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Feeding Your Pet Amphibian or Reptile

In the wild, reptiles and amphibians (collectively known as herps) tend to be wanderers, moving about during their active time. (Some herps are active at day, some at dawn and/or at dusk, and others during the night.) Herps are pretty basic creatures; when they wander, they're either looking for a spot to thermoregulate (warm up so they can have normal body function, or more rarely, where they can cool down because they're already just a bit too warm); to procreate (if it's breeding season); or to find food.

Reptiles and amphibians: Food preferences

The food that reptiles and amphibians prefer depends entirely on its type — carnivore, herbivore, or omnivore. These three commonly applied terms indicate the feeding preferences of animals and, in this case, of reptiles and amphibians. The terms give you some basic guidelines on what to feed your pet.

  • Carnivores eat flesh (or meat). Typical herp carnivores are all the snakes, tegu lizards, monitors, and crocodilians. Typical dietary items are mice, rats, birds' eggs, insects, and fish — all eaten raw, of course.
  • Herbivores consume only (or primarily) plant materials. Green iguanas and some tortoises are examples of the vegetarian herps. They eat foods such as chopped collard greens, romaine lettuce, chopped squash and bananas.
  • Omnivores consume both meat and plant material. Bearded dragons and many aquatic turtles are examples of omnivores. Typical food items include crickets, mealworms, earthworms, chopped veggies, and romaine lettuce.

Occasionally, you see more specific terms in place of carnivore or herbivore, including the following:

  • Folivore: An animal that eats leaves. Iguanas are good examples of folivores, and in the wild, they roam the treetops of the forest, noshing on whatever leaves look the most tempting.
  • Insectivore: An animal that eats insects. A chameleon is a good example of an insectivore, as is the anole. Their diets consist basically of crickets and mealworms.
  • Piscivore: An animal that eats fish. Crocodiles are piscivorous, although not exclusively. The matamata turtle, called by its original South American name, lies in wait until its fish prey swims by and then it inhales and slurps in dinner. For captive herps, bait-store minnows fill the bill (er, the mouth).

Before you bring home a reptile or amphibian, think about what kind of food you're willing to feed it. For example, someone who's squeamish about feeding rabbits to a snake shouldn't buy a Burmese python. Burmese pythons start out pretty and small and you may have to feed it mice or rats, but they don't stay small. As they grow, they need bigger and bigger food items.

Insectivorous herps need live insects, specifically crickets or mealworms. Most people are probably comfortable offering that menu. Piscivorous creatures eat fish, meaning bait minnows or perhaps goldfish. Again, serving those items probably wouldn't bother most people.

Carnivorous herps need to eat meat, and for snakes this generally means rodents (or birds, to a lesser degree). But you don't have to feed your snake or other herp live food. Tegus, snakes, turtles, and larger monitor lizards will thrive on a diet of prekilled mammals or birds. And you don't have to do the killing.

How much to feed reptiles and amphibians

The amount of food you offer will vary, based on the size of your pet and its natural feeding patterns.

  • For insectivorous herps, give as many insects as they'll consume in a half hour, repeated twice daily (for chameleons) or daily/every other day (for frogs and salamanders). The good news is that you don't have to stand there and watch your herp eat the crickets or mealworms — you can tip them in or put them in a small dish and put the dish in the cage. Of course, crickets will crawl all over the cage, but the herp will follow and slurp them up. When feeding earthworms, start with one earthworm, neatly nipped apart into head-sized pieces with your fingernails; when all of those pieces are gone, you may need to offer a second.
  • For herbivorous lizards, offer a pile of chopped veggies as long as the animal's body and twice as wide, and check later that day to see how much remains. Veggies don't have a lot of protein, so your herbivorous lizard will eat a lot.
  • For snakes, tegus, and other carnivorous herps, offer a prekilled mouse or food item no larger than the animal's head. If it's readily eaten, offer a second.

Feeding prekilled animals to reptiles and amphibians

What are the advantages of using prekilled rodents instead of live prey animals? Prekilled rodents are often more readily available, easier to store, easier to use, acceptable to almost all (yes, a very few snakes do still insist on live food) rodent-eating herps, and sometimes cheaper.

Using prekilled prey accomplishes several things, all of them good. The majority of herps readily feed on prekilled prey. Using prekilled prey removes the disgust that many people feel tossing in a live creature, only to have it devoured by another creature. No one enjoys seeing an animal in terminal distress. The prekilled animals available in your pet store are humanely killed and then frozen. They don't suffer, and neither will your herp.

The process of offering prekilled food is pretty simple and painless:

1. Thaw the mouse or rat (or rabbit, nutria, chicken, or quail) in warm water for half an hour or so.

The larger food items need longer to thaw, up to an hour with a water change every 20 minutes or so.

2. Blot it dry.

3. Put it in your pet's cage.

You may want to wear gloves when you do this, in case your herp lunges toward the food item.

By feeding your snake/tegu/herp prekilled food, you remove the risk that your pet will be injured by its intended prey.

Why is it important not to offer live food? Offering a live rodent to a captive snake in a small cage can be very different from a snake or a monitor ambushing and overcoming a rodent in the wild. In the latter case, the herp is already in an active hunting mode, is probably well camouflaged, and will be the one to pace its encounter with prey. In the cage, if the prey rodent (or bird) happens to turn the tables by darting toward and startling the supposed predator, the predator will probably shy away. And, following that, if the prey and predator are left alone for any length of time, the intended prey is apt to start chewing or pecking on the snake or lizard. Every veterinarian has had an instance where an owner has brought in a grisly remnant of what had been a perfectly healthy snake or lizard that now has no eyes, displays exposed ribs, or is missing a tail.

Can you feed live food to your snake? The answer is yes, but only if you check the snake every 15 minutes and then remove the food item if it isn't killed and eaten within 45 minutes. But you need to examine your motives here. Why would you want to feed your snake live food when a chance of injury to your pet exists?

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