Reptiles and the Veterinary Practice

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Many veterinary practitioners are treating reptiles as the popularity of these now-common house pets has skyrocketed in the past 10 years. When working in a practice that deals with reptiles, veterinary technicians must be aware of the special needs and have the knowledge that is required to properly accommodate these animals.

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Reptiles require special attention as well as extensive knowledge in not only medicinal practices but husbandry-related issues that vary among species.

The technician who confidently handles reptiles and conveys knowledge about these animals can put owners at ease and be instrumental in assisting the reptile-savvy veterinarian.

Experience and Handling

Dealing with reptiles requires a level of expertise in handling and caring that many technicians do not have. In addition, there are common unfounded fears of reptiles, which exist for many reasons.

Most fears, however, are based on the lack of proper knowledge. Proper handling, restraint, species identification, and general familiarity are crucial from the onset when dealing with a client’s pet reptile.

Practices that commonly treat reptiles have one or two technicians who are generally familiar with reptiles, and these technicians are usually the primary handlers of rep­tile patients. The need to convey a direct manner of professionalism with a client’s pet is crucial.

A reptile patient that is treated as a novelty, where people are invited to “see” the reptile, immediately directs a manner of unprofessionalism and inadequacy in the practice. This manner of handling reptiles should be eliminated from the outset. The technician most familiar with reptiles should be the only one who comes in contact with reptiles and their owners.

The intake Form

Unless an emergency situation exists, an intake form should be completed; this form should be available to the technician and veterinarian.

The intake form should contain crucial information about the reptile, such as genus, species, common name, sex, color, size, current caging information, and feeding regimen.

With this information, technicians can immediately determine whether activity periods are nocturnal, crepuscular, or diurnal! ascertain whether the environment exhibits proper husbandry; or determine feeding practices.


A problem can arise, however, because the knowledge base of information that is specifically required to discern special needs of certain rep­tiles may vary greatly among species. There are many fallacies regarding reptiles. Some basic guidelines, characteristics, and information are listed below:

  • Snakes are not slimy. They are covered with smooth, dry scales (Figure 2).
  • All snakes eat meat in some form or another and swallow their prey whole only.
  • Not all lizards are meat eaters; some are vegetarians.
  • All reptiles are vertebrates.
  • Reptile activity periods vary from nocturnal, crepuscular, to diumal and are based on particular species.
  • Very few snakes are poisonous. There are, however, rear-fanged venomous species. Whether a snake is poisonous should be determined before handling.
  • There are two venomous lizard species: the gila monster and the beaded lizard.
  • Not all turtles are aquatic; many are terrestrial.
  • Not all turtles are meat eaters. Some are herbivorous, but most are omnivorous.
  • Some snakes and many lizards (even some monitor species) eat only insects.
  • Some snakes will eat other snakes.
  • In terms of size, boa constrictors (Figure 4) are relatively small. Anacondas are large, and some pythons are the largest.
  • All reptiles require a continuous heat source to thermoregulate their metabolism.
  • There are few zoobiotic diseases that can be contracted from reptiles; salmonellosis, however, is the most common.
  • Nearly any reptile, including turtles, may bite if handled incorrectly or stressed.
  • Except for bites from certain snakes, turtles, and lizards, small reptile bites are relatively harmless.
  • Snakes do not have ears or eyelids, and, of course, limbs are absent.
  • All lizards and turtles have ears; eyelids do not exist in some lizards.
  • There are legless lizards.
  • Not all snakes, lizards, and/or turtles hibernate.
  • Many lizards and snakes can survive long periods without food.
  • Not all snakes have smooth scales; some have a raised keel on their scales.
  • Water is required for all reptiles and must be available all the time.
  • Some snakes and lizard are primarily arboreal, and some snake are aquatic or semi aquatic.
  • Heat is a 24-hours basic requirement.

Proper Care

In a practice that treats cats, dogs, and other small mammals, the basic information on husbandry is commonplace. Animals need to be given food and water daily, temperature is not necessarily a dependent factor, and most animals are not fed live or pre-killed prey. Several basic needs are consistent among many pet mammals that may vary from those of reptiles.

Reptiles have evolved over centuries to adapt to specific environments and, in many cases, specific microhabitats. These adaptations must be addressed when reptiles are in captivity. The needs of reptiles carry over, to a large degree, when being treated by a veterinarian. The ability of a technician to distinguish the particular species of reptile that comes into the practice is equivalent to proper care.

One must know or have available a quick reference of the required needs of the particular species. A few com­mon examples follow. A water dragon (Physignathus cocincinus) that is mistakenly identified as an iguana (Iguana iguana) can lead to detriment because the water dragon has husbandry requirements that vary greatly from those of the green iguana.

A completely herbivorous Russian tortoise (Testudo horsfieldi) may mistakenly be identified as an omnivorous turtle and could starve because of improper diet offerings. A smooth, green grass snake (Opheodrys vernalis) might be offered mouse pinkies because of the lack of familiarity of their proper diet of selected invertebrates and may starve to death.


Certain maladies occur in certain species of reptiles; some of these maladies occur seldom if at all in other species. For example, metabolic bone disease in the iguana due to improper diet and husbandry practices is com­mon and should be considered if the animal is presented.

Mites, ticks, nematodes, and cestodes commonly infest many imported reptiles; however, not all of these parasites have deleterious effects. Stomatitis, septicemia, salmonellosis, and vitamin deficiencies of all varieties exist, yet some of these maladies are common in some species and very uncommon in others.

Literature and Organizations

Many books have been published within the past few years that provide a wealth of information that can be used by the veterinary technician responsible for dealing with reptiles.

Most of these books provide basic husbandry information in relation to environmental needs and diet as well as full-color photographs for proper identification. These books are readily available, and an abbreviated bibliography is included at the end of this column.

These books also provide some limited yet useful taxonomic information as well as classification and identification information that is very valuable. None of these books, however, provides all the information veterinary technicians will need.


Doing research on handling reptiles of all types is important to the technician’s professional growth. Literature on this topic should be sought out at the technician’s earliest convenience. The practice will benefit by having rep­tile specialists or technicians who have expanded their knowledge of reptiles.

Nearly all states have a herpetologic society of some type. These groups often provide meetings and swap meets for their members. A listing of members of the society that are knowledgeable about reptiles can become an invaluable source of information to the technician.


Reptiles have become very popular as pets. The technician with the proper understanding of their specific needs and requirements will amply benefit any reptile-familiar practice.

Editor’s Note:  A version of this post by Justin Corliss originally appeared in the February 1995 edition of Veterinary Technician magazine.

Author Bio:

Justin Corliss is a devoted husband, business owner, amateur herpetologist and amateur arborist who operates a popular local tree removal and excavating business. Justin Corliss is an internationally published author in herpetoculture and veterinary aspect in herpetology. Justin is also a proud American veteran, honorably discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps.

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