I can recall my early days as a budding herp enthusiast, begging my parents for a ride to the local pet shop so I could stock up on crickets, mice and other sundry items that were frowned upon but nonetheless allowed in the house. Despite my parents’ open-mindedness regarding my hobby, the weekly chore of getting me to and from the pet shop became an accepted nuisance, at least until I got my driver’s license.
As a manager at a reptile specialty store, I am often reminded of my younger days, seeing myself in the faces of the excited children, and my mother in that of the accompanying parental figure. Yet, while it would seem that some things never change, the truth is that many things do. The way we feed our herps has certainly become one of these constantly evolving facets of the hobby. Many people associate reptile food with bugs, mice and other creepy crawlies that most people would try to keep out of their homes. While these remain herp staples, many new products allow for more convenient herptile feeding.
Pellets and More
Perhaps the most unique alternative to live feeders and fresh produce are some of the pelleted diets now available for a wide range of species. These pellets, while vaguely reminiscent of the familiar dog kibble, are anything but.
Herp diets in the form of pellets—not a particularly new endeavor, but rather a constantly changing take on a proven idea—put everything the animal needs into a bite-sized tidbit and make it taste good. The pelleted diets that are on the market today for animals such as bearded dragons, iguanas and tortoises are healthier and more balanced than ever before. These products are designed to be used in supplement and in combination with some of the more “old-fashioned” offerings as part of a complete, balanced diet.
Cooked in the Can
Another, and perhaps more direct, alternative to live feeders are ones that are no longer living. Up until a few years, ago there was nowhere to turn if you wanted “previously living” crickets, worms or any other feeder. But now there are all sorts of nutritious feeders being made available as whole food items that are cooked in a can to maintain their natural juiciness.
In addition to being quite palatable to most species, these products are convenient, reasonably priced and a great way to increase the variety in any herp diet. Crickets and mealworms of various sizes seem to be the most popular choices, but to me the beauty of these products is the ability to offer foods that simply cannot be offered for sale in a living condition. Such exotic fare as snails, river shrimp and giant grasshoppers are a few of the more unique options available as canned whole feeders. These feeders would pose a number of issues when provided as live prey, such as the possibility that they may escape, be unsanitary or simply unavailable.
Snake keepers of nearly any generation are familiar with the pros and cons of feeding previously frozen mice and rats to their charges. When snake keeping was still in its infancy, and much was still to be learned about captive management protocols, there was a little need for frozen rodents. Most snakes wouldn’t touch them.
Enter the herptile renaissance of the past few decades during which strides have been made in our knowledge of natural history, thermoregulatory behavior and general husbandry techniques. Turns out that if all environmental conditions are correct, most properly acclimated animals will readily consume thawed rodents.
Snakes are not the only cold-blooded customers that will readily accept previously frozen prey. Monitor and tegu lizards, as well as many other carnivorous herps will happily eat thawed rodents off a pair of tongs or out of a bowl. There is no risk of the lizard being bitten by an uncooperative rodent, nor is there a likelihood of herp becoming “food aggressive” within its habitat.
The ever-expanding popularity of the New Caledonian crested gecko and relatives has led to the introduction of a tremendously revolutionary alternative to live foods. Meal replacement powders (MRPs) have been introduced as a way to offer both supplemental and staple dietary support for many species of nectar-eating geckos.
Crested geckos (and kin), as well as many day gecko species, will feed readily on these diets, which are packaged as a dry powder. Water is added and the diet is ready to serve. These diets have been meticulously formulated to ensure that they will provide more than adequate nutrition to these gecko species from birth through reproductive age.
MRPs provide a viable option for herptile customers who are not comfortable bringing live crickets into their home. The ramifications of offering cricketless gecko pets are truly groundbreaking, and this option is a surprisingly popular choice among many first-time lizard keepers.
Not only do crickets, worms, and grasshoppers come in cans now, but so do complete diets that are ready to serve. Again, while these foods are designed to offer a full range of nutrients to the herp being fed, I feel it is best to use these products as part of a more varied diet, or at the very least, offer different canned diets each time.
Canned foods for iguanas, bearded dragons, box turtles and tortoises are the most popular and among the most readily consumed.
Integrating Packaged Foods
Selling packaged foods is as easy as knowing which animals prefer what products. And that is done by trial and error. Open a can occasionally and offer it to a few select species to see which animals really get excited over it. This insight will certainly help you, the seller, advise your customers accurately regarding what they can expect of these products at home.
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.