Nutritional Support in Reptiles


Nutritional support is indicated in reptiles with a 10% drop in body weight, and force-feeding is sometimes indicated with a history of anorexia. Interpretation of anorexia can be difficult in some reptiles, particularly snakes and chelonians.

Never rush to feed a reptile. The patient must first be warm, housed at its preferred optimal temperature zone, and must be adequately hydrated. It may be prudent to begin with oral fluids to ensure the gastrointestinal tract is functional.



Video produced by Dr. M. Scott Echols and narrated by Dr. Susan Orosz.


Equipment needed

  • Red rubber catheter or a straight ball-tipped metal gavage feeding tube (metal tubes are much preferable in chelonians because of the strong beak)
  • Water-soluble lubricant
  • Mouth speculum

A rubber spatula serves as a great makeshift mouth in snakes. Use a bird speculum, roll tape, or a small nylabone in the lizard.


Tube feeding the snake

Snakes with long-term anorexia and/or weight loss will benefit from gavage feeding. Snakes are strict carnivores so they should be fed Emeraid Intensive Care Carnivore since it is easily absorbed and highly digestible.

  • Identify the level of the stomach at approximately one third to half the length of the body cavity.

    Snake anatomy overlay

    Figure 1. Snake anatomy overlay. Click image to enlarge.

  • Use this approximate distance to measure the length of the feeding tube. A red rubber catheter or a straight metal gavage feeding tube may be used.

    Tubing snake mouth speculum

    Figure 2. Tubing snake mouth speculum. Click image to enlarge.

  • Most snakes may be gavage fed anywhere from 5 to 10% body weight once weekly or once every other week. (For instance, a 100-gram snake may be tube fed 5-10 ml of formula).
  • Depending on the length of the tube and the size of the snake, food may not be deposited directly into the stomach so hold the cranial portion of the snake upright for several minutes after feeding to promote normal passage.
  • Minimize handling for at least 48 hours since any jostling may promote regurgitation.

Tube feeding the lizard

Nutritionally speaking, lizards come in all shapes and sizes. Some species are completely or partially carnivorous like monitor lizards, many geckos, and water dragons. Other species are herbivorous like the green iguana (Iguana iguana), and many lizards are omnivores like the bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps). Use Emeraid Nutritional Care System products singly or in combination to meet the nutritional needs of your species of interest. Lizards may be syringe or tube fed. When syringe feeding, infuse small amounts of warm food slowly. For small species like geckos, it may help to add an attachment to the syringe tip like a trimmed red rubber catheter or an indwelling catheter.

  • Identify the stomach, which is located at the level of the last rib.

    Lizard, Step 1, pre-measuring tube

    Figure 3. Pre-measuring tube a skink for tube placement. Click image to enlarge.

  • When using a rubber tube, insert a mouth speculum taking care not to damage the teeth.

    Lizard, Step 2: tubing

    Figure 4. Passing a gavage tube in a skink. Click image to enlarge.

  • Then gently pass the tube and introduce the formula at a steady pace.
  • Monitor the patient closely for stool production.

Feed juveniles once or twice daily, and adults once daily or every other day. Feedings may need to be reduced in frequency or halted if stool is not passed. An appropriate temperature gradient and regular warm water soaks will promote normal gut motility.


Feeding chelonians: turtles and tortoises

Like lizards, chelonians eat a variety of foods. Most tortoises are strict herbivores, while aquatic turtles and box turtles are omnivores. By using Emeraid Nutritional Care System products singly or in combination, the nutritional needs of a variety of chelonians can be met.

  • The chelonian stomach is located approximately halfway down the ventral shell length.

    Chelonian, Step 1: anatomy overlay.

    Figure 5. Anatomy overlay in a chelonian. Click image to enlarge.

  • Gently yet firmly insert a mouth speculum like a rubber-tipped baby spoon or padded hemostat. Opening the mouth is difficult in all but the weakest chelonians.
  • Then pass a ball-tipped gavage tube.

    Chelonian. Step 3: tubing

    Figure 6. Passing a gavage tube in a turtle. Click image to enlarge.

  • Feed approximately 1-2% body weight.
  • Hold the turtle with its shell perpendicular to the table.

    Chelonian. Step 5: holding upright

    Figure 7. Holding the turtle upright post-tube-feeding. Click image to enlarge.

If multiple feedings will be required, esophagostomy tube placement is indicated.

To cite this page:

Pollock C. Nutritional support in reptiles. December 9, 2010. LafeberVet Web site. Available at