Are you the proud owner of a turtle, lizard, or snake? Or, maybe the reptile house is your favorite zoo attraction? Reptiles are unique members of the ecosystem and can be interesting pets, but their needs differ greatly from mammals. On October 21, reptile keepers and conservation advocates across the country use National Reptile Awareness Day to educate pet reptile owners and the public about native reptile species and habitats.

Reptiles are ectotherms (i.e., cold-blooded), so their body functions and metabolism are regulated by their external environment and they require specific conditions for optimal health. When their housing, temperature, humidity, or diet aren’t appropriate, nutritional deficiencies commonly result. At Veterinary Vision Center, we see pet reptile patients with eye problems resulting from hypovitaminosis A (i.e., a vitamin A or beta-carotene deficiency). 

How does hypovitaminosis A develop in reptiles?

Vitamin A deficiency is usually seen in insect-eating lizards, including leopard geckos, chameleons, and anoles, along with box turtles and aquatic turtles such as red-eared sliders. Other pet reptiles, including bearded dragons, iguanas, or snakes, are less prone to this deficiency, because they eat a more varied herbivorous, omnivorous, or carnivorous diet naturally rich in vitamin A. Insect-eaters need precise vitamin and mineral supplementation to avoid metabolic problems, and will be deficient if the insects they eat aren’t fed the proper diet. Reptiles need varied feeder insect types that receive a commercial diet rich in supplemental nutrients, and the insects themselves should be dusted with additional supplements right before they are fed to your pet. Pets maintained under improper conditions can experience digestive problems or may refuse to eat, which can also predispose them to deficiencies.

How is hypovitaminosis A diagnosed in reptiles?

Laboratory testing of vitamin A blood levels can be impractical in small reptile patients, and doesn’t give an accurate measurement, since most vitamin A is stored in the liver. Instead, deficiency is diagnosed based on diet history and clinical signs. 

What are hypovitaminosis A signs in reptiles?

Vitamin A is crucial for normal skin cell development and turnover, so many deficiency signs affect the skin, eyes, or mouth, causing cell buildup. Severe cases can predispose pets to infections or organ failure. Signs may include:

  • Mucus or solid debris in the eyes
  • Squinting
  • Corneal inflammation (i.e., keratitis)
  • Dry eyes
  • Swollen eyelids (i.e., blepharitis)
  • Dull body color
  • Sore mouth (i.e., cheilitis) in lizards, or “parrot-beak” in turtles
  • Difficulty shedding
  • Infections
  • Kidney failure

How is hypovitaminosis A in reptiles treated?

First and foremost, you must meet all species-specific environmental needs, including habitat size, lighting, temperature, humidity, substrate, and water sources. Next, introduce a wide variety of appropriate foods. If your pet is an insect-eater, expand your horizons beyond crickets and mealworms to other insects such as black fly larvae, silkworms, or wax worms. Ensure insects are fed a high-quality diet supplemented with vitamin A, and receive a vitamin and mineral dust supplement a few times each month. Mostly, oral supplements and proper diet are sufficient, but some pets may need a vitamin A injection series to build up their levels. Providing the appropriate amount with injections and supplements can be tricky, so consult your reptile veterinarian to determine your individual pet’s needs.

Improvement may take weeks or months, so pets with eye or skin concerns may need additional interim treatments:

  • Eye rinsing and debris removal
  • Excess skin removal under anesthesia
  • Antibiotic or anti-inflammatory eye medications
  • Eye lubrication
  • Supportive care with fluids and/or force-feeding

What are the long-term effects of hypovitaminosis A in reptiles?

Most problems associated with this disease are reversible once the vitamin deficiency is corrected. If eye problems are severe or prolonged, corneal scarring can cause diminished vision or possible blindness. However, the good news is that vitamin deficiencies are entirely preventable by ensuring you meet your pet’s nutritional needs. Before you bring a reptile into your home, do your research so you understand exactly the care they need, and find a veterinarian who can help you keep them healthy. 

Your pet reptile’s eyes can tell you a lot about their overall health. If you’ve noticed any changes or have concerns about their eyes, call us to schedule a visit with your Veterinary Vision Center team.