Assessing reptile welfare using behavioural criteria.

Behavioural signs that may indicate health problems in reptiles

Source; Warwick, C., Arena, P., Lindley, S., Jessop, M., and Steedman, C.,
In Practice vol 35 no 3, March 2013, pp123-131

Vets are increasingly interested in reptiles, and it is useful to look at reptile behaviour as providing possible clues to physical or psychological problems, such as too much stress, injuries, or infections. Abnormal behaviour may also lead to a reptile being injured. Looking at these issues in detail can help vets ask the right questions of people who care for reptiles. Reptiles can often show stress by being tense and gripping a human tightly, or going limp or immobile from being handled too much, being exposed to too much artificial light, or having too small an enclosure with few or no features. Tortoises and turtles may grate their jaws when they are afraid, or become oversensitive to small stimuli, and withdraw frequently into their shells. When reptiles breathe through their mouths, they may be too hot, or be suffering from an infection. Some turtles and lizards may vocalize when in pain or afraid. Reptiles may stay in unusual places, like the floor for a tree species, if they are too hot, too cold, or afraid.

Injuries may be due to reptiles hitting clear glass with their heads, or to attacks from other occupants of the enclosure, especially likely where there are no escape routes and the enclosure is too small.

Normal behaviour is generally relaxed, calm and alert, with the animal calmly checking out its environment, exploring and foraging. Reptiles may grasp a human firmly, but in a relaxed way. Drinking is at a leisurely pace, and breathing is calm.

Reptile keepers have to provide the right temperature, humidity level, lighting, ventilation, and cage space with enrichments. All too often reptiles are kept in too small enclosures, though many reptiles can travel very long distances in the wild. Snakes, at the very minimum, need to be able to stretch out. Cages which house several reptiles should also be big enough to give space for individuals, especially for all to use key resources like places to bask.

It is also important for reptiles to have a range of temperatures in their enclosures, so they can seek warmer or cooler areas when they need them. They may seek warmth when they are injured or stressed, and may seek cooler temperatures as an aid to healing.

You need to become familiar with a particular species to be able to assess its behaviour, but it is well worth building up this knowledge to be able to diagnose immediate and long-term problems.