Annual Veterinary Visit for Reptiles

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Reptile owners are often surprised to learn that all pets, including reptiles, need an annual health examination. Many reptile veterinarians recommend health exams be performed twice a year on some species. Early detection and treatment of disease is very important to give your pet the best prognosis for recovery and is less expensive than treating a serious problem.

Most importantly, reptiles are great at hiding symptoms of disease until it is too late to reverse them, even with hospitalization in many cases. Regular veterinary care to prevent problems before they occur, is necessary to ensure your pet lives a long, healthy life. This is what veterinarians call preventive medicine.

What happens during a reptile checkup?

While veterinarians follow their own protocols when performing routine annual or semi-annual examinations, most recommend a series of blood tests and/or x-rays (radiographs) to help assess your pet reptile's health. Most physical examinations and blood testing can be performed on reptiles while they remain awake. However, depending upon the species of reptile, the testing performed, and the temperament of your pet, some of these tests may require short-acting sedatives or gas anesthesia to minimize your pet’s stress level and to keep them still during the test. If your pet is easily stressed, it may be easier to sedate them first, as they will be less stressed during the examination or testing.

Physical examination. Every visit starts with a thorough physical examination. During the exam, your veterinarian will record your pet's weight, general appearance, and activity level. Your veterinarian will ask you about your pet’s recent history and evaluate its diet. Your veterinarian will feel (palpate) various parts of the pet's body to check for abnormalities and note any changes since the previous visit that may warrant specialized testing. Your pet’s veterinarian will examine your pet’s oral cavity, check eyes and nostrils as well as examine the overall skin/scale condition. When possible, a stethoscope will be used to hear heart and lung sounds.

Blood testing. Just as your own regular medical examination may include blood testing, so does a checkup for a pet. Blood testing can include a complete blood count to examine the red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Additionally, a serum biochemical profile can help determine liver function, kidney function and blood values for protein, calcium, phosphorus, glucose, sodium, and potassium levels. In some cases, special testing for a specific set of diseases may also be required.

Fecal analysis. Microscopic examination of the feces allows detection of intestinal parasites (including coccidia, flagellated and ciliated protozoa and intestinal worms). Some intestinal parasites may be transmittable to people. There are several types of parasites that are normal inhabitants of most reptile’s intestinal tracts, so not all positive fecal parasite tests will require medical treatment.

Microbiological testing. Special stains, including Gram's stain, may be used to stain fecal samples, skin scrapings, or other tissue samples to detect the presence of abnormal bacteria, yeast, or parasites under the microscope. Depending upon the findings from the Gram's stain, additional tests, such as a bacterial culture and sensitivity test, may be needed to determine the species of bacteria or yeast and the appropriate treatment. Sensitivity testing allows the veterinarian to see if the bacteria or fungal organisms are resistant to certain medications and will help determine which are the best antibiotics or antifungal drugs to be used.

Radiological testing. Using X-rays, your veterinarian can examine your pet's body for abnormalities in the size, shape, and position of body organs, screen for masses such as tumors, look for abnormal fluid accumulation, and check the bones and joints.

X-rays can be particularly helpful in assessing the status of a reptile’s skeleton when your veterinarian suspects a common condition called Metabolic Bone Disease. This disease involves an imbalance of the body’s calcium and phosphorus due to improper nutrition or lack of ultraviolet light exposure and subsequently causes malformation and/or swelling of bones and joints. In some cases, bone fractures may occur (as pictured).

To find an experienced reptile veterinarian, check out the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians website at

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