Supplemental Sales

Retailers can ensure that herptile owners have all their pets’ nutritional bases covered by encouraging the use of supplements.


It really does happen less than it used to: A customer walks into a store and says, “My lizard is shaking. He eats a lot and is fat, even in his legs, so I don’t know what’s wrong. He’s happy; look at that cute smile on his face.”

It is now the retailer’s  job to explain, as delicately as possible, to the customer that the lizard isn’t happy. He’s messed up. The shaking is essentially the result of rickets. Rickets is a disease caused by the body’s lack of calcium, phosphorous and/or vitamin D.

The “fat legs” are caused by a swelling around the bones (or lack thereof), which is also related to the lack of bone-building calcium. Even the “smile” can be  a distortion of the jawbones for the same reason. We refer to this symptom as “rubber jaw,” and it is usually followed by an end to the “he eats a lot” observation, as the lizard is on the verge of losing the ability to masticate food at all.

As I said, this occurs with far less frequency than it used to. Pet stores and customers are better informed, and there are more quality products on the market than ever before. Yet, this scenario does still come up from time to time, and customers are sometimes confused about how to provide balanced, nutritious diet for their herptiles.

Reptile owners can prevent all of these symptoms by not only offering a nutritious diet to their pet, but with proper supplementation, and retailers can help by educating customers on what they need to know to keep their herps healthy.

Basic Guidelines
In general, rodent feeders do not require supplementation in their diets. A rodent is truly a complete meal. Insectivores and vegetarians, on the other hand, require supplements of both calcium and vitamins with every meal–not sometimes, not on occasion, but with every meal.

For insectivores, I shake a pinch of multivitamin and a pinch of calcium in a plastic bag with the number of crickets appropriate for one meal. For vegetarians, I simply mix a small portion of each powder and lightly “season” their daily salad. You don’t want to mix more of the powders than you can use in a week or two. Over time, calcium chemically degrades the vitamins.

There are, of course, many vitamin and calcium supplements on the market. Within the staff of my own store, I have employees who will sternly advocate the use of one over another. Herpetoculture is half science and half art, so I encourage these disparate opinions, because they are based on my staff’s direct experience, and their strong feelings on the subject impart a sense of their expertise and the supplements’ importance to my customers. I am a big advocate in reducing my shelf space so as to not have redundant products, but this is an exception; give your customers options when it comes to their precious pets’ diets. 

Customers also need to understand the importance of buying both a multivitamin and calcium. Why both? I liken the necessity to trying to drive a car that has a full gas tank but no key. The calcium is what animals use to grow a proper skeleton (and organs, for that matter), but calcium will pass right through an animal unless it also has the proper vitamins to process it. Gas is useless without a key; calcium is useless without vitamins.

Of all the herps that require supplements, perhaps none are more in need than tortoises. Because the ratio of bone mass to total weight is higher than that of other animals, they can suck the calcium up like nobody’s business. While I recommend a 50/50 ratio of vitamins to calcium for most animals, I prefer a one-to-two ratio for tortoises.

Many people will wonder why supplements are necessary for captive herps at all. After all, nobody sprinkles their food in the wild, and they seem to have been doing fine for millions of years. Well, wild animals have two things going for them that captives lack: broad-based diets and sunlight.

In the wild, a gecko might eat 20 species of insect; in captivity, it would be lucky to get three or four. More variety means a broader range of trace minerals and vitamins than a captive diet could hope to provide.

Sunlight is a natural source for vitamin D3, and, in fact, captive animals who spend a significant amount of time outdoors in direct sunlight should get a multivitamin with reduced D3, which can be toxic in high doses. I personally believe that while strongly indicated for many species of herps, the UV bulbs they benefit from do not, in the end, provide enough UV to warrant elimination of a multivitamin.

Similarly, the technique of “gut loading” crickets to become little living vitamin bombs is helpful, but not enough. Lights and cricket food do not replace a good multivitamin.

Nearly every time you sell a pet, you should supplement the sale with a cage and supplies. It’s how you keep your business healthy. And every time that pet is a vegetarian or insectivore, you should sell a calcium and multivitamin as part of the package. It’s how you keep the purchase healthy.

Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.

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