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Canned Insects and other Invertebrates – An Important New Food for Pet Reptiles and Amphibians

I have long stressed the importance of dietary variety to the health of captive reptiles and amphibians. Most consume anywhere from dozens to hundreds of prey species in the wild, yet are typically fed only crickets, mealworms and a few others in captivity. Collecting insects (Zoo Med’s Bug Napper is a very effective tool) and culturing alternative species such as sow bugs is one option, but few of us find the time to do this regularly.

So it was with great interest that I began experimenting with the whole, canned invertebrates that have recently become available. Animals that normally consume non-living foods, such as box, musk, snapping, painted and spotted turtles, sharp-ribbed and fire-bellied newts and African clawAlbino BullFrogsed frogs, eagerly took most foods offered. I was also able to tong-feed the insects to several species of “live food only” amphibians, including horned frogs, green frogs, leopard frogs (see photo), American bullfrogs (see photo, albino frogs pictured here), gray treefrogs, barking treefrogs, spotted salamanders and fire salamanders (see picture.)

I’m very eager to try these products on several small, insectivorous snake species which do not thrive unless supplied with caterpillars, slugs, and grasshoppers. First among these would be North America’s gorgeous smooth and rough green snakes, Opheodrys vernalis and O. aestivus, followed by the ring-necked and red-bellied snakes, Diadophis punctatus and Storeria occipitomaculata (these last 2 favor slugs, for which snails might be a good substitute).

I was especially happy to see that snails were being offered by several companies. Since childhood, I have longed to successfully keep the striking Malayan snail-eating turtle, Malayemys subtrijuga. I have had moderate success in zoos, but only when large breeding colonies of apple snails were available to feed these beautiful foLeopard Frogod specialists. Supplying enough food is difficult for hobbyists and most zoological parks, and hence this turtle is rarely bred or even kept in captivity, despite being extremely rare in the wild and in need of our help. I look forward to trying again, using canned snails, supplemented with live ones, as a basis of the diet.

I have also written about the use of canned insects in bird diets – please see my article, Feeding Insects to Pet Birds.

I have tried most of the following, and recommend you to experiment as much as possible:

Exo Terra – grasshoppers, silkworms, snails
Zoo Med – grasshoppers, caterpillars, snails
Jurrasidiet – Snails, grasshoppers

I believe these products to be the start of some interesting and important developments in the field of reptile and amphibian nutrition, and plan further research. Please help me in my work by writing in about your own trials and results. I will be sure to write back and inform you of my efforts as well. Thanks, until next time, Frank.

18 comments

  1. avatar

    Frank – I have been looking for a Opheodrys vernalis. Do you know where I might find one to buy? Thanks.

  2. avatar
    Frank Indiviglio

    Hello,

    Thank you for your comment.

    Glad to see that you are interested in smooth green snakes. Unfortunately, they are not given much attention by hobbyists or zoos, and appear in the trade only sporadically. This is unfortunate, as this and other insectivorous animals are in a general decline here, possibly due to the widespread use of pesticides.

    The in-store staff at That Pet Place might be able to help you locate a smooth green snake, but someone would need to pick the animal up at the store, as the company does not ship reptiles. If that is an option for you, please call the store and speak with the Reptile Room staff, or let me know via email.

    I have also sent a note to a friend who breeds a variety of native snakes, to see if he might be of assistance.

    Please let me know if you are able to locate a smooth green snake – I’ve worked with them a bit in the past and will hopefully be able to forward some tips.

    Good luck – I look forward to hearing from you again.

    Best regards, Frank

  3. avatar

    Thanks Frank, I live in LA, so I likely will need to find a breeder that can FedEx these. Please let me know what your native snake breeding friend has – or alternatively if he can point me the right direction. Thanks for your assistance! – Do you have an email address, by chance? Tom

  4. avatar
    Frank Indiviglio

    Hi Tom,

    I’ll get back to you as soon as I a hear from my contact concerning a source for smooth green snakes.

    I receive a huge volume of email in the course of consultation work for several institutions, and it is much easier for me to manage if it comes through the sites/blogs set up for each. So, if you don’t mind, please continue to write in through the That Pet Place blog. I will answer your emails individually and quickly.

    Best regards, Frank

  5. avatar

    Hi Frank – have you heard anything back as of yet on our search for the Smooth Green Snakes? Hope you had a great 4th! Tom

  6. avatar
    Frank Indiviglio

    Hello Tom,

    Thanks for the good wishes, I hope you enjoyed the holiday as well.

    There aren’t any smooth green snakes available right now, unfortunately, but my contact knows to be on the lookout and will call me when he has some news.

    Take care, Frank

  7. avatar

    I was reading about canned insects in your article and thinking of using them for my turtles and lizards. But I also have a sugar glider that loves bugs, and was woncdering if the canned ones would be good for her? Please let me know if you have any information on this, thanks.

  8. avatar

    Hello,

    Frank Indiviglio here. Thanks for your interest and question.

    Using canned insects for your sugar glider is a very good idea…just introduce them slowly, as you would any new food. I have used the insects for white-footed mice and flying squirrels, and have reports that African hedgehogs like them as well.

    I did a quick check concerning sugar gliders…you’re in good company…they are mentioned by Dr. Kevin Wright…the site for his hospital (Arizona Exotic Animal Hospital, http://www.azeah.com/, is linked to my blog. Dr. Wright, the nation’s premier exotic animal veterinarian, suggests that the canned product be alternated with live insects, as some nutrients may be lost during the cooking/canning process. This is excellent advice. You can read more about providing feeder insect’s with a healthy diet (so as to render them a better food source for your pets) in the following articles posted on this blog:
    Product Review: Prepared Diets and Food Supplements for House Crickets (Acheta domestica)
    Making the Most of the Mealworm: some tips on enhancing the nutritional value of this pet trade staple

    Please let me know if I can be of further assistance, Best regards, Frank Indiviglio

  9. avatar

    Thank you for the sugar glider information, I’m waiting for more canned insects to arrive and will try. I am planning to get another sugar glider, mine was sold as a female and we call it her but has no pouch I think it is a male…is there any way to be sure..i do not see any external sex organs? Also, how about mixing sugar gliders..will 2 males fight, or will my animal be territorial in general? I have read differing opinions (many!) on their protein requirements. Mine is on a good basic diet but I’m a little uncertain about protein – are there any useful guidelines that you know of – even the sites with very detailed information do not agree on protein, thank you.

  10. avatar

    Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for your interest in our blog…I’m glad the information was useful to you.

    As for distinguishing the sexes, if the animal lacks a pouch then it is, as you suspect, a male. Sex organs are largely internal as you noticed, but the male’s scrotum should be visible – it is rather far removed from the vent, being located almost between the rear legs. It will appear as a small “bump” in a young animal.

    Sugar gliders are quite social…outside a few minor squabbles I cannot recall any fights, even among males. I would introduce the new one slowly however, on the outside chance that the original animal has become possessive of its cage. Place the new one in a small cage or carrier alongside the old, and watch them for awhile, but I don’t predict any problems. If you would like to get a female and perhaps breed them, please let me know and I’ll forward some ideas.
    Zoo diets for sugar gliders vary in makeup, but a protein content of 22-25% is standard. A colony of gliders that I worked with at the Bronx Zoo has fared very well on this regimen for decades. You need not be overly rigid on this point – drawing approximately 25% of the food that you feed your glider from the following list will suffice. Focus mainly on insects, nuts and tofu, with a bit of hard boiled egg as described below.

    Canned and live insects are probably the best source of protein, especially if the insects are themselves well-fed (please see the articles referenced in our last communication).

    Nuts of all kinds are good but will be consumed to the exclusion of all else by most gliders, so use care.

    An occasional pre-killed pink mouse (appx. ½ pinky per animal) is a good source of protein as well as calcium, but is not a necessary part of the diet.

    Hard boiled eggs have a high phosphorus to calcium ratio, which is not ideal, but are fine if limited in use to once every week or two.

    Tofu (mixed with fruit if necessary) is fine.

    Some people use yogurt and cottage cheese…these are preferable to milk, but bear in mind that gliders do not as a rule digest lactose very well. Offer small amounts only, and introduce gradually.

    I’ve received mixed reports on dried cat food; I would not advise its use.

    Good luck, and please be in touch if I you’d like further information.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  11. avatar

    Hello,

    I have written in the past concerning my sugar gliders, they took to the canned grasshoppers as suggested right away, than k you. I have seen ads for all sorts of animals, I have time, space and interest, but can not believe that bobcats etc would make good pets, can you recommend an animal perhaps larger than sugar gliders, but that is a reasonable pet not requiring a zoo sized cage and expertise? Thank you.

  12. avatar

    Hello Susan-Rita, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Nice to hear from you again.

    I apologize for being so long in responding. The delay was caused by a technical difficulty which has now been resolved.

    You are correct in avoiding bobcats and similar animals…amazingly, one can even purchase rhinos and tigers in some states!

    An important consideration in the keeping of exotic mammals would be the availability of veterinary care. This is not only for the animal’s benefit but also for the safety of yourself and others, as all will need to be vaccinated against rabies and other possible zoonotic diseases. Be sure to check applicable state laws as well, since such vary widely throughout the country.

    Ferrets are the most suitable of the more “unusual” mammalian pets. They have been domesticated for centuries (please see my article on Ferret History for more information) and, while manageable, retain many interesting “wild type” behaviors. Please check out our extensive line of ferret cages and products…captive care is greatly simplified by the availability of such items.

    Striped skunks are regularly bred in captivity and, if acquire young (and de-scented!), often make fine pets, although individual personalities vary greatly. I have kept several and have found them to be easily litter-trained and quite personable. They are utterly fearless around people, a trait that no doubt arises from their impressive scent-spraying abilities, and retain that characteristic when de-scented. There are some other considerations, however, so please write back if you are considering a skunk.

    Flying squirrels also appear in the trade regularly, and are much calmer and more easily tamed than are gray or red squirrels. They are, however, persistently nocturnal.

    Other native species that are regularly bred, but which should be avoided, include raccoons, foxes, prairie dogs and woodchucks.

    Please write back when you have narrowed down your options.

    Good luck and enjoy, best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  13. avatar

    Hello Frank,

    I’ve been feeding canned insects to my broad-headed skink, but I’ve always been curious about the nutritional value. I have wondered if the canning process effects the nutritional value. I emailed both Zoo Med and JurassiPet about this–no response form Zoo Med, but JurassiPet replied saying: “The canned insects are 100% natural and no preservatives are used before the canning process.  The packaging process is a unique heat sterilization process that locks in their natural juices and allows them to remain moist and nutritious.  Once opened, they will last up to three weeks in the refrigerator.  Some of them can probably be frozen, as long as the individual insects freeze separately and in this case they will last longer (~3 months).”

    I’ve seen quite a few people in forums discussing canned insects, and most say they aren’t as nutritious as live insects. So I’m not sure what to think. Any thoughts?

  14. avatar

    Hello Sarah,

    Nice to hear from you again and glad your skink came through another winter in good health. Thanks for, as usual, your interesting comment and for doing the background research.

    There really hasn’t been any definitive research on the subject – it will likely come from a zoo nutritionist eventually; I keep tabs on zoo news and so will post an update. I’ve not searched forums extensively, but what I’ve seen has been largely speculation. Both companies are reputable and can be trusted to live up to industry standards., The canning process is similar to used for other pet and people foods; in general, a good way to seal in nutrients.

    However, the most important point bearing on their nutritional value is the diet that the animals were consuming before “being canned”…I believe all are labeled as “farmed”, so there may be some info on that, but we really don’t know all that much about how prey diet translates into nutritional value. The Bx Zoo’s Nutrition Dept analyzed wild caught inverts that I supplied years ago (the dept has since been disbanded); it was difficult to draw generalizations, as values varied widely with collection site – supplying a varied diet seemed to be the best route to go in most situations.

    I believe the canned inverts are very useful as an adjunct to a varied diet, especially during times when wild-caught insects cannot be offered; this, along with providing crickets, mealworms and other standard food species with a good diet will help ensure your pets’ health.

    As no preservatives are used, I only retain refrigerated insects for 4-7 days; freezing as recommended by Jurrassipet is fine.

    Good luck and please keep me posted on your findings and collection,

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  15. avatar

    It turns out I was wrong and that Zoo Med did reply to my email. It was several months ago when I sent it and I didn’t remember their reply until I found it buried in my emails this evening. They say that their insects are fed a variety of vegetables and fruits.

    I also have a question relating to black ratsnakes. I was wondering if you knew if there was a way to visually sex black ratsnakes like the way you could with a corn snake.

    Thanks for the info!

  16. avatar

    Hello Sarah,

    Thanks for the update. It’s difficult to rear insects to breeding age on a poor diet, I’m guessing that the nutrient profile is okay.

    Yes, black rat snakes can be sexed in the same manner – the tail of a male, when viewed from below, tapers gradually below the cloaca, due to presence of the hemipenes; that of the female narrows very sharply below the cloaca. Please check out my article on Black Ratsnake Classification when you have a moment.

    Good luck and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  17. avatar

    Would you suggest feeding the canned insects to Leopard Geckos?

  18. avatar

    Hello,

    They are fine as a supplement, to add variety,,,silkworms ideal; grasshoppers may be a bit large…usually best to remove rear legs, perhaps other legs as well. Best regards, Frank

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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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