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Tipping the scales in favour of reptiles

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As a niche market, the reptilian world is an important interest sector for the companion pet industry. I am aware of its importance and the keen association of many people globally with these fantastic animals.

Of course, they are not just held in homes but there is an exotic animal aspect to zoos, wildlife parks and various life science establishments that serve to educate the public and for research efforts in conservation.

These animals range from snakes, various lizards, tortoises and of course in some extreme circumstances, crocodilians including pet alligators if space is provided. Crested, Giant and Gargoyle Geckos are also very popular.

Requirements for feeding differ enormously and we tend to consider these animals as ‘cold blooded’. This is not technically true as the proper definition is that they are grouped as ectotherms and lose heat from metabolism to their environment. As such they require higher temperatures for routine metabolism and for growth, locomotion, and reproduction.

The bioenergetics of reptilians are quite different in many ways to mammals and includes different levels of efficiency and caloric conservation strategies. Reptilians also exhibit a fundamentally different mode of nitrogen excretion compared to mammals. Like their avian cousins, they excrete waste nitrogen as uric acid instead of urea and are therefore classed as uricotelic creatures. This makes them energetically more efficient in processing excess amino acids surplus to requirements.

Snakes and lizards absorb heat to raise whole body metabolism to remain active and we all know that in the wild bask in the sun during summer months. This is reflected in their food intake and need to provide elevated nutrition at the higher plane of activity.

Of course, as mainly carnivores they have essential requirements for high protein intake and the complete spectrum of amino acids. Also, they need the essential lipids to maintain cell membrane integrity and functional immune characteristics typical of all animals. There will be specific variations dependent on external factors such as temperature, season, and food availability.

However, pet owners, offer much more homogeneity in the containment system due to constant control of the optimum temperature and the lighting conditions in tanks and cages. Snakes and lizards are fed with many different types of food, and these range from humanely freshly killed such as rodents or day-old chicks (frozen) for larger snakes like boas and pythons. Frozen chicks taste very different to mice and other frozen mammals and are often used for fussy feeders, to get them into a habit of eating again after illness or gestation.

The use of crickets, locusts and meal worms, wax worms and fruit flies are a frequent meal for corn snakes and garter snake enthusiasts as well as iguanas and other lizards that are very common.

The production of insects as a source of food for animals is an expanding area and many specialist companies are engaged with the production of exotic insects for the zoo and private keeper or hobbyist. The days of keeping terrapins in a tank have evolved considerably into a multimillion-dollar industry for these other exotic reptiles.

Indeed, my hometown of Llanelli in Wales UK boasts a keen young man Cameron Reardon who has formed his own company called the Bug Box skilled in producing a variety of insects for the feeding of reptiles amongst other applications.

Providing balanced nutrition

Reptiles can easily suffer from nutrient deficiencies unless care is taken to provide balanced nutrition and meet their basic requirements for vitamins and minerals.

For example, it has been reported that snakes can experience an acute thiamine (Vitamin B1) deficiency that can lead to serious neurological issues causing erratic movements and twisting events. This has been due to using freshly defrosted fish with active thiaminase elevation degrading the natural thiamine levels.

This can be rectified by using supplements and suitable additives to the diet. The pet food industry has developed the need for dietary support of exotic animals such as reptiles with a plethora of commercial diets and products with added value.

Such diets are often dry or flaked, pelleted compound formulations and even some forming gels when mixed with water and allowed to set. These contain supporting proteins and oils together with vitamin and mineral premixes as well as pigments like carotenoids, and even prebiotics and probiotics for promoting reptilian health and welfare.

There are also nutrient and electrolyte fortified drinks for snakes and lizards to complement the dry food products. Reptiles kept under warm dry conditions can quickly lose body fluids and electrolytes like sodium and potassium and trace elements must be replenished.

There is much research work focused on many reptile species and clearly there is scope for much more science. It is an active and dynamic area in the animal nutritional sciences field.

Article contributed by Professor Simon Davies, Nutrition Editor, International Petfood magazine.



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