A Guide To Feeding Your Reptile
Below are the basic requirements for some of the more commonly kept species of reptile
Reptiles are an amazing and diverse group. This means that they have a large range of requirements when it comes to their diet. Some, like tortoises, are vegetarians – a world away from the sporadic, meat-only dietary pattern of a large boa snake!
With the needs of reptiles being so unique, however, it should be noted that this is a guide, and all reptile diets should be developed in line with advice from a reptile expert. It should also be remembered reptile UV light also plays an important role in metabolism, health and development.
To see a range of nutrition options for reptiles, have a look at what's on offer from our friends in store.
More about feeding your reptile
Bearded dragons are omnivores, meaning that they naturally eat both plants and animals – although not picky over the definition of ‘animal’, most bearded dragons are offered insects as a major part of their diet in captivity to meet this need.
There are three components to a pet bearded dragon’s diet:
- In terms of their meat requirements, this is usually met through insects as these are convenient, generally inexpensive, can be ‘gut-loaded’ (fed high quality food before being fed to your bearded dragon) and can be dusted with supplement powders. Young bearded dragons have a higher need for protein than adult bearded dragons as they are growing and developing, and so have a higher meat/insect dietary demand. Although in the wild adult bearded dragons would still get about 75% of their nutrition from meat sources, pet bearded dragons do not get the same exercise as their wild counterparts, and will suffer obesity on a diet too rich in insects.
- Vegetables/fruit (non-citrus)
- Thus adult bearded dragon should only be getting 25% of their nutrition from insects in captivity, leaving the remaining 75% for the vegetables and fruit part of their diet, topped up with commercial food if appropriate. Avoid citrus fruits, lettuce, spinach and avocado, and keep fruit to only 10% of your breaded dragon’s diet, if at all, as the high sugar isn’t good for them.
- Bearded dragon commercial food
- Commercial bearded dragon foods are readily available. These are generally high in protein, and pre-loaded with essential vitamin and minerals. The hard texture can put off some breaded dragons, but commercial food may be a helpful addition (supplement) to your bearded dragon’s diet.
Other mineral and vitamin supplements are available. Greens should be dusted with supplements (eg Nutrobal) and live food should be gut loaded and dusted to ensure optimum health. All bearded dragons also need clean, fresh water constantly available. If you think your bearded dragon isn’t good at drinking, spraying their vegetables with water can help increase their intake. If you have any concerns about your bearded dragon’s diet, or notice any changes in their eating or drinking habits, get in touch with your local reptile-friendly vet as soon as possible.
Lizards always require specialist care, and getting their diet right is an important part of that.
Leopard geckos eat solely meat; they do not eat plant matter such as fruit or vegetables. Ideally, this meat diet is given in the form of live insects – most geckos won’t eat dead insects, even if offered.
The best options for live insects are mealworms or crickets. Both of these should be ‘gut-loaded’ – the process of giving insects a highly nutritious meal before they are fed to your gecko, thereby increasing the value of the meal.
Dusting insects with a powder of vitamins and minerals is another way to increase the nutritional value of the live insects you are feeding, and often both techniques are used.
Some higher calorie insect options, such as waxworms or superworms, are a great treat but should be offered sparingly. Geckos store fat in their tail, so don’t suffer from classic obesity as easily as some reptile species, but care should still be taken not to overload on very fatty meal options as they will get hepatic lipidosis and cardiac disease.
Live feeding should be done when you can watch your gecko, and in the evening when your gecko has plenty of energy and will be active. Place live feed where they can see it and, if you can, offer crickets only a few at a time. Uneaten crickets should be removed and this can be difficult if there are lots of them to catch! Live food should be appropriately sized to make sure your gecko can handle catching and swallowing it – as a general rule, live insects offered should be no longer in the length than the space between your leopard gecko’s eyes. On average, young leopard geckos are fed daily, whereas adult leopard geckos only need feeding every 2-3 days. It is important not to be tempted to over feed at each sitting.
Water should always be available for your leopard gecko –a shallow water dish is the best way to provide this, and this should be refreshed daily. Spraying geckos with water can help if they are poor drinkers, as they will lick the water off their skin – just like the morning dew in the wild!
If you have any concerns about your leopard gecko’s diet, or notice any changes in their eating or drinking habits, get in touch with your local reptile-friendly vet as soon as possible.
Most tortoises are natural grazers, and in the wild will spend a large proportion of their day eating grass, plants, flowers and roots, depending on the species being kept. This diet is low in fat, sugar and protein, and high in fibre and calcium. Unsurprisingly, when offered some of our common vegetables and fruit, which are much higher in sugar and protein, tortoises get very excited! Unfortunately, these foods are not suitable to the way tortoises would naturally eat, and this has knock on consequences for their health. Ideally our pet tortoises should be fed as similarly to their wild counterparts as possible – think grasses, weeds, flower, leafy greens and herbs.
High protein vegetables such as peas and beans, and high sugar options such as fruit and root vegetables, should generally be avoided or only given as a very rare treat. As well as plant matter, supplementing the daily diet with calcium (ideally alongside vitamin D3) and mineral supplement is a good way to make sure your tortoise is getting everything they need. Young tortoises are especially at risk from nutritional imbalances are they grow. Slow even growth is best for long-term health, which can be obtained by feeding a correct and not overly rich diet. Even a few weeks on the incorrect diet can do lasting harm to a young tortoise. Adult tortoises are also not immune from the perils of a poor diet, which can lead to serious liver and kidney complications over time, as well as problems with bone and shell health.
Commercial ‘complete’ tortoise foods are also available. Many of these products can lead to problems, and should certainly not be the only source of nutrition for your tortoise. At most, a pelleted diet should be fed once or twice a week as a supplement, and should be soaked first.
Remember the diet does change with the species being kept. Savanah tortoises, such as the Sulcata, are grass grazers and need a large portion of their diet to be grass and hey. Some tortoises such as the Red-foot, yellow-foot, and box turtle, are omnivorous and will eat the odd insect or meat. Although your tortoise may eat the commercial food happily, it is important to base your tortoise’s diet on what they need, rather than what they prefer. For example, many tortoises love tomatoes, cucumber and lettuce, but will get very ill on a diet based mainly around these ingredients. Like us, they have a tendency to prefer the foods that aren’t healthy for them!
Finally, all tortoises need fresh water every day. Although equipped to handle dry environments, reduced drinking puts strain on the kidneys, and is an unnecessary risk in a captive tortoise. Even when eating moist vegetables, your tortoise will not get all the water that they need from their food. Bathing your tortoise twice once or twice a week can help reduce any hydration deficit.
If you have any concerns about your tortoise’s diet, or notice any changes in their eating or drinking habits, get in touch with your local reptile-friendly vet as soon as possible.
Many fresh water turtles have an omnivorous diet, meaning that they eat both plants and animals. It should be noted however that some species of turtle have solely meat or plant based diets, so it is important that the diet you provide is appropriate for the species of turtle or terrapin that you own.
In the wild pond sliders feed on aquatic vegetation, small fish and carrion such as dead frogs. This might be a difficult diet to replicate for pet pond slider. With this in mind, many sliders are fed a combination of vegetation, meat and commercial turtle pellets. Where these turtles are concerned, variety is key. Making sure to give your turtles plenty of different food options as part of their diet will help them get everything they need to stay healthy.
Ideally, a commercial diet should not be the mainstay of the diet, but rather part of a larger, wider offering of food. As pond sliders are omnivores they will enjoy both meat and greens if you offer them. Younger terrapins need more protein, whereas adults should have a more significant portion of their diet made up of vegetation. It is still important to offer vegetation to young pond sliders however to get them used to eating vegetation, as this will help move them onto a more leaf-heavy diet as they age. For protein, turtle keepers will use options such as freeze-dried shrimp, crickets and mealworms.
Live prey can be stimulating for turtles, and can include bloodworms and daphnia, or insects on the surface of the water. Live prey should be carefully sourced, as they carry a risk of parasites or infections. These ‘whole’ meat sources are much healthier than feeding meat such as chicken breast or beef, which is not recommended, both due to the high protein content and the risk of bacteria.
If feeding freeze dried food it is essential to ensure the food has had supplements added as part of the process. It is advised to never feed previously frozen food (fish and prawns) as these will be nutritionally deficient. Food can be re-supplemented with mineral and vitamins available at your reptile store or vets.
For vegetation, aquatic plants such as duckweed, anacharis, water hyacinth and water lettuce are all good turtle snacks. Leafy greens such as dandelion, collard greens, mustard greens, spinach and kale are all healthy options. Dark lettuce can be given sparingly, but iceberg has little nutritional value and is best avoided. Turtles should also never be given onions or avocado. Shredding greens can help your turtle eat, especially when they are still small.
Fruit should be a special treat, as it is not a natural part of the turtle diet and is very rich. Any uneaten food should be removed every day to keep the tank clean. A good multivitamin and mineral should also be given to your turtle a few times a week, and must contain both calcium and vitamin D3.
Corn snakes are meat eaters, and will need to be fed whole meat such as thawed frozen rodents. Being comfortable with feeding your corn snake on these is an important consideration before thinking about buying a snake. While most snakes are given rodents that are already deceased, some people feel that feeding live rodents is a more natural experience for a snake. Most captive-bred corn snakes, however, will never have been given live prey and may reject it. There is also a risk of injury to your snake from live prey, as well as a risk of picking up infections, especially in wild-caught rodents. The UK legal consideration must also be complied with; meaning prey items are normally deceased when fed.
The size of rodent you offer needs to be suitable for your snake. Snakes eat their prey whole, so won’t be able to manage or may regurgitate food which is too large. Rodents offered should be no larger than 1.5x the size of your corn snake’s midsection and feeding too large a prey item can be detrimental.
Corn snakes also do not need to eat very frequently. A meal every 5-7 days for young snakes, and then every 7-10 days for adults, is enough to sustain them. Offered rodents should be thawed before feeding but never cooked - this may put your corn snake off or make them ill. Overfeeding should be avoided as, just like us, snakes can suffer from obesity.
Many people choose to feed their corn snake in a ‘feeding tub’ – a tub that will comfortably fit your snake, as well as sitting nicely in the vivarium. By only feeding your snake when it is in the feeding tub they will come to expect food only when it is there, reducing the risk of being bitten when your hands are in the normal vivarium, as well as reducing the risk of them accidentally ingesting any vivarium substrate. Another method is to feed them outside of the vivarium in a different container or area, so that they don’t associate the opening of the door with feeding.
Common reasons for a snake to ignore a meal include:
- Shedding, snakes will not eat during the shedding process
- Incorrect vivarium temperatures, this should be graduated, and have hiding places in a range of temperature zones.
- Inappropriate or 'bad' food items.
If your corn snake refuses a meal, take it away and re-offer in another week. Correct any issues you may have spotted with the environment in the meanwhile. Sometimes slightly warming and bloodying/slitting the food item can help.
All corn snakes should also always have access to clean, fresh water in a bowl. Many corn snakes like to lie in their water, so it is important to clean it regularly.
If you have any concerns about your corn snake’s eating habits, as they are usually fairly consistent feeders, always contact your vet for advice.
Vet top tip: Feeding snakes
Iain Cope, Practice Owner & Veterinary Surgeon at Vets4Pets Newmarket
BSc(VetSci)Hons BVM&S CertAVP(ZM) MRCVS RCVS recognised Advanced Practitioner in Zoological Medicine
"It's important to start snakes on small foods initially. A large snake may want a large meal and it can be tempting to feed this, but this can be off-putting to them, so start with a smaller meal until their appetite increases and do not be tempted to go too large too early!"