Supplementing Herp Diets

Providing pet herps with a properly supplemented and well-balanced diet helps prevent common illnesses and ensure happy hobbyists.


In the wild, many herps are opportunistic feeders, eating what they can find or subdue, as long as it’s within their normal dietary range. Snakes may snag a rodent here, a lizard there, and feast on a nest of fledgling birds should the situation present itself. And naturally occurring dietary variety is not restricted to serpents; in a given day, any number of lizard species will likely dine on dozens of different invertebrate snacks, while tortoises will consume any edible plant that they wander across as part of their tedious but efficient grazing behavior. The point is that, in nature, reptiles have the entire food chain as their buffet. They can pick and choose what is worth consuming as part of a balanced diet. 

Recreating this venerable schmorgesborg in the home can be a challenge. And while we have come a long way in uncovering the secrets of herp nutrition, herpeteculture as a whole remains in its infancy, leaving much to be learned and expanded upon. 

Over 20 years ago, when I was just discovering the wonder of keeping reptiles of my own, my pets ate crickets. Today, crickets represent just one of the many invertebrate prey items commercially produced and sold on massive levels specifically for the pet trade. In addition to the wide array of insects and rodents at our disposal, we now have a variety of vitamin and mineral supplements with which we can further the nutritional fortitude of traditional reptile and amphibian fare.

Traditionally, the most effective supplements have been produced in the form of an ultra-fine powder, designed to stick readily to feeder insects or fresh produce. Additionally, some manufacturers have opted to produce a product in liquid form that can theoretically be misted directly onto food items. These powders and sprays come in a variety of formulas, and wading through the ingredients can be a headache. 

In general, the main purpose of these supplements is to boost calcium levels in the diet to support proper skeletal growth and cellular function. Calcium must be present in larger quantities than phosphorus to be effective for herps. The generally accepted ratio is two (or more) parts calcium to one part phosphorus. Many readily available foods are high in phosphorus and deficient in calcium, making proper supplementation a necessity. 

In addition to calcium, supplements can include vitamin D3, a key player in the long and complex process of calcium uptake in the gut. Vitamin D3 is procured by captive herps in two main ways: in the form of a supplement added to food or via exposure to UVB light rays. These rays can be in the form of unfiltered sunlight, or they can come from specially designed reptile bulbs. Ideally, a combination of the two should be provided.

The third major player in reptile supplements are other vitamins and trace minerals. These ingredients represent the reptilian equivalent of a human multivitamin. Their use ensures that all vitamin and mineral needs are met by providing a wide variety of nutrients in sufficient quantities. The importance of these vitamins and minerals cannot be underestimated.

All too often, I am faced with varying faces of bewilderment and awe when I inform my customers that, ideally, they must feed their feeders. This is vital on two levels. First and foremost, crickets, worms, roaches and rodents need to eat in order to survive. Combine this fact with the old adage “You are what you eat,” and it all starts to come together. 

Herps are what they eat. If the crickets they are feasting upon are longing for nourishment, they become little more than a crunchy shell. However, if properly nourished, crickets, worms and other food items become protein-packed vessels of vitamins, minerals and all else that they have been fed. This process, known as “gutloading,” has become an increasingly valid part of feeding carnivorous herps.

A number of commercial gutloading products are available, and should be offered for sale anywhere feeder prey items are sold. Some gutloads are in the form of moist bites that provide both food and water to prospective prey items. Others are sold dry, intended for use in conjunction with a wide variety of “no-drown” semi-solid water gels. It is generally recommended that prey items have 24-hour access to an appropriate diet before being offered as food themselves. This is variable, however, depending on the diet the feeders are being offered by the retail establishment. It should be mentioned that properly caring for feeders prior to sale will not only increase their survival rate, but also encourage customers to return to the store for the lively, even happy crickets.

Supplement Sales

Supplementation of reptile and amphibian diets plays a vital role in herp husbandry and the overall wellbeing of the animals. Understanding reptile supplements, and being able to pass that information on to the consumer, is an important aspect of the herptile-selling business. In nearly every case, when selling a reptile pet, some form of supplement or gutload should be included in the sale. This will ensure the long-term health of the animals and consequently produce return customers.

In general, supplements are relatively inexpensive, and a little bit goes a long way. The key to selling supplements, and having it affect the store’s bottom line, is consistency.  While a can of calcium powder may seem like a small ticket item, imagine the revenue that would be generated by selling just one a day for an entire year. The dollar amounts add up quickly, and these figures are not difficult to achieve assuming the store has a moderate influx of herp-oriented customers.

Many pet owners, especially those new to herps, find the idea of coating feeder items with powder silly or even unnecessary. These customers need to be educated on the importance of proper supplementation. By providing pet herps with a properly supplemented and well-balanced diet, we are able to avoid a myriad of preventable diseases and disorders that are all too common among captive herps. Selling supplements and giving proper advice regarding their application will not only ensure the survival of individual animals, but of the reptile-keeping hobby as a whole.

Jonathan Rheins is an avid herpeteculturist whose interest in all things reptilian began at an early age. He is a manager at LLLReptile & Supply Co. in Escondido, Calif. and, when not fulfilling that position, spends his time working with and writing about a wide variety of exotic reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates.

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