Gut Loading – What and How

Nutritional Issues
There were a lot of talks on nutrition at the recent conference for the Association of Reptile and Amphibians Veterinarian (ARAV). A subject that came up a number of times was how to improve nutrition in our insectivores (insect eaters).

The key to a good diet is diversity. Don’t just feed crickets or mealworms. There are lots of different insects out there and many can be delivered to your door. Consider super worms, Phoenix worms, king worms, Dubai cockroaches, fruit flies, grasshoppers, land crustaceans such as folly-polices or pillbugs…there are many to offer. Some of these guys will even eat pinkies.

Aside from our land crustaceans, all insects have an inverse calcium to phosphorous ratio and that needs to be fixed or your little critter will develop painful debilitating disease.

Ca:P =?
There is a complex relationship between calcium, phosphorus and a few other nutrients in the body.

To simplify, we know that most reptiles need at least a 2:1 ratio (recent studies suggest even that may be too low…). This means 2 parts calcium (Ca) to every 1 part phosphorus (P). Most crickets, while high in protein and low in fat, have a Ca:P ratio of 0.14:1. Now that’s quite a bit less than 2 to 1.  Silkworms are considered a better option but they only have a 0.8:1 ratio.

So what do we do?
Dusting and gut loading!

Most of my clients are familiar with the old “shake and bake ” treatment. Put some insects in a bag with powdered calcium and shake away. But many haven’t heard of gut loading.

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Gut loading refers to the process of feeding the insects a calcium rich food and then feeding that insect to your reptile while the calcium is still in the insect’s gut. We know that gut loading requires feeding for 12 to 24 hours to get the food into the gut. We also know that by 48 hours the calcium levels start to drop off. So you have a window to work within.

Kale! Collard Greens!
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Unfortunately you can’t overcome a 0.14:1 ratio with good calcium rich foods such as in certain greens. You have to use a diet specifically designed with tons of calcium for this to work. Mazuri has two such diets (A Better Bug and High Calcium Gut Loading Diet). We also know that you can’t out any other food in the cage – apparently good gut loading diets taste terrible and the insects will only eat them if there is no other food source. Of course you still need water.

If you are raising your own insects – keep in mind that gut loading foods are only given prior to feeding the insects to your reptile. They have too much calcium and will result in the death of your colony.

Also, if you buy pre-gut loaded insects…how do you know when they last ate? What was fed? Can you be certain these insects are ready for consumption? It’s best to be sure and gut load yourself!

One last note – fireflies are known to be toxic to bearded dragons so don’t feed them.

Doing everything right…

…but still getting an imperfect result

Pet ownership is immensely rewarding but can be difficult at times. Most of us (yup, myself included) aren’t too keen on the constant upkeep for our exotic pets. I do generally recommend that if you want a reptile, measuring, logging and keeping track of details should be tasks you enjoy.

Regardless you can do everything right but still have a problem develop. I saw a young bearded dragon recently. Her owners notice a small bump on the top of her head, near her neck. They saw that is was increasing in size and brought her right in.

Missy 1

Based on her age and the size of the mass, it seemed most likely to be an abscess. However we couldn’t tell from the outside so the owners allowed me to get a surgical biopsy. At the time I removed as much of the mass as I could.

missy 2

Sadly the biopsy came back with a diagnosis of spindle cell sarcoma – a tumor and she wasn’t even 2 years old!

Next Steps

Based on her age and the fact that the mass returned during the healing process, the owners wanted to give surgical removal a go. This type of tumor is hard to remove completely because it has little finger-like tendrils that extend out into the surrounding tissues. Nevertheless, determined to give xxx the best possible chance, we went back in to hopefully remove it all.

Here are some before, during and after surgical shots – she looks great!

Missy 3 Missy 4Missy 5 missy 6

Again we got bad news from the pathologist. Some of the sarcoma was present on the edge of the removed tissue. This means there was still sarcoma present in the muscle tissue on her back.

At this point we always have a decision – continue treatments or call it quits. Since this type of sarcoma is traditionally slow growing (in dogs and cats), she may have several years before it becomes a problem. If it grows up through the skin she may be fine for a very long time. However, if it continues to extend down through the muscles, it could cause problems with the trachea or esophagus or even some of the pretty big vessels in the neck.

 Treatment options

Discussions with specialists revealed the possibility of 2 different chemotherapy treatments. We could try radiation treatment – but that only gets through a few layers. If the remaining tumor is more than a few millimeters thick the treatment won’t get to the bottom. The other option was to wait until the tumor came back and try to inject the growth with chemotheraputic agents.

Both options work in other species and other tumors…but we don’t have enough data on either treatment in bearded dragons with spindle cell sarcomas to know which would work better. Or if either one will work at all!

At this stage, the owners are monitoring their bearded dragon. They want the best quality of life for her and may have to make some hard decisions when the growth returns. Until then, this is one lucky dragon to have found such a wonderful home.

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Anemia – Where Did Those Red Blood Cells Go!

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Any animal that has red blood cells can present with anemia (a reduction in red blood cells), so of course that means most creatures on this planet!

But why does it happen and should you be worried and what do you do about it?

How is Anemia Defined?

Each species, be it bird, rabbit or snake, has a specific expected range of normal for the red blood cells (RBC). We look at the PCV (Packed Cell Volume) to determine the percentage of RBC present in the blood.

A Golden Eagle has a normal range of 35-47% while a Red Eared Slider can have anywhere from 25-35%. In order to know something is wrong, we have to know what the normal range is…but we can get an idea by looking at similar animals if we don’t have any numbers to work with. You can see that a turtle has an overall lower range than an eagle.

Anemia is simply having fewer than expected RBC or a lower PCV. It can be mild (30% in a rabbit) or severe (12% in a cockatiel) or anywhere in between depending on the cause and the duration of illness.
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What Causes Anemia?

There are 3 basic causes of anemia.

– Loss of RBC
– Lack of Production of RBC
– Destruction of RBC

Destruction!

In the exotics world we are lucky not to see a lot of destruction based causes of anemia. The big one to worry about is an autoimmune disorder such as IMHA (Immune Mediated Hemolitic Anemia). With IMHA the body sees RBCs as invaders and attempts to wipe them out. Actual diseases of the RBC such as blood parasites will cause the body to destroy the RBC in an attempt to destroy the parasite.

 Loss!

This occurs where there is bleeding either outside or inside the body. Trauma, resulting in bleeding, is a common cause. Other common causes include toxins such as lead (causing bleeding into the gut), ulcers or ulcerated tumors.

 Production Failure!

The most common cause of failure to produce red blood cells is call Anemia of Chronic Disease (ACD). ACD is usually due to a long standing inflammatory or infectious condition or neoplasia. The red blood cells have a shorter life span and aren’t being produced at the normal rate.

 

What Can We Do?

First and foremost, identify and treat the underlying problem. Is there an infection? Heavy metal toxicity? An open wound?

Second, support the anemia. Medications such as iron or vitamin K are useful in some situations. Transfusions can even be considered. We don’t use products such as epogen in exotics medicine…but that may change with time.

It’s always important to follow up and make sure that the anemia is responding to what is being done.
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