Giving reptiles and amphibians the best medicine

Ball pythons, bearded dragons and Pacman frogs — while not cute or cuddly — are part of a menagerie of pet reptiles and amphibians, or herptiles, owned by millions of Americans. And they seem to be becoming an increasingly attractive option for pet owners.

Results from the American Pet Products Association’s latest National Pet Owners Survey show that an estimated 5.7 million American households own at least one reptile. Reptile ownership is most common among younger pet owners, with the percentage of Generation Z reptile owners rising from 18% in 2018 to 27% in 2020, the survey said. Millennials are the largest group of reptile owners at 37%.

A 2020 study by consumer market researcher Packaged Facts found that most reptile owners consider their milk snake or blue-tongued skink to be a family member.

“Reptile ownership also synchronizes with demographic shifts, including the advancement of millennials and urban households, as the smaller pets are ideal for tighter spaces,” the survey summary said. “Just as importantly — and especially given the impact of the coronavirus pandemic — reptiles are affordable compared to dogs or cats, with most reptile owners viewing their reptile setups as a reasonable expense.”

Leopard Gecko
A leopard gecko getting an ultrasound (Photos courtesy of Dr. Mark Mitchell)

dr. Mark Mitchell, director of the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Wildlife Hospital, understands very well the attachment a person can have to a species of animal that other people might find, well, icky or gross. That attachment, he says, sometimes results in a greater willingness to spend.

“I’ve seen pet reptile owners spend thousands of dollars to save their pet,” he said. “They are no different than dog or cat owners who want to spend tens of thousands of dollars on diagnostics, treatments and surgery for the sake of their pet.”

Longevity explains the human-animal bond, said Dr. Mitchell, as many reptiles typically live much longer than cats and dogs. He has had two ball pythons as pets for 22 years, longer than he has his wife, Dr. Lorrie Hale-Mitchell, has known. “They’ve seen me through veterinary school, through a master’s and a doctorate, through marriage, through children, and that creates a strong bond,” he said.

An evolving field

Advances in herptile husbandry, nutrition and medicine have significantly improved the health and welfare of captive herptiles and their breeding success. “I graduated from veterinary school 30 years ago and it’s just amazing to see how dramatically things have evolved in terms of the medical and surgical care of captive reptiles and amphibians,” said Dr. mitchell.

bluetongue skink
A CT scan performed on a bluetongue skink

He spoke about some of these advancements in January at the North American Veterinary Community Veterinary Meeting & Expo in Orlando, Florida. The presentation of Dr. Mitchell discussed the importance of a thorough physical exam and considering the most likely causes of a problem or compromised organ systems to determine what diagnostics to do. He also discussed chemotherapy-responsive acute myeloid leukemia in a veiled chameleon, clinical theriogenology for reptiles, and an evidence-based update on clinical nutrition for insectivorous reptiles.

New advancements in reptile and amphibian medicine are supported by the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians, a professional organization founded in 1990 dedicated to herptile conservation, medicine, and education. ARAV membership includes 800 veterinarians, including 50 new veterinary graduates, as well as 30 veterinary technicians. The society publishes the online Journal of Herpetological Medicine and Surgery and was instrumental in the recognition of a specialty of reptiles and amphibians under the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners in 2009.

Veterinarians graduate with a range of skills, knowledge and competencies to treat any animal, regardless of species, said Dr. mitchell. However, he believes it is becoming increasingly difficult for a general practitioner to keep abreast of the latest developments in veterinary medicine. “The days of James Herriot are long gone, and as long as we hold onto all the creatures it might slow us down,” said Dr. mitchell.

“If you work as a generalist, you need to know your limits and know when to refer a patient for specialist care,” he advised, adding that there are numerous continuing education opportunities for veterinarians to increase their comfort when working with reptiles. and amphibians.

No cuddling with the lizard

Keeping an animal as a pet isn’t without risks, and herptiles are no different. Reptiles and amphibians often carry salmonella in their digestive tract. Humans can contract the bacteria by touching reptiles and amphibians — or their environment.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children, people with weakened immune systems, and adults ages 65 and older are at greater risk of getting sick from bacteria carried by herptiles.

Earlier this year, the CDC announced that pet bearded dragons are the source of a multi-state salmonella outbreak that resulted in the hospitalizations of at least 44 people. For these reasons, several organizations, such as the Humane Society for the United States, discourage keeping snakes and turtles as pets.

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