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Dehydration in Reptiles -
Guidelines for Offering Fluids FAQ

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The Importance of Adequate Hydration

      All reptiles and amphibians need water in one form or another. Some obtain their fluids mainly from the food items that they eat. Others will drink water either by licking dew or mist off leaves or even lapping it up from a container of water. Hydration of the animal, and maintaining the proper humidity levels for your pet will go along way toward maintaining its health.

     All animals should have fresh water daily for drinking and bathing. Tropical reptiles, or moisture loving herps should have their enclosures misted as much as twice daily. A drip system should be in place for those herps that lick moisture off leaves and such. Some animals respond quite well when offered a daily bath in lukewarm water.

      Proper hydration is extremely important in the general health of a reptile but it is absolutely crucial to a sick animal. Unfortunately hydration is one point that has rarely been discussed in articles about sick herps. I have noticed that when reptiles become ill, they are often too weak to drink fluids on their own, and if they are not drinking they become even more lethargic and weak.

      A reptile that appears dehydrated will often perk up when we offer fluids. If the animal does manage to perk up some, you will often have a better chance of curing whatever ails it. Of course if a reptile acts ill, it is often very ill and proper medical attention should be sought immediately.

      To put the aspect of dehydration into human terms think about when you have suffered from the flu or even a bad hangover. We feel weak, nauseated, sometimes have a headache, often thirsty as well, but sometimes we do not even feel well enough to get up and get a drink of water. However if we do manage to get some fluids into ourselves, we often begin to feel much better, perhaps we still feel ill, but overall we feel a little bit stronger and much less achy.

Signs and Symptoms of Dehydration

      The symptoms and results of dehydration can be very mild, or quite severe depending upon how seriously dehydrated the animal is.

     Severe dehydration is a serious condition that may lead to Fatal Shock, Acidosis (accumulation of acid or depletion of alkaline's in the blood and body tissues: symptoms such as weakness, malaise, muscle twitching, involuntary movement, cardiac arrhythmias, disorientation, and a coma may occur); and the accumulations of waste products in the body, as in Uremia ( a condition in which there is an excess in the blood of urea, creatinine, and other nitrogenous end products of protein and amino acid metabolism, this is often the result of kidney failure).

      Dehydration is a symptom - not a disease. If your pet is dehydrated then it is likely the result of either poor husbandry - lack of water, lack of fresh water, low humidity levels, temperatures within the enclosure that are too high . . . ; diet - offering improper food items to some reptiles may affect the function of their internal organs, for example feeding animal protein to iguanas can cause kidney failure, which in turn can cause dehydration; various diseases, infections, and gastrointestinal disorders may result in dehydration as well. To cure the animal the underlying cause of the dehydration must be discovered.

      A dehydrated reptile may have sunken eyes, dry, and wrinkled skin. A good way of checking to see if your reptile is dehydrated is to gently pinch its skin between your fingers. If the skin rolls back into place almost immediately then the reptile is likely well hydrated. In a dehydrated animal the skin may stay in a pinched, or tented position. Depending upon the cause of the animal's illness, fluid should be offered by mouth, or by subcutaneous injection to animals that appear dehydrated. When I use the word reptile here, I am mostly talking about lizards, as the skin test should be quite easy to do on them. Although all reptiles may suffer from dehydration and we should offer fluids if they are dehydrated.

Veterinary Assessment of Dehydration

      If you believe your herp is dehydrated you really should take it to a reptile veterinarian to have the severity of the problem assessed. The animal may need subcutaneous injections of an electrolyte solution, oral fluids, and when sufficiently rehydrated, you may still have to force feed the reptile. The remainder of this article is only here to serve as a guideline for after you have visited a vet, or for those of you who have worked with dehydrated animals in the past.

Fluids to Offer

      Your veterinarian may suggest that you offer oral fluid to your reptile. Fluids to offer are water, or an electrolyte replacement solution such as Pedialyte or Ricelyte . A sports drink such as Gatorade can be offered as well, but it must always be diluted 1:1 with water. Pedialyte and Ricelyte are better than sports drinks as they are metabolized quickly. The methods described below also work well when we must offer medication orally.

      Force feeding a moderately or a severely dehydrated animal may result in shock and death. The digestive tract requires fluids to process foods, if there is not enough, it will try to take it from other critical systems. When dehydrated, the accompanying loss of appetite may be one way the body tries to protect itself. However, when the animal has been properly rehydrated, it may still fail to eat on its own. Force feeding may become a necessity. There is a product called Ensure that may be used when force feeding must be done. Ensure is NOT for rehydration. Ensure is a nutritional drink that is easy to digest - and you want things easily digested when feeding a sick animal. Nevertheless, they must still be rehydrated before feeding and until they attain normal hydration levels.

Amount of fluids to offer

      I have discussed the seriousness of dehydration, and how to visually diagnose it. However, I really should discuss how much fluid you should be offering.

      First, you should have a syringe (without needle), or an eyedropper handy to offer the fluids. If you are offering liquids with a syringe it should be simple to tell how much you are giving as syringes have the amount of cc's or ml listed right on them. Small tuberculin syringes measure fluids by 1/10 of a cc. They have the measurements listed on them as .10, .20 . . . up to 1.00. One whole syringe is one cc or one ml. Larger syringes may hold 3, 5, or even 10 cc's of fluid. Measurements on these syringes are marked by each cc for example, 1 cc, 2 cc . . . 10 cc and usually have ten small gradient lines between each cc so you can measure out an exact dose. If you are going to use an eye dropper be aware that they are usually made of glass and may break if the animal bites down on it - be very careful. Eyedroppers, when full, only hold approximately ½ of a cc of fluid.

      If you are going to offer fluids orally, you should check with your veterinarian about how much fluid you should offer, or you could ask the vet. about the reptiles stomach capacity. Overall though, it ranges from 25-100 ml/kg in reptiles. Fluids are generally calculated based on 2% of bodyweight per 24 hour period. Please note that too much fluid at one time, or in a 24 hour period, may be just as lethal as unchecked dehydration as the kidneys and circulatory system can only handle a certain level (volume) of fluid. A Veterinarian should be involved to determine the proper amount of fluid, based upon the severity of the dehydration.

      Here is a small chart of amounts of fluids that can be offered to reptiles over a 24 hour period according to body weight:

If your reptile weighs:

5 gm: 2% of 5 = 0.1 gm = 0.003 oz = 0.104 ml over 24 hours
10 gm: 2% of 10 = 0.2 gm = 0.007 oz = 0.208 ml over 24 hours
20 gm: 2% of 20 = 0.4 gm = 0.014 oz = 0.417 ml over 24 hours
30 gm: 2% of 30 = 0.6 gm = 0.021 oz = 0.625 ml over 24 hours
40 gm: 2% of 40 = 0.8 gm = 0.028 oz = 0.82 ml over 24 hours
50 gm: 2% of 50 = 1 gm = 0.035 oz = 1.04 ml over 24 hours
60 gm: 2% of 60 = 1.2 gm = 0.042 oz = 1.251 ml over 24 hours
70 gm: 2% of 70 = 1.4 gm = 0.049 oz = 1.460 ml over 24 hours
80 gm: 2% of 80 = 1.6 gm = 0.056 oz = 1.669 ml over 24 hours
90 gm: 2% of 90 = 1.8 gm = 0.063 oz = 1.877 ml over 24 hours
100 gm: 2% of 100 = 2 gm = 0.07 oz = 2.086 ml over 24 hours
125 gm: 2% of 125 = 2.5 gm = 0.088 oz = 2.607 ml over 24 hours
150 gm: 2% of 150 = 3 gm = 0.105 oz = 3.129 ml over 24 hours
175 gm: 2% of 175 = 3.5 gm = 0.123 oz = 3.651 ml over 24 hours
200 gm: 2% of 200 = 4 gm = 0.141 oz = 4.172 ml over 24 hours
225 gm: 2% of 225 = 4.5 gm = 0.158 oz = 4.694 ml over 24 hours
250 gm: 2% of 250 = 5 gm = 0.176 oz = 5.215 ml over 24 hours
275 gm: 2% of 275 = 5.5 gm = 0.194 oz = 5.737 ml over 24 hours
300 gm: 2% of 300 = 6 gm = 0.211 oz = 6.259 ml over 24 hours
325 gm: 2% of 325 = 6.5 gm = 0.229 oz = 6.78 ml over 24 hours
350 gm: 2% of 350 = 7 gm = 0.246 oz = 7.302 ml over 24 hours
375 gm: 2% of 375 = 7.5 gm = 0.264 oz = 7.823 ml over 24 hours
400 gm: 2% of 400 = 8 gm = 0.282 oz = 8.345 ml over 24 hours
500 gm: 2% of 500 = 10 gm = 0.352 oz = 10.43 ml over 24 hours
600 gm: 2% of 600 = 12 gm = 0.423 oz = 12.51 ml over 24 hours
700 gm: 2% of 700 = 14 gm = 0.493 oz = 14.60 ml over 24 hours
800 gm: 2% of 800 = 16 gm = 0.564 oz = 16.6 ml over 24 hours
900 gm: 2% of 900 = 18 gm = 0.634 oz = 18.77 ml over 24 hours
1000 gm: 2% of 1000 = 20 gm = 0.705 oz = 20.86 ml over 24 hours

Methods of offering fluids to a Lizard

      The least stressful way to offer fluids to a lizard is to use a syringe (without needle) or an eyedropper. Drop some fluid onto the lizard's snout, and with any luck the animal will begin to lick it off after a few minutes. When the lizard starts to lick the fluid off its snout drop some of the fluid directly onto the animals tongue. Hopefully the lizard will continue to lap up the fluids.

      If the animal will not take fluids in the above manner then you might have to resort to forcing it to drink. The following method works best with the aid of another person but, in a small to a medium sized lizard, can be done single handedly if need be.

      If you have the assistance of another person, one of you should hold the lizard securely so it cannot squirm away easily. The other person should pinch the fold of skin that is under the lizard's chin (the dewlap) and gently apply downward pressure to open the mouth. When the mouth is being opened in this manner the lizard will often struggle and move its head from side to side - try to restrain its head. Once the mouth is open enough, drop a small amount of fluid into the front of the mouth. Hold the lizard so that the fluid cannot run out, and in a way that the fluid will not run directly down its throat - you do not want the lizard to choke. After you get some fluid into the mouth allow the lizard to close its mouth and watch for it to swallow. Petting its head or throat often stimulates swallowing. Do this until the lizard has taken the desired amount of fluid.

      If you are not able to get assistance when offering fluids to your lizard, you can do it on your own. It is a bit trickier, and the following description may be a little hard to understand, but once you have mastered the technique you will find that you can do this.

      To open your lizard's mouth, hold him in one hand so that his back is touching your palm and his head is facing you when you turn your hand toward yourself (got that?). To make sure that he does not escape use your index finger by putting it over one of his shoulders - your finger should touch his chest, and your thumb should be positioned under the other arm and touch his chest - he is trapped now and will struggle but probably cannot get away. :) Use your thumb to apply gently downward pressure on his dewlap i.e. base of the throat . If you apply gently downward pressure, you should be able to get his mouth open a tiny bit. When the mouth is open, you can use your other hand and the syringe, or an eyedropper to give him the fluids. I know the above description sounds difficult but it is really not that hard. :)

Using gastric feeding tubes to Offering Fluid to Reptiles:

      Rubber gastric feeding tubes, ball-tipped stainless steel feeding and dosing needles, or special curve-tipped plastic syringes such as those made by Monoject may be used on all reptiles when force feeding or forcing fluids become necessary. Large snakes and lizards can easily take the gastric tubes.

      Some reptiles can bite hard enough on feeding instruments that they may crack, or crimp the tool, and may cause damage to themselves. Damage to teeth and gums may also occur when steel feeding tubes are used if the animal is not restrained properly, or if the instrument is used improperly. When working with these animals, a dowel of the appropriate diameter for the reptile's mouth may be drilled with a transverse hole. The reptile can then bite into the soft wood of the dowel while the feeding tube is put through the hole and inserted into the esophagus.

      Before inserting a gastric tube a measurement should be taken to ensure that gastric tubes are not inserted too far down. Use the tube to measure the distance between the mouth and the reptiles' chest or stomach area. Mark the tube with a piece of tape where it would pass out of the mouth. When using the tube only insert it up to the point where you have placed your tape marker.

      Prior to insertion lubricate the gastric tube with water or a lubricating jelly. Insert the tube carefully into the reptiles' mouth past the glottis and into the esophagus. Do not offer too much fluid at once. Please refer to the chart as to how much fluid the animal should be given over a 24 hour period according to its body weight. Allow the fluid to enter the reptiles' stomach slowly to avoid it backing up into the mouth where it may be aspirated through the glottis and into the lungs. If the fluid does back up into the mouth or comes out of the nostrils stop administering fluids immediately and tilt the reptile face downward to let the formula drip out of the mouth. Monitor the animal over the next few days for signs of respiratory infection. Let the animal rest a day before attempting to feed it again.

      Pinch the tube just below the hub of the syringe to prevent suction when withdrawing a rubber gastric tube.


      To begin offering fluids to a dehydrated turtle or tortoise one must first get them to open their mouth. Gentle pressure applied to the hind limbs often displaces the forequarters. Once the head is out it can be grasped between your thumb and index finger, placing the fingers behind the head and alongside the neck. Care should be taken not to apply pressure to the tympanic membranes. Once the turtle or tortoises' mouth is open, fluids may be administered according to the methods described above.

      To prevent box turtles from snapping their shells shut on a finger, apply gentle pressure on the back or front of the plastron to force open the opposite section of plastron, insert a thumb and a finger into the opening and gently spread apart. This method easily allows a limb to be extracted and held outside the shell preventing the shell from closing.


      If you have not worked with dehydrated reptiles before, you may not be able to adequately assess the severity of hydration yourself. You really should see a reptile vet to determine if oral rehydration is suitable or if subcutaneous injections, or a starter injection, will be better. If the animal is so severely dehydrated as to warrant administration of oral fluids, or subcutaneous injections, other medical measures may need to be taken in addition to rehydrating the animal.

      As I stated above, dehydration in reptiles is a topic that I have seen very little discussion about and I believe that it is a very serious issue. If the behaviour or even the colour of your pet changes in anyway, or if the animal eats less, or stops eating all together please remember to watch for signs of dehydration, and other sure signs that something is wrong with your pet. When you do note behavioural changes, check that the temperature in the enclosure is at the proper levels, and that all other aspects of the reptile's husbandry are correct. Preventing dehydration in reptiles may be as simple as good husbandry techniques.

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Last updated
April, 10, 2012

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