Veterinary Care: New Reptile Visit

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Many reptile owners are surprised to learn that all pets, including their reptiles, need an initial physical examination by a reptile veterinarian and at least an annual checkup. A number of reptile veterinarians actually recommend checkups at least twice yearly, to allow for early detection and treatment of potentially life-threatening diseases.

"The most important visit is the very first one, right after you acquire your pet reptile."

Regular veterinary care is necessary in order to ensure your pet lives a long, healthy life. The most important visit is the very first one, right after you acquire your pet reptile. During this visit, the veterinarian will perform a physical examination and conduct diagnostic tests, to assess your pet’s health status and look for signs of disease. The visit will include a thorough discussion of proper feeding, housing, and care of your new pet. It is important that you feel comfortable and confident with your veterinarian and the hospital staff. Make sure your pet's veterinarian is qualified or and experienced in the treatment of reptiles.

Reptile medicine has become a specialized part of veterinary medicine, and many general dog/cat practitioners are not comfortable or knowledgeable in reptile medicine. Ask about the qualifications of your veterinarian, who at the minimum should be a member in good standing of the ARAV (Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians). If they are not comfortable seeing your pet, ask them to refer you to someone who has more experience.

Parts of the Reptile Checkup

While veterinarians follow their own individual protocols when performing an examination on a new reptile, all veterinarians will conduct or recommend certain examinations to help ensure the health of your new reptile. Depending upon the species of reptile involved, the testing performed, and/or the temperament of your pet, some reptile veterinarians recommend sedation with in injectable sedative or short-acting gas anesthesia. Aggressive snakes and lizards, as well as very large tortoises, often require sedation in order to obtain blood samples. If your pet is easily stressed, it may be easier and safer to perform diagnostic procedures under sedation as well, as sedated pets are less stressed and stress is a known factor in some sick reptiles dying when handled.

Physical Examination. Every visit starts with a thorough physical examination. During the physical examination, the doctor will record your pet's weight, general appearance, and mobility. Your veterinarian will review any information that you may have been given when you acquired your new reptile, and will discuss the pet's nutritional needs and general care. Then the veterinarian will palpate (feel) various parts of the pet's body. Any abnormalities that are noted may indicate the need for specialized testing.

Blood Testing. Just as your own regular medical visit includes blood testing, so does a routine checkup for pets. Blood testing can include a complete blood count (examining the red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets) and serum biochemical profile (which assesses internal organ function and electrolytes.)

Fecal Analysis. Microscopic examination of the feces allows for detection of intestinal parasites, such as coccidia, protozoa, and/or intestinal worms.

Microbiological Testing. Special stains, called Gram stains, may be used on fecal swabs, skin scrapings, or other samples to detect the presence of abnormal bacteria and yeasts. Depending upon the findings from the Gram stains, additional tests such as a culture and sensitivity may be recommended.

Skin Scraping. Your veterinarian may also take a scraping of the skin to check for mites that burrow under the scales.

Radiological Testing. Radiographs (x-rays) allow the veterinarian to examine your pet's body for abnormalities in the size, shape, and position of body organs, as well as screen for masses, such as tumors, granulomas, or enlarged organs. Radiographs also allow for detection of abnormal fluid accumulation and provide a great visual assessment of bone and joint structure.

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