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Substrates and Shelters for Animals Prone to Intestinal Blockages

Intestinal blockages and impactions (and related digestive ailments) most often occur when a pet reptile or amphibian ingests substrate along with food, although sometimes an inappropriate diet (i.e. one consisting largely of mealworms) is to blame.  My most unusual “blockage memory” involves a Cuban crocodile (Crocodylus rhombifer) under my care at the Bronx Zoo – the cause of her distress was found to be a large toy kangaroo that someone had thoughtlessly tossed into the exhibit!

Today I would like to present a few housing options for those species that seem particularly prone to consuming substrate (and anything else that gets in their way!).

“Does this happen in the wild”?

I am often questioned as to why animals do not suffer impactions in the wild, where they live on sand, moss and other materials that sometimes cause problems in captivity.  I believe the answer may lie in the slight differences that exist even between apparently similar substrates, the nature of the actual act of feeding, and differences in temperature, water, food intake and other factors that may affect the digestive system.

Overly-Enthusiastic Anacondas

Of course, animals may suffer impaction related injuries and death in the wild as well, but such goes largely unnoticed.  Although not impactions per se, I well recall finding a wild anaconda with a mouth injury suffered while trying to swallow a side-necked turtle (Podocnemis vogli), another that had a white-tailed deer, antlers and all, stuck in its throat, and a 5’10” yellow rat snake that tried to down a deer fawn on St. Catherine’s Island, off Georgia.

Substrates – Terrestrial Species

Among terrestrial species, we most commonly encounter impaction problems in African bullfrogs, horned frogs, tiger salamanders, lizards and tortoises.  Washable brown or green terrarium liners are an ideal choice for many such species.

Rabbit pellets have long been used by zoos as a substrate for tortoises and herbivorous lizards such as iguanas and chuckwallas.  Alfalfa based, they are fine if ingested along with food, and allow for the easy removal of feces.  Young tortoises that are kept on hard surfaces frequently become splay-legged, but such does not occur when pellets are used.

Further Reading

Please see our line of pet care books  for detailed information concerning substrates and diets for the animals that you keep.

A meal consisting of 17 young cobras would seem destined to cause an obstruction in any amphibian, even the massive African bullfrog…for the gut-busting details, please see my article An Appetite for Cobras.


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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