Is My Reptile Or Amphibian Sick?


11401 NE 195th St. Bothell, WA  98011

(425) 486-9000 PHONE  (425) 486-9002 fax


Reptiles, like all animals, are susceptible to a variety of bacterial, viral, fungal, metabolic and neoplastic diseases. Unlike domestic animals (dogs, cats, cows, horses and so on) that usually act sick when they are, reptiles and amphibians are still wild animals, and retain their natural instincts to mask signs of illness. As a result, they will often not show any signs of disease until they are so weak that they cannot hide their symptoms any longer. All reptile and amphibian owners need to be vigilant to watch for subtle changes in their pets’ normal activity level, appetite, and behavior that may signal illness.

So how can you tell if your pet is ill? Start by observing and making a mental note of your healthy reptile or amphibian’s normal behavior and habits. Once you know normal, it will be easier to spot abnormal.

Physical Condition and Attitude

A quick overview of the condition of your animal is often the first indicator that a reptile is ill. A change in activity is often the first sign, with the pet losing interest in their cage and surroundings, often becoming more reclusive and spending time in one area of their enclosure. Snakes may not be continuously active, but should show an interest in motion and be willing to “cruise” when picked up and handled. Lizards should be willing to stand off the ground (as appropriate for the species) and walk when stimulated in a regular, even gait. A sick reptile/amphibian may also act this way when you are present, but not when it is alone. Observe your pet from around the corner or across the room, when it thinks it cannot be seen. Sitting or standing with its eyes closed or appearing “sleepy” for extended periods of time could be signs of pain, discomfort, or general malaise.

Body condition is also an excellent marker of health or chronic disease. Weight loss is the easiest marker, and it can be sudden (acute) or long-term (chronic). Chronic weight loss is the hardest to notice, as it can occur over months and have few, if any, other symptoms. Look along the spine of any herp- it should be mildly disguised by the muscles on each side. Lizards should have their pelvises just visible and no bones should protrude. In some herps, there is a small crest on their skull masked by the jaw muscles and it should only be able to be felt by firm palpation, not visible. If any of these skeletal signs are present, there may be slow-onset medical concerns. However, if there is apparent weight loss over a short period of time, such as a week or two, this is a definite sign that something is wrong. Acute weight loss is triggered by severe, aggressive disease, and your pet should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible.


A normal reptile/amphibian dropping has three components. The dark, solid portion is feces, the white part is urates, and the water component is urine.

Observe and note for color, shape and texture of your pet’s stool. Most species of reptiles should have a “tubular shaped” stool, with a firm, but not dry, consistency. The volume of the fecal portion may change, depending on what it has eaten. However, the color and firmness should remain the same.   A lack of solid consistency to the feces is true diarrhea, and is cause for concern. One or two abnormal droppings are usually nothing to worry about, but consistently abnormal droppings over an entire week would warrant a call to the vet. Blood in the droppings is always abnormal. Insectivores and herbivores should not have gas in their stool, and they should not have a particularly foul smell. However, feces of carnivorous reptiles typically have a strong odor. Passing of undigested or partially digested food material is a consistent sign of significant disease, and should be addressed by a reptile veterinarian.

The urates (white portion of the droppings) should always be white/cream colored. Changes in urate color to yellow, green, or red/orange may indicate disease or poisoning. The amount of clear urine may increase with high fluid intake or as a result of disease. Kidney disease generally results in decreased solid urate (white portion) production and can lead to increased or decreased water intake.


Anorexia in a reptile is a symptom of a disease, not a disease itself. Missing a meal or two can be a sign of a pending shed, heat/cold stress, or other environmental changes. Missing more than two meals is a sign that something is wrong with the reptile or amphibian, and unfortunately, continually missing meals often accelerates the progress of disease. Many of these animals have inducible digestion processes, meaning that when they miss a couple of meals, they stop producing the digestive enzymes and acids that are necessary to absorb food. Therefore, force feeding can be counter-productive, as placing food in the GI tract before the disease is treated may result in maldigestion and a worsening of symptoms.

Anorexia in well-fed to obese animals can create a fatal liver failure, whether due to environment, disease, or stress. If there are concerns about dietary intake in your reptile, a discussion with a reptile/amphibian-experienced and trained veterinarian is an excellent first step.


Identifying the early signs of disease in your reptile or amphibian can be very difficult. However, it is essential to note changes in their behavior, activity level, and physical condition as early as possible to prevent serious disease from becoming life-threatening. Thankfully, providing your pet with optimum husbandry will minimize the risk of most health problems.



March 30, 2015

Content of this Care Sheet Courtesy of:

The Center for Bird and Exotic Animal Medicine 

11401 NE 195th St. Bothell, WA  98011

(425) 486-9000 PHONE  (425) 486-9002 fax