We treat and provide advice for a wide range of exotic pets

AlphaPet has two qualified veterinary nurses, Charlotte Sampson RVN and Sue Eaton RVN, who both have particular interests and expertise in chelonians (tortoises and turtles) and both are able to provide expert advice on all aspects of their husbandry.

Many of the conditions we see are associated with the environment these pets are kept in. Frequently, this is because no one has provided appropriate advice about what conditions they need to stay fit and healthy.

Below is a selection of basic advice and information sheets some of the common reptile pet species we see.

If you have concerns about your pet or just want to be reassured that what you are doing is actually correct, please call us on 01243 842832 and book an appointment.

Reducing the risks of salmonella infection from reptiles

Keeping reptiles carries some health risks which all owners should be aware of and take appropriate precautions to protect themselves and their families. Salmonella is a particularly common risk.

Click on this link to access a leaflet (produced by the Health Protection Agency, Department of Health, and Defra) that provides advice to reptile owners regarding measures to reduce the risk of contracting Salmonella infections from their pets.

An ongoing outbreak of Salmonella Typhiumurium DT191a infections in humans has been linked to reptile owners handling infected feeder mice and has highlighted the need to raise awareness of the risk of such infections.


Tortoises are a surprisingly common pet in the UK. Many of them are decades old and have been handed down through the family. Several species can live up to 100 years old, if they are well cared for in a captive environment!

The areas of husbandry, diet and veterinary advice have come on leaps and bounds in the 10 - 15 years and we are pleased to say we have both vets and nurses at AlphaPet who have a keen interest in these animals.

Our nurses can offer you both pre- and post-hibernation examinations, giving you advice on general care, diets and also to check if your tortoise is suitable for hibernation and how to safely go about this.

If you are at all concerned about your tortoises health our vets will be happy to examine them and give them a full health check.

Our aim is not to tell you that the way you have kept your tortoise for years is wrong, but hopefully to help offer some new ideas that may well be helpful to you and your tortoise.

Below is a round-up of several handouts, information sheets and general advice we have picked up. Some of this information you will already know while some of it may surprise you a little.

Common Species

  1. Testudo Hermanni (Hermans Tortoise): generally one of the smaller breeds measuring up to 150mm in length, one of the hardiest and easiest kept tortoises
  2. Testudo Horsfeldi (Afghan Tortoise): looks similar to Hermans, but comes from colder climates, such as Russia and is a little flatter in appearance. It is not a protected species and is seen as the most hardy breed.
  3.  Testudo Gracea Ibera (Asiatic Spur Thighed): one of the larger and more commonly seen breeds. Males reach approx. 185mm, females approx. 200mm in length. They can tolerate fairly long hibernation periods.
  4. Testudo G Gracea (Mediterranean Spur Thighed Tortoise): slightly smaller than it's Asiatic cousin, males approx. 140mm and females approx. 180mm. They are also less hardy and can only tolerate fairly short mild hibernation periods.
  5. Testudo Marginata (Marginated tortoise): largest breed now becoming popular here, generally seen in Mediterranean areas. Males approx. 240mm and females approx. 270mm in length.


It is generally recommended that tortoises are chipped as they are relatively expensive animals and are therefore more prone to being stolen. Several breeds MUST be chipped under EEC Law before they can be sold.

The microchip is placed in the left hind leg, in the relatively soft skin there.  If the tortoise does stray or is stolen it can then be traced back to the rightful owner.

The new mini-microchips makes the insertion of microchips even easier and less uncomfortable.


There are two different aspects of housing to consider; Summer and Winter.

During the Summer most tortoises are happy to live outside with somewhere to hide if the weather is less than clement! If the garden is well covered with plants and shrubs additional housing may not be necessary. However if the need arises a small "house" can be erected, consisting of a few bricks and a couple of yard slabs, lined with some thin plywood, newspaper, towels or Astroturf! Avoid sand, gravel, wood shavings or cat litter as these can cause impaction if ingested. Also be aware that cedar shavings are toxic to reptiles. Any cleaning that is necessary should be done using ordinary soap and water or a safe disinfectant product such as Russells Home Help (avoid harsher products unless your veterinary surgeon suggests one.)

Towards Autumn and into Winter, tortoises may need something a little warmer, a large, sturdy cardboard box is glamorous enough, with a heat source (heat pad/suitable heat lamp & UV light) at one end and a nest box. Alternatively a specialised vivarium can be set up, using a similar design. The aim is to allow a temperature gradient from cool at one end to warm at the other, enabling the tortoise to regulate its own body temperature. Also remember to keep track of the temperature using a suitable thermometer. Please contact the surgery if you need advice on this aspect of housing.

Once Winter has arrived and your tortoise has decided enough is enough and wants to sleep through the worst of our British weather, a small, well insulated box will suffice. Fill with bedding material such as hay or straw that can absorb some of the waste if tortoise awakens early. Again a thermometer to keep track of the temperature over the Winter. Try to maintain a temp of 5C - much warmer and they will wake up while much cooler and they could suffer from frostbite.


You will need to assess your tortoise individually, according to their breed and age as to when to hibernate and for how long. Experts are tending to recommend that we now have relatively short hibernation periods, by artificially increasing the length of Summer from early Spring into late Autumn. There are several ways to do this:

Bring the tortoise indoors when daytime temperatures drop to approximately 12C
Daily bathing: helps to warm them up and keeps their bowels and other organs working. The bath should be approximately 5 - 10 minutes long and be a pleasant bath temperature.
Providing a suitable heat and UV light source to imitate the outside environment on a warm summer day.

Remember to starve your tortoise for 2-4 weeks pre-hibernation to ensure that no food matter is left in the gut undigested. Do however allow continued access to fluids, as these are needed during hibernation and are stored in the bladder. Other things to consider in the run up to hibernation is getting your tortoise wormed, and their weight checked against a special graph called the Jackson Ratio. This assesses their body condition and suitability to hibernate. AlphaPet runs special nurse clinics to help you with these tasks and ensure your tortoise is fit to hibernate. Please call the surgery on 01243 842832 to book an appointment.


All chelonians are omnivores i.e. they eat both meat and vegetables. Different species will have differing requirements. Most species seen in UK require a diet of mainly green plant material, a high fiber diet that will avoid loose motions that can lead to chronic bowel problems and loss of condition. Only 10 - 20% of their diet should be fruit. Food such as mixed greens, parsley, peas, cabbage and broccoli are suitable and fruits such as apples, bananas, grapes, kiwi and figs (which contain calcium.)

In the wild, a tortoise will eat meat in the form of insects, grubs & even dead mammal flesh if they happen to come across it. The bones of this type of food provides an excellent source of calcium & phosphorous, two very important minerals. An easy way to provide these minerals in captivity is to use a suitable powdered supplement, such as Nutrobal. For males and non egg-laying females, a calcium and vitamin supplement such as Nutrobal should be given every 2-3 days. For young animals and egg-laying females, a daily supplement of Nutrobal is required.

Royal Pythons

Royal Pythons are generally considered to be good natured and docile snakes. Their relatively small size also makes them popular as pets.

They are widely kept throughout the world as pets. Generally, they are considered to be a relatively easy species to keep as long as you have some basic knowledge of snakes. However, they are also quite susceptible to stress that is usually the reason why most problems seem to develop. They are renowned for being difficult to feed on occasion.

Large populations still exist in the wild in Central and Western Africa but are being rapidly reduced due to excessive habitat destruction, skin trade and the pet trade. PLEASE try to ensure that you do not perpetuate this decline by purchasing a wild caught animal.

Environmental Requirements

Royal Pythons come from tropical West Africa and so you should be trying to emulate temperatures found in these regions: typically 80-92°F.

The vivarium should be at least as long as the animal's body and width at least a third of the animal's length. However, we would advise that a vivarium double this minimum size would be preferable in order to provide the range of microenvironments sometimes necessary to reduce the stress in these animals.

Cages must be escape proof, easy to disinfect, free of sharp edges, ventilated, and hold heat to ensure proper temperatures. Avoid unfinished wood and porous surfaces when designing custom built vivaria as they will be difficult to keep clean.

For heating, you van use variable under-cage heating pads, thermostatically controlled lights and /or under-cage heat strips, and hot rocks. Don't use a small hot rock for an animal that is proportionately larger; burns often result if the animal is forced to rest on this type of heat source. A heat source should warm 1/3 to 1 /2 of the cage with a basking floor temperature of 88° to 92°F. Make sure that you invest in a number of thermometers which can be strategically placed throughout the vivarium so that you know what variation you have in the vivarium. The unheated area should never drop below 75°F. It may be necessary when using aquariums to cover part of the lid with plastic to maintain ideal temperatures. It is essential to allow the animal an area that provides an optimal basking temperature and a cooler area so that the snake can thermoregulate.

Great caution should be used when using lamps. If the heat is extreme it may dry out the animal, create health problems and burn or even kill the animal. It is better to heat with an under cage heater and a lamp.

Red lights may be used for heating during the night since this type of light does not disrupt the animals photo period. Avoid large wattage bulbs (100 Watt+) when possible. The heat provided is often too focused and again may burn.

A lighting regime of 12 hours on and 12 hours off is OK. Use incandescent or fluorescent lighting only but never leave visible lights on continuously as this is a common cause of stress.

You should provide a water dish large enough to allow the animal to soak in. This should be located near the heat source. Always provide clean water daily and disinfect the bowl at least weekly.

A hide box or shelter in the heated end of the cage provides security. A hide box may also be provided in the cooler area. Always locate at least one in the heated end so the animal does not have to choose between security (from a hide box) and a warm area. A climbing branch that has been disinfected correctly is essential. Avoid untreated branches and rocks since they may carry parasites and other diseases.

Newspaper, paper towels, paper bags, or artificial grass are safe and inexpensive as substrates. Gravel, sand, mulch and wood shavings may cause health problems such as intestinal blockage, skin lesions and "mouth rot." Please remember that Cedar bark is toxic to reptiles.

Use only disinfectants that are certified safe for reptiles such as Ark-Klens.

You should ALWAYS buy captive bred animals whenever possible. Make sure that the animal is feeding when you acquire it. If it is not feeding, there is likely to be something wrong and that may land you with significant veterinary bills!

Diet and Feeding

Generally, diet consists of mice and rats. Gerbils can be fed also. In the wild, the main prey is birds and small mammals such as jerboas. PLEASE DO NOT feed live food. We, as veterinary surgeons, do not support the feeding of live food to snakes in any circumstance. Small, frequent meals are recommended until an animal is established and no longer a hatchling /juvenile. A baby Royal should begin feeding on small jumper mice (15-21 days old) or rat crawlers. A snake may be induced to feed by placing it in a locking plastic shoe box style container (with air holes) with crumpled newspaper and leaving it for an hour, then introduce a food item.

  • At 18 inches, the snake is large enough to take adult mice or small rats.
  • At 2 feet it is capable of consuming weaned rats.
  • Frequent feedings of 1-2 times weekly will result in quick growth and a healthy animal. Adults often take meals as large as 2/3-grown rats.
  • Offer food items at least once every 10-21 days. Royal Pythons may refuse to feed during the winter months and resume feeding several months later.

Shedding is dependent on the animal’s growth rate and condition and may occur every month or several times a year. In common with many other snake species, Royal pythons often refuse feeding attempts while shedding.

  • Avoid handling after a sizeable meal as this is stressful and may cause regurgitation
  • Never handle rodents and then handle a snake - the snake may mistake you for food!
  • Develop proper feeding habits and maintain accurate feeding and health records.

Reluctant feeders may be more tempted to eat at night or with lights off and may prefer to ambush prey from a hide box. Try a variety of rodents and sizes. Be sure that the animal is not ill. Reduce handling to a minimum. If an animal refuses all feeding attempts, contact a veterinary surgeon.

Bearded Dragons

Bearded Dragons are very docile reptiles and relatively easy to keep in captivity, although, as with all exotic pets, things will go wrong if you don’t do your homework and pay attention to detail!

Australian Bearded Dragons (Pogona vitticeps) are in the Agama family, which is composed of around 325 species in 40 genera. Other members of this family include Frilled Dragons (Chlamydosaurus kingii), Tree Dragons (Diporihora superba), Asian water dragons (Hydrosaurus amboinensis), and the Thorny Devil (Moloch horridus).

Bearded Dragons got their names due to the flap of skin under their jaw. When disturbed this is extended to form something that resembles a “beard”.

In the wild, they will eat small lizards, rodents, and a wide variety of insects but will also eat some vegetation. As juveniles, they will usually eat almost no vegetable matter until they are about 6 weeks old and will eat only insects.

Their colouring is an adaptation to their feeding method. In the wild, Bearded Dragons are "watch and wait" predators. They will remain motionless until something edible wanders within easy reach, and then lunge forward to catch it. As a result, Bearded Dragons spend a great deal of their time doing very little.

Bearded Dragons usually grow to about 2 feet (counting the tail) long, and the males are generally bigger than the females.Males tend to extend their beards more than females, and more during the breeding season. Also, males tend to have a much darker (almost black) beard than females.

Another distinguishing characteristic is that males usually have much larger heads then females. They are naturally colored tan, with darker brown patterns on the back and head. There are also a few variant colors developed by breeding.

Bearded Dragons will usually begin to breed at around 18 months. They are oviparous (lay eggs). Clutch size is usually around 20 or so eggs that hatch in 55-75 days.

Hatchlings are about 3-4 inches long. Care should be taken to make sure the hatchlings are well fed. Nipping off tail tips and toes is not uncommon. They should be fed three small meals daily. When you are buying one, you should take care to get one that is at least 6 weeks old.


Bearded Dragons are omnivores and will accept a wide variety of foods. Variety is essential.

If you are squeamish about feeding live prey such as crickets, Bearded Dragons are not for you! Live prey can consist of crickets, earthworms and grasshoppers. An occasional dead pinky (baby mouse) can also be fed. Previously, some have advised that you can feed chopped & cooked chicken & beef, although most authorities now frown upon this for a variety of reasons. As occasional treats small quantities of bananas, halved grapes, slices of melon, shredded carrots, and live wax worms can be offered.

As far as vegetables go, you should mainly stick with leafy greens, such as spring greens, broccoli, kale, chicory etc. Dandelions are also useful. Avoid lettuce as this can cause diarrhoea.

Adults need to eat about 3 times a week, while infants & juveniles should be fed daily.

Bearded Dragons, like all captive lizards, should be fed a vitamin supplement. Lizards require calcium for bones and proper body function but, in order to absorb this from the diet, they need a source of UV light (see Lighting). In order to ensure that they receive sufficient calcium in the diet a supplement is necessary in captivity. Nutrobal and ACE-High are suitable supplements. A small dusting on the veggies will suffice. The best way to do this is to put the insects to be fed into the bag they came in, sprinkle in a little Nutrobal, and shake until they are thoroughly coated, then feed. Alternatively, you can lightly mist the insects with water first to help the powder to stick. Another alternative is to “gut load” the insects prior to feeding. This means that you apply the supplement to greens that you then feed to the insects for a few hours before feeding them to the lizard.

When feeding live insects, do not feed more than will be eaten in about 5 minutes. All insects should be eaten. The reason is that if you feed too much, the uneaten insects will lose the vitamin coating. If the lizard eats them later, and then ignores the fresh insects the next time you feed the lizard doesn’t get his vitamins, and also has the added stress of insects climbing on him.

Heating and Lighting

Bearded Dragons inhabit the semi-arid to arid areas of Australia, so care must be taken to make a reasonable attempt at reproducing their natural habitat. Either too hot or too cold can easily be deadly to these animals. The proper temperature for bearded dragons is in the 81 to 88 degree Fahrenheit zone, and there should be a basking area available with a zone of 88-92 degrees. A good way to maintain the heat in the basking spot would be a thermostat.

There should be a "thermal gradient" within the vivarium i.e. a range of temperatures.

The basking area should consist of a dome light with a ceramic heating element in one corner, with a branch about 6 inches below it. After eating, the lizards will usually climb to a high branch to bask in the sun. In populated areas of Australia, they often bask on fence posts.

Since bearded dragons process most of their heat on their top side, a "hot rock" is of little use to them.

Ideally also, heat pads should be avoided since most lizards have no concept of a burning sensation, and in cold weather, have been known to stay on hot rocks to the point that their undersides suffer serious burns.

You should also have a place for the lizard to hide. You can construct these yourself from rocks slate or wood. The cave should not be placed under the heat lamp.

Most bearded dragons will readily drink from a water bowl, however, if you have one that refuses, you can spray some water on the cave on the morning, and the animal can lap it off the rocks.

As far as lighting goes, you MUST use proper full spectrum reptile lighting. It is NOT acceptable to use a standard fluorescent light bulb. If you do, you will almost certainly kill your Bearded Dragon.

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