It is a truism in our industry that the profits are to be made in the products. Whether it’s birds, dogs, cats or tropical fish, the money we make from sales of the animal itself would never keep any of our businesses afloat. It is the sale of support products that make pet specialty stores viable. To that end, manufacturers are constantly on the lookout for new products to sell and new technologies to employ. I have seen the shelf space real estate in my own store morph from 80 percent livestock/20 percent supplies to about a 50/50 split in the last 15 years. Given the relative youth of the reptile business compared, to fish and small animals, I expect to see this trend keep going.
Think of it this way: 25 years ago, it was unthinkable that a pet store would not have pets. The emergence of pet supply stores is a recent development, and in a purely business perspective, makes total sense. Products need no upkeep, feeding, watering, etc. They typically have instructions printed on them and don’t even need a particularly educated staff to sell them.
Why deal with livestock if you don’t have to? Because you got into this business out of a love for animals, and you want to work with them. It’s what makes small business people special, and it’s what major chains cannot provide—love.
That said, products are increasingly important in our field, and we need to stay on top of the whats, whys and hows of them.
When it comes to reptile nutrition, supplements really boil down to two things: vitamins and calcium. When I started working 40 years ago, the closest to an appropriate vitamin in the field was bird vitamins, and that is what I sold. As for calcium, I remember sitting in the back room of my store and hand grinding cuttlebones and pouring the powder into packets. In the late ’70s, one of the unsung heroes and innovators of our business, Eric Orup of Rep-Cal, came to visit us with his first run of commercially-produced calcium powder and a vitamin produced specifically for reptiles, and we have been faithful customers of his ever since.
Since that time, every other major producer—and many minor producers—of herp products have come out with variations or knock-offs of his work. Some of them are quite good; many of my customers are very satisfied with the lines produced by Sticky Tongues Farms, for instance. I have always stuck by Rep-Cal, a product that has proved to work well, be consistent and is modestly priced. I also like to reward originators.
Whatever line you choose, proper application is essential. Vitamins and calcium are sold separately out of necessity, because, over time, the calcium will break down vitamins and render them useless. But you can take a few weeks’ worth of the powders and mix them for convenience. I like to use a salt-shaker to hold the mixture. Almost all herps will do well with a 50/50 ratio. This mix can be applied to salads—think of it as a salt and pepper application—or as a sort of shake-and-bake dusting of crickets for your insectivores. A light dusting is even recommended for animals eating mouse or rat pinkies.
Some customers somehow slip into the idea that feeding this mix to their animals is an occasional necessity. "Oh, I always give that to them! At least once a week!" That’s like saying, "oh, I always let my kids breathe! Once an hour, whether they need it or not!" Vitamins and calcium should be a part of every single meal. Every. Single. Meal. Because reptile metabolism is so incredibly slow compared to ours, the effects of a bad diet may not show themselves for years. But when they do, it is probably already too late.
It is called Metabolic Bone Disease. Early symptoms are often seen as the quivering of limbs or muscles—it’s similar to scurvy in humans. Later, animals might develop rubber jaw—particularly common in iguanas—or grossly swollen jaws and limbs. Finally, limbs might become so misshapen and distorted that the poor animal can no longer walk. This is not reversible, and generally death is not far off.
What animals don’t require this supplementation? Lizards and snakes that primarily subsist on adult rodents don’t, as the bones of vertebrate prey give them calcium, and the organs and guts give them the vitamins. Water turtles are tough customers since they eat under water; I find that a well-varied diet and strong UV light can usually keep them in good stead. Also, arachnids don’t need supplementation since they drink the innards of their prey and leave the husks. That said, you could give them a little boost by gut-loading the crickets with a vitaminized cricket diet. Nature Zone makes a really good cricket food for that purpose.
Tortoises are probably the single most important reptile for strict application of these supplements, as they are in the business of growing relatively massive amounts of bone. Some pet keepers find that some vegetarians—tortoises in particular, but also iguanas and uromastyx—can be fussy about eating a "dressed" salad. I think that they can usually be coerced into it by rolling the powder into the center of their meal rather than on the exterior. Zilla makes a calcium spray that can also help coerce a tortoise into digging in.
A good vitamin and calcium regimen is essential for almost any captive reptile, but other dietary supplements can also come into play. Just as, on occasion, you might let your child have a fast food meal or a TV dinner, you can, once in a while, forego the rigors of real food to provide a meal of convenience. We carry a wide variety of prepared foods for turtles, tortoises and lizards. Rep-Cal has a good selection that seems very popular with the animals themselves. Zoo Med has come up with some truly innovative mixes of freshwater turtle diets. We also buy bulk foods and repackage them ourselves.
Remember Eric Orup? Another innovator who deserves your attention is Allen Repashy at Repashy Ventures. Some years ago, he saw the ascendance of Crested Geckos as popular pets and set about developing a prepared diet for them. It’s so good he has raised multiple generations on his diet exclusively. This, to me, is mind boggling, as I am quite cynical about prepared foods. But it works; it really works. He has since expanded out to diets for many other species, all meticulously researched and analyzed. The man has the goods. Of course, other companies immediately jumped in with versions of his work, but Allen is the guy whose hard work and smarts should be rewarded. PB