Pedigree Dog Welfare: Buyer Beware!

Hi all,

I recently watched a fascinating and thought provoking webinar entitled “Pedigree dog welfare: what more can the veterinary profession do?”( which gave some facts and statistics I thought some of you might find interesting. The speaker discussed the massive rise in popularity of brachycephalic (short faced) breeds like Pugs, French & English bulldogs as one of the major welfare issues in UK dogs driven in part by social media and celebrity endorsement. Consider the following:
  • French bulldogs are now 15 times more popular than 10 years ago, with 526 registered by the Kennel Club in 2006 and 14,607 registered in 2015. The real figure including unregistered dogs is much higher.
  • Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS) where selective breeding has led to the skull becoming so shortened and deformed for the sake of cute, humanoid appearance and fashion that it results in a tongue too big for their mouth, narrowed nostrils, protruding eyes & related eye conditions, dental problems, sleep apnoea, ear infections, choking fits etc and daily, constant difficulties breathing especially during normal exercise.
  • 58% of owners of clinically affected BOAS dogs reported their dogs have no breathing problem, so owner perception and believing that struggling to breathe is ‘normal’ for their breed is a big issue.
  • Over 90% of vets have seen or performed conformational (anatomy) altering surgery to improve pedigree dog welfare (e.g. skin fold removals/’tacking’ in Shar Peis, eyelid surgeries to prevent rubbing in bloodhounds, orthopaedic surgeries in bulldog elbows to prevent early arthritis, widening the nostrils, removing throat tissue and shaving the soft palate to open bulldog and pug airways up etc)
  • 86% of English Bulldogs now need a Caesarian section surgery to give birth as their puppy’s heads are too big and get stuck in the pelvic canal during a natural birth; this means that without veterinary intervention, the breed would likely die out within a couple of generations.
  • Recently published DNA studies on UK English Bulldogs found their genetic diversity is derived from as little as 30 individual dogs, meaning the breed cannot be improved for better welfare without outcrossing to other breeds. However, puritan breeders do not want to do this as it would ‘pollute’ their genetics and mean they are not true English Bulldogs anymore (
  • In UK Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, 50% have a heart murmur by the time they are 5 years old and nearly all have a murmur by the age of 10. Heart valve disease is 20 times more prevalent in this breed.
The take home message was that unfortunately the veterinary profession is facilitating the continued suffering of pedigree dogs to some extent by providing services to allow continued breeding of dogs that are unfit for purpose to live a healthy, happy life. Better education about pedigree dog health issues amongst the general public, better use of health testing schemes by breeders and revision of kennel club standards are badly needed.
To illustrate the problem, here’s a video posted on dog treat box Facebook page of a bulldog puppy having a bath. The vast majority of reaction to it is “Aww, so cute!” or “I want one”. The reality is that this puppy is struggling to breathe standing still because its skull is so flattened its tongue and soft palate are now too big to fit inside its head so it can’t maintain an open airway without gasping for breath.
And an interesting photo illustrating the genetic/conformational issues facing the breed:
Inline image 1


Veterinary Nursing of Exotic Species Lectures: Rabbits, Birds & Rodents

Hi all,

I have been asked back to lecture again this year by The College of Animal Welfare at Potter’s Bar, so will be running three days of lectures for veterinary nurses who are interested in caring for exotic pets. ‘Exotics’ in veterinary medicine as you’ll know covers any pet that isn’t a dog or cat, so we will be kicking off on 11th May with Rabbits, then 3rd June with nursing care of Birds and on the 19th October Small Furries aka rodents and other small mammals. Please share if you know of any veterinary nurses who are interested in improving their knowledge and practical skills with exotic pets. I promise they will be fun and useful sessions to build your confidence with these animals, and you’ll bring back lots of tips & tricks to use in practice!

Here’s the link to where you can book a place (, and some more details in the meantime:

Veterinary Nursing CPD and Events – Nursing the Rabbit Patient
Wed 11th May 9:30-16:00, CAW Potters Bar, EN6 1NB
Rabbits are the 3rd most popular pet in the UK. This course is aimed at students and qualified veterinary nurses who wish to expand and update their knowledge of the pet rabbit – you’ll be seeing them at least weekly!
The day will recap handling techniques (theory only), husbandry, aspects of nutrition, common illnesses and anaesthesia within a referral practice setting.
Sean McCormack is a qualified veterinary surgeon with extensive experience in exotic medicine, and has lectured and written about exotic medicine many times.Lecturer: Sean McCormack BSc (Hons), MVB, MRCVS


Veterinary Nursing CPD and Events – Nursing the Bird Patient

Fri 3rd Jun 9:30-16:00, CAW Potters Bar, EN6 1NB
A wide variety of birds are frequently seen in clinical practice. Your patients can range from a timid little budgie all the way to an angry parrot with a razor sharp beak. Despite the varied background the initial treatment and supportive care of birds can be applied across many species. This day will cover the basic husbandry of commonly seen species and consider triage, as well as emergency treatment and supportive care of ill birds.
Sean McCormack is a qualified veterinary surgeon with extensive experience in exotic medicine, and has lectured and written frequently on exotic medicine issues.Lecturer: Sean McCormack BSc (Hons), MVB, MRCVS


Veterinary Nursing CPD and Events – Nursing the Common Small Furry

Wed 19th Oct 9:30-16:00, CAW Potters Bar, EN6 1NB
‘Small furries’ are popular pets, this course is aimed at students and qualified veterinary nurses who wish to expand and update their knowledge of the more common small furry animals. The day will recap handling techniques (theory only), husbandry, aspects of nutrition, common illnesses and anaesthesia within a first opinion practice setting.
Sean McCormack is a qualified veterinary surgeon with extensive experience in exotic medicine, and has lectured and written about exotic medicine many times.Lecturer: Sean McCormack BSc (Hons), MVB, MRCVS






Owning a dog is amazing. The bond between pooch and pup-parent can only be described as beautiful and all-consuming.

Life with a dog is fuelled by unconditional love, walks in the hills, picturesque picnics in wide open spaces whilst your furry soul mate frolics amongst the daisies, much to the glee of your delighted friends who quietly envy you and your furry family.

Wet, windy, shivery winter nights will be spent snuggled up with your human soul mate under a blanket with a hot chocolate whilst your beautiful canine companion stretches out quietly in front of a roaring log fire.

Dogs are soft and fluffy balls of cuteness that you just cannot help kissing at cuddling constantly.

You know you’ll provide the best food money can buy – the healthiest, most doggylicious food, the tastiest and healthiest treats. You’ll keep your dog happier than anyone else has ever kept a dog before. You will be Super Owner!

No… wait… sorry, that is what people THINK owning a dog will be like.

My bad.


Owning a dog is largely about poo. The bond between pooch and pup-parent can only be described as a one way street of give and take.

You give food. The dog takes it.
The dog then gives you sh*t in return for said food. Literally.

Oh, and poo bags? It’s like they’re made of a material that is scientifically formulated to split the very moment they come into contact with a dump.

Life with a dog is fuelled by unconditional face licks (even after he has just licked his balls and you turn into a prize winning contortionist in an attempt to avoid getting tongued in the face). There will be walks up the steepest hills you have ever encountered, picturesque views of places you are by this point too bloody knackered to enjoy thanks to said hills and wide open spaces where your furry soul mate pisses off into the distance because that leaf flapping in the breeze half a mile away is WAAAAY more exciting than you will ever be. All this, much to the glee of your delighted friends who think it’s bloody hilarious and vow never to get a dog.

Wet, windy, shivery winter nights will be spent snuggled up with your human partner under a blanket with a large mug of neat vodka whilst your soggy canine companion spreadeagles himself balls first in front of your tacky old gas fire, drying himself off after the bath he needed having launched himself face first into a filthy, stinking, muddy puddle just ten minutes into today’s walk.
At least… you tell yourself that puddle was full of mud. Your nose then reminds you it was horse shit.

Dogs are cute and fluffy. So get used to eating an enormous quantity of dog hair. And forget wearing black clothing.
Or white clothing.
Or just clothes I guess.

They also aren’t always a thing you want to kiss or cuddle.
And do you know what NO ONE ever tells you? Boy dogs get boners.
Often inappropriately timed ones (is there EVER an appropriately timed dog-boner?!). Usually just as your friends arrive.
At this point, obviously they have to lick said boners.

Yeah. No kisses for that dog right now.

You know you’ll provide the very best food money can buy – the healthiest, most doggylicious food, the tastiest and healthiest treats.

Your research led you down the road of raw feeding. So now you spend at least one night a month chopping up such delicacies as cow lips, spleens, chicken hearts, lambs liver and the occasional testicle. You do this because you want to keep your dog happier and healthier than anyone else has ever kept a dog before.
Unfortunately, your dog occasionally decides that a particularly tasty morsel is best savoured later on in the comfort of his (your) bed.

You of course will remain oblivious of this until you get into bed and lay on a severed testicle. Which incidentally, is rather disgusting.

As for treats… healthy dog treats smell like arse.

The prefered arse-flavoured treat for many dogs is what I lovingly refer to as the ‘bum stick’. As many of you will recall, bum sticks are dried tripe sticks. And they smell like poo.

And rather like those previously mentioned and apparently delicious testes, bum sticks are best stored for later consumption in the bedroom.

The very BEST moment for your dog to choose to consume his carefully cached bum stick is of course the very moment that you and your partner are deeply *cough* engaged in a moment of passion. At this point, the pervading smell of bum stick is 100% guaranteed to prove itself as the single most effective contraceptive known to man as you both try to work out which one of you farted. At this point, you’ll also become aware that your dog is watching you.
This is also a fantastic contraceptive.

So there you have it folks.

Life as a dog owner: The facts.”


This was a guest post by a very witty and humorous young lady I know through my veterinary social media named Kat Gunn. Her friends say this is only one of countless hilarious things she writes and are trying to encourage her to blog herself about life, pets and motherhood.

Here’s what Kat herself has to say about herself and her dog:

“So… me…. I am the (very) wrong side of 25 and work as an Animal Management technician where I teach a bit and mostly look after the various occupants of the exotics house which range from endangered geckos and amphibians to large lizards and snakes and a colony of woodlice. I spend most of my life clearing up poo. In my spare time (when I am not clearing up poo), I love nothing more than having a quiet pint in my local pub and walking my dog (which incidentally usually results in more poo). I waited 12 long years to finally be in a position to get my own dog. After a lot of research, I ultimately decided on a lurcher. Logan the blue merle and white lurcher dropped into my life on the 15th of August 2015 and is lovingly referred to as “Spaghetti Legs”, “Logi-bear” and “Dear-god-please-don’t-eat-that”. Logan excels at flirting with passers by, stealing socks and farting in public. His favourite food is anything he finds on the floor and he really dislikes balloons”.

Please leave her some encouragement in the comments section if you liked this post! – Sean.

Respiratory Conditions in Reptiles


Respiratory diseases in captive reptiles are all too common unfortunately and are a great source of frustration for owners and vets alike, as well as being a serious welfare concern for the animals affected. There are many causes including parasitic, bacterial, viral and fungal infections as well as traumatic injury, tumours and cardiac disease. Reptile respiratory disease is often more severe and difficult to treat than in mammals due to differences in anatomy and physiology, outlined below. As a vet with a special interest in reptiles, I often look at online herpetological forums. Treatment of respiratory infections, or R.I’s, is one of the most frequent topics provoking debate and disagreements, prompting criticism of vets as well as hobbyists, and often resulting in potentially harmful or at least misleading information being spread by so called experts. I am writing this article to provide an overview on respiratory conditions and treatments in reptiles. Hopefully this will give a better understanding of how such conditions can be prevented, what to look for when they do occur, how they can be treated and why they can be so difficult to treat. I will also attempt to dispel any misconceptions and answer some of the most common questions I encounter in clinical practice as well as on hobbyist forums. Similarly I will try to explain the decision making process and give an insight from the vet’s side of the consult table as I do see this as an area where the vet-client relationship is frequently strained due to poor communication on both sides.

By far the best advice I can give as a vet is in prevention of respiratory disease through various husbandry and biosecurity measures. I would also like to highlight why specific advice given by experienced reptile veterinarians is so important in the outcome of the case. I have often been disappointed and disheartened in practice when treating an R.I. case when the owner doesn’t follow the directions given or take my husbandry advice on board, and is then disappointed when the treatment fails or they can no longer afford treatment and the animal ends up severely debilitated, has to be euthanised or dies. I have had my work and reputation criticised to colleagues and undoubtedly on forums when “the antibiotics he dispensed didn’t work”. These were invariably in cases where the owner didn’t follow all the other suggestions that go along with medication, when they brought the animal to me in an advanced state of disease and were informed of a guarded prognosis but decided to try treatment anyway or where they didn’t return for me to establish why my treatment of choice didn’t work. I will get the defensive vet disclaimer out of the way now at the start of the article. Treating R.I’s in reptiles is not just about dispensing antibiotics, or about which antibiotic is dispensed. Enough with the Baytril bashing! Successful outcomes rely on a holistic, integrated approach as well as the hobbyist working with the vet, not against. Believe it or not, and I can’t speak for every vet, our main concern is that your animal gets better and we have a happy client at the end of our interaction. With that said, let’s get on with our discussion…

Anatomy & Physiology:

The difficulty in treating respiratory disease in reptiles is primarily due to their inability to effectively clear fluid, debris and discharges from their airway by coughing. Most species, apart from crocodilians, lack a true diaphragm and therefore do not possess a cough reflex. The mucociliary escalator apparatus is poorly developed in the reptile airway also, which complicates clearance of infectious agents and subsequent secretions. The mucociliary escalator is an adaptation of mammals which allows any inhaled debris, micro-organisms or secretions to be transported up the airway and trachea (windpipe) by mucus and tiny microscopic hairlike projections, clearing them from the airway and allowing them to be swallowed into the hostile acid environment of the stomach. This is a vital defence against respiratory infection and disease which is lacking in reptiles when compared to mammalian species.
Secretions and infectious material therefore pool in the lower parts of the lungs making penetration by immune cells as well as medications very difficult, leading to chronic disease which is often difficult to treat. So having the same expectations for treatment of a respiratory infection in a snake or lizard for example compared to a dog or cat may result in disappointment. The anatomy of the reptile respiratory tract is also unique in several ways which can affect disease progression. The main anatomical feature of significance in reptiles is in snakes, most of which only have a single right lung. Lizards and chelonians have two symmetrical lungs. Boas and Pythons have a main single right lung and a much reduced or vestigial left lung. Some snakes also have a ‘tracheal lung’ which is an outpouching of the trachea with respiratory mucosa for gas exchange. Because of the single lung, snakes with respiratory infections are therefore even more challenging clinical cases than chelonians and lizards.



Poor husbandry is the single most important factor predisposing captive reptiles to disease, respiratory or otherwise. It should not be necessary to mention that the specific and exact needs of the individual species kept need to be researched and met accurately in order to preserve health and prevent health problems. Respiratory infections (R.I.’s) in particular, although caused by a variety of different pathogens, can almost always be traced back to an incorrect or inadequate husbandry issue, most notably related to temperature and humidity. It is therefore of the utmost importance that all reptiles are provided with perfect husbandry conditions that mimic as closely as possible their natural conditions and requirements in the wild. If any husbandry issues are sub optimal then the animal may succumb to an opportunistic infection through gradual debilitation and weakened immune defences. Nutritional deficiencies are a common factor leading to such debilitation and subsequent predisposition to infection. Hypovitaminosis A is important to mention as a lack of this vitamin frequently leads to disease or the oral and respiratory mucosa and therefore has a big impact on respiratory health. With this in mind let’s now discuss the various causes of respiratory illness.


Most common parasitic infections affecting the respiratory tract are caused by nematodes including Rhabdias spp. in snakes and Entomelas spp. in lizards.  These are specialised lungworms, although other nematodes can cause respiratory illness such as Kalicephalus spp., the snake hookworm which migrates through the body after entering via the skin or by ingestion, potentially causing severe tissue inflammation as it passes through tissues on its journey to the gut.  Similarly, ascarid worms frequently cause damage to lung tissue and the liver as they pass through the body as migrating larvae.  Apart from nematodes, the single-celled parasite Entamoebas invadens has been found to cause respiratory illness on occasion as well as some evidence of coccidiosis affecting the lungs in chelonia.  In amphibians, particularly wild caught specimens, the lungworm Cosmocercoides spp (see my image below from a White’s tree frog) can be found relatively frequently and is often fatal especially in captivity stressed or debilitated individuals (more information at:



Many bacterial pathogens have been isolated and implicated in lung disease in reptiles, some of which are primary pathogens and others are secondary invaders causing opportunistic infection. The presence of these micro-organisms does not necessarily indicate that disease is present, as they may be opportunistic only causing disease when the animal’s immune defences are weakened or defective.  Further pathogens may extend into the respiratory tract from other sites, most notably from generalised systemic infection or septicaemia, or from mouth infections (stomatitis).  The primary bacterial pathogens responsible for R.I.’s in reptiles most commonly are Aeromonas spp., Pseudomonas spp., Klebsiella spp., Salmonella spp.  and Pasteurella spp.  Bacterial infections may go hand in hand with viral infections, a common example being Mycoplasma or Mycobacteria present alongside Herpesvirus infection causing rhinitis or ‘Runny Nose Syndrome’ in tortoises.  Finally, Chlamydophila spp. has been implicated in some pneumonia in snakes.


Fungal R.I.’s are less common than bacterial or viral disease but do occur,  most frequently in chelonians such as tortoises.  The commonest infections result from exposure to saprophytic or soil fungi in the external environment and most are secondary pathogens to bacterial disease or traumatic injuries. If husbandry is inappropriate particularly with regard to ventilation and humidity the risk of fungal disease is often increased.  Notable species of fungi causing such infection are Aspergillus, Candida, Sporotrichum, Penicillium,  Paecilomyces and Cladosporum spp.


Several viral diseases are responsible for respiratory disease in reptiles including Paramyxovirus, IBD, Herpesvirus and Iridovirus.

Ophidian Paramyxovirus (oPMV)  is becoming increasingly common in captive snakes,  and has been occasionally reported in lizards,  though these are frequently asymptomatic when infected.  This virus is highly infectious causing haemorrhagic pneumonia and viraemia affecting other organ systems.  It is shed in respiratory secretions and can be easily spread through a collection by poor hygiene and sanitation practices.  Animals may lack clinical signs for long periods with the incubation phase lasting up to 8 weeks, so testing during this period can turn up false negative results for this reason.  Testing usually relies on post mortem sampling but blood serum analysis can be performed.  Another paramyxovirus related to the parainfluenza 2 virus (PI2) has been implicated in respiratory disease as well.

Inclusion Body Disease (IBD)  is a viral infection primarily of boas and pythons which can causes respiratory disease in the form of pneumonia, in addition to the more common central nervous signs such as ‘stargazing’ and gastrointestinal disease causing regurgitation and anorexia.  The exact viral agent responsible for IBD has long been debated and researched.  Thought to be a retrovirus scientists have only recently discovered that the infection is in fact caused by a new virus belonging to the Arenavirus group.

Herpesvirus is a common cause of respiratory disease in chelonians, particularly Mediterranean tortoises, often with devastating consequences. Such infections often cause secondary bacterial and mixed viral infections. Clinical signs include lethargy, rhinitis or ‘runny nose’, anorexia, conjunctivitis and stomatitis. This is a complex and extensive topic in itself, therefore I will endeavour to write a future article on the subject.

Finally, Iridoviral infections with Ranavirus in particular from amphibian hosts can cause severe necrotising tracheitis and pneumonia. This is an extremely aggressive infection causing extensive and painful tissue damage. Infections are extremely difficult to treat.


Trauma to the carapace of chelonians can lead to non infectious lung disease, often associated with attacks by dogs or wildlife, car accidents and even lawnmower injuries! Shell repair techniques are undertaken according to the individual injuries, but treatment of shock and secondary infections is vital in order for a successful outcome.

Cancer as in most species occurs more commonly in older animals, and is normally diagnosed by X-ray of the lower respiratory tract. Treatment is experimental as chemotherapy in reptiles is not widely used or researched.

Foreign Bodies: 

Inhaled foreign bodies are possible, but not common. Endoscopy is a useful tool for removal.

Cardiac Disease:  

Congestive heart failure and cardiomyopathies occasionally are seen, primarily in older or geriatric reptiles and can cause fluid congestion in the lungs leading to increased respiratory effort and subsequent lung disease. For an article on these conditions in two cases I saw in practice, visit

Clinical Signs:

Signs of disease are often very similar irrespective of cause, but can be extremely subtle particularly in the early stages of disease. The ability of reptiles to mask any signs of illness and the chronic nature of disease progression mean that by the time an owner notices the animal is unwell, the disease is already advanced. Again this has implications for successful treatment, so if in doubt or any of the following signs are observed, you should seek treatment immediately:

  • Dyspnoea (difficulty breathing) which can manifest as increased respiratory effort, extension of the neck or gulping for air
  • Tachypnoea (increased respiratory rate/rapid breathing)
  • Open mouth breathing
  • Yawning (particularly in snakes)
  • Nasal or oral discharges (appearance depends on cause; blocked nostrils may indicate previous discharge)
  • Ocular (eye) discharge
  • Respiratory noises (clicks, wheezes, ‘snuffles’)
  • Lethargy/depression
  • Anorexia/reduced appetite
  • Altered buoyancy in aquatic species
  • Dehydration
  • Postural changes (elevating head and neck vertically, particularly in snakes)
  • Altered thermoregulation (seeking cooler areas to hide, to alter metabolism and cope with hypoxia or diminished blood supply of oxygen)
  • Concurrent infections, specifically stomatitis or ‘mouth-rot’


Above: Abscess/stomatitis in a Royal Python.


Above: Chronic pneumonia, anorexia, emaciation, stomatitis in a Boa constrictor.


Diagnosis relies on a detailed history from the owner taking into account the original source of the animal in question, any husbandry issues that might predispose to certain conditions, the range of signs noticed, duration of the illness, species specific considerations, parasite control and nutritional status. Secondly a detailed physical exam will often give me far more information regarding the animal in question than an owner’s description over the phone or photos and descriptions online. A detailed clinical exam is one of the main diagnostic tools a vet has in assessing their patient, which unfortunately cannot communicate directly to us as in human medicine. Observing the animals breathing pattern and effort before handling gives a good idea of functionality and health of the respiratory tract. Examining the mouth and pharynx or throat region will often give clues such as inflammation or discharges from the airway, as well as highlighting stomatitis. Discharges can reveal a lot about the underlying pathogens present and sometimes may be sampled for microbiological examination and culture. Generally, cloudy or yellowish/green discharge indicates bacterial infection but can also be present in fungal or viral disease occasionally. Clear discharges are more classically viral indicators or a sign of mechanical irritation, and rarely seen in bacterial infections. Bloody or blood tinged discharge may indicate a more invasive infection, trauma or damage due to a foreign body in the airway. Similarly tumours of the respiratory tract may occasionally bleed and cause such discharge. Auscultation of the respiratory tract can be challenging in the reptilian patient as movement of rough scales against the diaphragm of the stethoscope can obscure respiratory sounds. Often I will use soaked cloth or cotton wool between the diaphragm and animal to create a better contact and decrease movement noise but this unfortunately also dampens respiratory noises.

As you can see many clues can be gleaned from a clinical examination. This is the reason I and many other vets are reluctant to make a diagnosis without seeing the animal. To do so would be negligent. So even if it sounds like a classic R.I. for example there may be vital signs that the owner relaying the information neglects to disclose, or more subtle signs that haven’t been noticed which alter the diagnosis or indeed prognosis of the case. I would be wary of giving out advice when in fact that advice could be useless or even dangerous to the animal in question. My prognosis may be optimistic if signs of a simple infection are described to me, but if the owner hasn’t noticed more serious signs in a pneumonia case for instance they will be extremely disappointed and doubt my knowledge if their snake dies soon after. Language is extremely important and vets are trained to describe illness in a very specific terminology, which may be completely meaningless to hobbyists. Because of this, one person’s description of a lesion or clinical signs of illness will differ significantly from another’s description. Many times I have had a long discussion with a reluctant owner on the phone to try and assess whether the animal needs to be brought to the vets in the first place, and having asked various questions have a definite picture in my head of the case that will present to me the following day. Quite often there are clues or details omitted or described differently and I am surprised by what is actually presented on the consult table. The point I am making is not to be offended or see my request to book an appointment as a waste of time or a money making exercise, when in fact it is merely that I cannot make a diagnosis or come up with the best possible treatment plan without physically examining the animal. Based on this examination and discussion I can then make recommendations and discuss options with the owner.

Once a good history and clinical exam is performed, some respiratory cases are reasonably simple to diagnose and a treatment plan can be made. This may involve a few subtle husbandry changes and dispensing a course of medications, antibiotics for example. I imagine many hobbyists who have experienced R.I’s in their pet reptiles have undergone a similar process at their vets. Very often this approach is satisfactory and a successful outcome is reached. But there are various pitfalls that may hinder such an outcome, and communication between the owner and vet as well as the knowledge and experience of the vet in question is vitally important at this stage. I will discuss the subtleties and decision making process on appropriate treatments later in this article. If the case is not a straightforward diagnosis based on history and physical examination then further tests may be required. These tests cost money, but are optional. Refusing these tests may alter the likelihood of success. As a vet it is my responsibility to offer them and explain their benefits. As a client it is your responsibility at the initial consult to discuss concerns about costs, ask for alternatives if available and ask questions of your vet as to the value of suggested diagnostics. If finances are limited, I would like to know this at the outset so I can come up with the best possible plan with the resources I have available.

In terms of diagnostics for respiratory disease, perhaps the most valuable is imaging by X-ray to visualise the lower respiratory tract, namely the trachea and lungs. The upper respiratory tract consists of fine bones of the nasal chambers and delicate structures in the throat, so is more difficult to interpret by X-ray but this can still give valuable information particularly where local inflammation, bone infections, tumours or foreign bodies are suspected. X-rays also allow the clinician to visualise the extent and location of disease which determines how aggressive the treatment required as well as allowing a better understanding of prognosis for success. In longstanding or advanced R.I.’s I am often met with reluctance or refusal to allow X-rays by the client, often for cost reasons. Despite warning that treating ‘blind’ may not yield successful results the client then gives informed consent to a ‘best guess’ treatment plan. It is extremely frustrating as a clinician if the case isn’t resolved, goes to another vet or dies at home resulting in an unhappy client, or an accusation of incompetence. I would urge all hobbyists to communicate and discuss their experiences with vet treatment, but to remember that especially on online forums people may omit their own role in deciding a treatment plan, and lay all the blame on the vet if it fails and they lose their animal. As you can appreciate as a vet I can offer best practice and work my way back according to the resources available, but I won’t advise doing a specific test unless I feel it will be advantageous in getting a successful outcome. X-rays are a classic example of a test that give the clinician valuable information to direct treatment appropriately, but can be difficult to convince an owner of any tangible benefit especially where finances are limited. Sometimes not doing a test sets the treatment up for failure from the very beginning.

Following X-rays, bloodwork and microbiological testing are also valuable tools in making a firm diagnosis and therefore choosing a successful treatment plan. In terms of bloodwork, haematology may reveal elevations in specific white blood cells relating to inflammation or active infection. In chronic cases however infection may be confined locally to lesions in the lungs for example and therefore white blood cell counts may be within normal limits. In such cases systemic treatment may be unnecessary and targeted treatments at the lesions of concern may be a more appropriate treatment option. Such targeted options include nebulisation of drugs into the airway directly, or surgical debridement and establishing access to lung abscesses to treat infected tissue directly. Biochemistry values may indicate that the animal in question has other metabolic problems or is heading towards liver or kidney failure due to advanced systemic infection for example. In such a case the value of doing blood tests first is obvious.

Where microbial sampling is concerned in the case of infectious disease there are two main techniques used, lung washes and direct sampling. Lung washes can provide useful information on what pathogen is involved in a specific infection, and subsequently by culturing these pathogens we can ascertain what antimicrobial drugs (e.g. antibiotics) are most effective to treat the infection present. However, it can be difficult to obtain a representative sample using this technique. Several times I have performed tracheal and lung washes in snakes in particular, introducing sterile saline into the airway and aspirating it back out again to sample the cells and potential pathogens causing illness, only to receive a report back from the laboratory stating that no micro-organisms were cultured even though bloods and clinical signs indicate an R.I. Similarly the sample may contain few if any cells when examined under the microscope, so this is a difficult technique and doesn’t always yield the desired results. The second approach is direct sampling of lesions in the lungs or lower airway by using a rigid endoscope or in the case of chelonians drilling a hole through the shell to gain access to the lungs in an advanced pneumonia case for example. If a valuable sample is obtained indicating an infectious agent, it is cultured in the lab and the pathogens causing infection can be identified and tested in order to determine what antibiotic medication would be most appropriate for treatment. In an ideal world, I would use culture and sensitivity for every infection I encounter in clinical practice, on exotic and companion animal cases. This approach is not practical, financially feasible for many clients or arguably necessary in the majority of presentations, as with experience and background knowledge most vets will know the common pathogens responsible for certain  conditions, and typically what classes of antibiotics are most suitable for treating such infections. There are always going to be resistant infections or atypical pathogens which require further investigation and possibly an alteration in treatment. So, as you can appreciate even with  owner consent to do diagnostics like culture and sensitivity testing in order to chose the right antibiotic for the infection present, the procedures in themselves can present a challenge to the most experienced clinician.

In many respiratory cases, and reptiles that are ‘generally unwell’ with vague signs of illness I will often ask for a faecal sample to screen for parasites, particularly where there is a history of a new animal, wild caught individual, a large collection with several cases of illness, lack of adequate quarantine or failure of initial treatment. As standard, I perform a direct faecal smear and a flotation test which will detect protozoal infections, pinworm, roundworm, tapeworm and lungworm eggs in the majority of cases. Lungworm infections are less common in captive reptiles than bacterial R.I’.s, at least in the UK where I practice but I would always bear them in mind if an assumed bacterial R.I. was unresponsive to best choice antibiotics. In wild caught animals, before I commence any treatment I insist on a faecal screen as they invariably harbour parasitic infection which may compromise an already stressed or debilitated reptile, if not cause the primary illness itself.

Endoscopy can be useful for visualising the airway and sampling especially in chelonians and lizards, but due to the elongated lung in snakes it is less useful. Specialised small rigid endoscopes are mostly required unless in very large reptile patients, and such equipment is very expensive so is not available at every vet clinic, exotic or otherwise.

Using the above diagnostic tools and techniques, a diagnosis can be reached in the majority of cases. However there will always be cases which do not typically present, or are less clear and can be a diagnostic challenge for even the most experienced clinician. Take it from me that these cases are just as frustrating to the vet as the owner. Please discuss your concerns with your vet if you do not understand any part of the treatment/diagnostic process, or if you have suggestions on how to improve treatment again you should talk to them. You are at any point welcome to seek a second opinion or ask for a referral appointment if you think your vet is not managing the case effectively or does not have enough knowledge or experience with the species in question. On a side note this is the reason I always recommend locating a trusted and recommended exotics/reptile veterinarian to treat your animals before the need arises in the first place.
Prevention and Treatment:

Husbandry is arguably the most important factor both in the incidence of respiratory disease in the first place as well as the outcome of clinical case management. An absolutely critical consideration is that the reptile is kept in its preferred optimal temperature zone (POTZ) at all times but even more crucially during treatment. It is pointless administering antibiotics or indeed other medications if the animal is housed incorrectly. Poor husbandry, specifically low temperatures or inappropriate humidity levels for the species in question are the critical factors that predispose to respiratory disease. The animal must have a temperature gradient to control its body temperature. Often reptiles with respiratory disease will seek out the cooler end of their enclosure to slow their metabolism and relieve the demands for oxygen placed on a compromised respiratory tract. This tendency can be counterproductive to successful treatment however in that a slow metabolism will also impair the immune system and the action of the medication will be reduced, so it is important that the coolest area of the vivarium is still well within the POTZ. The warmest end of the vivarium can actually be a little higher than usual but not too far outside the POTZ. Accurate control of heating with a reliable thermostat is vital to prevent overheating the vivarium. One of the common misconceptions relating to R.I’s in reptiles is that boosting the temperatures up high will often resolve the infection itself. Certainly in some instances where there is a low grade infection in a relatively healthy and robust animal this may help and contribute to the animal clearing the infection, but I would question whether the animal may have cleared such an infection of its own accord anyway despite bumping the temperatures up by a few degrees. My advice in such cases is firstly to accurately measure the temperatures in the enclosure, then accurately control the temperatures. These processes require investment of buying a reliable thermometer and thermostat if not already used, which are arguably essential kit in the first place. Many reptile owners presenting their very ill pet to me have no idea what temperature their vivarium is at different times of day or night, and in some cases no idea what temperature their animal needs to begin with, instead trusting that the equipment sold in the pet shop will produce the exact requirements needed for their pet.

In terms of heating equipment itself, the vital parameter for provision of an appropriate POTZ is ambient air temperature. For this reason and of course there are some species-specific exceptions, I prefer and advocate the use of heat lamps, bulbs or ceramic heaters as a primary heat source rather than heat mats. The first reason is that these provide a far more reliable temperature gradient in the ambient air temperature of the enclosure as opposed to a warm spot on the floor or wall of the vivarium provided by the heat mat. Perhaps more importantly, the use of heat mats encourages the animal to either sit on the mat itself if seeking warmth or avoid it entirely and chill to below its POTZ which does not help treatment, in terms of immune function or drug metabolism both of which are intrinsically temperature dependent. The other major problem with heat mat use as the primary heat source is that this system does not encourage the animal to move about its enclosure or maintain activity along a more natural ambient temperature gradient. The effect of providing belly heat only to an R.I. case is that respiratory secretions and infectious material accumulates to a greater extent in static animals sitting on belly heat than in those encouraged to move about more with the provision of adequate space, varied cage furnishings allowing movement in the horizontal and vertical planes as well as sufficient ambient heat to remain comfortable and regulate temperature throughout the entire enclosure as opposed to just in the immediate vicinity of a heat mat.

Thinking of these considerations, perhaps the worst possible husbandry system for R.I.’s in reptiles is the all too common trend of keeping snakes (single lung, poor clearance) in rack systems, with very little space to move (inhibits respiratory clearance), in close proximity to dozens or some cases hundreds of other animals (thus facilitating spread of infectious agents) and where they are not checked frequently enough or for a sufficient time to spot the early signs of infection in the first place. Many large scale hobbyists and breeders, private and commercial alike are the worst affected in terms of R.I.’s. This is no coincidence. As a herpetoculturist for many years myself, my belief was always that if we are to keep such animals we should strive to provide as natural a captive environment as possible for them to keep them healthy. The practice of keeping snakes in particular in tiny plastic tubs without appropriate light and often inadequate heating with no thermal gradient is about as far removed from natural as one can get. Perhaps controversially, I would suggest that if we want to keep and raise healthy animals we as responsible herpetoculturists need to redirect the hobby away from large scale reptile production of highly valuable, in some cases highly inbred genetic mutants kept in entirely inappropriate conditions to maintain long term health, the current royal python craze being a prime example. I appreciate this is idealistic as where there is money to be made economics dictate that minimum animal welfare standards are maintained. But just because everybody else is doing it or this system is now seen as standard doesn’t make it right. In short, if you provide adequate space and appropriate conditions for your few select reptile pets rather than substandard conditions for your large collection, it is likely you will avoid causing respiratory illness notwithstanding accidental introductions of infectious agents in new animals. Quarantine and biosecurity measures are vital in preventing infectious disease entering a collection in the first place, as well as spreading between animals from affected individuals.

For the reasons outlined above, part of my treatment plan involving a respiratory case will always involve a review of husbandry particulars for the patient in question. As a vet it is my responsibility to ask these questions and make suggestions on where I see problems. I’m sure some clients feel like I’m accusing them of making their reptile ill or not providing adequate conditions, but most are open to these suggestions and when I assure them that by making these changes the chance of success will be higher they most often do so. My intentions are purely to fill in the blanks if a client has misunderstood or is unaware of all the husbandry requirements for their pet. A very few clients have repeatedly ignored husbandry advice, for example to get their snake out of the RUB (really useful box; perhaps that should be RIB, respiratory infection box) and buy a heat lamp/thermostat in place of the heat mat. One really frustrating case I had was a chronic R.I, unresponsive to treatment and eventually resulted in having to euthanise a pneumonic cornsnake! Cornsnakes as you all know are hardy creatures. Husbandry in this case was poor. They couldn’t tell me the temperature of the vivarium on any of their multiple visits, despite asking repeatedly for this information. None of the owners would listen or accept that this infection may be husbandry related. On the third or fourth occasion they visited and again I asked if they had changed the housing and heating arrangements as recommended I was met with the angry reply that ‘someone on the forums said cornsnakes are fine on heat mats’. Again I explained that a healthy cornsnake may do fine, but an R.I cornsnake will not. It fell on deaf ears. They were very unhappy to return weeks later after missing their follow up appointment with a very poorly snake. The main reason they were unhappy was that my treatment didn’t work and they had ‘wasted all that money’ extending the antibiotics after each visit. Now they had no option but to give up and have the snake euthanised. I felt for them losing their pet, but even if I provided gold standard treatment for this snake for free, I could not convince them to change the snake’s conditions as they had read online what they were doing was perfectly adequate. So the snake was doomed from the start. I’m sure if asked they would have laid all the blame at my feet for their snake dying, and no doubt called me a dreadful vet. They may have even posted their version of events portraying me as such on their online forum of choice. The reason I relate this story is firstly to highlight the danger of believing everything you read online, regarding husbandry in general and treatment of medical conditions by non-medically trained professionals, but also in terms of vet reviews. There are two sides to the consult table. I hope you can appreciate my frustrations in such cases.

In terms of treatment, firstly I will touch briefly on choice of medication. I could write a whole chapter on the use of antibiotics but it is beyond the scope of this article. The medication dispensed is often blamed if the treatment is unsuccessful, hence my earlier comment on ‘Baytril bashing’. The aim of treating a simple R.I. as an example would be to choose an antibiotic that concentrates well in respiratory tissue, is broad spectrum meaning it is effective against a wide variety or organisms, has a well documented success rate in treating the most common infectious micro-organisms found in reptile R.I’s, has low incidence of resistance, has few side effects and is licensed for use in these species. Baytril, the generic name for the drug Enrofloxacin, ticks all of these boxes believe it or not. As such it is a perfectly good choice in first line antibiotic treatment for uncomplicated R.I’s in reptiles, with several exceptions and some specific considerations. This is why it is often used as a first line drug of choice for a wide variety of infectious conditions in reptiles. It is not necessarily because the vet in question doesn’t know what else to use, but moreso a licensing issue and the fact that it is a very useful antibiotic. I am not familiar with US laws and licensing, but in the UK Baytril is the only antibiotic licensed for use in most exotic species, and there are legal guidelines about using other drugs off-license where necessary. Again these issues are beyond the scope of the article, but because of this many vets will use Baytril as their first choice in reptiles, and change antibiotics later if ineffective. However, Baytril like any drug can be used irresponsibly or ineffectively.

Antibiotics that I frequently consider and use for treatment of R.I.’s in reptiles are the fluoroquinolones Enrofloxacin (Baytril) and Marbofloxacin (Marbocyl), the third generation cephalosporins Ceftazidime (Fortum), Ceftiofur (Excenel) and Cefotaxime (Claforan), the aminoglycoside antibiotic Amikacin (Amikin) and in certain circumstances the macrolides Azithromycin and Clarithromycin or tetracyclines such as Doxycycline. As you can appreciate there is a wide choice available each with it’s own indications and side effects, but unnecessary or inappropriate use of antibiotics can be just as harmful as choosing the wrong drug initially. Choice of antibiotic depends on culture/sensitivity results if available, safety, owner’s ability to administer such medications and often cost of treatment. There are many variables in the use of such medications which can result in success or failure of treatment. The common complaints I refer to reading about on message boards are often the ‘wrong antibiotic’ or that a vet should have been using a ‘stronger antibiotic’. The wrong antibiotic would be one which does not effectively treat the types of pathogens commonly causing the infection in question. A vet prescribing Baytril for a lizard or snake R.I. with poor results when another snake was prescribed Fortum for an R.I. and had great results does not necessarily constitute choosing the wrong antibiotic. To say so is entirely simplistic and doesn’t take into account a multitude of specific variables and the intricacies of the consult and decision making process outlined previously. Similarly, an antibiotic can only be described as ‘not strong enough’ if the vet has prescribed or owner administered an insufficient quantity of the antibiotic. One antibiotic class or drug is not stronger than other medications. They work in different ways and have different spectrum of activity against certain types of organisms. The strength of an antibiotic is dose related, and it is entirely possible that failure of a case may lie in the fact that a low dose was given which failed to overcome the infection. Hence my frustration when I read countless vet bashing threads about choosing the wrong antibiotic or it not being strong enough without any appreciation for other factors which may have influenced the case.

The duration of treatment is critical for example, so most R.I. cases would require at least 14-21 days of continuous treatment in my view. Very often I will prescribe antibiotics for 4-6 weeks in severe cases. If very mild signs I may reassess the animal after 7-10 days and review the treatment plan if appropriate. Dosage decisions need to reflect the individual animal in question and severity of disease versus a risk based assessment of side effects. A sound knowledge of pharmacology, pharmacokinetics and experience in treating similar cases is required in order to balance all of these variables and decide on the correct dosage and duration. I make a point of never communicating dosages for general treatment of conditions online, as all too often I find incorrect interpretations or ‘one fits all’ advice on how to use medications by so called experts. Applying such an approach to treatment of complicated disease processes that vary in many ways between species and individual cases is destined for failure. The route of medication is also important and can influence outcome. Certain medications need to be administered to the animal in a specific way on order to be effective. For example Baytril may be given by mouth (per os/PO) or by intramuscular (IM) injection. Fortum on the other hand is never given by mouth, but rather by IM injection, intravenous (IV) injection or indeed subcutaneous (SC) injection. The route the drug is given will affect speed of uptake or absorption as well as duration of action and all of these factors are taken into consideration when dispensing such medications. The owner’s willingness and capability in administering injections if required for extended treatment at home often influences the choice of medication dispensed also. The species in question may determine what route to use also. Anyone who has tried to orally dose turtles and tortoises will tell you it is often not an easy task so this route may be avoided in order to ensure owner compliance with medicating their animal. The oral route in lizards however is much easier, so is often preferred over repeated, painful injections which the owner may struggle performing and which are not without risk especially in smaller species. The oral route in snakes is controversial and several studies have demonstrated that it is not entirely effective in many cases. This is due to the unique nature of the digestive tract in snakes that remains in a quiescent state for long periods between meals and therefore does not absorb medications as effectively or predictably as in lizards and chelonians for example that are designed to eat continuously on an almost daily basis. Therefore in snakes I invariably prescribe injectable antibiotics and teach the owners how to do this safely and effectively at home, or hospitalise the patient if this is not practical. A word on injecting Baytril is prudent at this stage. This is an alkaline drug and does cause some pain/discomfort on intramuscular injection, so in snakes in particular where the oral route is least preferable, I will often use Fortum or Amikin injections as a first choice if necessary. For lizards with an R.I., I will invariably use Baytril by mouth as my first choice, unless culture/sensitivity results tell me otherwise. Finally the frequency of dosing is dependent on the drug and dose chosen and can vary. Whatever drug, dose route, frequency and duration of treatment are prescribed, it is vital to stick to this and finish the course. If you have researched and found evidence or material to the contrary to what has been dispensed for your animal, ask your vet about this before deciding to change the treatment. I would also urge you to attend follow up appointments as requested, even if you think your animal is better.

Supportive care is critical in treatment of any ill reptile, and in severe cases I will often hospitalise the animal in controlled conditions particularly when starting treatment. Correction of dehydration is one of the first concerns for many patients. If the animal is anorexic I may tube feed using proprietary convalescent diets appropriate to the species in question. In some cases I will place an oesophagostomy tube which allows syringe feeding through a tube in the side of the neck directly into the stomach without stressing the animal in question. This is a particularly useful tool in anorexic debilitated tortoises. In delicate or stress-prone species such as chameleons, sometimes hospitalisation can be counterproductive. Each case is judged individually, and according to the owners comfort and ability to treat at home. Nutritional deficiencies may be corrected by multivitamin and mineral injections or supplementation. Hospitalisation also allows daily nebulisation in certain cases, particularly useful in chronic or deep-seated pneumonia cases. Nebulisation is a useful tool which can be used in both the hospital and home environment and involves vapourising anti-microbial drugs and exposing the ill reptile to this vapour in an enclosed chamber to inhale the drug and therefore achieve better penetration of the airway then by systemic treatment alone. Lung tissue penetration by systemic drugs can be difficult for various reasons. The blood-air barrier in reptile lungs is thicker than that of mammals, as well as the tendency in these species to form solid caseous (cheese-like) pus or infectious discharge deep within the lung tissue, rendering the infected areas almost impenetrable by blood-borne drugs. A number of antibiotics can be used for nebulisation including Amikacin, Gentamicin, and Enrofloxacin (Baytril) amongst others. The disinfectant product F10 which is bactericidal, viricidal and fungicidal has been demonstrated to be an effective agent for nebulisation in R.I. cases, although care must be taken to use the correct product and concentration according to manufacturer guidelines. This agent can also be used for nasal flushing in cases of upper airway disease with excessive nasal discharge or secretions. Depending on the case nebulisation may be carried out 1-2 times daily for a maximum of 20-30 minute sessions. Other drugs that may be nebulised apart from antibiotics and antiseptic-disinfectants include steroids for anti-inflammatory action, bronchodilators such as aminophylline to open the airway prior to nebulisation with other agents and finally mucolytic drugs to reduce the viscosity of respiratory secretions. Intrapneumonic therapy is even more aggressive and involves direct administration of drugs into affected lung tissue using endoscopy in the airway or gaining access via an indwelling catheter to the site of lung lesions. This is generally carried out on tortoises under sedation or general anaesthesia, locating the exact location of lung lesions by X-ray or ultrasound and drilling through the carapace.

If parasitic infection is responsible for respiratory disease, then treatment is directed at killing the parasites and preventing re-infection, as well as minimising the side effects of treatment. Nematode infections are generally treated with a number of anti-parasitic drugs including Fenbendazole, Albendazole and Ivermectin. Ivermectin must NEVER be used in chelonians as it is toxic and can cause fatal side effects. Anecdotal evidence for adverse effects of this drug in chameleons also exists so for this reason I generally avoid it in these species. In severe parasitic infections treatment itself can cause further problems especially where migrating larvae ore killed in-situ and subsequent inflammatory processes surrounding the dead parasites can cause more severe clinical signs than the parasitic infection itself. Viral infections can be difficult to treat and often rely on supportive care and prevention of secondary infection, in an effort to allow the animal to clear the infection if possible using its own immune defences. Some anti-viral agents are available, but their use in reptile patients is not widely researched and they are also often cost-prohibitive in general practice. Anti-fungal agents such as ketoconazole and itraconazole can be used to treat fungal disease but accurate dosage is critically important as side effects can be severe if used incorrectly or if the animal is debilitated to begin with.

As you can appreciate, blanket treatment protocols for respiratory disease are impossible to supply so care must be taken when following such guidance from other hobbyists or information obtained online. Each case has its own intricacies and possible underlying causes that may be missed without appropriate investigation at the diagnostic stage. I also hope I have outlined the difficulties in achieving a cure for respiratory disease in reptiles in some cases despite the best possible treatment. By far the best advice I can give is to ensure husbandry and nutrition of reptiles in your care is ideal, particularly with regard to space, ventilation and heating. Proper biosecurity precautions should be put in place in any large reptile collections, to include strict isolation and quarantine of any new additions for a minimum period of 6-8 weeks, preferably longer. Daily observation goes a long way in determining when a reptile is showing signs of illness, and prompt treatment by an experienced reptile veterinarian is often critical in order to achieve a successful outcome.


Step right up! Behold a Two-headed Snake!

Clients of mine who breed corn snakes recently had this very unusual baby hatch out of an egg in their incubator, a two headed snake! The hatchling appears to be a pair of conjoined twins which is very rare indeed. We occasionally see two-headed snakes hatching and it is usually a random event; a freak coincidence causing fusion during early embryonic development known as polycephaly.


In any case, most two headed snakes look to all intents and purposes like a single snake body with two heads side by side on a single neck. This hatchling however is conjoined much farther down the body, just above the level of the heart so it appears from X-rays I took that each head has a separate throat, windpipe (or trachea) and oesophagus that carries food to the stomach. This most likely resulted from fusion of monozygotic or identical twins during the early stages of development within the egg. It was extremely difficult considering the tiny size of the creature to obtain good diagnostic quality X-rays especially as the animal was conscious and difficult to keep it still to take a shot, so the exact anatomy is still unclear. I didn’t want to risk anaesthetising such a fragile, tiny creature just for interest sake to look at its anatomy but from what I can make out it seems like there is one dominant animal with relatively normal anatomy and the other has fused just above the level of the heart. I think there is a single heart, stomach and other abdominal organs, although there is a lot of air so there may be two lung spaces, unusual in that snakes usually only have a single functional lung.


Other problems that are evident are that the spine is kinked in a few places, which may cause problems down the line, although plenty of minor kinked snakes do lead perfectly normal and pain free lives. The good news is that the little snake has now eaten its first meal, and appears to be doing well. Whether it survives long term is still unknown however. There could be invisible problems we are not yet aware of. If it does survive it would be very interesting to perform more advanced imaging such as MRI to determine the anatomy, but of course this is all academic as there would be no benefit to this little snake, or should I say snakes! Surgical correction is not possible and would result in the death of one or both animals. The main concern in the near future is whether quality of life can be maintained.

More information on the underlying causes can be found here:

20 Ways to Drive Your Vet Crazy!

annoying owner

I recently asked veterinary surgeons from across the globe on an online forum to tell me their top three pet hates (pardon the pun) about veterinary clients and the behaviours that drive them crazy. As vets we deal with people from all walks of life, some who love their pets more than anything and some who unfortunately don’t. We also have a lot of frustration and stress in this job directly related to dealing with clients, and trying to keep them happy despite often very unrealistic demands and expectations. Although most clients are lovely and a pleasure to deal with, many vets will tell you that it only takes a few frustrating clients in your working week to make you wonder why you entered the profession in the first place! So here’s some of the common examples of ways to sap us of all our energy and good will. Please take note, and appreciate the tiring and often despairing position from the other side of the consult table.

Here are the top 20 ways to drive your vet crazy:

  1. Call the clinic 5 minutes to closing time on a Friday evening for your very sick pet that’s been vomiting, not eating, trembling and had explosive diarrhoea for three days already, but NOW it’s an emergency and at least two staff will have to stay behind on their own time to see you when you flip out about going to the out of hours clinic. Sure, it’s not like we have anything to do with our weekend anyway.
  2. Disagree with an entire list of possible diagnoses and tell the vet your breeder/groomer/dog walker/cousin/mate down the pub/grandmother’s 1st cousin/medium/water diviner told you that your pet was suffering from this condition and how it should be treated.
  3. On a similar theme, just utter the joyful phrase: “But I read on Google…..”
  4. Decline all diagnostic tests or suitable treatments for your precious pedigree animal’s multiple congenital health problems due to financial constraints (even though you spend hundreds of pounds to purchase him in the first place when there’s so many animals in rehoming centres), but recoil in horror when we suggest neutering because you want to use him for breeding. “He’s got papers” is not justification for breeding.
  5. Seek a professional opinion, completely ignore it, then complain when your pet’s condition doesn’t improve or gets worse. Complain that you’re being ripped off now that further tests or more expensive treatment is needed.
  6. Ask for free treatment “because he’s just a stray”. A stray cat that has been living, eating, sleeping in your home for the past 10 years is your pet, not a stray.
  7. Similarly, “She’s a rescue” doesn’t automatically qualify you for free treatment, nor does it excuse you neglecting your animal’s medical needs. If your animal doesn’t have access to timely and appropriate veterinary treatment, it hasn’t been rescued no matter how bad its conditions were before it entered your ‘care’.
  8. Tell us your rescued animal is fear aggressive or nervous because it was abused and beaten, despite not knowing anything about its history. In most cases animals are fearful because they haven’t been socialised, not because they’ve been beaten. A fear of the broom doesn’t necessarily mean your animal was beaten with a broom, but it makes for a lovely rescue story and happy ending. Well done you!
  9. ”If you loved animals you would do it for free”. If vets worked for free every time they were asked or expected to, there would be no vet clinic (bankruptcy), no way to get out of our massive student debt and we wouldn’t be able to put food on our tables. We are not trying to rip you off, just make a living doing a job we (mostly) love, helping animals.
  10. Asking us to alter or omit something from the clinical record so that your insurance will pay out is INSURANCE FRAUD. I’m not willing to lose my license to practice to save you £200 Madam, no can do!
  11. “He’s just really old” isn’t actually a valid diagnosis or reason your pet hasn’t seen a vet in 5 years when he’s now emaciated, hyperthyroid, in renal failure, his teeth are rotting out of his head and he hasn’t eaten or drank in 5 days. Yes we will now gladly put him to sleep because he is suffering. He has been suffering for quite some time. Age isn’t an excuse to allow that happen.
  12. Bring your cat into the clinic in your arms without a carrier! Sure, you might think your cat is well trained, that you can handle her and she would never run away from you as she adores you so much and just loves to be out and about. But try say that when a boisterous or aggressive dog lunges at her. Best case scenario she will scratch you to shreds trying to scrabble out of your arms, worst case scenario she shoots out the open clinic door across the road into oncoming traffic and is run over. I’ve seen it happen! Just trust us on this one, buy a carrier and use it.
  13. Tell us after your animal bites us that “Yeah, he’s done that before”. Or say: “But it’s your job to get bitten” when you fail to control your badly trained, out of control, aggressive dog.
  14. Obtain an exotic or specialist pet without doing even the most basic research into its care and then bring it to the vet when it is beyond saving. Blame the vet for failing to save said patient. Sigh.
  15. Dismiss the mere idea of using actual medicine to prevent fleas, worms and ticks because you use coconut oil/garlic/crystals/motor oil/the breath of babies or some other nonsense. The fact your dog has a crystal collar and doesn’t have fleas currently doesn’t mean crystals are an effective flea preventative. That’s not how science works I’m afraid.
  16. Be insanely rude and obnoxious to the support staff, nurses and receptionists but nice as pie when you eventually get to talk to the vet. Our staff are all there to help you and your pet, and the vets are often very busy. Don’t throw a tantrum or act like an A-hole when you can’t talk to the vet immediately. You’ll become ‘that client’ everyone groans about when you call the clinic. And they do tell us how rude you were to them.
  17. Freaking out that we extracted 9 rotten teeth during your pet’s dental or haggling and complaining about the astronomical cost of the procedure we had to perform on your animal that we told you it needed every year for the past three years at its annual health check, but you decided to forget about each time you walked out the door. Your fault it’s that expensive and invasive now, not ours.
  18. “He’s not in pain, he’s still eating and never cries”. Animals cope with pain. If he’s lame, it hurts. If he can barely get up in the morning due to arthritis, he’s in pain. Food is maybe the last thing he actually enjoys in life. Listen to us when we tell you your animal is in pain. We did a lot of training to recognise it. Quality of life and being pain free is important in your pet’s final years.
  19. “I’m just going to let her pass away peacefully at home”. Death is often not as peaceful as the movies make out. Your pet is struggling to breathe, can’t lift its head, hasn’t eaten in days, is dehydrated and weak, is soiling itself with urine and faeces?…..the list goes on, and still you don’t want to consider euthanasia? Offer it that one last kindness and dignity in death rather than suffering a slow, lingering passing at home, please. We can do home visits and make it very stress free, we promise.
  20. Offer up your infinite wisdom to another client in the waiting room, disagreeing with the vet’s treatment and claiming yourself to be an expert on this breed because you happen to have kept them for 20 years.




A Fish Out of Water! Koi Carp Tumour Removal.


A 5 year old Koi Carp presented to clinic when the owner noticed an unusual pea sized growth that appeared on the inside of her lower lip just inside the mouth. So far it hadn’t caused any issues with feeding for example but the worry was that it would grow and impede eating or even be a malignant or cancerous growth of some type. The decision was made to perform surgery to remove the tumour under general anaesthetic.


Now you’re probably thinking, how do you anaesthetise a fish?! Well let me tell you……


The owner brought the fish in along with several bags of her own pond water to use during the procedure, so as to reduce stress. If we used tap water it may have a different pH or temperature and added chemicals which could harm or stress the fish. This is the last thing we want in an anesthetised patient so it is far safer and less stressful to use the water from the fishes own pond or aquarium. A series of three containers were used as anaesthetic induction and recovery tanks, with an air pump oxygenating the water in each through an air stone to drive bubbles through the water. In anaesthetising fish, the drugs we use have to be infused into the water and are absorbed by the fishes gills, which are the equivalent of our lungs. Underneath the operculum or large scale covering the gills lies a series of delicate gill filaments packed with capillary blood vessels. Oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged through these tiny blood vessels from the surrounding water, just as we take in air to our lung tissue for gas exchange. Any drug we administer in the water also gets absorbed through the gills and enters the bloodstream. In this case I added a liquid drug called Phenoxyethanol to the water in the first tank of pond water in gradual increments until the fish started to become anaesthetised. It is critical that we control the plane or depth of anaesthesia in any of our surgical patients, and fish are no different.


When a fish is entering an anaesthetised state, initially the respiratory rate increases and we see gasping and fast opening and closing of the gills. Next the fish starts to lose it’s balance and floats on it’s side. At this point the respiratory rate slows down and the gills move less frequently. Gradually the fish becomes less and less responsive to touch or other stimuli. This is the point at which we can commence surgery. I removed the fish from the induction tank and weighed her before calculating an appropriate dose of pain relief and injecting her in the muscle on her back. Then she was placed on a wet towel to prevent drying or damage to her scales, and Sharon the nurse lifted the gill cover (operculum) and syringed oxygenated water containing the anaesthetic agent over her gill filaments to keep her oxygenated and anaesthetised throughout the procedure. This lump removal was very simple therefore only lasted a couple of minutes, but in longer operations we would avoid having the fish out of water for too long a period. Generally every 3-4 minutes we would replace the fish back into a recovery tank to re-oxygenate and if she became too light (regaining response to stimulus) then quickly transfer her back to the induction chamber to get her deep enough to continue with the surgery again out of water. So, very long procedures in fish surgery involve a lot of dunking, and finely balancing the plane of anaesthesia via concentrations of anaesthetic in each tank.

Entering anaesthetised state with loss of balance and reduced respiratory rate

Entering anaesthetised state with loss of balance and reduced respiratory rate

Administering pain relief medication via intramuscular injection

Administering pain relief medication via intramuscular injection

Cauterised site of lump removal

Cauterised site of lump removal

In this case, I used a scalpel to carefully remove the tumour at the base and cauterised the wound with heat after to stop the bleeding. It was just approaching lunch time and my stomach was grumbling. Grilled salmon, anyone?! Once the lump had been removed and bleeding stopped she was replaced in the plain water recovery tank to excrete the anaesthetic compound back into the water. As she regained consciousness and her respiratory rate rose in the recovery tank the anaesthetic agent was cleared from her system. Finally she was placed back into another tank of pond water to fully recover, as the initial recovery tank was now contaminated with low levels of the anaesthetic agent, keeping her somewhat groggy. She made a great recovery over about 15-20 minutes and waited in an oxygenated container to go home and be returned to her pond and shoal of mates. Due to cost constraints we are not sending the lump off to be classified so unfortunately do not know if it was a benign or malignant tumour.

So there you have it, Fish Anaesthesia and Surgery 101! Special thanks to Sharon our amazing nurse (now fish anaesthesiologist!) and vet student Tana, the talented photographer.

Recovering in oxygenated plain pond water, gradually excreting anaesthetic agent and regaining consciousness

Recovering in oxygenated plain pond water, gradually excreting anaesthetic agent and regaining consciousness




Reptile Keeping: 9 Signs You’re Doing It Wrong!

  1. You feed your leopard geckos an exclusive mealworm diet, from a bowl, with a separate dish of calcium powder. Groan…..

2. You have no idea where in the world your animal originates, or what it’s actual habitat looks like.


3. Your reptile keeping inspirations are certain US ‘big breeder’ YouTube sensations who stack ’em high, & rack ’em wide!


4. Your stock answer to the question “What temperature are you keeping them at?” is: “It has a 60W bulb”.


5. You believe that sand causes impaction, and not that sand impaction is a symptom of poor husbandry and/or nutrition.


6. You ask for advice for an urgent medical condition your pet reptile is suffering from on 7 Facebook forums, 5 local petshops, 3 breeders you know, 1 vet you know through Facebook (ahem!) and your mate down the pub…..before finally booking a vet appointment 2 weeks later.

7. You are breeding normal Bearded Dragons currently in the UK despite a massive overpopulation and welfare problem with unwanted Beardies.

Baby bearded dragons


8. You buy or ‘rescue’ reptiles without researching them, then ask other people how that species are best cared for or what medical care it needs (that you can’t afford) now you’ve taken it from the previous owners.


9. You don’t recognise the difference between an animal surviving Vs thriving, and continue to defend old school husbandry practices like withholding UV lighting from species that are exposed to it in the wild.

Inbreeding in Captive Reptile Populations

cinnamon royals

DISCLAIMER: Some of the images depicted in this article are provoking great discussion and argument, for the fact that none of them have been PROVEN to be directly caused by inbreeding. This is true, they have not been proven. However even with seemingly unrelated individuals breeding to produce these defective young, they still appear far more commonly in morph lines of animals than are represented in other more outcrossed and healthy genetic stock of other species that remain truer to their wild, unaltered form, unspoilt by human selective breeding. It also strikes me as odd that there could be so many incubation issues leading to serious deformities in animals that are bred in huge numbers; one would think the breeders would have the art of incubation down to a fine art. Food for thought. Of course it is easier to blame incubation issues instead of actually thinking that maybe breeding such closed genetic stock might have detrimental effects over time. In any case, the pictures are included as an illustration of what CAN happen due to close line breeding of various morphs, as well as deliberate or accidental inbreeding over time. Special thanks to Thomas Burton for allowing me to use his images, and I also wanted to mention that he has shared his own findings with breeding certain mutations in royal pythons to prevent people repeating breeding mistakes that may lead to animal suffering, which is highly commendable. More information on his findings can be found here:

cinnamon royal


Captive breeding of reptiles and amphibians is a widespread activity amongst the herpetoculture hobby. It is often attempted when new owners become more proficient at caring for their reptile pets and seek to broaden their knowledge and experience with these animals thus learning about their reproductive biology. More experienced hobbyists often breed their animals as a commercial venture or indeed as a conservation effort to minimise animals being taken from the wild for the pet trade or to maintain viable captive populations of threatened species. Some commercial enterprises and indeed private keepers undertake breeding projects in order to produce large numbers of desirable species, as well as new and desirable morphs of certain species that can command high prices and therefore return an impressive profit. Captive breeding of the reptiles and amphibians one keeps is often seen as a natural progression in the hobby from having a few pets to becoming a fully-fledged ‘keeper’. As with any animal production enterprise it is important to consider the outcomes and responsibilities involved in breeding of our charges, ensuring we do so in a way that minimises suffering and maintains high standards of welfare for both the animals we breed from and ultimately any offspring we produce for the remainder of their lives.

When it comes to captive breeding of reptiles in particular, there are many concerns evident within the hobby regarding irresponsible breeding and just as many misconceptions about how the practice should be carried out in the first place. One specific concern is the issue of inbreeding in captive reptiles and the detrimental effects this is having on captive populations as a whole, animal welfare at an individual level, the ethics of captive breeding and in the current climate of animal rights opposition, the public perceptions of the hobby in general. In the following discussion I will try to address the main concerns relating to inbreeding in captive reptile and amphibian populations. This discussion assumes a basic knowledge of genetics and gene function.

So what is inbreeding and why is it important?

Inbreeding can be defined as the mating of closely related individuals or those having very similar genetic constitutions. The consequences of inbreeding over time are that the offspring produced become more and more uniform in genetic similarity, and therefore the fitness of these offspring is often adversely affected. Fitness in biological terms relates to the ability of an animal to survive and reproduce thus spreading its genetic material to the next generation. This means that in the wild state those individuals that are genetically inferior and incur a disadvantage in terms of successful foraging, predator avoidance or mate acquisition for example are less likely to live and breed so ultimately their genetic contribution to the population as a whole is minimised. Survival of the fittest ensures that the wild population of any given species is maximally suited and in tune with its environment. This fitness advantage is generally achieved through the maintenance of genetic diversity, rather than uniformity, throughout the population. Genetic diversity is the biological principle that allows adaptation and evolution at a very basic level. Natural selection has ensured that any new genetic adaptations that arise through random combinations of genetic material (genes) at each mating can contribute to those genes perpetuation through the population if they are beneficial to fitness, or indeed to the elimination of such mutations if they are detrimental to fitness of the individual expressing them.

But surely inbreeding happens in the wild?

Inbreeding in the wild state does indeed happen from time to time through chance for the most part, as nature has developed many strategies and biological behaviours designed to minimise the occurrence of closely related individuals breeding together. In certain species for example the ranging behaviours of male and female offspring differs greatly meaning that by the time these individuals reach sexual maturity they have a very small chance of selecting one of their offspring or even distant relatives as a mate. Similarly there is significant evidence at least in birds and mammals that individuals recognise closely related individuals and that this affects mate choice. There has not been as much evidence of kin recognition in ‘lower’ vertebrates such as reptiles and amphibians but this is an area that warrants further study. Even if inbreeding happens occasionally, on a population level of hundreds or even thousands of individuals in a geographical range the impact of this chance occurrence on fitness is minimal. Natural selection means that if any disadvantageous traits result from such a mating pattern these are unlikely to be perpetuated through the population as a whole. So while technically inbreeding can and does occur in the wild state from time to time, the implications of these few matings are minimal. This is because the healthy and advantageous genetic diversity of the population that allows it to adapt to its environment is maintained by natural behaviours of the population as a whole.

So if inbreeding happens in the wild, why is it a concern in captivity?

Comparing the wild state to captive populations of reptiles is scientifically invalid as it is not comparing like with like for a multitude of reasons. Inbreeding in captive populations is a huge concern for the responsible breeder of any animal including food animal production systems, pedigree dog breeding and equally in breeding captive reptiles. The basic and most important concept underlying my argument that comparing wild reptiles to captive populations is flawed is that captive populations are breeding under a system of artificial selection, which places far different pressures on the population than natural selection in the wild. Selection theory is perhaps beyond the scope of this article but at a basic level artificial selection relates to selection of genetic material to breed from based on human decisions, whereas natural selection is a process occurring in nature which seeks to maximise evolutionary advantage and adaptation of a species to its environment over time. Captive environments are incredibly different from wild environments. When we place a reptile in a captive environment we remove many of the selection pressures at play for its wild counterpart, namely providing it with optimal environmental conditions, safeguarding it from predators and providing medical care or special consideration for illness or disability. Artificial selection of reptiles in captive environments also eliminates natural systems for mate choice. In short, the animals we produce over many generations of captive breeding are most likely poorly suited for survival in the wild state. This effect is magnified in situations where generations of inbreeding, intentional or otherwise, have resulted in poor genetic diversity within a population.

Genetic diversity in captive populations of most reptile species commonly bred in the hobby is far less than that found in the wild for the simple reason that in most species the numbers in captivity are far less than the wild population. Therefore there is not as much scope for new genetic material to be encountered. Add to this fact that geographical and economic constraints affect what animals come into contact with each other, and also how far siblings and closely related individuals are distributed between keepers and future breeding projects. There is also the important fact that captive populations of some species may have derived from only a very small number of wild individuals, and that in a certain locality or country there may only be a few distinct bloodlines from which to begin a breeding project in the first place. All of these factors and more discussed later contribute to a far higher inbreeding coefficient in captive populations as opposed to wild, meaning that the probability of genetic material within that population being more uniform and closely related is higher than in a population subject to natural selection. Therefore we commonly see signs of inbreeding depression in captive populations, which can range from extremely subtle and almost invisible to distressingly and visibly severe.

Inbreeding depression can be defined as depression of performance related to inbreeding. Performance in this context can be described as simply as maintaining biological function and health, or could be measured in terms of growth rate, longevity, reproductive health and output, behavioural indicators of stress and welfare or susceptibility to disease. In comparing these indicators of health in a highly inbred population to a population with greater genetic diversity, countless scientific studies throughout the history of animal production have demonstrated that continuous inbreeding of a population decreases performance and vitality of the individuals in that population.

Farmers and dog breeders often breed closely related animals, why is it a problem?

In most animal production systems inbreeding depression is a recognised outcome of repeated close matings and therefore deliberate inbreeding is avoided as a whole except in certain circumstances. Inbreeding has had a place in the domestication of animals and the derivation of all the various animal breeds in food animals, animal athletes such as racehorses and our domestic pets. When a genetic mutation resulting in a desirable characteristic arises in a group of animals, one way to perpetuate that characteristic is to try to ‘fix’ the genetics responsible by mating the animal with a desirable trait back to a closely related individual, often a sibling or parent. As an occasional practice there are risks but they tend to be low unless lethal or severely maladaptive gene expression is magnified by doing so. Very often in a breeding programme this practice will result in establishment of a line of animals all with similar genetic expression and all carrying the same desirable traits. To use food animal production as an example, generations of artificial selection has resulted in sheep, pig and cattle breeds that all have very specific and predictable characteristics in terms of litter size, mothering ability, weight gain and carcass quality amongst others. Ultimately these are economically measurable traits that result in increased profitability for the farmer and cheaper food for the consumer.

Much of this agricultural ‘progress’ resulting in highly productive breeds came from inbreeding, or more accurately line-breeding where all the animals within the breeding population were of similar ancestry but not necessarily as closely related as sibling to sibling, or parent to offspring matings. In effect line breeding is a milder form of inbreeding, but still relies on breeding genetically similar animals together in order that the offspring have predictable and reproducible traits. In the example of food animals above, we see that the objective of these breeding practices is purely for human benefit. The opposite of inbreeding is called outcrossing where new genetic material is bred into certain lines, often to prevent or alleviate the effects on performance related to inbreeding depression. So simplistically, if for example if a farmer has a litter of piglets that reach astonishing weight gains on very low feed rations and have a lower maintenance cost from weaning to slaughter, this litter may well feature heavily in the selection of future breeding stock. He may hold back several young females and breed them back to their father or vice versa with young boars and their mother in order to test the reproducibility of this fantastic weight gain ratio. Through artificial selection, line breeding and occasional inbreeding this farmer may have developed a pig herd over many years which are far more profitable than those on many of his rival farms. Now, say for example the farmer starts to experience problems with growing numbers of female pigs (sows) having difficulty giving birth to these large piglets, or litter size in general decreasing over several years of breeding his established line. He then may find a boar from another breed or bloodline that is known to produce smaller piglets at birth or greater litter size in order to outcross some different genetic material into his line. He has experienced inbreeding depression and needs to try to inject more diversity into his bloodlines in order to keep it as profitable as he would like.

So what are the costs of inbreeding?

Unfortunately the costs are generally directly related to animal welfare. In the case of food animal production, some of the greatest animal welfare concerns of modern agriculture are derived directly from artificial selection for human benefit. Vulnerability to production diseases such as mastitis, milk fever and lameness in dairy cattle is greatly increased when the main factor pushing breeding decisions is maximum milk yield. In pig production, the farmer above may cull many weak and malformed piglets per year as it is not viable or profitable to try to nurture them without affecting profit. Culling all of these ‘defective’ piglets is a welfare issue but is accepted as the price of increased production or performance. Similarly many of his animals may suffer from disease outbreaks as their genetic resistance to pathogens is adversely affected not only by the conditions they are kept in but also by their finely tuned genetic constitution and lack of genetic diversity relating to disease resistance. If a pathogen enters an intensive production unit in which all animals are genetically similar and that pathogen is well equipped to cause infection, it may spread easily throughout the entire unit from animal to animal killing most or all of the animals within. This may not be the case where genetically diverse animals with more vigour and vitality due to outcrossing and careful breeding to ensure disease resistance were bred.

The effects of inbreeding over too many matings and crosses are generally deleterious or negative either in terms of performance, as defined earlier, or in terms of overall animal welfare, health and longevity. Professional and conscientious breeders of any species recognise this risk, and try to keep sibling to sibling or parent to offspring matings to a minimum. They will also make conscious efforts to outcross new genetic material into their line without negating the desirable traits they attempted to fix. Perhaps more visible than food animal costs of inbreeding or line breeding over time are the massive array of genetic health problems affecting pedigree dogs due to generations of close matings required to establish certain breeds from a small genetic pool of similar ancestors. Sadly the selection pressure for pedigree dog breeding is not longevity, vitality and health but purely aesthetic for what physical traits tend to be desirable and win in the show ring. Many dog breeds have become so deformed and biologically maladapted through artificial selection and close breeding practices including inbreeding and line breeding that without veterinary intervention they would quickly die out, the British Bulldog being a sad case in point. This breed almost inevitably requires Caesarian section surgery to give birth due to large puppy size, head shape and the narrow pelvic canal of the bitch in relation to the pups.

What does all this have to do with inbreeding in reptiles?

The reason I have used the above examples to briefly explain the concepts, logic, benefits and costs of inbreeding in general in food animals and domestic pets is that the majority of scientific study to date on inbreeding and artificial selection effects is in these fields. My own undergraduate degree was at an agricultural college studying animal science so I studied food animal production in great detail. Much of the knowledge of genetics and breeding is derived from studies and trials related to the food animal sector. Unfortunately, such scientific studies on the effects of various practices in captive breeding of reptiles are absent or in their infancy by comparison to the wealth of information in other species. However, the same basic biological principles apply whether you are breeding snails, guppies, lizards, snakes or high performance cattle and horses. Good breeders know the circumstances under which inbreeding may be deemed acceptable, and take great care to determine the degree of genetic diversity in the populations of animals they are working with. There is a great deal of care and design that goes into selection of animals for improvement of particular bloodlines, and thankfully nowadays much of this artificial selection is considered not only in terms of human benefit but at the same time with due attention to the welfare implications in the animals concerned.

Unfortunately in the reptile community as a whole, this background knowledge of animal breeding concepts and best practice is frequently lacking in pet owners with very little knowledge due to inexperience keeping animals and very often subject to various myths and misunderstandings even from the so called experts in reptile breeding. All too often we hear and read opinions that inbreeding doesn’t affect reptiles, that it is fine to mate sibling to sibling/offspring to parent just once, or that a breeder has mated several generations of offspring to parents without any visible ill effects. The crucial word in this latter claim is ‘visible’. I hope in this article to dispel some of these myths and misconceptions, as well as provide facts rather than opinion on why inbreeding in captive reptile populations is doing a tremendous damage to animal welfare and the hobby in general, the consequences of which we may not be able to see for some time to come.

So what are the consequences of inbreeding over time?

The consequences of inbreeding are often seen as positive to those deliberately breeding closely related reptiles in that new and attractive colour morphs or patterns can be produced. The production of new varieties and strains in captive reptile breeding has seen a massive rise in the value of individual animals, with rarity often determining extraordinary market price. One of the standard methods of producing such rarities is the use of line breeding or inbreeding once genetic aberrations appear in a population of animals. The reptile community has become more of an industry in recent years and a worrying trend of dismissing any criticism of inbreeding has emerged, with many wrongly assuming there are few if any negative consequences. The justification for this practice is, as in agricultural practice, based on human benefit rather than animal welfare and so it is important for the community and leaders in the industry to recognise and discuss the issue.

Virtually no improvements have been made in terms of animal welfare through inbreeding of captive reptile populations as far as I am aware. By contrast, many examples of compromised welfare can be seen as a direct result including both visible and non-visible effects. Visible effects include kinked spines and other skeletal malformations, reduced or defective growth rates, neurological problems as seen in Spider Royal Pythons, and even offspring hatching with severe physical deformities such as a lack of eyes or internal organs exposed outside the body. Invisible effects on the other hand are more difficult to quantify and often only come to the fore later in an animal’s life, by which time it may have already passed on its defective genetic material to many more generations. These effects include genetic defects not conducive to survival for a natural lifespan, or animals not surviving far past hatching or birth if at all, decreased disease resistance, a failure to thrive or internal deformities not apparent on first glance. The countless neonates produced by large scale breeders of reptiles which fail to hatch or are dead at birth are often dismissed as casualties of breeding large numbers of animals. Some survive, some do not. I would hazard a guess that far higher rates of neonatal death or deformity occurs in units where closely related animals are being bred than in those where heterosis is achieved or the breeder makes concerted efforts to outsource unrelated bloodlines on a regular basis and pays close attention to detail where pedigree or ancestry of the animals in their care are concerned. Perhaps this is an area that warrants further scientific research.

Bearded Dragon neonate with no eyes, several littermates affected

Bearded Dragon neonate with no eyes, several littermates affected

Persistent inbreeding over time, particularly when deliberate, is extremely difficult to justify ethically when all the scientific research and evidence points to the fact that it leads to a decline in health and welfare of the animals concerned over time. As a breeder, one has to firstly accept this as fact and then ask themselves whether they have a greater concern for the health of the animals in their care, or for making a profit at the expense of animal welfare.

Closed captive populations

Apart from deliberate inbreeding in order to ‘fix’ certain traits or enhance certain physical characteristics in a bloodline that pleases the breeder or ultimately makes more money in the commercial market, a substantial level of inbreeding occurs accidentally in captive reptiles. The reason for this is that most captive populations are relatively closed with a low level of new genetic material entering from outside sources. In a relatively small geographical area, many of the individual animals kept by enthusiasts of that particular species or morph may be descended from the same small number of individuals historically. It may have been that only a small number were imported as the founder colony of the entire captive population in that city or country, or it may be that a few breeders produced large numbers of offspring from a few pairs, thus saturating the local market with genetically similar animals. Unwittingly several years later when all of these animals mature and their owners seek out suitable mates it may mean that they are unwittingly selecting siblings or closely related individuals even if they seek new stock from reliable sources far away. Geographical and economic limitations of importing new genetic material and unrelated stock in certain species may mean it is impossible to source unrelated specimens at the right time or without considerable effort and expense. The net result of these trends over time is that closed captive populations of many commonly kept reptiles are becoming more and more inbred despite the efforts of even the most conscientious and responsible breeders. More worrying from a conservation point of view is that in endangered species where the aim of captive breeding is to protect the species from extinction in the wild these same factors can often influence the genetic variance of the captive population. The outcome is the production of animals that are genetically inferior with a substantial fitness disadvantage compared with their endangered wild counterparts. Any hope of reintroduction after a species becomes extinct in the wild is diminished if the captive breeding of that species over time has resulted in animals that are ill equipped to survive in the wild or less disease resistant.

As an example of saturation of local markets, consider the successful Bearded Dragon or Yemen Chameleon breeder, both species which have become enormously popular in recent years. These are lizards with a huge reproductive potential laying large clutches of eggs, possibly several times per year. They are also considered good ‘beginner’ lizards, the former perhaps more appropriately than the latter. Using a simple example of a breeder who has several females breeding and sells their offspring to a handful of shops in the local area or even within a 30-40 mile radius, it is easy to see that the sheer number of surviving animals that may be direct siblings when picked at random in that small geographical area two years later would be enormous. Because these animals may have been bought from the local pet store by relatively inexperienced keepers, the basics of breeder responsibility or even biology may be lacking by the time a year or two later the beginner keeper has developed confidence enough to attempt to breed from their pet. They may seek a mate for their pet from a local pet store or online classifieds and generally will not travel too far to make their purchase. Unwittingly a sibling pair is bred from and the cycle perpetuates. Several years on the majority of bearded dragons or chameleons in one small geographical area may in fact be derived directly from the same single adult pair. The magnitude of sibling to sibling or offspring to parent matings that happened along the way may span several generations. If you scale this up to a national level it is easy to imagine that genetic diversity and hence vigour can be lost accidentally, with the result that we are churning out pretty poor specimens for the pet trade, many of which succumb to our failings in captive care far sooner than if they were a little more robust like earlier generations. It is no coincidence whatsoever that certain popular species in the reptile trade are developing more and more inexplicable as well as obvious health problems when the attention to detail in selecting for genetic diversity and overall health and vigour has sharply declined and that species has become greatly overbred by amateur, short sighted, irresponsible or inexperienced hobbyists.

Two chameleons from same litter, kept in exact same conditions, one failed to thrive; a possible invisible inbreeding effect

Two chameleons from same litter, kept in exact same conditions, one failed to thrive; a possible invisible inbreeding effect

Deliberate inbreeding

Having discussed accidental inbreeding and inbreeding depression as a natural and at times somewhat unavoidable consequence of closed captive populations, it is now time to consider deliberate and unapologetic inbreeding of captive reptiles in order to produce animals as commodities for commercial gain. I may not hold a popular view here and certainly won’t endear myself to many large scale breeders but if my oath as a veterinary surgeon is to act always in the interest of the animal than I consider it vital that we get the hobby talking about the serious welfare implications the reptile industry imposes on the animals in our care. There are many supporters and advocates of deliberate inbreeding that are extremely vocal about their practices, and offer misleading justification for the practice in order to defend it. The fact as outlined previously is that inbreeding for commercial gain directly compromises individual animal welfare over time, whether that is visible immediately in physical deformity or years down the line when far more subtle signs of health and disease resistance become apparent. One of the often cited defences is referencing a particular bloodline or breeder that has bred animals closely for many generations without any problems. I would always argue that such a breeder has been very lucky, but just because they haven’t had a visible or quantifiable problem as yet doesn’t mean there isn’t a genetic time bomb lurking just below the surface of the animals in question. Such an absence of evidence is not proof that there is no risk; it just means an unfavourable outcome for that activity has not happened yet. Similarly, what a certain breeder advertises and what is kept hidden from public knowledge and perception are often two very different things. Many large scale breeders become accustomed to a level of losses, deformities or deaths amongst the animals they produce. Certainly many will recognise these as a direct result of their breeding practices, but if their venture is commercially successful and produces animals that are visibly, outwardly healthy and that earn a profit, then there is very little advantage in advertising the fact that many more animals were produced that didn’t survive or had to be culled due to health issues in their bloodline. This is the hidden cost to animal welfare that is often swept under the rug, and the average consumer buying a Royal Python morph for example does not factor in these losses of life that were part of producing their new pet.


The morph craze

The rise of colour morphs in certain species, most notably in Royal Pythons and Leopard Geckoes in recent years has seen a massive increase in the level of inbreeding within the reptile hobby that is not only now expected but also glorified and defended with extraordinary vigour. My introduction to the reptile community in my early teenage years was surrounded by keepers who were fascinated by the natural biology and behaviour of the myriad of reptile and amphibian species from different regions of the world. Generally enclosures and husbandry techniques attempted to emulate the wild habitat and the use of naturalistic vivaria with living plants was widespread. Selective breeding for unusual traits or ‘domestication’ of species was not so widespread. The hobby has changed considerably since then, and the more worrying trend is that it has become more of an industry for many where animals are kept and produced in minimal welfare standards in order to maximise profit. I’ve mentioned elsewhere the health implications and welfare concerns inherent in mass production of reptiles in large scale facilities, and the culture that extends to the small scale keeper as a result in terms of housing, husbandry and value of the individuals kept.

Crested gecko hatchling with no limbs

Crested gecko hatchling with no limbs

The boom in popularity of reptiles as pets in recent years has led to a stunning variety of morphs or man-made artificially selected forms that vary significantly from the wild-type of that particular species. These morphs have arisen through careful selection for desirable traits, and are often exemplified or propagated by inbreeding. Without inbreeding it would not be possible to produce many of the common morphs we see today, some of which have superceded the original wild type form in certain species to the point it has itself become a rarity in the trade. The two biggest species I mention above in terms of morphs created, the Leopard Gecko and Royal Python, are also the best examples to use when describing the specific problems that manifest when inbreeding is lauded as a positive practice and the negative consequences of the practice ignored or worse still falsely justified. For fear of writing a book instead of an article I will not go into tremendous detail on all the genetic problems associated with morphs in these species but I would encourage all readers to investigate for themselves the genetic dysfunctions inherent in the following few examples:

Enigma Leopard Geckoes with neurological or vestibular (balance) disease

Cryptosporidium susceptibility in many Leopard Gecko strains (thought to have some genetic component for parasite resistance)

Spider Royal pythons with mild to severe neurological issues aka ‘wobbles’

Lethal gene combinations in many Royal morph pairings

Spinal kinking, duckbills, bug eyes and other physical malformations in Royal Pythons

It is simply undeniable that a great proportion if not all of these health issues of the animals being produced are at least partly if not fully attributable to degrees of inbreeding associated with their production. Breeders and hobbyists alike can argue all they want on the merits and justifications of doing so, but the bottom line is that to continue breeding these defective lines of animals without substantial and considered efforts to improve the lines by outcrossing is tantamount to animal abuse and is only justified for financial gain.


Dispelling the Myths

Many excuses or justifications are given when the practice of inbreeding is raised. All can be rebuttalled easily, applying the following logic.

Crossing siblings, parents, and heterozygotes carry different levels of risk

This may be true in isolation for single matings but if one considers the effect of many breeders ‘allowing’ close matings over many years and in geographically limited areas the inbreeding coefficient for the whole population rises sharply. By ‘allowing’ close matings in your collection to ‘enhance’ the appearance of whatever strain or morph you are producing, you are having a detrimental impact on the overall genetic health of that population as a whole in the future.

Single matings aren’t harmful, only repeated crossings of related animals

Again one breeder ‘allowing’ a single mating between two siblings or parent to offspring may not carry a huge risk when viewed as an isolated event, but considering the bloodline involved may be highly inbred already if traced back far enough, and considering the likelihood of future closely related crossings being carried out with the offspring produced, each single mating dismissed as an isolated low risk event has the potential to impact the genetic integrity of the animals in future. Breeders should not be so short-sighted as to think their actions in their current generation of apparently healthy animals has no impact on the future health of the next generations.

Wild occurrence

As discussed earlier wild populations are maximally suited to their environment, otherwise they would not survive. Comparing artificially selected animals bred for appearance and other arbitrary human values, aesthetic or economic, with wild populations where an occasional inbreeding event has no great impact on the population is an invalid argument.

Low incidence in certain species or bloodlines

I have seen many times in discussions on inbreeding the person defending the practice citing an example they know where they or a colleague has ‘bred seven generations of Jaguar Carpet pythons using sibling and parent matings with no problems’ for example. This is not proof that inbreeding is not harmful. This is an example where someone has not seen any of the visible effects of inbreeding over time in their line of animals. They may be lucky so far that nothing visible has been identified. Genetics relies on chance mutations and gene combinations. Many times highly inbred animals can be produced and don’t display any negative effects. But arguing that because this is true that inbreeding in general is without risk is foolish. Applying a similar logic someone might say car crashes do not happen or are very low risk because they have been driving for 20 plus years and have never had a crash. It is simply an illogical defence and no excuse to make light of the often serious consequences of inbreeding.

Primitive Vs advanced vertebrates?

Another opinion that is often given to defend current breeding practices and standards in the reptile industry is that inbreeding does not seem to affect lower vertebrates such as fish, amphibians and reptiles compared with mammals for instance. This is not proven fact. The fact is that much of the research carried out on inbreeding to date in the scientific literature relates only to mammal species and birds. The reason for this is that agricultural and animal science research has primarily focused to date on agricultural species. As discussed earlier vast data and research exists on genetic variation and inbreeding effects in terms of the domestication of species, and animal production for human benefit. Unfortunately, herpetoculture is still in it’s infancy by comparison to agriculture which has been around for thousands of years. Fecundity of captive reptiles, as in their ability to reproduce large numbers of offspring, is lower in many species than others. And we have also been breeding many of the species we keep in captivity for a few generations in relatively small numbers so to date may not have seen the effects of inbreeding depression in most. With the huge rise in inbreeding in the past 10-20 years we have also seen a variety of health problems becoming more apparent, some very subtle and relating to disease resistance and reproductive success which may be directly related to genetic issues.

Defective young are culled so good breeders only sell or breed healthy animals

There are two serious problems with this sort of statement. Firstly, there is an ethical dilemma with producing large numbers of defective offspring only to cull them immediately or once realised that they are excess to requirements. Not to mention that methods of culling are often questionable in humane terms or in efficacy. Secondly, if you have even 10% of a clutch of eggs hatching physically deformed neonates then arguably none of the rest of the related clutch should be deemed as reproductively viable animals. Invariably they are all carrying the potential to display this trait in future generations. Therefore saying the unhealthy ones are culled and a breeder is responsible because they only sell the physically perfect specimens ignores the fact that the breeder is selling from a bloodline that carries invisible genes and problems. If a new owner buys from this bloodline and decides to breed later they are likely unaware of the full genetic potential of their animal, to produce desirable and undesirable offspring in the same clutch or litter. Subsequent generations may have an even higher instance of congenital deformities. This sort of problem in the industry is the hidden cost of the morph craze and deliberate inbreeding. Many thousands of animals fail to hatch, fail to thrive or are so badly deformed that they are killed immediately after birth or hatching. Do we as hobbyists want this as the reality and standard of how we operate, especially in light of all the opponents that criticise us on animal welfare grounds? Most people don’t take into account when they buy their high end royal python morph for example the sheer number of defective and unthrifty babies that were produced and culled in order to produce our pet. Is that a standard practice we should consider or knowingly contribute to? I would argue that these are the things we should consider when buying into a culture of deliberate inbreeding. But most people are unaware because the breeders are not advertising their genetic mutant offspring for all to see and marvel over. And some people just don’t want to know at what cost their animal is produced, which is a great pity.



In conclusion the issue of inbreeding in captive reptiles is one that generates a lot of interest, much argument and a great deal of mistruths being touted as fact in order to defend current practices. If one respects even the basic tenets of animal husbandry and breeding then accepting that inbreeding is detrimental to animal health and welfare over time is the only responsible option. Consistently justifying the practice as harmless and propagating mistruths to those looking for advice as a way of defending the practice is misguided at best and dangerous at worst. As the reptile hobby has grown into a multi-million dollar industry, sadly production has become more and more intensive to the point animals are now very much a commodity in line with intensive agriculture. Big commercial breeders are idolised and respected in the industry, however some are more responsible than others. Their opinion and expertise especially when it comes to breeding is respected and their methods trickle down to the small scale breeder over time. If that advice advocates deliberate inbreeding as standard practice and neglects to inform of the significant risks and costs in terms of animal welfare then I think we need to be fearful of where the industry is heading. When discussing the issue of inbreeding it is vital to consider whether it is being done for commercial gain or for the benefit of the animals. It is invariably the former, and if you are supporting that side of the industry then you must ask yourself which is more important for you as a reptile keeper, human profit and enjoyment or animal welfare?


Leopard geckos DON’T require UV Lighting. A soldier in Iraq told me so.

Random stranger on the internet:

Idk if you have ever been to Iraq sir. But I have in the united states amry. Leopard geckos do not require uvb. They stay I dark crevices under rocks or In holes. When. We did night runs is when they came out. If you do not belive me you can ask Mr Ron tremper herpetologist who essential wrote the book on them.

Me (Tired of defending best practice):

I have not been to Iraq. I have spoken to herpetologists who’ve been to Pakistan and Afghanistan and have seen them moving about at dawn and dusk when the sun is in the sky, albeit at low levels. Ron Tremper has perfected the art of providing perfect nutrition to leopard geckos without providing them with UVB lighting because that is his livelihood for many years. Therefore I agree with you in theory, leopard geckos do not NEED UVB. However, most beginners or even moderately experienced keepers are not Ron Tremper. And I see case after case of MBD in leopard geckos in captivity that DO have MBD which could have been prevented by providing UVB lighting. They also benefit in other ways from it, and experience it in the wild despite what you think. Not seeing one exposed to it during your time in Iraq is not evidence it doesn’t happen. It just means you didn’t observe it buddy. I’ve never seen a train wreck but I believe they happen in real life. Crepuscular (not strictly nocturnal) species like leopard geckos have been shown to be far more efficient at utilising low levels and exposures than diurnal lizards. Ultimately, if you’re arguing or advocating against providing UV light to leopard geckos you are denying them of something they do obtain in the wild because you prefer to do things a cheaper, more convenient way for you the keeper, which can be misinterpreted by more inexperienced keepers and end up causing serious welfare and health problems. Your call.

PS: I’ve just seen you’re a big gecko breeder. What a surprising viewpoint. Point 1 may interest you as well as point number 4.