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    A healthy lifestyle
    Combining a balanced diet and good lighting

    In order to avoid the risks of metabolic bone disease (MBD), a balanced diet is as critical as good lighting. John Courtney- Smith, Reptile Products Manager for Arcadia, explains the vital link between these two areas of husbandry.

    Effective heating to facilitate the digestive process and the continued improvement of ultraviolet B (UVB) lighting in particular has allowed reptiles housed indoors to make better use of the foods that they are offered. These higher powered UV systems have also allowed keepers to replicate the natural UV index that their animals would experience in the wild.


    Reptiles are highly tuned to their environment, as we are now learning on a regular basis. They are able to take energy from heat from the sun, and utilise it effectively. They use the sun’s rays to see reportedly up to one hundred million colours and they use the sun’s energy to create vitamins and vital hormones within their own bodies.

    These are just some of the ways that they utilise the sun. I expect as the years pass, we will find more and more links between these animals and solar energy. Reptiles and amphibians will consume a huge array of different foods in the wild that, when taken as a whole, meet the full dietary needs of the individual species. It would be madness to assume that the diet of a wild bearded dragon is made up exclusively of crickets.

    Food and parasites

    In the same way, wild chameleons are opportunistic hunters, taking a wide range of invertebrates, which help to meet their nutritional needs. This is not to say that invertebrates from the wild have a higher nutritional value though, and in some ways, they can represent more of a risk to the long-term health of the reptile or amphibian.

    In the wild, chameleons and other lizards that feed on invertebrates are particularly vulnerable when it comes to acquiring intestinal worms from their prey. Invertebrates can often be host to immature tapeworms for example, which will then develop in the intestinal tract of the lizard when it eats an infective creature of this type.

    Livefood cultured in sterile surroundings represents no danger to them though, but it is important to be sure that any wild-caught lizards are checked for such parasites and dewormed at the outset, as otherwise, this can seriously depress their appetites and threaten their health, even in ideal surroundings.

    An integrated approach

    We now know much more about their ever before; so the next logical step is to research diets and supplementation. If the diets that we offer our animals provide more balanced nutrition per feed and are targeted more to the specific needs of a particular species, so we should see significant improvements in areas such as breeding performance.

    More significantly overall, the provision of a wide and varied diet, particularly targeted to the needs of individual species, helps to offset the risk metabolic bone disease (MBD).

    This affliction can be sub-divided into two distinct components – there is the nutritional aspect, which requires a balanced calcium:phosphorus ratio, plus effective absorption and control of calcium stores in the body. This process is regulated through Vitamin D3, with this vitamin being produced through suitable exposure to UVB lighting.

    A good mix

    Many species that are commonly kept are actually specialist grub feeders in the wild. Water dragons, tree dragons and calotes are just a few that fare much better on a grub-based diet that matches their wild lifestyle. Chameleons will also feed enthusiastically on butter worms and calciworms, as will bearded dragons and monitors.

    Variety is the key. If we can use a mix of grubs, flies, flowers and seeds to augment the diets of our animals, we will be providing a valuable mix of nutritional components and encouraging them to forage for food as in the wild.

    A diet consisting solely of mealworms would miss so much of an animal’s requirements that it could start to suffer very quickly, especially if they were not gut-loaded with a vitamin and mineral enriched food. Similarly, a diet comprised of just waxworms would cause the animal to become overweight very quickly. Do not forget the old saying – everything in moderation, nothing to excess!

    As an indication of rough percentages, I would like to see grubs and fl ies (as appropriate) make up as much as a quarter of the total weekly diet of an insect feeder or omnivore. Calciworms (also called phoenix worms) can easily replace mealworms and are a much better, more balanced food source.

    But what are the nutritional values of these food sources and what should we be feeding our animals? Do we off er enrichment alongside a nutritionally valuable food source? Many shops still just offer the trade standards of crickets, locusts and mealworms. Some stores may also have waxworms, perhaps with an advisory label recommending that they should only be used as a treat.

    A growing range

    Producing livefoods – not just for reptiles and amphibians, but as garden bird food and for some fi sh – has developed into a massive industry, with many millions of invertebrates being bred every year for this purpose. This ensures a consistency in supply that is vital, with size grading of crickets as an example, or mealworms to a lesser extent, helping to guide you in selecting the right size of livefood for your animals. If in doubt though, always choose the smaller size, so as to minimise any risk of choking.

    Away from staples of the industry such as crickets, there is now fortunately a growing list of insect and grubs that can easily kept and used as part of a balanced diet. The good news is that many more species of grubs and roaches are now starting to be bred commercially, adding to the variety that can be purchased.

    Grubs are readily taken by most larger reptiles and amphibians, and will provide a range of vitamins and minerals that are not present in large amounts in traditional livefoods. For instance, the silk worm is relatively low in fat but higher in terms of protein and calcium, making this species an ideal choice as livefood, alongside an effective UV system, in terms of removing any risk of MBD.

    Butter worms (which used to be better-known as tebos) have a high calcium content but also a relatively high fat content, making them foodstuff s to be used occasionally rather than on a daily basis.

    Calciworms are an underrated and very useful livefood though, available in a range of sizes. They are packed full of calcium and have a lower phosphorus content, which is ideal, along with less than 10% fat! Calciworms really could be part of the answer, alongside good UV lighting, to prevent any risk of MBD.

    A growing range

    The solar re-creation systems available today can only be as eff ective as the diet that is off ered. If this is defi cient in calcium, or there is an imbalance in favour of phosphorus, then MBD will still occur, no matter how eff ective the lighting. We as keepers need to make sure that as much variety as possible is included in the diet of our reptiles and amphibians, and be prepared to use calcium supplements.

    The following values have been provided by Peregrine Livefoods:

    Species % Moisture % Fat % Protein Ca:P Ratio
    Mealworm 68 8.5 18.9 0.05
    Morio Worm 59.8 15.2 19.5 0.10
    Wax Worm 65.1 15.5 15.5 0.19
    Locust 73.2 5.8 15.9 0.19
    Brown Cricket 70.7 4.4 19.8 0.32
    Dubia Roaches 61.18 6.75 35.60 0.20
    Calci worms 65 9.4 17.30 1.52

    The following values were obtained from online retailers:

    Species % Moisture % Fat % Protein Ca:P Ratio
    Butter worm 58.54 5.21 16.20 2.1
    Silk worm 76 10 64 Double compared to calciworms

    © John Courteney-Smith
    Taken from “Practical Reptile Keeping” magazine

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