Category Archives: Reptiles as Pets

PIJAC President / USARK Partner: the Many Faces of Ed Sayres


In the wake of the pet industry hiring of animal rights veteran Ed Sayres, questions have emerged regarding reptile industry ties and allegiance to this firebrand. Where does the US Association of Reptiles Keepers (USARK) stand? It has been over a week since the announcement. The Reptile Nation wants to know, does USARK support Ed Sayres?

ASPCA_EdSayresOn August 22, 2014, PIJAC announced that it had appointed Ed Sayres, a 40-year animal rights veteran with a written track record of opposition to reptile and amphibian ownership, as its president and CEO.  Almost immediately, some, but not all, members of the reptile community renounced PIJAC and withdrew financial support.

For forty years, Sayres was an animal rights activist.  And now he is a lobbyist for the largest puppy broker in the world, the Hunte Corporation who shuttles more than 100,000 puppies per year to pet stores all over the world.

In 2012, Ed Sayres said his aim was to raise awareness about puppy mill cruelty and to reduce the demand for puppies that come from puppy mills by asking consumers to pledge not to purchase anything from pet stores or websites that sell puppies.”  Sayres, E.  (2012, June 1).  ASPCA Pummels Puppy Mills With Pressure from Consumers, Politicians.  The Huffington Post.

In 2014, Sayres did an about-face, stating, “I am especially interested in the
challenge of breeding pure-bred dogs on a large scale with humane care standards that prioritize the care and conditions that matter most to the well being and lifetime care of the dog. . . In the future, we will not be debating adoption vs. purchase
”  E. Sayres, An Open  Letter to the Pet Breeding Community, August 22, 2014.

aspca quote on reptilesFor ten years, he spearheaded the ASPCA, which has an expressed policy against all reptile and amphibian ownership, stating that ownership of all reptiles and amphibians, including corn snakes, leopard geckos and dart frogs is, “bad for the animals, bad for us and bad for the environment.

Now he says, I strongly believe that responsible reptile owners, which are the vast majority, should be able to keep their pets and not be punished due to the actions of a few bad keepers.”  See

The best we can say about the many faces of Ed Sayres is that he enjoys a whimsical decision-making style, flitting from one position to the next like a butterfly in a field of poppies.  However, the more accurate description is probably that Sayres is a seasoned politician, talking out of both sides of his mouth to curry favor with whatever audience stands to profit him best at the moment.

At this moment, Sayres is feathering his nest with a fat salary from the pet industry, including the world’s largest puppy broker, Petland pet stores (the Hunte Corporation’s largest customer) . . . and with money raised in auctions and in micro donations to PIJAC, hard earned dollars from members of the Reptile Nation.

Politics Make Strange Bedfellows.  USARK has chosen to remain silent on its position, posting only a few comments on its Facebook page:


I am not sure what is meant by, “USARK is USARK and PIJAC is PIJAC.”  However, USARK changed its position on PIJAC rather drastically in 2013 and proclaimed that USARK and PIJAC were partnering.  In January 2013, USARK issued a press release that stated that,

“USARK is committed to working closely with PIJAC (Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council) on the issue of the release/escape of non-native species in the US. This is an extremely important issue for the reptile industry and for USARK stakeholders. PIJAC has a 10 year head start on this issue and USARK needs to partner with them and report back to you, our esteemed membership.”

In March 2013,  USARK announced that:

“USARK has established an open line of communication with PIJAC in 2013. The PIJAC Board of Directors voted unanimously to provide USARK an honorary membership. USARK looks forward to a working relationship with PIJAC, who has been protecting the pet industry over 40 years.”

And USARK reaffirmed its partnership with PIJAC in its 2014 USARK Promotion:

“USARK is committed to a working relationship with PIJAC (Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council) on issues concerning the entire pet community. This is an important connection for the reptile industry and for USARK stakeholders. PIJAC is an established organization dealing with anti -pet legislation and USARK will partner with them and make the entire American pet community stronger. “

While at least one other organization (Pet Industry Distributors Association) has been deleted from the PIJAC list of Association Representatives since Sayres’ appointment, as of today, Phil Goss and USARK remain on PIJAC’s “Association Representatives” list.

It is disappointing that USARK has not spoken out on behalf of its members against the appointment of Sayres as PIJAC’s president, implying that USARK intends to stay in bed with PIJAC, notwithstanding PIJAC’s hiring of Sayres.

photo 1It is disappointing, but perhaps not surprising.  USARK’s Board is heavily stacked with members of the pet industry.  Gary Bagnall, chairman of the USARK board, is also the principal of Zoo Med, a manufacturer of reptile and amphibian pet products that are sold heavily through PETCO and other retail outlets.  Zoo Med is the largest (by far) single contributor to the USARK coffers, giving Bagnall if not exclusive control, disproportionate influence on the direction of the company.

Todd Goodman is the president/CEO of Timberline Live Pet Foods, the photo 2world’s largest supplier of live foods (crickets, meal worms, etc.), also sold heavily through retail outlets.  Although Timberline has made no public statement on their website or their Facebook page, through personal correspondence, Goodman has advised us that, “Tuesday, August 26th, Timberline informed PIJAC that they would no longer sponsor their Top To Top conference nor be a member of PIJAC, specifically because of the Sayres hiring.”  (PIJAC still lists Timberline as a 2015 Top2Top conference sponsor on their web site.) 

Loren Leigh is the founder and owner of LLLReptile & Supply Company, Inc. with four retail pet outlets throughout southern California.  USARK’s president, Phil Goss, was a sales manager for years for Zoo Med before he was promoted to his position at USARK.

The USARK board is the pet industry and the USARK board is beholden to pet industry mega stores, such as PETCO (which has two representatives on the PIJAC board).  Zoo Med cannot bump heads with PETCO without impacting its lifeline business relationship.  We respect and salute Timberline for taking a stand against Sayres, but it makes it even more curious why USARK has not taken a public position.

It is therefore, not shocking news that while most USARK members and donors have expressed outrage at the appointment of a fox in the hen house, USARK has failed to criticize in any way the appointment of Sayres as PIJAC’s leader.

Herp Alliance has supported and endorsed USARK in the past.  We have commended them on the filing of a federal lawsuit challenging the Lacey Act rule making that placed five species of large constrictors on the Injurious Wildlife List.  We have repeatedly asked people to donate to their cause.

USARK-needs-to-clearlyUSARK needs to clearly and unequivocally state its position on Ed Sayres so that the Reptile Nation can decide if it wants to partner with a 40-year  animal rights veteran with a written policy against reptile ownership.

It makes no difference what Sayres is saying today about reptiles because he has demonstrated that he is willing to say whatever he needs to say to ensure that Ed Sayres is as profitable as possible.  His contradictory statements are not credible and the Reptile Nation is not rich with cash to pay his salary while we all wait to see which way the wind will blow Sayres’ opinions next.

Until USARK loudly and firmly denounces PIJAC’s current leadership, Herp Alliance will not support it and will not recommend it.


Exotic Animals as Pets

This article was originally posted in the American Bar Association’s GP/Solo Practice Magazine 2009.  The views expressed herein belong to the authors and do not reflect positions or philosophies of Herp Alliance.

By Katherine Hessler and Tanith Balaban

hsus-state-exotic animal lawsAccording to the 2007-2008 National Pet Owners Survey, about 63 percent of all households in America, or about 71.1 millions homes, have at least one pet, including cats, dogs, birds, fish, reptiles, hamsters, guinea pigs, and other common animals. But there is also a brisk trade in “exotic pets” such as giraffes, monkeys, zebras, lions, tigers, chimpanzees, and yes, bears. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that billions of wild animals are brought into this country each year, many of them bound for the exotic pet market. Experts believe the exotic pet trade is a booming business, ranging from $10 billion to $15 billion a year in this country alone.

Although the idea of owning an exotic pet may be appealing to some, these situations often result in problems for the owners of such animals, or their neighbors, and present significant concerns for the animals themselves. Owners, breeders, and sellers of exotic animals need to be aware of applicable federal, state, and local laws. Breeders and sellers importing animals must comply with federal legislation, not only relating to importation, but also for maintaining adequate living facilities for the animals. Owners are likewise responsible for the conditions in which the animals live, as well as the safety of their neighbors. The most well known legal concerns arise when an exotic animal injures someone. For example, news reports have focused on the problem of chimpanzees as pets after a recent mauling in Connecticut resulted in significant physical harm to a friend of the owner and subsequent death of the animal.

The legal issues relating to the exotic pet trade require balancing the property interests of owners, breeders, and sellers with the governments’ police power to regulate nuisance and to protect public health and safety. Not only can individuals be injured by exotic animals, but public health at large can be compromised by diseases brought to a community by non-native species, such as the monkeypox outbreak stemming from pet prairie dogs in Wisconsin in 2003. The environment is also at risk. To see the harm that can be done to an ecosystem by releasing non-native animals, one only has to search the Internet for “pythons” and “Everglades.”

Finally, the animals themselves are in significant jeopardy as they are often sold to individuals without the capacity to provide appropriate food, medical care, or habitat. This combination of risk factors often leads to legal concerns. In addressing the legal concerns related to the exotic pet trade, a practitioner must be aware of the relevant federal, state, and local regulation.

Local Legislation

The first place to look for regulations applicable to exotic pets is at the local level—the city, town, or county ordinances, especially zoning ordinances regulating real property to ensure public health and safety and to combat nuisance. Sometimes health departments have regulations in addition to the city laws. Should these ordinances be hard to find, a local humane society, animal shelter, or veterinarian may have advice as they are often involved with the consequences of exotic pet ownership.

This will usually be the level where the most restrictive laws have been enacted, but the degree of regulation, the types of animals regulated, and the consequences for violations all differ widely from locale to locale.

State Legislation

The next step is to check for state regulations. A good source of information on this type of regulation is the state’s department of wildlife or natural resources department.

Exotic pet regulations also vary widely from state to state. Where some states have a complete ban on exotic pets, others require permits for their possession, and some states have no regulations whatsoever. The definition of what constitutes an exotic pet will also vary widely.

In jurisdictions with licensing schemes, individuals must obtain a permit, usually from the state fish and wildlife department, prior to owning an exotic pet. Other states regulate (but do not ban or license) the possession of exotics, limiting the quantity of animals an individual may have or setting standards for importation and animal care.

Federal Legislation

The next step is to check federal legislation. The animal in question may require a license by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Other agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) may oversee the import and export of animals that are sold as exotic pets. Federal law affects breeders and sellers of exotic animals more than owners of exotic pets.

The reach of federal regulation is far broader than the state and local level regulations but is limited to regulating the ownership, transportation, exhibition, importation, and exportation of captive wild animals through interstate commerce and foreign policy. Because the federal government does not have a general police power, most regulations occur at the state and local levels, where police power does allow for general regulations for the public welfare.


When presented with a case involving an exotic animal, one of the first questions to consider is whether the animal arrived in the United States legally. To answer this question, a lawyer needs to know if the animal is covered by the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The ESA is a broad regulatory regime under which more than 1,000 species of animals and plants are officially listed as endangered or threatened in the United States. With limited exceptions, none of these animals may be imported or exported either alive, as parts or products, or as hunting trophies.

Generally, an importer/exporter must use one of the FWS designated ports, and the shipment must be declared through a FWS Form 3-177 (Declaration for Importation or Exportation of Fish or Wildlife) and receive clearance. In most cases, the importer/exporter also must be licensed through the FWS and pay certain fees with each shipment.

U.S.-based shipments do not have to be declared through FWS; however, the shipment must comply with foreign wildlife laws, and live wildlife must be transported humanely. A person who ships certain species (such as those listed as endangered and threatened species, migratory birds, marine mammals, or injurious species) may not be transported through the United States. There are some exceptions for those who engage in conservation of endangered and threatened species.

The APHIS, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Public Health Service, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the National Marine Fisheries Service also regulate the importation and exportation of wildlife and may impose additional requirements.

If the animal in question came from abroad, the importer may have needed to comply with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES is a multinational agreement to regulate trade in endangered or threatened plant and animal species to protect the survival of wild populations. CITES is implemented pursuant to the ESA.

Some states may also impose requirements. A practitioner should contact the state fish and wildlife agency about any state-level requirements or restrictions of importation, exportation, and transportation of wildlife.


The next question to consider is whether ownership of the animal is regulated by federal law and subject to additional conditions on its treatment and care. Relevant laws include the ESA, the Captive Wildlife Safety Act (CWSA), and the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). There are no federal laws that regulate or prohibit keeping exotic animals as pets.

The ESA (7 U.S.C. § 136, 16 U.S.C. § 1531 et seq.) prohibits a person from possessing, selling, delivering, carrying, transporting, importing, exporting, or shipping, by any means whatsoever, any endangered species of fish or wildlife. The ESA also prohibits any action that causes a “taking” of any listed species of endangered fish or wildlife—this includes harassing, harming, pursuing, hunting, shooting, wounding, killing, trapping, capturing, or collecting. It is unlawful for a person to trade or possess any specimens traded in violation of CITES. There are some exceptions to this rule (for scientific purposes, for example). In these specific instances, the person must get a permit through FWS.

The CWSA (Pub. L. 108-191, 117 Stat. 2871-2872), which went into effect September 17, 2007, prohibits the interstate commerce of live big cats across state lines or U.S. borders unless the person qualifies for an exemption. Big cats covered by the CWSA include lions, tigers, leopards, snow leopards, clouded leopards, jaguars, cheetahs, and cougars; all subspecies of these species; and hybrid combinations of these species. Penalties can result in jail terms of up to five years and fines of up to $500,000.

Also note that any retail pet store that sells exotic pets must be licensed as a dealer under the AWA (7 U.S.C. 2131 et seq.). The AWA ensures that animals kept for use in research facilities, for exhibition purposes, or as pets are provided humane care and treatment; the AWA also ensures humane treatment during transportation. Under the AWA, the secretary of agriculture is authorized to promulgate standards and other requirements governing the humane handling, housing, care, treatment, and transportation of certain animals by dealers and other regulated businesses, such as pet stores. (Regulations established under the AWA are contained in 9 CFR parts 1, 2, and 3.)

In addition, the administrator of the APHIS regulates animal dealers by issuing them annual licenses and conducting unannounced inspections of their premises to check for compliance with the AWA standards and regulations.

There are no private rights of action under the AWA. Penalties for violations under the AWA range from $1,500 to $2,500 for each day of each violation and up to one year in prison.

Possible Claims

What are the consequences to an exotic pet owner or seller/breeder if they violate a statute or if their animal causes injury to another? What happens to the animal?

Claims against pet owners, breeders, and sellers will most likely be tort actions—such as nuisance, conversion, trespass, negligence, and ultra-hazardous activities. In addition, if the animal has been abused or neglected, there may be separate charges under the applicable animal cruelty law.

An offending owner or breeder may be fined or imprisoned, and the animal may be taken, either to be euthanized or sent to a wildlife sanctuary.

However, a practitioner should be aware there may not be a claim for damages that flow from an injury through the federal or state statutes. Some federal legislation does not allow for a private right of action; instead, the aggrieved files a complaint with the appropriate federal agency.

Representing an aggrieved pet owner or breeder/seller changes the way one looks at the problem. A breeder/seller needs to comply with certain federal provisions. If these have been complied with, then state legislation should be examined. Lastly, local regulations should be consulted. When defending an exotic pet owner, the order of research should be the opposite—local, then state, then federal—because the regulations will mostly likely be more applicable at the local level.

Besides bringing suit, exotic pet owners or breeders whose animals have been confiscated may also either challenge the applicability of the regulation to their situation or challenge the legitimacy of the regulation.

If an exotic animal has been seized by animal control or by a state or federal wildlife department, owners may challenge the agency’s application of the regulation to their specific case by arguing that the animal does not fall within the parameters of the regulation. In administrative law, however, courts are deferential toward administrative determinations. A pet owner may also challenge the legislative or administrative body’s authority to have passed the regulation at all.

An exotic pet owner or pet breeder may also bring constitutional challenges, both facially and as-applied. An equal protection challenge under the Fourteenth Amendment may be brought if cities or counties enact zoning ordinances restricting people from owning exotic pets but do not include an allowance for those who already own these animals to continue to do so as a non-conforming use. In addition, any zoning ordinances must apply equally to those possessing permitted wildlife and other property owners; otherwise, the ordinances may be found invalid as applied. A procedural due process challenge under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments may be brought in cases where the government deprives a pet owner or breeder of property without giving appropriate notice or the opportunity to be heard. A regulatory taking challenge can also be brought under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, which require “just compensation” when private property is taken for public use. If an owner or seller has violated exotic pet regulations, however, the courts have found this not to be a regulatory taking.


Significant legal issues arise when an individual chooses to buy, sell, or own an exotic animal. Given the serious negative consequences that can result from this activity, significant protection is afforded by local, state, and federal law to the people adversely affected by the presence of these animals. Additionally, there are often terrible outcomes for the animals themselves, which are often not considered at the outset. Practitioners advising individuals in this context need to familiarize themselves with a very broad set of laws and regulations; the number and variety of these regulations is only likely to increase in the future owing to rising concern about the health and safety implications of exotic animals as well as concern for the welfare of the animals themselves.

Some Federal Laws That Implicate the Exotic Pet Trade

African Elephant Conservation Act
Animal Welfare Act
Asian Elephant Conservation Act
Captive Primate Safety Act
Captive Wildlife Safety Act
Eagle Protection Act
Endangered Species Act
Lacey Act
Marine Mammal Protection Act
Migratory Bird Treaty Act
Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act
Wild Bird Conservation Act
For More Information

For copies of applicable state and federal regulations and lists of protected species, write to the Assistant Regional Director for Law Enforcement of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office in your region.

Assistant Regional Director for Law Enforcement, Region 1
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
P.O. Box 9
Sherwood, OR 97140-0009

Assistant Regional Director for Law Enforcement, Region 2
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
P.O. Box 329
Albuquerque, NM 87103

Assistant Regional Director for Law Enforcement, Region 3
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
P.O. Box 45, Federal Building
Fort Snelling, MN 55111-0045

Assistant Regional Director for Law Enforcement, Region 4
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
P.O. Box 49226
Atlanta, GA 30359

Assistant Regional Director for Law Enforcement, Region 5
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
300 Westgate Center Drive
Hadley, MA 01035

Assistant Regional Director for Law Enforcement, Region 6
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
P.O. Box 25486-DFC
Denver, CO 80225

Assistant Regional Director for Law Enforcement, Region 7
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
1011 E. Tudor Road, Suite 155
Anchorage, AK 99503-6199

Office of Law Enforcement
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
4401 N. Fairfax Drive, Room 520
Arlington, VA 22203-3247

Additional information can be found at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website (

Katherine Hessler is the director and clinical professor for the Center for Animal Law Studies at Lewis and Clark Law School, Portland, Oregon; she may be reached at Tanith Balaban is a member of the Oregon State Bar; she may be reached at

This article was originally posted in the American Bar Association’s GP/Solo Practice Magazine 2009.

Therapy Snakes to Treat Depression


Snakes are being recruited as animal “therapists” by the NHS to treat depression.  A London clinic is the first to use reptiles to help patients overcome low self-worth and “communication issues”.

The Huntercombe hospital in Roehampton has enlisted Angel, a seven-year-old 5ft corn snake, in group sessions where patients can touch, feed and care for her.  The majority of its 38 patients are referred by the NHS for treatment for addictions and eating disorders.

Doctors say those involved in animal-assisted therapy (AAT) have already shown an improvement in concentration and mood. Louise Helsdown, the occupational therapist running the programme, said snakes were a “fantastic aid” in helping people recover from mental health problems.  She said: “We have patients who can’t get out of bed because they’re so depressed. But snakes are a great motivator especially for male patients who often don’t want to look after furry animals.

“Snakes are also unusual and people don’t come across them very often in this country. Handling them gives patients a sense of achievement which they can tell their friends and family about.  “They offer unconditional acceptance. They don’t judge people who have self-harm scars, for example.

“These animals provide a lifeline – the enjoyment of spending time with these animals really lifts their spirits and gives them a real sense of purpose to their day. “As part of the therapy, they are an innovative and fantastic aid to the recovery process.”

Known for their placid characters, corn snakes are not venomous and are the most popular type of pet snake. They are ideal in therapeutic settings because they enjoy being touched and learn to recognise their handler.

And the snakes, which originate from the middle and southern states of the US, are easy to care for as they are extremely hardy.

Huntercombe also uses a dog and two hamsters to help relax patients. Scientific studies have demonstrated that animal-assisted therapy can benefit people suffering a range of conditions.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania reported that stroking a cat or dog can lower blood pressure in those with hypertension. It has also been shown that people who watch fish in an aquarium before a medical procedure had less anxiety.  In the US, animals are used in convalescent homes, hospitals, daycare centres, and prisons.  Other clinics, including the Priory in north London, have pioneered “equine assisted psychotherapy” using horses to treat patients with anxiety and addiction.

All animals used at Huntercombe have regular health checks and breaks to ensure they do not get distressed.

Source:  The London Evening Standard, June 12, 2009

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Salmonella and Reptiles

By Erika N. Chen-Walsh

chickensThe Center for Disease Control (CDC) collects data nationally on salmonella infections (salmonellosis).  Salmonella infections are zoonotic and can be transferred between humans and nonhuman animals. Many infections are due to ingestion of contaminated food.

Salmonellosis comes from multiple sources, including infected food, lack of kitchen hygiene, excretions from either sick or infected but apparently clinically healthy people and animals , polluted surface water and standing water, improperly thawed poultry, and from direct contact with animals, including, but rarely, reptiles.  Salmonella bacteria can survive for some time without a host and are frequently found in polluted water.

The CDC web site contains wildly conflicting information on salmonella infection.  Although the CDC claims that there are approximately 40,000 reported cases of salmonella infection per year in the United States, it also claims that “it is estimated” that 70,000 people get salmonella infection from reptiles each year.  Obviously, both statements cannot be true.

The most recent published data from the CDC for salmonella are from 2009.  According to these data, in 2009, there were 48,699 cases of laboratory confirmed salmonellosis. Of these, 40,828 (84%) cases came from human sources and 7,871 (16%) cases from non-human sources. The breakdown of the non-human sources are perhaps the most telling:

  • Chicken:  4,464
  • Turkey:  914
  • Porcine:  339
  • Bovine:  336
  • Other Birds / Wild Animals:  136
  • Equine:  74
  • Reptile:  19
  • Other Domestic Animals:   6
  • All Other Sources:  1,583

Only 0.2% of non-human sources of salmonellosis came from reptiles.  Of all salmonella infections in 2009 (both human and non-human sources), 0.03% came from reptiles.

Chickens, turkeys, pigs, cows and horses all much greater causes of non-human source salmonella than reptiles.  According to the 2011-2012 APPA National Pet Owners Survey, 4.6 million American households own reptiles and there are 13 million reptiles living as pets in this country.

APPA’s 2009 survey indicated that there were approximately 11,000,000 reptiles living as pets in the U.S.  Nineteen cases of salmonellosis.  Eleven million reptiles.  That means that less than one thousandth of one percent of the pet reptiles in this country were a source of laboratory confirmed salmonellosis in 2009.

Herpetoculturists need to understand this data.  Although dry, zoonosis is a favorite topic of the animal rights industry and those seeking to restrict the ownership of reptiles and amphibians.  The risk of salmonella infection from reptiles is miniscule as compared to multiple other species of animals and can be nearly completely eliminated through proper hygiene.

Nutritional Problems in Reptiles

By Joerg Mayer, M.Sc.

tortoise-sickWithout a doubt, health problems arising from an inadequate diet are one of the major concerns in herpetological medicine. The key to managing nutritionally related diseases is to be familiar with the natural history of specific species. In ectothermic animals the metabolic processes governing digestion are dependent on environmental factors, mainly temperature. If these environmental factors are not optimal, even a perfectly balanced meal could go to waste because of inadequate digestion.

The class reptilia can roughly be divided into three nutritional groups: herbivores, omnivores and carnivores. Each of the groups has their own set of typical problems with different manifestations. Knowing to which nutritional category the affected species belongs, will help establish the differential diagnosis. Discussion of the following diseases will be organized according to the nutritional group of reptiles in which the disease is most likely to be seen. However, any disease may be found in nearly any species.

Generally, the diseases related to nutrition can be roughly divided into two groups: either caused by a deficiency or a toxic overdose of a certain nutrient.

Anorexia, Starvation
Anorexia is probably one of the most common presentations of an affected reptile to the clinician. In assessing the patient’s anorexia,starving-gecko it has to be determined whether the reason for an anorexic period is of physiological origin or related to improper management.

A thorough assessment of the captive conditions is essential in the clinical workup of an anorectic reptile to rule out improper management as the cause of the anorexia. A detailed description of the reptile’s husbandry must be provided by the owner.

Common reasons for a reptile to become anorectic include both infectious and non-infectious diseases. Certain normal physiological states will make the animal refuse to eat (e.g. just before shedding, egg laying or hibernation, brumation, etc.).

As a general rule, a reptile going through a normal physiological phase of anorexia should not lose more than 10 percent body weight. To monitor this accurately, it is a good husbandry practice to weigh the individual animal on a routine basis (e.g. once a month).

Common Herbivore Diseases
Common species: most terrestrial tortoises, green iguana, prehensile-tailed skink and chuckwalla.

Calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D3 imbalance: Multiple different diseases affecting the bone are usually lumped into “metabolic bone disease.” As more and more insight is gained into the specific pathophysiology of disease in reptiles, this term becomes too general to be useful and should be avoided. The following diseases are the most common:

Nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism (NSHP): The causes for NSHP can be multiple, but it is mostly due to a severe imbalance of the Ca:P ration in the diet, no access to a full spectrum (UV-B) light source and a lack of activated vitamin D3 or a combination of the above. If not enough Ca is provided in the diet or if no vitamin D3 is available, demineralization of the skeleton (osteomalacia in adults and rickets in juveniles) occurs. Pathological fractures and chronic abscesses, especially around the jaw, are common findings.

If insectivorous reptiles are being fed invertebrates without Ca supplementation (e.g. gut loading the insects, dusting with powder) NSHP is triggered by the inverted ratio of the Ca:P ratio of the insect body’s nutritional content.

Renal secondary hyperparathyriodism (RSHP): This disease is characterized by calcification of soft tissue and hypocalcemia. Chronic renal disease is the underlying pathology. This causes a hyperphosphatemia from decreased phosphate filtration in the diseased kidney. The elevated phosphate level in the blood decreases the hydroxylase activity due to negative feedback, leading to a decreased calcitriol (active form of vitamin D) level in the blood. The low calcitriol level fails to provide the negative feedback on PTH and a hyperphosphatemia is the result.

Common Carnivore and Insectivore Diseases
Common species: most chameleons (I), agamid lizards (I), all snakes, all adult amphibians, juvenile box turtles and aquatic turtles.

The primary energy sources for these reptiles is fat and protein. It appears that protein derived from animal sources is needed, and nonanimal product derived protein is inadequate for long-term nutrition.

Hypovitaminosis B1: This disease can be seen primarily in reptiles, which are being fed a large quantity of fish (e.g. garter snakes, aquatic turtles). The diagnosis, usually established by the clinical signs, will be primarily neurological in character (e.g. opisthotonos, blindness, torticollis), in combination with the feeding history (feeding fish species with high thiaminase activity).

This disease can be avoided by feeding fish that have been gutted, because most thiaminase is present in the gut, or by pre-cooking the fish, which will inactivate the thiaminase enzyme. Supplementation of B vitamins is also recommended; however, the deficiency can also occur even when fish are fed together with a vitamin B supplement because relatively small amounts of the enzyme thiaminase are able to deactivate very large amounts of thiamin.

Biotin deficiency: A biotin deficiency can only be induced if the reptile’s diet consists 100 percent of raw eggs. Even though this seems very unlikely, cases have been reported in species like monitors (Varanus sp.) and gila monsters, which have received a diet consisting of only raw eggs. The raw egg contains the anti-nutritive factor avidin, which binds the biotin in the egg, making it unavailable to the body.

In the wild, most eggs consumed by reptiles are already fertile or have been incubated for a period of time, which in turn decreases the avidin content.

Clinical signs usually manifest themselves as cutaneous lesions and generalized weakness.

A change in the diet and vitamin supplementation is usually enough to reverse the damage.

Hypovitaminosis E: Reptiles that have been fed mainly obese rats can develop steatits because of the increased fat content of the prey animal. This disease should also be included in the differential diagnosis of aquatic reptilian species (e.g. crocodiles, turtles) that have been fed a diet consisting mainly of fish with a high percentage of polyunsaturated fatty acids.

If the food animals were not stored appropriately, the fatty acids in the carcass can become rancid, contributing significantly to the disease.

Clinical signs can be subtle, from anorexia to more specific signs, such as hardened fat pads. Supplementation with vitamin E and correct feeding techniques help prevent this disease.

Common Omnivore Diseases
Common species: Uromastyx lizards, box turtles, Asian turtles, bearded dragons, some aquatic turtles.

Bearded Dragon with MealHypovitaminosis A: Hypovitaminosis A is a common presentation in box turtles and aquatic turtles. Vitamin A is essential in the health of the mucus membranes, which will show immediate pathological changes when faced with a shortage of vitamin A or beta carotene in the diet.

The mucous membranes will harden and thicken as a consequence of the deficiency. Swelling of the eyelids is a common presentation in turtles, and a “parrot beak” and/or aural abscesses in box turtles should make the clinician suspicious of a diet deficient in vitamin A or beta carotene.

Vitamin A/beta carotene supplementation can reverse the signs in most cases. I prefer the beta carotene supplementation because of the toxicity potential of concentrated vitamin A preparations.

Hypervitaminosis A: Hypervitaminiosis A is a true toxicity and is usually caused iatrogenicly by an overdose injection of concentrated vitamin A preparation by the veterinarian. Clinical signs mimic a dermal burn and include sloughing of the skin. Treatment resembles burn wound therapy, including antibiotics, addressing the open wound and administering parenteral fluid.

Injections with highly concentrated vitamin A (e.g. 500,000 IU/ml) should be avoided and this preparation given only orally. Aquasol A (by Astra) is a good alternative for injection because it contains only 50,000 IU/ml.

Nutritional disorders should be considered in the differential diagnosis of every sick reptile. A thorough analysis of the husbandry protocols and physical examination will often reveal malnutrition as at least one of the underlying causes for the clinical presentation.


Reprinted from Veterinary Practice News, 2009

Reptile Emotions

Reptile Emotions

When thinking of reptiles, the image that comes to the minds of most people can vary from a garter snake slithering through the grass to lizards of Jurassic proportions roaming the earth. The idea of bonding with such creatures may seem creepy, or even impossible, yet some people insist that their reptiles know them and enjoy being with them. Can reptiles feel or portray emotions?

Generally, reptiles do demonstrate basic emotions. According to Dr. Sharman Hoppes, clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, the main two are fear and aggression, but they may also demonstrate pleasure when stroked or when offered food.

“A snake that is feeling aggressive may warn you with a hiss,” states Dr. Hoppes. “This can occur when you are forcing your attention on the snake, and if you persist, they may strike out. Typically snakes hiss or coil when they are feeling hostile, but most pet snakes are not aggressive animals unless threatened.”

A reptile that is feeling fear may simply try to get away, but it can also exhibit actions similar to aggression. For this reason, it is a good idea to keep handling sessions with a new reptile to a minimum until it gets used to you. Otherwise, you may scare it into striking at you, a perceived threat. It is better to have a good session without upsetting the animal that lasts two minutes than a longer session trying to force a reptile to accept you.

Corn SnakeA more controversial emotion in reptiles is the concept of pleasure, or even love.  Many feel that they have not developed this emotion, as it does not naturally benefit them. However, most reptiles do seem to recognize people who frequently handle and feed them.

“I don’t know if it is love,” says Dr. Hoppes, “but lizards and tortoises appear to like some people more than others. They also seem to show the most emotions, as many lizards do appear to show pleasure when being stroked.”

Another interesting fact is that while many reptiles lay their eggs and then leave their young to fend for themselves, some, such as prehensile-tailed skinks, form family groups and protect their young. Female alligators also stay with their young and will guard them for up to six months, teaching them survival skills and vocalizing with them through a series of grunts. Whether this is due to a survival instinct or concern for their individual offspring is unknown.

1-photo 3 (3)When it comes to interactions with humans, some reptiles do seem to enjoy their company. A tortoise that enjoys being petted might stick its neck out or close it eyes and become still and calm during the interaction. The same is true of lizards.

“Some reptiles do appear to enjoy human contact,” adds Dr. Hoppes, “especially when food is offered. Many will respond to feeding times, coming to certain people they associate with food. And certainly most iguanas prefer certain people over others.”

Iguanas have individual personalities that can vary from tranquil and laid-back to aggressive and dominating. The latter can be very difficult to live with and care for. The more calm iguanas, however, tend to bond with their person but may only endure handling by that individual. It is the rare iguana who is social with strangers.

Many reptile owners believe that their personal reptiles do recognize the good intentions they have towards them. Others deem that their cold-blooded dependents only tolerate them when they have to and would prefer to be left alone. By careful observation and handling of your reptiles, you can determine which are more social and which may not be quite so impressed with having a human as a best friend.


Reposted from the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University Pet Talk web site on August 18, 2011.  Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the Web at