Reptile Awareness Day 2023

21 October 2023


Alongside the canine and feline mainstay of small animal veterinary resources, BSAVA have always sought to further the education, welfare and research around exotic pets. Reptiles are some of the most commonly kept exotic companion animals and their clinical care has been covered extensively in both the BSAVA Manual of Exotic Pets and the BSAVA Manual of Reptiles, with new Client Information Leaflets dedicated to reptile pets in development. On International Reptile Day, we explore three fascinating facts about this branch of the evolutionary tree, and what these facts can mean for captive reptile care and welfare.

FACT: Reptiles need ultraviolet (UV) light to efficiently absorb calcium.

You won’t come across a reliable fact sheet, web page or discussion forum on reptile care that doesn’t discuss this fact. With the exception of snakes, reptiles require UV light in order to maintain proper vitamin D3 levels. Vitamin D3, in turn, helps the body absorb and metabolise calcium. Without adequate UV light exposure, reptiles can suffer a condition called metabolic bone disease (MBD) where not enough calcium is being metabolised for correct bone growth.

CARE: Correct lighting needs to be set up in any reptile enclosure to ensure that correct UV light levels are achieved.

Bulbs that provide UVA and UVB light should be used, creating a thermal and a light gradient within the enclosure. Captive reptiles should be able to choose to bask in warmer or cooler areas, as well as between full light and shade. Making use of natural sunlight wherever possible (either through the positioning of the enclosure or, for some species, taking them outside into a secure area on sunny days) will also be beneficial. Remember that, although snakes do not need UV light for calcium metabolism (as they get this from their diets), there are many other benefits to UV lighting, such assisting the immune system and skin health, so UV light provision of snakes is also beneficial.

Chapter 22: Nutritional problems of the BSAVA Manual of Reptiles discusses MBD.

FACT: Some species of reptile can shed their tale when threatened, known as autotomy.

Several species of lizard can detach their tail when they have been caught by a predator, with the tail even continuing to wriggle in some species to further distract the predator whilst the lizard makes their escape. The commonly kept leopard gecko and crested gecko can both shed their tales. However, whereas leopard gecko tails will start to regenerate (often growing back shorter and wider), the crested gecko cannot regenerate the lost tail.

CARE: Captive lizards don’t have to worry about predators in their enclosures. However, there are two instances where autotomy may occur without optimum care. The first is incorrect handling. If lizards are grabbed unexpectedly, instead of handled with respect and care, they may shed their tail in fear. Ensure you know the correct way to handle any reptile species you care for. The other is incorrect enclosure companions. Many reptile species are solitary and should be housed individually in captivity – true of crested and leopard geckos. Again, thorough research of companion species should be undertaken to ensure they have the right environment.

Chapter 13: Surgery: Principles and techniques of the BSAVA Manual of Reptiles discusses autotomy and tail surgery.

FACT: Tortoises don’t technically ‘hibernate’; they ‘brumate’.

Tortoises do not technically hibernate; mammals hibernate, whereas reptiles brumate. Brumation is similar to hibernation in that it is a natural part of a reptile’s life cycle where growth and movement are slowed down during cooler periods. Reptile bodies naturally respond to the temperature and daylight cues in their environments, but this is not true of captive animals, whose temperature and lighting is regulated (although animals are likely to still pick up on subtle seasonal changes).

CARE: ‘Hibernating tortoises for the winter’ doesn’t have to be part of their care.

There seems to be no evidence that actively brumating a tortoise during cooler months in the UK has any additional health benefits for captive tortoises. Common post-hibernation problems include mouth-rot, dehydration, anorexia or attacks from foxes or rats if hibernated outdoors or in basements. Maintaining a regular temperature in their usual enclosure and providing a secure, comfortable hide should they slow down during the cooler months is ideal. Only fit and healthy animals should be actively brumated, and careful research into how to care for brumating tortoises, as well as pre-brumation health checks, should be undertaken to reduce any health risks.

Chapter 1: Anatomy and physiology of the BSAVA Manual of Reptiles discusses thermoregulation and brumation.

FACT: Several species of lizard and snake can reproduce without the need of a male, called parthenogenesis.

True parthenogenesis occurs in species where there are no males at all, and all animals are a true clone of each other. This is rarer, and is known to occur in rock, whiptail and night lizards, six species of gecko and one species of snake (the brahminy blindsnake). More common is ‘facultative parthenogenesis’, where species can reproduce with or without a male. This can take place across a wide range of lizard and snake species (interestingly, as well as in sharks, Komodo dragons and some birds).

CARE: Although not very common, it may be possible that a captive snake or lizard undergoes parthenogenesis. This can be a surprise for an owner who has never kept members of a different se together. However, this is a cautionary lesson about knowing what the typical appearance and behaviour of animals in your care are. Routine health checks, weight checks and generally getting to know your pet will mean that, should there be a change in their health (such as an unexpected pregnancy) you are more likely to spot the signs and consult with your vet.

Chapter 5: Breeding and neonatal care of the BSAVA Manual or Reptiles discusses care of pregnant females.

We hope you have enjoyed these interesting facts about reptilia. As part of our celebration of all things reptile, BSAVA are offering 20% off the printed version of the BSAVA Manual of Reptiles throughout October and November. Simply use the code REPTILE20 at the checkout at the BSAVA store.