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Providing A Balanced Diet To Reptile and Amphibian Pets


The diets that you provide your reptile and amphibian pets are of critical importance in maintaining their good health and longevity. Providing a balanced diet can be a quite simple matter for some species and, unfortunately, nearly impossible to achieve with others. Proper nutrition plays an important role in every aspect of your pet’s life, from its ability to grow normally and reproduce to less obvious areas, such as the functioning of its immune system. Reptile and amphibian hobbyists today have a wide variety of both prepared and live foods from which to choose when formulating a diet. In most cases, this is a very good state of affairs. However, sometimes it has a tendency to make us a bit lazy — for example, is very easy to provide an insectivorous lizard with a diet based on one or two readily available food items when, in actuality, the animal may need a great deal more variety to maintain optimum health.

What I would like to do in this article is to present some general principles and ideas for your consideration. Please bear in mind that actual feeding techniques – how to present the food — will also affect the ultimate value of the diet that you provide. For example, the length of time between a food animal’s introduction into the terrarium and when it is actually eaten will affect how much of its vitamin/mineral supplement coating will be passed along to your pet. Whether food insects will live or die within the terrarium, and how to keep track of the food intake of secretive or nocturnal pets will also affect the manner in which you must present the food. All of these factors, and many more, will be addressed in future articles. Until then, please contact me with your questions and observations on this subject.

There are two basic approaches to feeding reptiles and amphibians in captivity. One method is to identify one or two commercially prepared diets that provide all of the nutrition that your pet needs for a long and healthy life. This option is available to those who keep animals, such as tortoises and newts, that normally consume, or will accept, non-living food items. Animals that consume live prey in the wild will generally need a varied diet in captivity (one notable exception is most of the commonly kept snakes, all of which do quite well on a diet composed entirely of rats and mice.

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30 comments

  1. avatar

    I am looking for a good calcium supplement and multivitamin supplement for my Broad-headed skink, but I have found that my certain species of skink is not commonly kept in captivity, so I am having a hard time finding what he actually needs in his diet.

    I have been looking at the 2 JurassiPet products: JurassiCal powder and JurassiVite. If you have any suggestions on how and when I use supplements and which supplements to use I would really appreciate it.

  2. avatar

    Hello Sarah,

    Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thank you for your question and interest in our blog. First let me compliment you on keeping the fascinating yet little-studied broad headed skink. I’m sure your observations will prove useful, and would greatly appreciate your keeping me posted from time to time. If you have a moment, please also let me know if the animal came to you through the pet trade or if it was collected. Thank you.

    As for your question:
    Decisions as to supplement brand, and the frequency of its use, hinge upon the skink’s age, diet and access to UVB light. This species is diurnal, and the most arboreal of North America’s skinks. As such, it receives quite a bit of exposure to the sun (in contrast to many of its relatives) and likely relies primarily on UVB light to synthesize Vitamin D. Broad headed skinks that I have kept certainly basked frequently, and, according to a colleague, a breeding group at the Jacksonville Zoo did likewise. Therefore, be sure to provide your skink with a UVB light source positioned at the proper distance from the basking site (specifics vary among bulbs – please write in if you would like further information).

    UVA light, while not needed for vitamin synthesis, promotes natural behaviors in diurnal lizards. You may wish to consider using a Zoo Med UVA Repti Halogen Bulb” rel=”nofollow”>, especially if you’d like to give captive breeding a try.

    Concerning the brand to use, Jurrasidiet makes some fine products, but I’ve had more experience with Reptivite supplements. For this species I would suggest Reptivite With D3. An adult skink with access to UVB light and eating a varied diet should receive the supplement twice weekly. The supplement can be used on most meals for animals below 1 year of age. The vitamin/mineral requirements of animals given a poorly-balanced diet, and those of gravid females, will vary – please write in for further details.

    Broad headed skinks consume an extremely varied diet in the wild, and this, more so than vitamin supplements, is an important key to captive longevity (the only published longevity record is of a specimen, received as an adult by the American Museum of Natural History, that lived for 8 years. Longevities of related species range from 15-45 years).

    A simple way to increase dietary variety is to use canned insects. I have not tried non-living food items with this species, but the closely related Great Plains Skink (Eumeces obsoletus) consumes such avidly. I suggest experimenting with Zoo Med’s Canned Caterpillars, Grasshoppers and Snails (snails are a favorite, according to field reports). Zoo Med Tegu and Monitor Wet Food, if accepted, should also be included in the diet. I rely heavily upon the Zoo Med Bug Napper insect trap during the summer, when my collection is fed largely upon wild caught insects (note: insects collected via this trap may be too small for adult broad heads).

    Be sure also that your crickets and super mealworms are themselves allowed to feed well for 2 days or so before offering them to your pet (please write in if you need details) and use other insects as described in the article that you read on our blog.

    Other articles on the blog that may interest you are:
    Canned Insects – an important new food for reptile and amphibian pets and The Skinks – an overview of the largest lizard family.

    Please be in touch if you’d like some input on cage setup or lighting, and with your own observations if at all possible.

    Thanks and good luck, Frank Indiviglio

  3. avatar

    Thank you for the quick reply. You were really helpful and this is the first time I have found some good information on the Broad-Headed skink.

    My skink was wild-caught. I don’t know how old he is but I do know that he has reached his adult size (he’s about 11 in.) His diet mainly consists of wild-caught grasshoppers, earthworms, crickets, and occasionally beetles (especially japanese beetles, though they haven’t been as easy to find as they used to be). I have been dusting the insects with the HerpCare cricket dust (it contains vitamin D3) but I thought I would try to find a better supplement. I have heard that Broad-Headed skinks sometimes eat grapes and blackberries but I have tried both of the fruits and my skink showed no interest.

    I bought the JurassiDiet large canned crickets earlier this year (when insects were hard to find because of the colder weather) and my skink ate them quickly and without complaint. I think that it would be good to buy insects in the Spring and Fall (before and after my skink is in hibernation) when wild insects are not very common.

    LLLReptile.com sells a Zoo Med can o’ 6 pack which includes one can of each kind of insect: large crickets, small crickets, caterpillars, grasshoppers, snails and also feeding tongs, and I thought that maybe the pack might be useful for adding some variety to my skink’s diet (though after buying it a few times I would have a collection of feeding tongs!).

    I will be ordering some supplies that my skink needs as soon as I figure out exactly everything I have to get. I have decided on the Zoo Med Repti Sun, Repti Light, or Iguana Light 5.0 (which from what I’ve read are one of the best UVB producing fluorescents). I previously planned to get the Exo Terra Tropical Compact bulb but found some bad reviews on compact bulbs and decided against that. I am also considering getting a small wire cage for him to get some natural sunlight in the Summer, but if he has the UVB fluorescents and the right supplement, I am wondering if that is necessary.

    Also, I have read that some research suggests that lizards don’t get much or none of the vitamin D3 that is in supplements and their food. Do you know if it is any use to give lizards a supplement with vitamin D3?

    I think that some information on the cage setup would be useful to me. I am having a hard time finding some good information and everything I found was not as specific as I would have liked.

    Thanks again for the suggestions.

    Sarah

  4. avatar

    Hello Sarah,

    Frank Indiviglio here. Thanks for the kind words and happy that the information was of some use. I was very glad to hear that you take the trouble to provide such a varied diet to your pet…I have been promoting this for years, but often to no avail!

    I do notice also that, at least in the NYC area, Japanese beetles have declined markedly in numbers. They are a fine broad-headed skink food, but avoid feeding them to large amphibians, as the legs and mouthparts can cause damage to internal organs (this per necropsy after I lost 2 frogs, many years ago). I have not observed these skinks to take fruit either, but certain populations reported are known to.

    Very commendable that you have already experimented with canned food. I would not recommend the 6 pack that was mentioned, as 2 of the cans contain crickets, which you can likely purchase live and nutrient-load for a few days so as to improve their value to your pet. Also, the small canned crickets average only ¼ inch in size. I would purchase more individual cans of snails , caterpillars and grasshoppers. Keep your eye on our website for new additions to the Zoo Med line, and check out their Plastic Feeding Tongs (preferable to metal).

    Since you obviously care enough to collect wild insects for your pet, you might be interested in my somewhat offbeat thoughts in the following article on our blog:
    Cicadas – An End of Summer Treat for Pet Reptiles, Amphibians and Invertebrates

    A colleague at the Staten Island Zoo has recently tested several ZooMed bulbs with a UVB meter. The Zoo Med 10.0 provided the highest readings, and would be my choice for your skink. UVB output declines significantly at distances of 13-14 inches or so from the bulb, so be sure to arrange your basking site to be within 12 inches of it; 6-8 inches is ideal.

    Natural sunlight is by far the best UVB source for captive reptiles. An outdoor basking cage is a great idea…again, my compliments on your dedication. Just check that a small cage does not stress the lizard, as all are very sensitive to changes in their surroundings. A cork bark retreat or other shelter should be included in the basking cage as a precaution. Watch wire also – when confined to a new area, your skink may rub his nose while exploring or attempting to escape.

    You may wish to consider an all-screen reptile cage – R Zilla’s Fresh Air Reptile Habitat is a suitable size, and lightweight. If you prefer something smaller, perhaps a plastic-bottomed (which will lessen snout-rubbing concerns) small animal cage would be useful. Two possible options are the Blue Ribbon Small Animal Cage and the R Zilla Take Me Home Travel Home.

    Good point concerning Vitamin D supplements…actually, we have a great deal left to learn concerning the absorption of dietary Vitamin D3. Please check out my article Has Anyone Observed This?….. Madagascar and Standing’s Day Geckos (Phelsuma madagascariensis grandis, P. m. madagascariensis, P. standingi) maintain excellent health and reproduce without a UVB source, when you have a moment. In it I describe my experiences with day geckos that seem able to utilize dietary Vitamin D3, despite long held beliefs that such is impossible. I am also aware of a number of red-eared sliders that appear to be doing the same, yet heliothermic (basking) turtles are given as classic examples of animals that rely upon skin-generated D3.

    Considering the excellent diet that your skink is receiving, I believe you can limit his supplementation to once each week, except for extended periods when variety is not possible (as an adult, his needs will be lower than a younger individual’s in any event). The Vitamin D3 in the supplement will serve as a safety measure, and can do no harm. Basking will not result in an excess, as such matters are regulated by the animal’s own amazing metabolism.

    Your skink will utilize both floor and vertical space, so provide as large a cage as you can. If you use an aquarium, I would suggest one of 29-55 gallon capacity. If you want to provide him a “mansion”, or plan on introducing females, check out the Pointer Hill
    PVC Reptile Cage.

    In zoo exhibits for similar animals I usually use a substrate with eucalyptus, i.e. R Zilla Douglas Fir with Eucalyptus. Hagen Forest Bark Reptile Bedding would also work well. Sturdy branches and driftwood should be supplied for climbing and to create a basking site within 6-12 inches of the UVB bulb. Locating your UVB near an incandescent bulb will assure that the lizard receives maximum UVB exposure. Your skink may use an artificial cave, but will likely prefer a piece of rolled cork bark as a hideaway.

    Again, hats off to your commitment to providing the best possible care to your pet.

    Please be in touch if I can be of further assistance. Good luck, Frank.

  5. avatar

    Hello, this is Sarah again. Sorry for the late reply. I still have a few more questions about the care of Broad-Headed skinks.

    I was wondering if you have tried the Tegu and Monitor wet food with your Broad heads, and if so, did they accept it? If I were to include this food in my skink’s diet, how often should it be fed and should it take up a large part of the diet? Also, you mentioned that the plastic feeding tongs are preferable to the metal. Why is this?

    I have been looking into ordering some live crickets and if you knew of a good breeder to order them from and which gutloader is the best, I would really appreciate it.

    Thanks again,

    Sarah

  6. avatar

    Hello Sarah,

    Frank Indiviglio here. Thanks very much for your interest and questions.

    Zoo Med Tegu and Monitor Wet Food was not available when I was caring for broad- headed skinks, but most accepted canned cat and dog food, and related species, such as the Western skink (Eumeces skiltonianus) and the Great Plains skink (E. obsoletus), accept the Zoo Med diet regularly. There are individual preferences, but I believe most broad-headed skinks would consume it.

    As for frequency and amount, the product’s nutritional makeup is fine for a carnivorous lizard, but its use long-term has not been evaluated. Since you already provide a varied diet, I would use this food as a meal every 7-10 days, more frequently during periods when you might need to rely upon only 1 or 2 other food items.

    I prefer plastic over metal tongs as some animals (frogs and many snakes in particular) strike food items very vigorously, and can injure themselves on the hard prongs of a metal feeding implement.

    A good basic diet for crickets is R-Zilla Gutload Cricket Supplement and Cricket Calcium Drink Supplement. I always provide my crickets with a quality fish food as well, such as That Pet Place Tropical Flakes. It’s an old trick of mine, based more on experience than research – crickets love this food, and its wide range of ingredients likely provides important nutrients. Fish flakes are especially useful during times when you must use the crickets soon after purchasing them, as the food is eaten and digested rapidly (amazingly so!). Various fruits and vegetables (oranges, apples, kale, carrot, dandelion, etc.) should also be offered in small amounts, but watch for mold, as it seems to increase cricket mortality. The crickets should ideally be allowed to feed for 2-3 days before being offered to your skink.

    You may wish to search for a cricket breeder close to where you live, as shipment losses can occur during very hot or cold weather. I used the oldest US breeder, Armstrong Cricket Farm (http://armstrongcrickets.com/shop/index.php), for many years when working in various zoos. Top Hat is another long-established commercial breeder (http://www.tophatcrickets.com/) used by many public institutions.

    I believe you mentioned hibernation at one point – I would appreciate any details you might have if you get a moment. This is sometimes a difficult process, and any insights or observations you might provide concerning broad-headed skinks would be of great value to myself and others.

    Please be in touch if I can be of further assistance.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio

  7. avatar

    Thank you very much for all of the information. This will definitely help in making my lizard healthy and happy.

    Since my skink was wild-caught in the same area that I live, I hibernate him outside in an enclosure buried in the ground with only the lid a couple inches above the ground. When it is warm enough for him to be active again and he is at the top of the enclosure above the substrate (which consists of peat moss and dry, shredded leaves), I put him back in his terrarium. I have done this twice before with my skink and other reptiles and have had no problems.

    Sarah

  8. avatar

    Hello Sarah,

    I’m glad the information was useful, thanks for letting me know.

    Thanks very much for the information…makes perfect sense to proceed in this manner, and much better for the animal if allowed to follow its normal activity/hibernation pattern. I have also had my best results hibernating animals outdoors in their natural habitats.

    Best regards, Frank

  9. avatar

    Thanks for all the excellent advice. I’ve been reading many of the articles on your blog and I have a few questions.

    I have read your article on caring for mealworms and I was curious about why you prefer the darkling beetle over the mealworm larvae. I have seen my broad-headed skink eat species similar to the darkling beetle.

    I recently got a young eastern fence lizard who will happily accept 1/2″ crickets. I am wondering if you have any experience with fence lizards and if they will accept mealworms as part of their diet.

    I was excited to hear you mention the rough green snake, ring-neck snake and red-belly snake, all of which I have kept before. My northern red-bellied snake (which I have had for about 3 years) is a good eater. I haven’t ever been able to get him to eat wild caught snails though, but was wondering if you had ever had a red-belly snake accept the canned de-shelled snails.

    My ring-neck snakes were picky eaters. I offered slugs, grubs, earthworms, and other small insects but they only accepted earthworms. Something interesting happened with one of my ring-neck snakes. I had had her for a few months when I realized that there was suddenly another snake in her enclosure. After finding 4 eggs but only 3 baby snakes, I guessed that the mother had gotten especially hungry. I knew for sure that there was no way to escape from the enclosure. If only I would have known that the mother had laid eggs and I might have been able to save the snake. What was even more interesting, was that all 3 of the hatchlings were deformed, especially one of them who had 4 or 5 “kinks” in its body. The other snakes had only very slight “kinks” and could slither around just fine. Have you had experience with deformed snakes?

    By the way, I was wondering if you have ever tried out Apogee’s Reptarium cages. Thanks!

  10. avatar

    Hello Sarah,

    Frank Indiviglio here. Thanks so much for reading my articles and for your kind comments. Its nice to see your interest in native herps…so many of those that you keep are ignored in the trade, but offer so many interesting possibilities.

    My preference for mealworm and other beetles is based largely on experience and my reading of field reports and observations. I’ve always enjoyed reading the short “field notes” sections of Herpetologica, The Journal of Herpetology and other such publications. Many document feeding observations, and I’ve noticed over the many years that beetles of all kinds figured prominently in the diets of so many reptiles and amphibians. In the past it was common for researchers to dissect or pump the stomachs of various species in order to ascertain diet – nearly always beetles were in great evidence.

    My own observations bore this out as well – I’ve kept a great many species in outdoor enclosures, and would attract insects via bait and light …beetles were among the most numerous visitors, and were consumed with gusto by most of my pets. Tiny flour beetles are sometimes accepted by poison frogs, which surprises many keepers, and little spring peepers love them as well.

    Of course this is all speculation…so many other factors in nature affect such matters, and captivity is not always a good testing ground for one’s theories…but such ideas may be useful in pointing directions in which to look, rather than concrete rules. In any event, using beetles seems to have worked well for me, as regards longevities of many animals I’ve kept at home and in zoos.

    Beetles comprise the world’s largest animal order (Coleoptera), and, excluding ants, are often the most numerous creatures in many habitats (in terms of indivduals)…so perhaps it makes sense that so many animals consume them. A few interesting beetle tidbits: 1 in every 6 animal species is a beetle; Smithsonian scientist Terry Irwin found 163 beetle species in a single tree in Panama – 100 of these were new to science. Even relatively insect-poor, temperate areas have huge beetle populations – 4,125 species are native to New York State.

    Eastern fence lizards take mealworms and beetles readily, and may take to tong-feeding of canned insects. Field studies show that they take an extremely wide range of prey…herp legend Carl Kauffeld introduced them to Staten Island’s pine barrens in the 1950′s…they adjusted well to new food sources and thrive there today.

    Canned grasshoppers
    and canned silkworms should work well if you can get the animal to tong-feed.

    That’s a great record for a red-bellied snake, the published longevity is only 4 years, 7 months. They should be fairly scent-oriented when it comes to hunting, and may very well accept the canned snails.

    Interesting note on the ring-necked snake, thanks. Not much is written about them at all. Slugs are always mentioned as a prey species…the few I’ve kept have been picky in that regard, accepting some speceis but not others. A former co-worker of mine studied them in the field, and did find that they ate small snakes on occassion. Interestingly, one captive (southern race, I believe) produced live young, but eggs are the norm!

    I’ve run across kinks many times..it can be genetic. Where it affects all young, it might also be related to the mother’s diet or the incubation temperature. Earthworms are, however, usually fine as a sole diet for small insectivorous herps, and have a good calcium: phosphorus ratio. This can vary, however, with local soil conditions…perhaps feeding the earthworms for awhile might help.

    I have not used Apogee cages. If you are looking for a terrarium that allows for good air flow, or that can be attached to the top of an aquarium, you might like to check out the following:
    Reptile PVC Cage
    Fresh Air Terrarium Top

    Best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year, Frank Indiviglio

  11. avatar

    I am deciding on a new herp to add to my collection, and I’m interested in the red-spotted newt. I was wondering if you had some good information on how to feed and care for the red eft and adult stages.

    I expect that my redbelly snake is older than 3 years, since he was adult sized when I caught him and has only grown about a 1/2″ – 1″. Do you know how long it takes for them to reach full size? The snake I have now has made a great pet and I’ve been keeping my eye out for another redbelly.

    Thanks for all the info!

  12. avatar

    Hello Sarah,

    Frank Indiviglio here…glad my info was of use, thanks.

    Red-spotted newts are very interesting when kept in groups, lots of interaction, jousting but no real danger of injuries. Males develop thickened rear legs and the claoca swells during the breeding season…a slight chill, i.e. normal drop in room temperature, may induce egg-laying. There are several subspecies that vary in spotting pattern.

    Adult stage newts do fine in deep water, as long as they have a cork bark or artificial raft. They like alot of cover in the water, and do especially well in planted tanks…not shy at all, but in a planted tank will poke around all day for food. Live brine shrimp and blackworms will keep them busy for hours.

    Keep at room temperature, cooler better than warm but they are not overly sensitive. Aquarium should be filtered and have only moderate currents as they are not strong swimmers. Partial water changes important. Armored catfish and snails make good additions to a newt aquarium.
    They can climb glass, so cover well.

    I use live blackworms, earthworm bits and Repto-min Food Sticks as the basis of the diet. Repto Min Select a Food is ideal, as it contains freeze dried shrimp as well as the food sticks. The will also take other freeze dried and frozen tropical fish foods and brine shrimp; avoid mealworms and waxworms.

    Individuals in the eft stage, which is skipped in some populations, are a bit more heat sensitive and accept only live foods – 1/4 inch crickets, tiny earthworms, blackworms, fruit flies, isopods, tiny leaf-litter invertebrates. They are terrestrial, do best in a moist, planted terrarium, fairly bold due to skin toxins (adults are toxic as well- I saw a marine toad expire immediately upon consuming a newt).

    I would agree re the age of your redbellied snake. Behler (Field Guide To NA Reptiles and Amphibians) gives 2 years as age of sexual maturity, but they do grow a bit after that. It is a great species to work with, not much is known about some of the subspecies; learning how to breed them would be useful regarding similar species, many of which may need conservation attention.

    Please keep me posted, good luck, Frank Indiviglio

  13. avatar

    I’m trying to help out a friend and wondered if you can provide me with some information concerning box turtle diets? Her Gulf coast box turtle eats mostly strawberries, blueberries and cooked chicken as its main diet. It is full grown, has a reptile bulb and seems in good shape but I do not think this is a good long term diet, She has tried many other foods but it refuses almost everything except berries(it does not eat much of the chicken). Any help would be appreciated, thank you.,

  14. avatar

    Hello, Frank Indiviglio here. Thanks for your interest in our blog.

    You are correct in that the diet you describe is not appropriate for a Gulf Coast box turtle. Unfortunately, box turtles very often become fixated upon certain foods, and can be very stubborn about switching. Keeping them a bit hungry is useful when attempting substitutions, but most captive carry plenty of reserve fat and so can usually wait out their owners.

    Your friend should try to wean the turtle onto a prepared diet formulated specifically for box turtles…i.e. Zoo Med Canned or Pelleted Box Turtle Food, or Bug Company’s Pelleted Diet. Try each, as taste is a big factor with turtles, and each of these foods has a different fruit-base and taste.

    There are a few tricks that can be used to increase palatability…especially effective is spreading blueberry or strawberry jelly over the prepared diet. Also, try mixing live mealworms, waxworms or earthworms into the food. Earthworms are a box turtle favorite…they can comprise 25% or so of the diet.

    Box turtles consume snails and slugs in the wild….canned snails may tempt your friend’s to accept prepared foods. Canned silkworms and grasshoppers should also be offered. A vitamin/mineral supplement should be provided once weekly.

    Please let me know how all goes…your feedback will be very useful to me in advising other readers.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  15. avatar

    Hello,

    Thank you for your advice concerning my friend’s box turtle, I’m happy to say that it is eating zoomd box turtle food with blueberry jelly! It at first refused the food, but the jelly did the trick.it worked almost immediately. She is ordering some of the canned insects now also, thanks again. Would vitamins or mineral powder be needed if the turtle eats the canned diet?(it has a UVB light, not sure of brand).
    Thanks, Frank

  16. avatar

    Hello, Frank Indiviglio here. Thanks for your feedback; I’m happy that all is going well.

    The adult box turtle in question should receive a vitamin/mineral supplement once weekly. We carry a number of fine products; for terrestrial turtles I favor Reptocal.

    I’m glad to hear that the turtle is provided with a source of UVB. Choosing the appropriate bulb can be a bit tricky, given all the varying options. Please be in touch if you or your friend need any advice (if you write back, please let me know the cage size, how far the turtle is from the bulb, and the type/make of bulb in use).

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  17. avatar

    I am keeping 8 baby eastern painted turtles. I’m new to aquatic turtle care, so I’d really appreciate any tips on how to feed these turtles. Should I use supplements? Also, how do you recommend that I hibernate painted turtles?

    Thanks.

  18. avatar

    Hello Sarah, Frank Indiviglio here. Thanks for your interest in our blog.

    Young Eastern Painted Turtles have ravenous appetites…you can feed them daily or every other day, with occasional 2 day fasts, during their most active periods. Their calcium requirements are high, but using a powdered supplement is difficult as they feed only in water. Reptomin Select-A-Food can form the basis of their diet (use the food sticks most often, with the dried shrimp as part of their meal on every 3rd feeding or so). This, along with Canned Shrimp and small whole guppies or minnows every 7-10 days, will assure adequate calcium intake.

    Vary the diet by including live blackworms, crickets, waxworms and earthworms as well. Offer kale, dandelion, romaine, bok choy and other greens (avoid spinach and iceberg lettuce) 1-2x weekly…as the grow to adulthood, the vegetable content of their diet should be increased to 60% or so. They will be more likely to accept greens after a 2 day fast.

    Once they become too large for the food sticks in the Select-A-Food, substitute regular Reptomin Food Sticks, ReptoMin Treat Sticks and Freeze Dried Gammarus.

    Painted turtles bask daily and will need a good UVB source in order to metabolize the calcium in their diet. The Reptisun 10.0 bulb would be your best choice…position the basking site within 6-12 inches of the bulb, and be sure that the turtles can dry off thoroughly. The Zoo Med Turtle Dock is a useful basking platform.

    Eight turtles will need plenty of room if they are to grow properly, so please plan ahead.

    Hibernating aquatic turtles s a bit tricky…I would not suggest that you try just yet. Once they have grown a bit, please write back and we can discuss details. The turtles may feed very little during the winter if they were wild caught, even if kept warm, but will feed year-round if captive born.

    Well, you have quite an interesting project on your hands, please keep me posted and please write back if you need further information. Good luck!

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  19. avatar

    Thank you for the info.

    The turtles were wild-caught after they came out of hibernation. I just wanted to be prepared for hibernation later this year, so it’s not a big rush.

    How fast do painted turtles grow? I will probably build an outdoor pond for them when they get bigger, right now they’re only the size of a quarter.

    Do you think the turtles would accept freeze-dried bloodworms? Where do you get live blackworms? I’m also wondering if I should give my turtles a cuddle bone. I’ve heard of this before and I’m wondering if it is necessary.

  20. avatar

    Hi Sarah, Frank Indiviglio here.

    If kept at room temperature, the turtles will probably slow down naturally in the fall…hibernating outdoors is difficult but possible…I believe you have experience in hibernating your skink (?)…. I can give you some ideas for the turtles.

    In an aquarium of 20-30 gallons the turtles could triple their size in a year…still small (but active), so you have plenty of time. By age 2 they could be 4 inches or so in length, perhaps more. Males slow down after that, females get a good deal larger than males.

    A pond would be ideal…raccoons can kill even adults, however, so take care if that is a possibility (which it likely is, I’m guessing, since they thrive even in the heart of Manhattan!).

    They will take freeze dried bloodworms, which are good to use on occasion…Krill and Gammarus will give them more in terms of calcium, but variety is very beneficial. Live blackworms are carried by many pet stores that sell tropical fish (avoid Tubifex)…they may be expensive to use for 8 turtles on a regular basis; chopped earthworms are probably a better way to go.

    Cuttlebone can do no harm if left in the water – some turtles will pick at it (tortoises more so than most aquatics) and will obtain calcium in that manner. It is an old-timers trick (as was putting pennies in the water – copper supposedly leached-out and kept parasites in check…as I discovered, it also killed snails and crayfish!)..it’s useful as a safety measure; the calcium in the cuttlefish is likely of a different type than found in other foods, so perhaps helpful in other ways.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio

  21. avatar

    I never thought about raccoons bothering turtles in outdoor ponds, thanks for bringing that up. There are pets that wander around too–including a large dog who likes to chew on turtles. She severely injured 2 box turtles the year before last that my sister now takes care of and I’m very surprised how well they recovered!

    Yes, I’ve hibernated my Broad-Headed Skink 3 times now. All my reptiles hibernate during the winter. I’d appreciate any ideas you might have on hibernating painted turtles.

    Thank you.

  22. avatar

    Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.

    I’m glad the raccoon information was helpful…I enjoy the little beasts, have even raised orphans many years ago (before NYS law prohibited such!) but they are very resourceful at finding their way into outdoor pens.

    I recall your skink…it takes a good deal of care and knowledge to successfully hibernate lizards, my compliments.

    Painted turtles pose a different challenge because they hibernate under water. The oxygen content of the water must be considered, as they breathe by absorbing oxygen through the mouth lining and cloaca. They are quite cold tolerant…in fact individuals frozen within bocks of ice have emerged unscathed, and the natural glycerol which protects their cells is being studied with a view towards someday preserving donated human organs for transplant purposes.

    The safest method that I‘ve come across is to house them at room temperature (68-70F), without a warm basking spot, during the winter; they do not eat but remain active and, surprisingly, lose little if any weight. This change is enough to stimulate reproduction in other temperate turtles, and should be fine for painted turtles as well (most need a seasonal change in order to enter breeding condition).

    A more risky but probably more effective (in terms of stimulating reproduction) method is to keep the turtles at 40-50 F in a mud-bottomed enclosure with several inches of water. The water must be aerated throughout the winter, and the turtles’ digestive systems need to be clear of food (a fast of 7 days or so is safe). People who use this method usually have access to a cool basement, attic or garage.

    Wintering outdoors requires an aerated pool of water deep enough so that freezing is limited to the upper layer (24 inches in southern NY, for example). If you consider this option, please let me know as the time approaches…Koi Pond De-icers and related items will prove useful.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  23. avatar

    Hi Frank,

    I thought I’d give you an update on my herps.

    My broad-headed skink came out of hibernation in April and now I’m working on building a new cage for him so my juvenile black rat snake can go in the tank my skink is in now. I am planning on making it about 3′ L x 16″ W x 2′ T (I actually haven’t decided on the height, I may make it taller) with screen sides, glass front doors, and a hardware cloth top (I thought hardware cloth would be better for the top since it wouldn’t block out as much UV light). I’m open to suggestions, I want to make this the best I can for my skink.

    Also, I’m wondering how often you recommend that I feed my skink.

    My Painted Turtles are going to be upgraded to a larger tub, and they are receiving several hours of natural sunlight daily. I take them inside during the night. Sadly, 2 of the turtles died…still not sure why, but the others appear to be healthy and are active and eating.

    I’m a big fan of naturalistic terrariums for reptiles and amphibians, and was wondering if it was possible to create a mini ecosystem for the turtles. I don’t know how easy it would be to do and don’t exactly know where to begin, but I thought it would make a fun project. Any ideas?

  24. avatar

    Hello Sarah, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks so much for keeping me posted; very nice to hear that you are continuing in your efforts to provide as natural a captive situation as is possible for your collection. It is certainly not the easiest route to follow, but well worth the effort.

    The skink cage sounds ideal…broad headeds like to climb, and so he would use more height if available, but it’s not a necessity. Hardware cloth for the roof is a good choice. One possible concern re the screen sides is the lizard pulling off a claw if he climbs about on the screening, and possibly snout rubbing, especially when he is first introduced. I’ve only run into the claw problem with vigorous monitors, but watch him at first. Our First Aid Kit for Birds contains powdered styptic, which is useful for controlling bleeding should a nail be lost.

    Since your skink hibernates each year, I suggest feeding him in a naturalistic fashion during his active period, with small meals given on most days. You can also stock the cage with insects that he can hunt at will; a pile of dead leaves or a rotting log will also keep him busy. Fast days interspersed here and there are fine as well, but obesity will not likely be a concern considering the great situation he is in, and the fact that he will hibernate.

    Young turtles such as those you have are easier to keep in a naturalistic setting…great idea and lots of fun. Rooted plants are best avoided, as substrate complicates cleaning. Floating water hyacinths and water lettuce are perfect – painted turtles will not eat them, and the roots are very good at helping to filter the water. The turtles will hunt among the roots and rest on the leaves as well.

    Guppies will breed readily outdoors and provide hunting opportunities – most will avoid the turtles among the roots, but aging fish and the young will often be captured, and the fish also will keep mosquito larvae from becoming a problem. You can also mix blackworms into the root systems, and introduce aquatic insects if available. You’ll be sure to notice a big difference in your turtles’ activity levels and behaviors.

    A drain will simplify water changes; if electricity is available you might consider a submersible filter. A siphon can also be used if the terrain allows, or you can employ a bucket to make partial water changes.

    Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted,

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio

  25. avatar

    Hi Frank,

    Today I noticed that one of my painted turtles was lethargic — just on the surface of the water and not moving around like the others were. After looking him over, I realized he had a soft shell, which I’m assuming is a calcium deficiency. I later inspected the other turtles and found that they had slightly soft shells, but not nearly as severe and they are still active and take interest in food.

    I am housing them in a 90 quart plastic tub. I currently don’t have a filter, so I change the water daily and feed them in a separate container, and it seems to keep pretty clean that way (though, I do plan on adding aquatic plants, fish, etc. to help maintain it). They receive several hours of natural sunlight a day. Their diet is Reptomin Select-A-Food, occasional earthworms, and dandelion greens or hibiscus flower pedals. Their diet changed recently, I had previously been using live mosquito larvae instead of the Reptomin Select-A-Food.

    Only one of the turtles is lethargic — he doesn’t want to move around or eat, and just stays up on the basking log with his eyes closed. It seems strange that only one turtle has the problem this severe.

    I’m guessing that the problem is not UVB lighting, and that I need to do something different with their diet. This is the first time I’ve ever encountered a problem like this, so I’m not sure what to do. Any suggestions?

  26. avatar

    Hello Sarah, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Nice to hear from you again; I hope all is well.

    If I remember correctly, the turtles are less than 1 year or so old at this point. If so, their Calcium requirements will be quite high, as they are growing rapidly and adding both bone and shell mass. As you suggest, Vitamin D3 is not the problem as they are exposed to natural sunlight…I assume they are basking regularly on a log or raft, etc.? If not, UVB exposure will be largely negated as it does not penetrate water.

    You’ll need to raise the level of calcium in their diet. Reptomin is useful in this regard, and as they mature it can form the basis of the diet. At this point, however, small whole fishes would be the most effective way of addressing the problem. Try providing whole or whole chopped fish 1-2 xs weekly. Minnows are best, but you can use guppies, goldfishes and others as well – do not use goldfishes exclusively. You’ll need to stun the fishes, or provide them pre- killed, as the turtles will not be effective at catching them.

    Canned shrimp and freeze dried krill should also be provided – both are packed with shells intact and are good sources of digestible calcium. Continue with earthworms and greens as well – as the turtle reach adulthood, greens should form 50-60% of their diet (but not now). Mosquito larvae and other insects are fine as well, but as an addition to the aforementioned.

    The listless turtle may just be in worse shape, nutritionally, than the others, or it may be suffering from an eye infection or a Vitamin A deficiency, both of which will render the eyes puffy and/or difficult to open. Low Calcium levels will exacerbate either condition. Try applying Zoo Med Eye Drops – perhaps with an improved diet that will take care of the problem. If not, you’ll need to see a veterinarian to determine if bacteria or a lack of Vitamin A is involved – no real way to tell otherwise.

    Feeding outside the enclosure is a very effective way of keeping the water clean; filtration is especially useful during the warmer weather, when decomposition occurs rapidly…please let me know if you decide to get a filter and need some advice.

    Good luck and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  27. avatar

    Thanks for taking the time to reply. I’ll be sure to try the things you suggested.

    Any ideas where I can get live or prekilled feeder fish?

  28. avatar

    Hello Sarah, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Pet stores often sell “feeder minnows, goldfish and guppies”. Bait stores as well, although the prices will be higher. We carry frozen silversides at ThatPetPlace, but cannot ship until September due to the warm weather. Silversides are a marine species (as are the freeze dried krill I suggested)…experience has shown that krill are fine long term and in quantity for fresh water turtles; marine fish seem okay as well, but I would alternate them with freshwater fish just to be on the safe side.

    You can also buy whole freshwater fishes at fish markets, but these will be large; the benefits of smaller fishes is the digestibility of the bones and the fact that the turtle is getting all of the internal organs. Chinese, Korean and Japanese markets, and those featuring foods from Southeast Asia, tend to have a variety of small fishes, if such is an option for you.

    You can also use a minnow trap or seine net if pond is available, and such is legal in your area.

    Until you locate a source, use krill and freshwater shrimp 3-4 times weekly.

    Good luck and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  29. avatar

    Thanks for the info. Sadly, the lethargic turtle died on the 4th–I’m going to try my best to prevent that from happening to the rest!

    I got some minnows from PetSmart the other day and put a few in with the turtles when I fed them. It took awhile for the turtles to catch the fish, but it was interesting to watch! The minnows are about 1 inch long–how many and how often do you think I should feed for 5 turtles?

    Also, how long do you expect it will take for the turtles to recover? I usually hibernate my reptiles in October, but I don’t think it would be a good idea to hibernate the turtles if they haven’t fully recovered. Power outages are quite common here, and I don’t know how I would keep the turtles warm if it were to happen.

  30. avatar

    Hello Sarah, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Sorry for the delay in responding.

    You can offer minnows twice weekly for now, more often if the turtles are not getting krill. Let them eat ad lib while the weather is warm, they might take 2-3 each. Some will not be good at catching them, so you may need to stun or euthanized the fish to assure that each turtle has a chance to feed.

    No real way to predict recovery time, unfortunately, as there are too many variables….how far along the condition is, growth rate/amt. UVB exposure, individual recovery abilities, etc. But if you keep at it there is a good chance that they will do well. If any other starts to decline, please write back.

    Yes, best not to hibernate them this year. They may not feed, especially if they hatched in the wild, even if kept warm. However, some turtles are, like snakes, likely able to alter their metabolism somewhat…wild collected painted turtles I’ve kept stay fairly active but lose little if any weight despite not eating. Painteds are also quite resilient as regards temperature changes, regularly experiencing wide swings in spring and fall…short term temperature outages should not be a problem (such would be as regards many other species, however).. They can also be frozen within a block of ice but, as they say, “don’t try this at home!” (they are being studied in this regard, with a view towards storing human organs destined for transplantation).

    Good luck and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

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About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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