Merck Manual

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Routine Health Care of Reptiles


Roger J. Klingenberg


Last full review/revision Jul 2011 | Content last modified Nov 2016

Good sanitation and nutrition and a properly designed environment play a major role in preventing many common health problems in reptiles. However, if medical attention is required, reptiles respond best to treatment from a veterinarian familiar with their special needs. When selecting a veterinarian for your reptile, ask about experience with reptiles and select the veterinarian with an appropriate level of experience and interest.

Importance of Veterinary Care

Even though no vaccinations are required for reptiles, an annual health check can help make sure that your pet is well nourished and free from diseases and parasites. Because not all reptiles are cared for as pets from the time they are hatched, a prompt visit to the veterinarian for an initial examination is also a good idea. The first veterinary visit establishes a record of the animal in healthy condition. This information will be highly valuable should medical problems develop later.

Chemical Restraint, Sedation, and Anesthesia

There are many circumstances where chemical restraint is needed to perform a complete and thorough physical examination. If the reptile is likely to injure veterinary personnel or itself during examination, chemical restraint should be used. Sedation and anesthesia will be needed during surgery. However, you should be sure that the veterinarian has knowledge of and experience with sedating a reptile, because several common anesthetic techniques are not appropriate for use in reptiles and other precautions particular to reptiles are required.

Signs of Illness

The sick reptile should be kept at a temperature near the upper limit preferred by the species to improve functioning of the immune system. Reptiles are unable to produce a true fever, but when infected with bacterial agents they move to warmer areas in their environment to create a “behavioral fever.” Higher metabolic rates of reptiles with no appetite may require force-feeding or an increased rate of feeding. However, you should consult with your veterinarian regarding feeding, as it may raise uric acid levels and cause damage to the kidneys in conjunction with some commonly used antibiotics. Giving the reptile fluids should be considered as well.

Giving Medication

Antibiotics are usually given by injection in reptiles, although they are sometimes given by mouth in extremely small animals (such as the true chameleons and smaller geckos) that lack adequate muscle mass for injection. Intravenous injections are preferred in larger reptiles or when working around the head and mouth would be dangerous.

Shedding (Ecdysis)

Ecdysis is the process by which reptiles shed their outer skin in response to growth or wear. In snakes and some lizards, the process results in shedding the entire layer of skin as a single piece. Other lizards shed small sections of skin from time to time. Turtles shed coverings from individual scutes (plates) one at a time. Large, moderately abrasive rocks or other rough surfaces for reptiles to rub on during ecdysis help to ease a normal shed. Before shedding, snakes lose their appetite, and their color becomes mildly translucent and dull. This is especially evident over the eyecaps, which become opaque. Increased irritability and aggressiveness are frequent. The shed begins around the mouth, and the old skin is turned inside out as it is shed.

Once a reptile becomes opaque, the humidity should be slightly increased to help the shedding progress and to decrease the risk of a retained shed. Lightly misting the cage at least once a day and providing a hidebox with moist sphagnum moss or a soaking container are all proven techniques.

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