Is It Too Cold In Here, Or Is It Just Me? – Basic Reptile, Amphibian and Aquatic Husbandry

SKAH exotic husbandry blog 4

While many people think “husbandry” is the act of being a good husband, it actually refers to the science of properly housing and feeding animals.  As an exotic pet veterinarian, over 90% of the diseases I diagnose are directly related to improper environmental conditions or diet.  As most exotic pets are not native to Northern Ohio, it’s important to create an environment that closely mimics their native habitat.  To do this well requires a great deal of research.

This blog is not intended to be an all-inclusive “how to” guide, rather it is intended to highlight the key areas where I see the most problems arise.  Reptile, amphibian and fish medicine is still in its infancy.  As new information arises from the scientific community, these recommendations may change.

Diets & Supplements

* You need to know what your pet normally would eat in the wild and

offer similar food choices if available.

* Offer variety – reptiles and amphibians are not meant to live on

crickets alone.

* If you feed invertebrates, become familiar with the concept of “gut

loading” your prey.

* Properly feed and condition your prey prior to feeding.  If you feed

shriveled up, dehydrated and malnourished crickets,

you’ll end up with a dehydrated and malnourished pet.

* Purchase food from reputable suppliers.

* Herbivores should have a fresh salad prepared daily with a variety

of greens and brightly colored veggies (i.e. peppers, squash,

pumpkin, etc).  Do not feed lettuce and carrots as a diet.

* Fish flakes and floating pellets may not constitute a complete diet

for some aquatic species, research the needs for your individual pet.

* You need to research how much to feed, and how frequently, as this

varies from species to species.

* Some species require additional vitamin and mineral supplements,

consult your veterinarian as over- and under-supplementation can

easily lead to disease.

* Feed at appropriate times.  Some animals need to bask and warm

up before eating.  Nocturnal predators are not likely to eat when the

lights are on.

* Avoid feeding live mice or rats to your snake or large carnivorous

lizards as they may injure your pet and potentially introduce

diseases into the enclosure.

Drinking Water

* Consider using bottled spring water as the chemical composition of

city tap or well water may fluctuate daily.  A small change in the iron

or chlorine levels may not affect us, but may potentially be toxic to

extremely small animals.

* Not all animals drink from a bowl, arboreal (ie tree dwelling) species

often lap water off of the leaves.  Chameleons require special drip

and misting systems for this reason.  Simply misting the enclosure

with a spray bottle 3-4 times a day does not meet their hydration


* Some species soak in the water to hydrate, rather than drinking.

These species require a large crock or small bath to soak in.  These

species will also frequently urinate and defecate in the water.

Change the water daily, and thoroughly clean and disinfect the

containers at least weekly.


* Choose a large enough enclosure for the size of your pet.  For most

lizards living in horizontal enclosures, the cage should be at least

2-3 times the body length (snout to tail tip).  Large lizards (i.e.

iguanas, monitors) are not meant to live in 50 gallon aquariums.

Small enclosures lead to chronic stress and illness.

* For aquatic species, avoid over-stocking a tank as this leads to

stress, competition for food and can easily overwhelm the biologic


* Glass aquariums are not appropriate for all species, many require

special screened enclosures.

* If your species is a climber (i.e. chameleons, tree frogs, arboreal

snakes), do not house them in a horizontal enclosure, they need a

vertical enclosure.

* All exotic species require hiding places (i.e. hide boxes, plants, half-

logs, clay pots, etc).  Lack of hiding leads to chronic stress.

* Enclosures require adequate ventilation, which is not inherent in the

design of most aquarium tanks.  This often requires special

modifications to promote air flow through the tank.

Substrate (the stuff on the bottom of the cage)

* Choose a substrate appropriate to your experience level.  Novice

pet owners should stick to simple substrates that are easy to clean

and maintain (i.e. paper towels, butcher block paper, reptile carpet).

* Experienced keepers may choose a more aesthetically appealing,

natural substrate (i.e. washed playground sand, wood bark, pea

gravel, etc).

* Avoid pine wood shavings, this bedding material tends to cause

respiratory irritation and illness.

* Despite its name, “Reptile Sand” is NOT safe if ingested and will

lead to intestinal impactions.

* Never feed your pet in the main enclosure if the substrate is small

enough to be ingested accidentally.

SKAH exotic husbandry blog 5

Heating & Lighting

* Every exotic pet has an ideal temperature range referred to as the

Preferred Optimum Temperature Zone (POTZ) – do you know what

this is for your pet species?

* Temperature should be monitored in three key places: 1.) the

hottest end of the enclosure, 2.) the coolest end of the enclosure

and 3.) the basking area (where appropriate).  Place the

thermometers at the level where the pet lives, not high on the glass

under the heat lamp.  Alternatively, invest in an infrared temperature


* Find out if your pet requires exposure to UV radiation.  If so, invest

in a quality UV-light that has undergone scientific testing to ensure

quality.  Such lights include: Zoo Med Repti-Sun, Sylvania Reptistar

and Duro-Test Vita-Lite

* Centralize all heat +/- UV-light sources at one end of the enclosure.

This creates a thermal gradient so your pet can warm up or cool

down as needed.

* NEVER USE HOT ROCKS!!!!  Countless reptiles have suffered 3rd

degree burns from these rocks when there’s an electrical short.


* As the saying goes, “cleanliness is next to godliness”.  This is

particularly true with exotic pets.  Poor sanitary conditions are one of

the leading causes for exotic pet illness and death.

* Your pet is essentially living in a perfect petrie dish.  Their home has

everything bacteria, yeast and molds need to survive – high

temperatures, high humidity, growth medium (i.e. soil, sand, wood)

and food (i.e. waste produced by your pet).

* Visible urates and feces need to be removed daily.

* Reptile enclosures should be periodically emptied and completely

cleaned with warm soapy water.  The soap should be completely

rinsed away and allowed to dry.  The enclosure should be

disinfected with a dilute bleach solution (1 part bleach to 30 parts

water) and allowed 5 minutes of contact time before thoroughly

rinsing away.  You should not be able to smell the bleach once it has

been rinsed and dried.

* Amphibian enclosures should be cleaned as for the reptiles, but

should not be bleached.  A final thorough rinse should be performed

using dechlorinated water to ensure any residual chemicals are


* Well established aquatic enclosures should undergo periodic partial

water changes to remove toxins and debris and replenish the water

with nutrients.  Additionally, products like the Python siphon system

are designed to remove debris and waste from the superficial layer

of gravel, while leaving the deeper layers of the biologic filter


beardie stow kent animal hospital


* Some species tolerate handling better than others.  As a general

rule of thumb, the more secluded the species is in nature (i.e. cave

dwelling, burrowing creatures, etc), the less they want to be


* Excessive handling leads to stress which inevitably leads to disease

and illness.

Water Quality (Aquatic Species)

* Poor water quality is the primary cause for disease in aquatic

species and occasionally amphibians and aquatic turtles.  Changes

in water quality trends are the earliest warning signs of pending

problems in the system.

* A proper aquatic system requires mechanical, chemical and biologic

filtration.  Refer to the numerous aquarium books on details for

setting up these filters.

* Housing fish with aquatic turtles or amphibians is very tricky

business.  Turtles and amphibians produce large amounts of waste,

which can easily overwhelm the biologic filter of the system.

* Partial water changes should generally performed every 1-2 weeks,

depending on the amount of animals in the tank (aka the biologic

load).  How much water to remove/replace and how frequently to

perform the water changes will be dictated by the water chemistry

and the amount of waste production.

* Invest in a water quality test kit, preferably a colorimetric (i.e.

dropper bottles) rather than test strips.  Test the water weekly before

the water change.  At a minimum, record: water temperature, pH,

ammonia, nitrite and nitrate levels and salinity (marine tanks only).

* Additional tests for more advanced systems may include: chlorine,

chloramines, alkalinity/hardness, calcium, copper, phosphate and

dissolved oxygen levels.

Katniss_Primrose POW 2

* Whenever there is a problem with your aquatic pet, bring your water

quality test log to your appointment.  This information usually holds

the key to diagnosing the underlying problem with your pet.

Research the Species

* Owning exotic pets requires a great deal of research into the

individual natural history of the species.  There is a lot of reliable,

science driven information available on the internet.  However, there

is equal or more misinformation available.  Here are some tips to

selecting a trustworthy sources:

* Who published it?  Is the author willing to commit their name

to the information?  What are the author’s credentials?

* Where was it published?  Look for sources originating from

universities (.edu), professional organizations (.org) and

societies.  Be cautious trusting information published on

personal web pages.

* Do the authors site credible references?

* How current is the information?  Is there a publication date?

* Who was the intended audience (i.e. general public vs.

herpetology association)?

* Some very reliable and useful internet resources include:

* Melissa Kaplan’s Herp Care Collection (

* University of Michigan Museum of Zoology – Animal Diversity

Web (

* World Chelonian Trust (

* Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles


* The serious herp enthusiast should consider joining a local

herpetology association.  The Northern Ohio Association of

Herpetologists (NOAH) is a well respected organization


* Various books are available, however these must be approached

with caution as there are no special requirements to author a book.

Look for authors with credentials in that field of study (i.e.

herpetology, veterinary medicine, etc).

* Hobbyist magazines are good sources for new ideas for cage

design, new equipment on the market, etc.

* Use extreme caution following the advice of strangers, or a “friend

of a friend.”  Some of the most critically ill patients I have treated

have been from the self-proclaimed “experts.”  In many cases, these

individuals have had the strongest opinions, the loudest voices, and

perpetuated the worst practices.  Be mindful of the fact that there is

a great difference between just keeping an animal alive, and

keeping an animal healthy.

Written by Eric E. Brooks, DVM

Stow Kent Animal Hospital



*   Mader, D.R. (2006). Reptile Medicine and Surgery, 2nd ed. Saunders-   Elsevier, St. Louis, MO

*   Mattison, C. (1987). The Care of Reptiles and Amphibians in Captivity, 3rd ed.  Sterling Publishing, Co.  New York, NY

*   Miller, R.E. (2012). Fowler’s Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine, 7th Ed. Saunders-Elsevier, St. Louis, MO

*   Stoskopf, M.K. (1993). Fish Medicine. Saunders. St. Louis, MO

*   Wildgoose, W.H. (Ed.) (2001). BSAVA Manual of Ornamental Fish, 2nd Ed., British Small Animal Veterinary Association.  Quedgeley, Gloucester.

*   Wright, K.M., Whitaker, B.R. (2001). Amphibian Medicine and Captive Husbandry.  Krieger Publishing Company.  Malabar, FL.


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