Spreading the Health
by Owen Maercks
June 1, 2012
Dusting a herp’s food with a coating of vitamins and supplements can be essential to its health and wellbeing.



We’re in the wrong business.

I can’t think of another business like ours. Imagine if, instead of selling reptiles, we sold dresses. Dresses don’t die. They don’t require daily feeding and upkeep. They don’t poop on the rack. Most important, you don’t have to spend an hour teaching your customer how to put on a dress or how to hang it in the closet. Customers don’t come back a week after purchase, demanding a new dress because they ripped it while putting it on—well, they shouldn’t anyway.

Exotics customers, on the other hand, especially newcomers, come into our stores assuming that, included in the price of purchase, they will receive foolproof care instructions and everything they might possibly need in supplies. In my state, we’re even legally required to give them a proper education.

I’m not really complaining—after all, that’s the way I have done business for more than 30 years, long before it was legally required.

It is still not a given, however, that all pet stores will do a good job of supporting their sales such that the pets and their human pals have a fighting chance. I recently saw a frilled dragon come through the door that had been purchased elsewhere with only a tank and heat lamp. The owners were wondering why their pet seemed to be failing, and they were horrified to find out they were missing all the things the poor creature actually needed.

The first and most essential things missing for that poor little guy were proper vitamin and calcium supplements. Most herps that eat rodents or other vertebrates tend to be fine without the supplements, but virtually all insectivores and vegetarians require supplements.

Many customers, used to being oversold things they don’t really need, will ask why these are necessary—after all, nobody goes around powdering bugs and fruit for herps in the wild. Here’s your answer: Wild animals generally eat an amazing array of insect species and plants. In captivity, we typically reduce that diet down to, at best, a half dozen bugs or a dozen varieties of vegetable matter. The lack of variety means captive herps don’t have access to the wide range of trace elements, minerals and protein that wild herps do. Add to that the fact that wild animals have direct exposure to sunlight (a big factor in vitamin production and, thus, calcium absorption) that can never be fully replicated by UV lighting.

And so, captive tortoises, lizards and even a few snakes need supplementation. Every sale you do on those animals should include a good calcium powder and vitamin powder. In my store, we carry three lines of powder, which may be excessive for some stores. I have customers who swear by each of the three to a great enough extent that I carry versions by ZooMed, Sticky Tongue Farms and Rep-Cal. They are all good; I recommend experimenting and finding a brand you feel comfortable standing behind. For instance, I have used Rep-Cal for 33 years, and I like its packaging and price.

Customers might also wonder why they need two products and may question the inconvenience of using both. Calcium, as we all learned in third-grade health class, is an essential element for growing bones (and, as it turns out, organs as well) and properly producing eggs. However, you could eat a pound of calcium every day and, unless you also were getting a good dose of vitamin D3, you would absorb none of it. The vitamin is the key to absorbing the calcium. The other vitamins in a multivitamin are essential for a myriad of other bodily functions. You need both the calcium and the vitamins.

So, why are they not sold together? Well, calcium has a slow chemical effect on vitamins, breaking them down and making them useless. In practical use, they can be mixed for a few weeks’ worth of applications, but beyond that, the effectiveness is greatly reduced.

I like to make a mix of the powders, which I keep in an industrial-style salt shaker. I typically mix them in a 50/50 ratio. For insectivores, crickets can be dusted in a plastic bag with a mix of the supplements “shake and bake” style. Be careful how you describe this; I once had a customer who, for her first week, was literally baking the live crickets and wondering why things weren’t working out.

Arachnids are something of a special case, as they draw the juicy innards out of their insect prey without a bit of interest in the exterior. You could dust their crickets all day long to no effect. However, Nature Zone sells an excellent “gut-loading” gelatin cube that crickets can eat and thus deliver supplementation to spiders, scorpions and the like. This technique was all the rage a few years ago, and while it is certainly a good booster for insectivorous lizards, it should not, in my opinion, be considered a substitute for the powders.

Vegetarians will generally acclimate to having their salads dressed with a light coating of the mix. Of all the vegetarians, none seems to need calcium more than tortoises. This makes sense; what are tortoises after all but a building made of bone with a bit of meat on the inside? So, when feeding my tortoises, I tend to go a little heavier on the amount of supplemental mixture I give them, and I skew the amount of calcium in the mix as well.

Some of the arboreal geckos also enjoy soft fruit mashes into which you can mix the supplements without them raising much of a fuss. Allen Repashy has done a series of excellent powders that can be reconstituted for various herps that contain complete profiles of their nutritional needs, and I find the crested gecko mix to have a rabid following. Zoo Med’s small cans of various fruit mashes are also convenient and make an excellent venue for giving some herps an extra kick of supplementation.

Of course, vitamins and calcium are just the first step of sending an animal home with everything it needs to do well. Proper heating, lighting, substrate, and other odds and ends will make up the totality of the sale. I always stress the necessities versus the niceties of each animal’s care; letting a customer know what is optional is an excellent way to engender their ongoing trust. Come to think of it, there are a lot of necessities involved in a reptile sale. If I was selling dresses, I doubt that I’d convince each customer to buy a full line of accessories with every sale.

I’m sticking with the reptiles.


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.