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Reptile Nutrition: What is it and Why is it Important?

Last Updated June. 15, 2019
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When people talk about pets, some minds instantly conjure images of puppies and kittens. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with these mammalian companions, but some of us prefer something a little different. Some people like their pets a little more cold-blooded, a little more reptilian.

Maybe you’ve thought about bringing a reptile home as a pet. If so, keep in mind that the reptile family consists of many different members, from snakes to tortoises, and understanding the proper feeding of reptiles can challenge many first time owners.

For those who have little experience with reptiles, proper nutrition may seem elusive, but you want to spend the time and effort to get it right. Each species has different needs, and often have drastically different diets to fulfill those needs. Whatever species of reptile you choose to keep, speak to a qualified breeder or veterinarian who specializes in reptiles to ensure that you fully understand your pet’s dietary needs.

Whether you love brightly colored snakes, large tortoises, quick swimming turtles or small lizards, caring for reptiles doesn’t have to intimidate you. Making sure they have all they need may take more effort in some instances than caring for dogs or cats, but don’t let that scare you off. Keeping reptiles as pets is every bit as rewarding as keeping other animals, and with a little research you can provide everything that they need.

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Food transit time

For those unfamiliar with the term, food transit time refers to the span of time it takes an animal to fully digest food and then eliminate waste. Reptiles are cold-blooded, so unlike cats and dogs, their food transit time — and thus feeding schedule — correlates directly to the temperature of their environment. They will literally digest more quickly in warmer temperatures. Keep your reptiles in properly heated environments to ensure proper digestion and good health.

These temperatures and times vary from species to species as well. For example, an aquatic turtle such as a map turtle will likely require feeding every two or three days, while an adult Burmese python will only need fed roughly twice a month. Overfeeding can lead to serious health problems, so maintain the right temperature, food transit time and feeding schedule.

Feeding snakes

Snakes get a bad reputation. Some people fear them, but many others love these scaly animals. While you can choose from a number of different snakes, most will fall into one of two categories — terrestrial or aquatic. Though you must feed prey to both, what they eat differs based on their environment. Regardless of species, you may wish to wear a glove when feeding your snake, in case they decide to strike at the food before you can retract your hand from the enclosure.

– Terrestrial snakes, such as boas, some pythons and king snakes tend to eat small mammals. The smaller species will eat mice, rats or hamsters, but larger boas and pythons will require larger prey like guinea pigs or rabbits. Some tree snakes, like the green tree python, may benefit from eating small chicks. Depending on size and age, expect to feed them between twice a week to once every three weeks.

– Aquatic snakes, like northern water snakes, banded water snakes or rainbow snakes will require fish-based diets. You can feed them salmon cubes, tadpoles, minnows or eels.

In the case of terrestrial snakes, we suggest feeding freshly killed prey, or previously frozen prey to prevent defense wounds on your snake. Only acquire prey from a trusted source, and avoid using wild prey as they often have parasites or may have ingested pesticides.

Feeding lizards
Fewer people have a fear of lizards than they do of snakes, and lizards make great pets. Just like snakes, you’ll find a wide variety of lizards that you can keep as pets. You will find a more diverse range of diets in the lizard family, however. Some lizards eat fully herbivorous diets, while others have an omnivorous diet. Some lizards are carnivores who eat small mammals, while others eat only insects.

– Herbivorous lizards like green iguanas or blue tongue skinks eat only plants. You will want to feed them a variety of plants and fruit, including chard, watercress, dandelion leaves, hibiscus leaves and flowers, mango, orange and kiwi. You can also include pellet based food made of dehydrated alfalfa for up to one third of their diet — any more than that and they may experience dehydration issues. Expect to feed once a day for juvenile lizards, but roughly once every two days for adults.

– Insectivorous lizards like leopard geckos or emerald swifts eat insects, but don’t expect to just catch bugs outside your house and feed them to your lizard. Make sure to acquire feeder insects from reputable pet supply shops. Depending on your lizard, they will likely eat crickets, grasshoppers, mealworms, locusts or even butterflies. Before feeding them to your lizard, we recommend sprinkling them with calcium carbonate, and then serving them in a cup or dish with calcium and phosphorus powder. Expect to feed your insectivorous lizards once a day.

– Carnivorous lizards like monitors require small mammals like mice or rats, and will often enjoy eating eggs as well. Avoid live feeding for your lizard’s safety, and make sure that you acquire all feeder animals from an appropriate source. Depending on the size and age of your lizard, you will likely feed your carnivorous lizards two or three times a week.

– Omnivorous lizards like bearded dragons or Asian water dragons will require some of the foods from all of the other lizard varieties. They will eat insects, fruits and plants, mice in some instances as well as specially designed omnivorous lizard pellets. You will likely need to feed an omnivorous lizard once a day.

Feeding turtles
Children seem to naturally love turtles, and many adults do as well! These little tanks with legs make great pets as long as you care for them properly. The majority of turtles kept as pets fall into one of three categories — aquatic carnivorous turtles, terrestrial herbivorous turtles and semi-aquatic omnivorous turtles. They each have different dietary needs and feeding habits, some of which will require a fair amount of preparation.

– Aquatic carnivorous turtles like map turtles will have diets composed mostly of meat, but they will still need some plant-based nutrition, especially as juveniles. Depending on the species, expect between 70 and 90 percent of their diet to come from meat, leaving 10 to 30 percent that will come from plants. Fresh whole fish like minnows, guppies and eels will provide excellent sustenance, as will earthworms and bloodworms. Other good foods include pieces of veal liver, various seafood like shrimp and aquatic turtle pellets. Remember, these turtles will still need a small amount of food from plant sources, and these include algae, water hyacinth and watercress. Juveniles will require daily feeding, while adults will need fed once every two to three days.

– Terrestrial herbivorous turtles like box turtles and tortoises eat diets based entirely of plants, with 10 percent of that made up of fruits. A wide variety of plants will provide a good source of vitamins and minerals. Consider feeding your turtles romaine lettuce, endives, chard, watercress, clover, beet leaves, parsley and alfalfa hay. Some turtles will also enjoy white mushrooms cut into small pieces. As far as fruit goes, your turtles will love oranges, kiwi, mango, melon, bananas, apples and strawberries. You can also supplement fresh food with terrestrial turtle food. These turtles need many small meals throughout the day.

– Semi-aquatic omnivorous turtles like red-eared sliders and western painted turtles have a diet made up roughly of half plants and half meat. As far as plants go, they like many of the same options as their terrestrial cousins; romaine lettuce, alfalfa hay, mushrooms, clover, parsley, beet leaves and endives. They tend to enjoy tropical fruits like oranges, kiwis, mangoes and bananas. They will gladly feast on slugs, earthworms, fruit worms and snails. For more substantial meats, consider feeding these turtles small pieces of poultry hearts, feeder mice and fresh fish. You will also find feed pellets available that will help you supplement your turtles’ diets as well.

Always avoid overfeeding
Whether you keep snakes, turtles or lizards, take great care not to overfeed your reptiles! Overfeeding snakes can lead to disrupted feeding schedules, and even regurgitated prey animals — which can cause harm to your snake! In the case of snakes, be sure to vary the prey that you provide to them and if they seem uninterested in feeding, they may not be ready to eat again yet.

Herbivorous lizards don’t overeat as frequently as carnivorous, insectivorous or omnivorous lizards, but it can happen. Lizards can develop weight problems from too frequent feedings that will shorten their lifespan. Since lizards often expend less energy while in captivity, you want to make sure that they don’t overeat.

In the wild, turtles are opportunistic feeders. In captivity they may keep eating so long as they can find food in their enclosure. Turtles will also come to recognize that you feed them when you approach, so they may beg or seek food when you come near. Obesity and fatty liver disease can strike turtles in captivity when fed too much.

As a general rule, remove discarded or uneaten food from your reptile’s tank or enclosure to prevent overeating as well as to help maintain a cleanly environment for your cold-blooded friend.

Respect reptile eating habits
Going hand in hand with avoiding overfeeding, when you own reptiles you must respect that they have much different eating habits than we do. While we give recommended feeding schedules, keep in mind that every species differs, some a great deal! While humans seldom go a day without eating, many reptiles will go days — or weeks — without eating. Do proper research on your reptile species, consult a breeder or veterinarian and pay attention to how your reptile reacts to feeding.

Also note that some reptiles develop fat reserves during breeding or hibernation season. Since captive reptiles don’t always mate or hibernate, they may accumulate extra fat stores. If you feel that your lizard or snake has unused fat stores, consult a veterinarian.

A note on live food
Most predatory reptiles will readily eat pre-killed prey animals. We recommend feeding this way as many prey animals can and will injure reptiles within an enclosure. It may seem unlikely, but rodents and snakes, for example, do not interact in captivity as they do in the wild.

In rare instances, however, snakes and predatory lizards will only feed on live prey. If your reptile insists on live prey, watch closely and remove any prey that your reptile hasn’t consumed within 45 minutes. Many veterinarians have horror stories involving snakes and lizards with missing eyes and exposed ribs because of a fight with live food. This doesn’t apply to aquatic snakes and turtles that eat live fish or insectivores who feed on crickets or other insects that don’t present a hazard to your pets.

Don’t forget the water
For your water dwelling reptiles, water won’t ever become an afterthought. Make sure to keep it clean and replace the water when appropriate. For your other reptiles, however, make sure that you provide clean, fresh water as often as they need it. Many reptiles will drink out of bowls, while others may prefer drip systems. You may also need to ensure that your enclosure maintains the proper humidity level.

Whatever water delivery system you use, make sure that you clean and disinfect it on a regular basis, removing any mineral deposits before refilling it and returning it to the reptile’s enclosure.

Vitamin deficiencies in reptiles
In captivity, many reptiles can develop vitamin deficiencies. Vitamin A plays a very important role for reptiles, but unfortunately vitamin A deficiency frequently plagues reptiles kept as pets, especially turtles. Reptiles with this condition may have swollen or cloudy eyes, redness in the mouth or any signs of infection in the mouth. They may also have cracked, thin or infected skin. Other signs of vitamin A deficiency include a runny nose, difficulty breathing and lost weight. Vitamin A deficiency can have detrimental effects on your reptile’s internal organs, shorten their lifespan and drastically reduce their quality of life. If your reptile exhibits any of these symptoms, have your veterinarian examine your pet right away! A varied diet should supply all the vitamin A that your reptile needs, but supplements are also available if necessary.

Another common problem seen in reptiles that you should look out for is vitamin B1 deficiency or hypovitaminosis B1. Reptiles require vitamin B1 for proper metabolization and nervous system functions. You will see this frequently in reptiles that eat whole fish. Most fish have the enzyme thiaminase in their guts, which renders vitamin B1 ineffective. Freezing leafy greens also reduces the vitamin B1 in those greens, so this can affect omnivores and herbivores as well. If your reptile has hypovitaminosis B1, one of the first symptoms is weight loss. Soon they will start losing balance and coordination, and experience weakness and tremors. You can avoid this problem by gutting fish prior to feeding and avoiding freezing any leafy greens that you intend to feed your reptiles. You can purchase vitamin B supplements as well, but prevention tends to work better than these supplements.

In the wild reptiles synthesize vitamin D3 by absorbing UV rays from sunlight. However, in all likelihood your reptiles stay indoors. You may provide vitamin D3 by using high quality UVB-producing bulbs in your pet’s enclosure. This may not provide enough for some species, however, and nocturnal reptiles often avoid exposure to bright lights in captivity. In these instances, you may need to provide vitamin D3 supplements. Exercise caution when using these — too high of a dose of vitamin D3 can be toxic. If you feel uncertain about whether your reptile needs this supplement, or want more specific advise with the dosage, contact your veterinarian for professional assistance.

Calcium deficiency is another common problem, especially in breeding reptiles. Much like in humans, calcium is a necessary mineral for reptiles. Yet too much can also cause harm — it can neutralize the acids used for digestion, and in some cases can actually calcify internal organs. Take care to not give too much, and to include phosphorus in the supplementation. A widely accepted guideline suggests two parts calcium to one part phosphorus.

With all supplements, if you have any concerns or questions, we recommend contacting a veterinarian for more specific guidance. Every species has different needs, and each individual does as well. If your reptile begins showing signs of poor health, don’t wait, seek help immediately. Not every veterinarian has experience with reptiles, so make sure that yours does.

When your reptile won’t eat
If your reptile refuses to eat, don’t panic! They may be entering a hibernation or mating cycle and so don’t want or need to eat as much. They may need to shed their skin and so will avoid eating in preparation. You may also have given them more food than necessary, so they don’t need to eat again yet.

If your reptile continues to refuse food, however, you should seek medical attention for your pet. A number of potential infections or environmental problems can lead to anorexia in reptiles in captivity. A professional with a great deal of expertise and experience with reptiles will quickly diagnose the problem and come up with a treatment plan to help your scaly friend.

Reptiles are worth the trouble
Keeping reptiles as pets can be more difficult than keeping other animals. You must maintain the proper temperature, create every aspect of their environment appropriately and feed them specific diets at specific times. You can’t simply toss a mouse into your snake enclosure whenever you want to.

Reptiles differ from us a great deal, and we need to keep that in mind as we raise them as pets. They have much different eating habits; we can’t see human motivation in turtles when they seem to beg for food. To new reptile owners this feels daunting, but once you understand your reptile’s needs, dietary restrictions and feeding schedule, then it becomes much simpler.

Whether you love snakes or lizards, or enjoy watching tortoises lumbering around, reptiles make great pets. They have individual personalities and many will bond with their owners. Despite their specific dietary needs, in many ways they can be less needy than dogs or cats, and in many instances they look much more beautiful! Some reptile species will live for over thirty years, meaning that they will stay with you longer than almost any other pets will, so long as you see to all their needs.

Undoubtedly this guide has helped you figure out how to best feed a snake, lizard or turtle, but don’t stop here! Learn about the individual species that you want to bring home, speak to breeders and consult a veterinarian. Do everything you can to ensure that your reptile’s needs are met, and you will have a companion for decades to come.