How and When to Use Reptile Supplements
This article is written by one of our veterinarians,
Unlike the heavily researched world of cat and dog nutrition, the details of the nutritional requirements of our reptile friends are much lesser known. Each reptile species has unique feeding habits in the wild, which in many cases can be difficult to replicate in captivity. Nutritional supplements are designed to fill the nutritional gaps in the diets of captive reptile species and in some cases are essential to the health and wellbeing of your pet.
What Are The Main Supplements Reptiles Need?
Calcium plays a number of roles in the body, including growing and maintaining healthy bones, along with muscle and nerve function. Low levels of calcium in the blood is termed hypocalcaemia, and in reptiles most commonly results in a condition called metabolic bone disease.
Hypocalcaemia in reptiles can be caused by inadequate levels of calcium in the diet or low levels of vitamin D3, which is essential for calcium absorption (see below for more on this). Note that hypocalaemia can also be caused by some other medical conditions, like kidney disease, so if your reptile is diagnosed with hypocalcaemia your vet may want to rule out any disease before adjusting the diet.
What is metabolic bone disease?
Metabolic bone disease in reptiles is a condition where the body is forced to use the calcium stored in the bones, leading to them becoming weak and prone to fracture.
Vitamin D3 is active form of vitamin D and is essential to ensuring adquate levels of calcium from the intestines. Vitamin D is activated to vitamin D3 in the bloodstream when the skin is exposed to UVB radiation from the sun. Even if there is plenty of calcium in the diet, without adequate levels of vitamin D3 in the blood your reptile will be at risk of metabolic bone disease.
Reptiles in the wild naturally get all the UVB they need from basking in the sun, so this needs to be replicated in the captive environment. Ensuring that your reptile is exposed to UVB rays from a specialised bulb, in addition to providing them access to the real deal (the sun) from time to time if you can will help to keep your reptile's vitamin D3 levels in the optimal range.
Reptile UVB Lamps
Other vitamins and minerals
There is much we are yet to learn about the nutritional needs of most captive reptile species, so it makes sense to include a multivitamin and mineral supplement in the diet of most reptile pets. A multivitamin can act like a sort of 'insurance' against some of nutritional deficiencies which can occur due to the fact that our captive reptiles are 100% reliant on us for the foods in their diet and unable to eat the natural variety and whole prey items they may come across in the wild.
Don't forget to add water! All reptiles require water, even those from desert climates naturally get water from deep below the ground or in the early morning dew. Research the unique water requirements of your pet reptile's species and make sure you meet them.
Lizard Nutrition Basics
Baby bearded dragons will need a calcium supplement every day or two, as they are insectivorous for the first few months of life you can dust their insects with a powdered supplement before feeding. Once they have reached about 9 to 12 months of age bearded dragons should have moved onto a more omnivorous diet, eating vegetables daily with a restricted number of insects offered about three times a week. Again, calcium supplements can be given dusted onto these insect meals. For bearded dragons of all ages include a multivitamin supplement like Herpavet Multical Dust once a week with an insect meal. For added nutritional value, gut load your feeder insects.
When choosing a calcium supplement, take care to choose one which does not contain vitamin D. Although vitamin D is important, too much can cause illness and there should be plenty available in your dragon's weekly multivitamin dose.
Make sure your beardie grows up to eat their vegies! A cricket only diet is too high in protein and too low in fibre which can result in gut and dental problems.
Much like bearded dragons, the primary protein source for skink species (such as Blue Tongued Lizards) should be insect based, not mince, dog or cat food as these protein sources contain excessive fat and an inappropriate ratio of calcium to phosphorus. Offer your skink a variety of vegetables daily with the occasional serve of fruit or edible flowers as a treat. Again, the simplest way to ensure your skink has an adequate vitamin and mineral intake is to dust the food with a calcium supplement about three times a week and include a multivitamin once weekly.
When choosing vegies for your lizard, offer a variety including calcium rich leafy greens such as kale and dandelion alongside other fibre rich choices such as peas, corn, sweet potato and carrots.
Turtle Nutrition Basics
Wherever you can, try to replicate your turtle's natural diet as much as possible. Different species may be carnivorous, herbivorous or omnivorous, so do your research. Variety is key with feeding turtles, try to offer them something different at every feeding.
Depending on what you are feeding, there are a few different ways to supplement your turtle's diet. Pellets are a convenient option and are often fortified with some nutrients, however as these are not a single complete and balanced turtle food they can't be relied on alone.
If you are feeding frozen blocks these can be very slightly defrosted, then pressed into a multivitamin or calcium powder before being frozen again prior to feeding. Other food items can be placed in water with calcium powder sprinkled over the top; swirl the water to create a whirlpool which will cause the calcium to collect in the centre, then put your turtle in the water to eat.
Overfeeding in turtles can quickly cause obesity. Young turtles can be fed once daily, most days of the week. Adults should only be fed a small amount every three to four days.
Do Snakes Need Supplements Too?
What about snakes? Snakes are a little different as in captivity they still tend to be fed whole prey, which means they can get everything the need from the body tissues and gut contents of the animals they consume. To keep your snake's diet balanced feed whole prey items such as birds and rodents and go for leaner options wherever possible to help avoid obesity and overfeeding. The frequency of feeding for your snake will vary depending on their species.
Sources and Additional Reading
Brisbane Birds & Exotics Service. (2018, September 6). Reptile Nutrition [Blog Post]. Retrieved from: https://bbevs.com.au/reptile-nutrition/
Illinois Aces. (2004, July 23) Pet Reptiles Need Vitamin D and Calcium for Bone Health [Blog Post]. Retrieved from: https://aces.illinois.edu/news/pet-reptiles-need-vitamin-d-and-calcium-bone-health
Repashy, A. (n.d.). Supplemental Nutrition For Your Reptiles [Blog Post]. Retrieved from: http://www.reptilesmagazine.com/Supplemental-Nutrition-for-Your-Reptiles/
Lafeber Vet, Reptile & Amphibian Medicine. Retrieved from: https://lafeber.com/vet/reptile-amphibian-medicine/
Photo credits for the majority of images in this article belong to David Clode on Unsplash