Reptiles are increasingly popular pets. Animals such as cornsnakes, leopard geckos, tortoises and bearded dragons are commonly kept in the UK. Reptiles, however, have very different care needs to more typical pets such as cats and dogs. Understanding the needs of your pet, or prospective pet, is important – whatever species you choose. Part of responsible reptile ownership is being on the lookout for signs of ill health. If a reptile becomes unwell can they develop a fever as many ill species do? 

Reptile metabolism is different from mammals

Reptiles are actually ectothermic, meaning that they rely on external heat sources and are therefore unable to generate their own body heat. Being an ectotherm means that reptiles cannot generate a fever in response to an infection or illness. 

Reptiles in the wild would rely on the heat from sunlight or rocks heated in the sun to bask and gain heat from. In order to recreate this for pet reptiles heat lamps or heat mats or a combination are used to ensure not only adequate heat but also exposure to appropriate UV light. 

Enclosures need to provide what is known as a thermal gradient. This allows a range of temperatures from one end to the other. The correct thermal gradient will differ depending on the species kept; however, it is vital that the reptile has the option to find a comfortable temperature depending on its body temperature and needs. 

A “behavioural fever”?

Although reptiles cannot generate a fever themselves when unwell or fighting off an infection there is evidence to show that reptiles will seek out additional heat. This process termed behavioural fever will see a reptile seek out heat and raise its body temperature above its normal range. It is thought that this process aids the animal in fighting off pathogens, such as viruses and bacteria, which can cause infections. The process of behavioural fever is used in place of the animal generating a fever itself. 

Spotting health problems early

When keeping reptiles knowing what is normal for the species and your individual animal will enable signs of illness to be spotted early. It is important to spend time observing the animal’s normal behaviour and rhythms because signs of illness can be very subtle. If the first signs are missed illness may progress and be much less likely to be successfully treated. Confidently understanding your pet’s requirements and usual behaviours will ensure good welfare and early intervention in the event of a problem.

Ill health in reptiles can be subtle, so what signs should be considered a warning that there might be a problem?

  • Changes in appetite – most often a reduction or loss of appetite – might be seen in the case of a sick reptile. If the reduction of appetite has been slightly longer-term then weight loss may occur as a consequence.
  • Changes in behaviour may occur, such as reductions in movement, or resenting handling when this is normally tolerated. You may also notice changes in basking habits or prolonged soaking in the water bowl. Getting to know how your reptile normally behaves will allow any change to be noticed quickly.
  • Changes to the frequency or consistency of faeces or urates. Absence or reduction or change to urates and faeces is a reasonably common feature of illness. 
  • Changes to the skin either in colour or texture. Shedding of the skin may be affected in some ill reptiles. 
  • Difficulty breathing or discharge from the nose or mouth. This might be seen if there is a respiratory infection or infection of the mouth.
  • Physical signs such as swellings or lumps may be seen in any reptile, as well as lameness in species with legs.

Some signs of ill health will be more apparent than others.

However, with keen observation and a knowledge of what is normal any deviation will soon be identified. Many signs of illness in reptiles are vague and nonspecific. This can make it a challenge to identify symptoms of disease and to be sure it is attributed to a health problem.

If you are concerned that your reptile is showing signs or ill health it is best to seek veterinary care for your pet promptly. If in doubt about the health status of your reptile it would always be wise to err on the side of caution and seek advice from a vet. If veterinary care is sought early in the course of disease, the reptile has the best chance of a positive outcome. A regular check up for your pet with your vet also facilitates the opportunity to screen for problems and be proactive in ensuring the wellbeing of the reptile. 

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