Giving reptiles and amphibians the best medicine

Ball pythons, bearded dragons, and Pacman frogs—though neither cute nor cuddly—are part of a menagerie of pet reptiles and amphibians, or herptiles, owned by millions of Americans. And they appear to be an increasingly attractive option for pet owners.

Results from the American Pet Products Association’s latest National Pet Owners Survey show an estimated 5.7 million U.S. households own at least one reptile. Reptile ownership is most common among younger pet owners, with the percentage of Generation Z reptile owners, increasing from 18% in 2018 to 27% in 2020, the survey says. Millennials are the largest cohort of reptile owners at 37%.

A 2020 survey by consumer market researcher Packaged Facts found most reptile owners consider their pet milk snake or blue-tongued skink a member of the family.

“Reptile ownership also synchs with demographic shifts including the advancement of Millennial and urban households in that the smaller pets are ideal for tighter spaces,” according to the survey summary. “Equally important—and all the more so given the impact of the coronavirus pandemic—reptiles are affordable compared with dogs or cats, with most reptile owners view(ing) their reptile setups as a reasonable expense.”

Leopard gecko
Ultrasonography on a leopard gecko (Photos courtesy of Dr. Mark Mitchell)

Dr. Mark Mitchell, director of the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine Wildlife Hospital, well understands the attachment a person can have to an animal species that other people might find, well, icky or gross. That attachment, he says, sometimes results in a greater willingness to spend.

“I’ve seen pet reptile owners spend thousands of dollars to save their pet,” he said. “They’re no different from dog or cat owners willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars on diagnostics and treatments and surgeries for the sake of their pet.”

Longevity is one explanation for the human-animal bond, Dr. Mitchell said, as many reptiles typically live far longer than cats and dogs. He’s owned two pet ball pythons for 22 years—longer than he’s known his wife, Dr. Lorrie Hale-Mitchell. “They've seen me through veterinary school, through a master’s and a PhD, through marriage, through kids, and that creates a strong bond,” he said.

A developing field

Advances in herptile husbandry, nutrition, and medicine have greatly improved the health and welfare of captive herptiles and their breeding success. “I graduated from veterinary school 30 years ago, and it’s just amazing to see how dramatically things have evolved in terms of the medical and surgical care of captive reptile and amphibians,” Dr. Mitchell said.

Blue-tongued skink
A CT scan conducted on a blue-tongued skink

He spoke about some of these advances in January at the North American Veterinary Community’s Veterinary Meeting & Expo in Orlando, Florida. Dr. Mitchell’s presentation touched on the importance of a thorough physical examination and considering the most likely causes of a problem or organ systems affected to determine which diagnostics to run. He also reviewed chemotherapy-responsive acute myeloid leukemia in a veiled chameleon, clinical theriogenology for reptiles, and an evidence-based update on clinical nutrition for insect-eating reptiles.

New developments in reptile and amphibian medicine are supported by the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians, a professional organization established in 1990 devoted to herptile conservation, medicine, and education. The ARAV membership includes 800 veterinarians, among them 50 new veterinary graduates, as well as 30 veterinary technicians. The association publishes the online Journal of Herpetological Medicine and Surgery and was instrumental in the recognition of a reptile and amphibian specialty under the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners in 2009.

Veterinarians graduate with a set of skills, knowledge, and competencies to treat any animal, regardless of species, Dr. Mitchell said. Yet he believes it’s increasingly difficult for a general practitioner to stay current with all the latest developments in veterinary medicine. “The days of James Herriot are long gone, and as long as we hold onto all creatures, it potentially slows us down,” Dr. Mitchell said.

“If you're working as a generalist, you need to know your limits and when to refer a patient for specialized care,” he advised, adding that there are numerous continuing education opportunities for veterinarians to increase their comfort when working with reptiles and amphibians.

No hugging the lizard

Keeping any animal as a pet is not without risks, and herptiles are no different. Reptiles and amphibians often carry Salmonella in their digestive tracts. People can contract the bacteria by touching reptiles and amphibians—or their environment.

Children, people with weakened immune systems, and adults 65 and older are at higher risk of becoming ill from bacteria carried by herptiles, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Earlier this year, the CDC announced pet bearded dragons were the source of a multistate Salmonella outbreak that resulted in the hospitalizations of at least 44 people. For these reasons, several organizations such as the Humane Society for the United States discourage keeping snakes and turtles as pets.

The AVMA provides resources for the public on selecting pet reptiles along with information about reptiles, amphibians, and Salmonella.

A version of this article appears in the June 2022 print issue of JAVMA.