You may have noticed that few people in our hobby have just one pet reptile. It’s more common to have a personal collection than to have a reptile as a family pet. Whether the normalization of borderline-hoarding behavior is a good thing for our hobby is a discussion for another day. Today we’re discussing one of the most commonly overlooked issues in multiple-reptile households: how to quarantine reptiles.
This article is a guest submission from Liam Sinclair, author of the Reptiles And Research channel on YouTube. Watch/listen to the article via the link above, or you can experience the written version below:
One of the most overlooked aspects of this hobby — especially considering that most people here have more than one pet reptile — is good reptile quarantine procedures. Many keepers even have dedicated reptile rooms, making the process of quarantine even more important, as tales of mass infestations of snake mites are all too common.
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, I think we’re all familiar with the word “quarantine” by now. We’ve become much more familiar with the concept of quarantine in reference to ourselves, but what about our reptiles? Do they need quarantining?
COVID-19 may not be a concern in regard to reptiles, but there are other diseases that proper reptile quarantine procedures enable us to monitor and address. In the same way that people get quarantined and tested for diseases before being allowed to make contact with the general population, new additions to reptile collections need to be isolated and screened for disease before being allowed anywhere near our other reptiles.
Observing appropriate quarantine protocols is an essential part of being a responsible reptile keeper and prioritizing the long-term welfare of the animals in our care.
What is Quarantine?
Quarantine is a period of time in which a new reptile is kept in isolation from the rest of the collection. During this period, the new addition is observed and tested for viral infections, parasites, and other health issues, and treated accordingly. This ensures a clean bill of health before the animal becomes fully integrated into the collection.
- Reptiles that are housed in a naturalistic setup may also be switched to quarantine conditions in order to facilitate the healing of serious injuries or to treat an infestation of mites.
How to Quarantine Reptiles — Best Practices
1. Keep new arrivals in a separate room.
Ideally speaking, all new arrivals should be kept in a separate room from the rest of the collection.
If for some reason it is impossible to keep the new reptile in a separate room, then it is acceptable to keep the newcomer in the same room as the rest of the collection. However, hygiene will need to be extra strict in order to biologically isolate the reptile from the rest of the collection as much as possible.
2. Observe strict hygiene.
The risk of cross contamination during this period is of upmost concern and we as keepers must be vigilant. Strict biosecurity measures include the use of disposable gloves, and/or strict hand hygiene such as washing hands or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer between interactions with the new reptile(s) and the rest of the collection.
The quarantined animal needs to have its own dedicated equipment. That includes snake hooks, feeding tongs, cleaning utensils — the lot.
Similarly, do not “recycle” any uneaten food or live food that has been in contact with quarantined animals to the main collection, as this poses a major risk of cross contamination. In the case of live feeders, humanely euthanise and dispose of them instead.
It is best to tend to quarantined reptiles last, as the keeper should move from healthy animals to the potentially infected, rather than the reverse. Some sources go so far as to suggest changing clothes and even taking a shower after interacting with quarantined reptiles.
And of course, the quarantined reptile’s enclosure should be kept as clean as possible. Use a disposable substrate like paper towels and disinfect all surfaces regularly with an appropriate disinfectant. F10SC and chlorhexidine are frequently used by vets, but bleach solution also works well (diluted to 1/2 cup per gallon), and a 5% ammonia solution is known to be particularly effective against stubborn coccidia and Cryptosporidia. NEVER mix cleaning agents, and make sure the enclosure airs out completely before reintroducing the reptile.
3. Have the new reptile examined by an experienced reptile veterinarian.
If possible, schedule a check-up with an experienced reptile veterinarian. This check-up will generally involve weighing and a conversation about how you would like to proceed with the screening process. Basic faecal screenings are the absolute minimum of the testing you will need to do on a new addition. Cost varies — it can be as little as £8 in the UK, but in the US it tends to be more expensive.
Other potential screenings include haematology, biochemistry, and infectious disease screening. These detect potential problems such as herpesvirus, sunshine virus, ferlavirus, adenovirus (Editor’s note: nidovirus also belongs on this list.). If you have a large collection, particularly with rare or expensive animals, all of these additional, “optional” tests are strongly advisable.
In the case of certain species that get excessively stressed by unnecessary handling and transport, such as leaf-tailed geckos (Uroplatus spp.), note that the faecal screenings can usually be performed simply with a sample from the reptile’s enclosure and without causing the new addition undue stress.
4. Pay attention.
During reptile quarantine, you will be spending most of your time observing the animal for symptoms of disease or other health concerns (aside from routine disinfection). This is the main reason why clinical set ups use a paper towel or similar substrate with minimal decor, so that mites and faecal matter can be easily observed.
Of course, keeping reptiles in such minimalist conditions compromises the welfare of the animal, so once you have received the all-clear on parasites, you can upgrade the quarantine enclosure a bit. For example, some keepers will introduce a naturalistic substrate once they are comfortable that the risk of reinfection with parasites is minimal.
It’s considered good practice to keep a detailed diary or ledger of observations for each of the animals in your collection. However this is especially important during quarantine. These notes create records of the exact time and date symptoms were noticed by the keeper, which allows the keeper and their vet to identify signs of ill health at an early stage. Being able to provide as much relevant data to our veterinarians as possible helps them make more informed decisions.
5. Move on when appropriate.
Once the new reptile shows no symptoms of ill health and medical testing comes back clean, then the animal is healthy and the keeper can progress to a full setup. Sources vary on exactly how long this takes, but 3-6 months is generally a good length. (Editor’s note: In the case of pythons, where nidovirus is a possibility, a 12-month quarantine may be more appropriate.) Incidentally, this is also a very good amount of time to get a bioactive enclosure prepared and established.
Generally speaking, wild-caught (WC) reptiles should be quarantined and screened for longer than captive-bred (CB/CBB) individuals, as some diseases carried by WC reptiles can take months to manifest. Some keepers with large collections quarantine over a year.
Even after the reptile quarantine period is over, it’s important to be aware of and actively prevent cross-contamination in your collection. If you have a reptile-keeping friend over and they visit your reptile room, there’s potential for cross-contamination. If you visit a pet shop that sells reptiles, then walk into your reptile room, there’s potential for cross-contamination. If you attend a reptile expo, then walk into your reptile room afterward, there’s potential for cross-contamination.
This is something that many of us, including myself, often don’t consider.
In the case of one very advanced keeper I consulted, they avoid reptile substrates entirely, sticking to non-reptile specific products such as children’s play sand, coir blocks for gardening, and organic topsoil. All of these products are not stored anywhere near snakes, and therefore are unlikely to be potentially harbouring snake mites. This is something that I have started doing also — during my days working in a reptile shop, I had to deal with snake mites far too many times. Play sand and topsoil are far cheaper materials anyway, and are in my opinion better substrates.
Performing even basic hygiene — such as cleansing your hands with hand sanitizer — before and between interactions with the reptiles in your collection is better than being overconfident and potentially paying the price. Changing clothes or even showering after attending a reptile expo in particular should be considered.
Some may say:
“What’s the point?”
“Why bother with all of this quarantine nonsense?”
“It’s over the top — it’s only a pet.”
I believe we must take ourselves as reptile keepers more seriously. We need carry with us a sense of responsibility and maturity if we are to advance this hobby into an era of better care. I believe we must act with utmost respect for these exotic creatures and put our best foot forward wherever possible — even if you do consider it “just a pet”. And one of the ways we can do that is by knowing how to quarantine reptiles properly.
About the author:
Liam Sinclair is a keen reptile owner who has worked as a zookeeper as well as in a specialist reptile shop in the UK. He is currently pursuing a degree in Animal Management, and he currently runs the YouTube channel, Reptiles and Research. His goal is to help people achieve higher welfare for their animals.
This article was edited by Mariah Healey.
Great article, tho I currently disagree somewhat about the substrate comments. I use substrates that have been heat treated specifically for my boa at least because eof succeptibility to arenavirus, which in things like topsoil that hasn’t been treated could contain rodent droppings etc that have been carrying it. After hearing of people with a single Boa going bioactive and somehow getting IBD I am terrified for that snake in particular. I may just keep him away from any other reptiles in general, but especially any old world stuff or more bioactive etc. Idk if that’s the right precautions, but it’s something I am very concerned about and trying to learn more about as time goes on, and currently substrate is on my short list of things I make sure are heat/cold treated or something similar.
Ideally, a quarantine enclosure should be the same size as the recommended minimum for the species or larger – such as the enclosure you intended for the animal before fully decorating it. However if that is not possible (e.g. you’re setting up a bioactive), it is acceptable to use something slightly smaller for short quarantines. The quarantine enclosure should reflect hospital conditions, but it also still needs to meet the animal’s basic needs of heat, humidity, light, shelter, etc.
What size should a quarantine enclosure be? Do I have to buy two full sized enclosures or can I get away with a tupperware container?