swellings
- Bubbles from the nose/mouth
- Discharge from the eyes, ears, nose, or mouth
- A change in the breathing pattern e.g., faster or slower, or with more effort
- Redness, swelling or other changes to the skin, retained shed on the skin
- A change in posture or muscle tone e.g., slumped down or not standing up as tall as they used to
An annual health check is a great idea to ensure your reptile is healthy and behaving normally. During an annual health check your reptile vet will talk to you about your pet, examine them externally, look in their mouth and check their faeces under the microscope. Blood tests can also be run to check their general health, because reptiles truly are masters of hiding their signs of illness!
Carmel B, Johnson R (2014) A guide to health and disease in reptiles & amphibians. Reptile Publications, Burleigh