Vitamins, Minerals, and Captive Herps
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In nature, reptiles and amphibians are exposed to a wide variety of food items, often much more varied and ultimately more nutritious than those diets fed to captive herps. As a result, animals maintained on diets consisting solely of store bought crickets and worms are often deficient of many life sustaining trace minerals and vitamins. Wild insects often have a much more varied and complete gut contents than compared with those that are reared in cricket farms. Additionally, wild animals may feed on as many as a dozen different species of insect in a given day, where as pet herps usually subsist on only a few commonly available bugs.
Despite this conundrum, herpeteculturists over the years have devised clever ways to provide captive reptiles with all of the variety, vitamins, and minerals that they need to thrive and reproduce in captivity. Among these methods are gut-loading, the act of feeding insects a highly nutritious diet prior to them being eaten themselves, and the more common method of dusting said prey items with various multivitamin products.
Obviously reptile nutrition is a vast subject that requires an intense understanding of animal physiology and chemistry to understand. This forum is not the appropriate place to go into details regarding the actions of various vitamins and minerals within the reptilian system. Instead, I will discuss the three components that I believe are of most importance when choosing a supplement for you pet.
First and foremost are the minerals, namely calcium. Calcium is vital for building and mainstring a strong skeletal structure in growing herps, as well as for proper function of the nervous system at the cellular level. Consider baby bearded dragons for a moment. If properly fed and heated, they will easily grow from a 4 inch hatching to an 18 inch adult in just over a year. If you try to imagine the mass of an adult bearded dragon’s skeleton, you will realize that these animals need a lot of calcium in their diet, and it has to come from somewhere. As stated earlier, crickets, mealworms, and other food items generally do not naturally have enough available calcium to support this rapid, healthy growth.
The other vital mineral in reptile nutrition is phosphorus. The current consensus is that the calcium to phosphorus ratio of all reptile diets should be at least 2 to 1. In other word, the food should have twice as much calcium as phosphorus. Otherwise, the calcium simply cannot be absorbed or utilized by the animals system. Even a well fed cricket from the pet shop has a ratio of about .3 parts calcium to 1 part phosphorus, essentially opposite of what you are aiming for. This is where the dietary calcium in the form of a supplement comes into play. The simple act of lightly dusting unbalanced food with a high quality supplement can quickly transform average food items into a well balance dietary component.
Obviously the work (or lack thereof) of many other minerals is at work within the reptile diet. However, they are rarely an issue, and the average hobbyist should not concern themselves with them. It should also be mentioned that phosphorus is not “the enemy.�? Reptiles do need it to survive, and will get plenty of it if fed an appropriate diet. The key is to simply ensure the addition of adequate calcium.
Vitamins are the second major component of reptile supplements. Vitamins are important to reptiles just as they are to humans. Typically, a pet reptile will get adequate vitamins from a varied diet or insects, greens, or rodents. However, it is common for keepers (and animals alike) to develop favorite foods, and if fed excessively or solely, the animal may be missing out on vitamins not found in that staple dietary item. The use of a multi-vitamin once or twice a week on the food of most reptiles will correct any deficiencies created by an unbalanced diet.
Over-supplementation is possible, with fat soluble vitamins (A, D, and some others), so follow the manufacturers’ directions carefully. Vitamin D3 is the third consideration in choosing a supplement for your pets. Even though vitamins were covered above, I feel that vitamin D should be addressed specifically due to its importance and the level of misunderstanding surrounding it.
Basically, reptiles need vitamin D3 in their diet in order to effectively absorb dietary calcium. This means that a reptile completely deprived of vitamin D3 could theoretically be overfed calcium, and be able to utilize little if any of it. In captive reptiles, vitamin D3 is going to come from one of two sources, or preferably, a combination of both. The first source, and the one most utilized by wild herps, is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) lighting. When a particular wavelength of ultraviolet light (UVB) hits reptilian skin, a series of biochemical reactions occur which ultimately lead to the animal synthesis of vitamin D3. Everyday household light bulbs WILL NOT produce light in the necessary spectrum. In captivity, the only way your pets will receive vitamin D3 is if they are exposed to unfiltered sunlight, exposed to a reptile bulb (specifically designed to emit UVB), or through dietary supplements.
Generally, diurnal reptiles kept in captivity are provided with the aforementioned UV bulbs. In some cases, this may be adequate for efficient vitamin D3 synthesis. However, more than likely, dietary vitamin D is needed to insure adequate levels to allow for calcium absorption. Most modern calcium supplements for reptiles include preformed vitamin D3. These supplements, coupled with a UV bulb and occasional exposure to sunlight will result in a very healthy, happy pet.
Some supplements are being manufactured without vitamin D3 for use ins animals maintained outdoors in unfiltered sunlight, all the time. These animals are generally able to produce enough vitamin D to get by. Although vitamin D toxicity is quite rare, it is possible, so it recommended that if you do have a 100% outdoor pet you make sure that it is not getting any extra vitamin D3 (or very rarely).
As for animals that spend most of the time indoors under a UV bulb, but make it outside once or twice a week, or during the summer, I still recommend providing dietary D3. The amount of vitamin D that they produce while exposed to a bulb coupled with occasional sunlight should still be small enough to warrant the use of a vitamin D containing supplement.
So, what supplements do we use and recommend? We use different regimens for different animals. If you have a specific question about which supplement is right for you, and how often it should be administered, feel free to contact us. Despite the above guidelines, it can be difficult to generalize, and each situation is best assessed on a case by case basis. So if you are in doubt, or confused as to what supplement is right for your pet, seek the advice of a professional.
At LLLReptile we use and sell Miner-All products, as well as RepCal’s ultra fine calcium and Herptivite. T-rex has recently released a new line of species specific supplements with a powder for every situation! Miner-All is available in an indoor formula (with vitamin D3) and an outdoor formula (without D3 added). It is a calcium based supplement with additional trace minerals and vitamins added for complete nutrition in a single product.
Rep Cal offers an ultra-fine calcium supplement with and without vitamin D3. However, they also manufacture Herptivite, a separate product that contains only vitamins and minerals, no calcium. These products can be useful in providing a flexible regimen for growing or ovulating females in which you may want to provide calcium multiple times a day, but without the risk of vitamin overdosing.
My goal in this article was to introduce the reader to the types, importance, and components of many readily available reptile supplements. My goal was not to confuse, and although it may seem overwhelming at first, with time and experience this information will become second nature. And as stated before, if in doubt, follow the manufacturers’ directions or consult an expert.