How to Buy a Healthy Pet Reptile/Amphibian
Thinking about getting a reptile or amphibian as a pet? Once you have its terrarium perfectly set up, you can’t just buy the first animal that catches your eye. In order to save on vet bills and prevent potential heartbreak, you need to know how to select a healthy reptile or amphibian. Here’s what to look for:
- Ensure that the animal in question seems active and aware, listlessness and lethargy are common signs that something could be seriously wrong.
- Check its weight. It shouldn’t be overweight, and definitely not underweight. If you don’t know what a healthy weight looks like, look at pictures of wild individuals.
- The eyes are always an excellent way to tell the health of an animal. You want their eyes to be clear and proportionate, not cloudy, hazy, or swollen.
- Beware of foul odors. Of course, every animal has a certain scent, but an powerfully unpleasant smell can indicate health issues.
- Examine the animal’s skin/scales/shell carefully. Any cuts, scrapes, sores, tumors, or lesions of any kind can mean the animal is unwell or has been mistreated.
- If the animal is struggling to breathe or opens its mouth every time it needs to take a breath, this can point to a potential respiratory infection — especially in snakes. However, keep in mind that certain species such as bearded dragons will bask with their mouth open, which is a natural behavior.
- Any mucus or discharge around the mouth or nostrils can be a warning sign of ill health.
- Observe general movement. Any shaking, or limbs that don’t seem to be working, is a bad sign.
- During handling, the animal should struggle to get free if gently restrained. Certain species are more timid and may naturally prefer to try to hide (balling up/tucking into its shell). This is different from remaining limp or unmoving.
- Ask for proof of a recent clean fecal sample (free of internal parasites).
- Get as much information on the animal’s eating habits, veterinary history, age, and anything else you can get. This will help you to decide whether the animal will be healthy or may need more maintenance than you can provide.
- Always take any new pet to a licensed veterinarian for a general checkup and fecal if possible to ensure there is nothing wrong, and if there is then to be able to deal with the issue early. Click here to use the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians’ “Find a Vet” tool.
Selecting a Healthy Snake
- Watch for tongue-flicking during handling. A healthy snake flicks their tongue regularly to sense and explore their environment. If a snake isn’t flicking their tongue, it can mean it’s not feeling well.
- Open-mouthed breathing can indicate respiratory problems.
- Wheezing sounds and audible clicking sounds when breathing can also point to respiratory problems.
- Check for visible signs of parasites, mites, or ticks.
- Watch for unsteadiness in its movements, particularly around the head. This can indicate a neurological disorder.
- Ask if it eats regularly and when its last meal was.
Selecting a Healthy Lizard
- If this type of lizard typically flicks its tongue, look for this as a sign of general alertness.
- Overgrown claws can indicate a vitamin deficiency or a general lack of care and upkeep.
- Several species will use their tails as a place to store fat, so look at the lizard's tail. A skinny tail can indicate malnutrition, which can be attributed to severe health issues. That being said, certain lizards can shed their tail, and it will regrow shorter and discolored, but this is not something to worry about.
- Look for a protruding spine or hips, as this is a sign of being underweight.
Selecting a Healthy Turtle/Tortoise
- Discoloration of the shell, such as black, white, red, or brown spots or patches, can be an indication or shell rot or another bacterial/fungal infection. Algal growth is okay and can simply be washed off; it is not an indication of any health issues.
- Indications of any softening of the shell, such as sloughing, a concave, or convex areas, can be an indicator of serious health issues.
- The beak and claws should not appear overgrown; this can indicate a poor diet or malnutrition because of more serious health issues. However, males of certain species are known to have longer claws than the females naturally.
Selecting a Healthy Amphibian (Frogs, Toads, Newts, Salamanders)
- The behavior of an amphibian is a big indicator of their health, so pay attention for anything usual. If they are acting strangely or spastically, this can be a sign of an infection or poor living conditions, which requires urgent veterinary intervention.
- Physical deformities such as bloating or curved limbs are an obvious sign that the animal is unwell.
- Beware of a boney or unusually skinny appearance.
- Any species with permeable skin such as frogs, newts, and salamanders should appear damp and smooth, not dry, rough, or cracked.
Buying a Reptile Online
When purchasing a reptile/amphibian online, follow the above tips as well as these additional precautions:
- Always research the source you are considering buying from. There are many disreputable suppliers that sell sick and wild-caught animals. Generally speaking, big distributors that sell many different species on their site are not to be trusted.
- Buy captive-bred (CB) whenever possible, from a breeder that prioritizes the welfare of their animals. Asking for photos of the parents and birth/hatch date is helpful for verification.
- Ask for photos of the animal’s living conditions.
- There is always a risk that the photos you may have seen may not be up to date. Ask for recent photos from several angles.
It’s generally best to reptile/amphibian locally or in-person rather than online so that you can see what you’re getting first-hand and always avoid the risk of something bad occurring during transit. Whenever possible, adopt a reptile/amphibian from a legitimate rescue or rehome one from your local classifieds — there are lots of unwanted animals looking for new homes!
Do not “rescue” a reptile that is visible ill unless you know how to take care of it and are willing and able to pay for the veterinary care that it will need.