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
* 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.
* 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
* 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
* 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.
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
* 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
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.
* 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.
* Some very reliable and useful internet resources include:
* Melissa Kaplan’s Herp Care Collection (www.anapsid.org)
* University of Michigan Museum of Zoology – Animal Diversity
* World Chelonian Trust (http://chelonia.org)
* 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.