Reptile emergencies

Dan was proud of Isis, his two years old Green Iguana. He took good care of her feeding lettuce, some dog food and Iguana’s food. One day as he was getting Isis out of the cage to show a visiting friend what a lovely pet she was, Isis jumped out of the cage and fell on the floor. As Dan reached to lift her up, he noticed that her rare legs were not moving. He tried to touch and feel the legs, only to realize that they had no function or motion. Dan hurried and called his vet, who did not see reptiles. The front desk referred him to a reptile veterinarian.

After a brief visit, the veterinarian came back with the x-rays and showed Dan the reason for her back leg paralysis- a fractured and displaced spine. All the bones showed low density and thin wall- a typical sign of metabolic bone disease. The bones became fragile as a result of long-term poor husbandry and nutritional imbalance. Unfortunately, all the efforts to re-align the spine and fix it were unsuccessful.  

Danielle had a ball python. King was his name. King was a healthy eater and has quickly outgrown his cage. For Christmas, Danielle bought a state of the art spacious cage withal the bells and the whistles. The pet store recommended a special ceramic heating bulb, which Danielle had fixed in the cage, just above the basking spot. After a quick and easy setup, the cage was ready and King was introduced to his new house. So, out to Christmas dinner the family went. As they returned home that night, there was a slight smell of burned meat that blended in the smells of the leftover turkey they brought from dinner… The morning after, Danielle went to see how King was doing and to her surprise, she discovered a large burn on King’s back, covering about a quarter of his body. Now, she realized were that burned flash odor came from. She hurried and rushed to the emergency clinic, where King underwent surgery and prescribed medications. It took six months of dedicated care to save King. Now King is ok. A large area of discolored skin is there to stay…  

Paul had bought a couple of ware turtles a week ago. He kept them in a small tank on his desk as a temporary housing, until his dad could finish building a larger container. That day, when he came back from school, he noticed that one of the turtles did not eat. Three days later, both turtles were lethargic, swimming with a side tilt and gasping for air. He took the turtles to the vet, who diagnosed pneumonia. He explained that the infection was probably a result of stress and poor husbandry. Dad hurried and set up the new tank, following special instructions from the vet. The turtles were treated with antibiotic injections, but only one survived.  

Most reptile emergencies result from poor husbandry, inadequate nutrition and lack of knowledge. Accidents are common and hard to predict. It is important to invest the time and efforts in learning about the reptile pet, prior to the purchase. Also, finding a veterinarian with experience in reptile husbandry and medicine might help some.  

Let’s take a more detailed look at some of the most common emergencies:  

Traumatic injuries: Reptiles often are traumatized by sharp or heavy objects found in their cage habitats. It is common for reptiles to get caught under a heating rock (and get burned in addition to suffering the pressure trauma), a log, cage lid or any other similar object. Wires, sharp edges and nails also cause many injuries. Heavy objects and heating rocks should be used cautiously or avoided all together. Cages should be inspected periodically for threatening objects.            

Another category is traumas related to handling. Reptiles may get injured when dropped or when they are handled too roughly. They sometimes become injured when they vigorously attempt to escape handling. Many reptiles "spin" when they are handled and are susceptible to injuries such as skin tears and avulsions, leg fractures, and fractures of the tail or spine.  

Inter-mate aggression and cannibalism is also common. If more then one reptile occupies the same enclosure, make sure that size, species and disposition are compatible. Do not leave live mice, and especially rats, with snakes for prolonged periods (more then one hour). Snakes do not possess instinctive defense mechanism from small animals and may sustain or even succumb to severe rodent bites.  

Power and temperature related emergencies: Most reptile containers include electric heaters and light bulbs. Short circuits, exposed wires and equipment malfunction may result in electric shock, burns, and over/under heating. Abrupt temperature changes, as well as sub-optimal levels, alter body functions such as digestion, immunity and general metabolism. Digestion arrest is life threatening and may end in toxicity of the decaying food. Immunity deficit may result in fatal infections. Metabolic slowdown adversely affects the whole body.  

Any stressful environment will impair the immune system and affect the behavior of pet reptiles. Many reptiles develop dysadaptation syndrome, go off their food and become unresponsive and waste away. This can result in emaciation and severe depression.  

Inadequate nutrition and deficiencies of vitamins and minerals may lead to skin, oral and respiratory infections as well as bone disease and more. Affected reptiles may contract severe respiratory distress, ruptured skin, mouth and shell rot and fractured bones. These are all too common emergencies that can be prevented by proper husbandry.  

Every emergency should be presented to a herpetoveterinarian (a veterinarian who has expertise with reptiles) as soon as possible. Many patients are too far gone and require long intensive care, hydration, nutritional support and medications.  

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