Today we’re going to talk about reptile nutrition! Nutrition is a very important part of maintaining the health of our reptilian friends! There are unfortunately a number of health issues that can arise from a poor diet. Each of the reptile groups has different nutritional requirements, for example snakes usually ingest whole prey items, which meets all of their nutritional needs. Unfortunately we can still run into nutritional issues such as obesity, given reptiles in captivity don’t do anywhere near as much exercise as their wild counterparts!
Lizards and turtles are more prone to nutritional issues, as their dietary requirements are a bit more complex. The key to maintaining their health in captivity is trying to mimic what they would access in the wild as closely as possible.
Nutrition of snakes is relatively straight forward (compared to other reptiles!) because they are designed to ingest whole prey items. This means that they are able to get all of the nutrients they require from the body of their prey (e.g. they get vitamin D from their prey’s liver, plant proteins from the prey item’s gastrointestinal tract etc.). It is very important that we feed our snakes whole prey items (e.g. whole rodents, birds etc.) so that they are complete and balanced.
One nutritional issue seen in snakes in captivity is obesity. We are very prone to overfeeding snakes and they often don’t get enough exercise – being kept in small enclosures and not often being taken out for a good slither! Lean prey items should be offered, often ‘Extra Large’ rodents are actually just ‘fatter’ versions of adults, and this higher fat intake is likely to be detrimental long term. Obesity will often result in issues with the heart and liver to name a few! Whenever you bring your reptile in for a health check we will assess weight and body condition to make sure you’re on the right track. Regular exercise out of the tank is going to be the best way to improve muscle tone and burn calories – just make sure they’re always monitored when out of the tank.
Lizard nutrition varies depending on the species. Bearded dragons are usually insectivorous for the first few months of life, and then gradually change to a more omnivorous diet. However some captive bearded dragons don’t like to ‘give up’ their high protein diet, which often results in gut and dental issues, as they aren’t ingesting as much fibre as they should. Once your dragon is 9-12 months old we should transition them to a diet of vegetables offered daily, and a protein insect meal around three times weekly (and usually a restricted number of insects so they don’t protein overload). It is also very important for lizards to receive nutritional supplements – usually babies need a calcium supplement daily or every second day, and as adults a calcium supplement can be used when feeding insects, with a multivitamin used once weekly. It is very important to ensure that the calcium supplement that you are using does not contain vitamin D. It is possible for lizards to get too much vitamin D, which can results in serious diseases. The best way to get vitamin D is via adequate UV light, and it will be present in a multivitamin supplement that can be used once weekly.
Skinks are often fed a mix of proteins (insects, snails etc.) and vegetable/fruit mixes. Often captive skinks are fed diets too high in fat (e.g. dog/cat food, mince), which is extremely inappropriate. We are trying to mimic a wild type diet and these foods are too high in fat, and have inappropriate calcium to phosphorous ratios, which can result in diseases such as metabolic bone disease. Protein sources for these lizards should be insect based, and vegetables and occasional fruit should be offered daily.
Monitors are insectivores or carnivores, and like our snake friends will usually eat whole prey items. Large monitors will often eat whole rodents or birds, and usually are fed this larger meal less frequently. Smaller monitors (e.g. ridge-tailed monitors) usually eat smaller meals more regularly, and are mostly insectivorous. Whole insects should be gut-loaded, and dusted regularly with calcium powder, with a multivitamin used once weekly. Ideally insects would be fed some vegetable matter prior to feeding to ensure your monitor ingests some fibre.
Turtles in the wild have evolved to eat a large variety of natural foods. Unfortunately, it is not possible for us to replicate their natural diet in captivity. There are also no commercially available diets for turtles that provide everything your turtle needs to grow and be healthy. This is partly because there is no complete data available for what the ideal turtle diet contains. To provide your turtle with all the nutrients it requires, variety is the key!
Carnivore, Omnivore or Herbivore?
Different species of turtles have different natural diets. Some species will also change their diet as they grown from young turtles into adults. Therefore, it is very important that you are familiar with what species of turtle you have and what its natural diet is. Most short-necked turtles will regularly eat some vegetation, and the amount will increase as they get older. Long-necked turtles mostly eat meat and only occasional plant matter.
Variety is the key
Here are some suggestions for what you can feed your turtle. Try to feed a different food item every time you feed your turtle.
These can be put in the tank or pond and stimulate your turtle to hunt and exercise.
Frozen turtle blocks
There are now many different brands of these available, including Turtle Dinner and the Fish Tukka range. There is also a Veggie Time product for reptiles that can trick your turtle into eating some vegetables as it looks like other frozen blocks of food. These can also be supplemented – see the supplement section.
These can be very convenient but care should be taken to not over feed these as they may lack or contain excesses of vitamins and minerals, as can frozen turtle blocks.
Earthworms, crickets, wood roaches, bloodworm and other assorted insects and their larvae can be fed.
Elodea and thin vallisneria are aquarium plants that most pet stores will stock. Care should be taken when feeding elodea as the small leaves can block the filter inlet. Some turtles will also accept fresh vegetables such as broccoli leaves, parsley, beans, capsicum, carrot and tomato.
Fresh fish or frozen marinara mix
If feeding salty pieces soak these in fresh water first to remove the excess salt. Whole fish are much more nutritious than pieces of fish meat. Marinara mix can be purchased frozen from fish shops and contains fish pieces, squid, mussels etc. Portions can be defrosted as needed.
There are many different products available which are suitable. Wombaroo make a good multivitamin powder and there are many different brands of plain calcium powders.
There are also many different methods for supplementing your turtle’s food. Frozen blocks can be slightly defrosted and then pressed into the powdered supplement before refreezing them.
For young turtles that require a large amount of calcium you can place the food in a container of water. Sprinkle plain calcium powder on the surface of the water and swirl the water to make a whirlpool. This causes the food and calcium to collect in the middle. Then place your turtle in the water to eat this.
Do not feed your turtle multiple times per day. This can cause your turtle to grow too fast and become obese. Young turtles can be fed once a day and most days of the week. Adult turtles only need to be fed every 3 – 4 days and only a small amount of food each time. Overfeeding can be detrimental to your turtle’s health.
Where to feed your turtle?
Turtles make much more waste than fish and so feeding your turtle in its tank or pond can overload the filtration system. An alternative is to feed your turtle in a separate container of water that can be discarded afterwards. Water can be taken from the tank for this purpose, otherwise ensure to condition and heat this water first.
What NOT to feed
Dog and Cat food
Turtles are not dogs or cats! Dogs and cats are mammals and turtles are reptiles. They have very different diet requirements and feeding these diets to your turtle can be detrimental.
Raw minced meat/pieces of meat
Turtles in the wild do not chase down cows, sheep, chickens or kangaroos! This is not part of their natural diet. Also, feeding raw meat comes with increased risk of food poisoning and is nutritionally unbalanced.
The same thing everyday!
Vary your turtle’s diet and try not to get stuck feeding them the most convenient food item every time.
If you have any other questions about your reptiles nutrition feel free to call the clinic to book a consultation.