This article is about keeping records concerning your herptiles. It will describe an idealized record keeping system, so not all aspects may be feasible in certain husbandry systems. The recording discussed here is something to aim for; practicality will affect what can be reasonably achieved.
It should also be emphasized here that the following discussion is based on my idea of what records should be kept, and there may be other opinions (comments are welcomed). As a veterinary surgeon, my suggestions on records will reflect the factors which might be important for me when seeing an animal with a problem.
Why Keep Records?
There are many convincing reasons why good records should be kept. The keeping of records does involve some work, the amount obviously depending on how detailed the records are, but the advantages greatly outweigh this.
These reasons include:
Spotting any abnormalities:
Like almost all non-domestic animals, reptiles and amphibians will tend to hide illnesses. Successfully dealing with problems will often require early detection, and the keeping of good records facilitates this enormously.
It is very easy to think that you will automatically notice problems, and in obvious cases this may be true. However, you will often find, if you do not have records, that you are left wondering just how long, for example, it is since you have seen that animal eat - unless you have a remarkable memory, it is not going to be reliable enough!
Investigation of a problem: If a problem does arise, then the existence of good records may well be vital in getting to the bottom of it. They will be invaluable to a vet investigating a disease problem, for example, in helping to narrow down a list of possible causes of a problem.
Development of management:
Your methods of keeping your herptiles should be constantly improving, and this does need continual assessment of methods used in the past.
Management of your animals can be improved by noting short-term factors such as the animals spending all their time under a heat lamp, for example, perhaps indicating that the general temperature is too low.
However, for longer-term considerations, such as hibernation for breeding, it is vital that good records are kept at the time (again, forget (!) about memory, it isn’t going to be reliable enough). Such records can allow you to reproduce successes or suggest ways of improving your care.
On a larger scale, to allow others to learn from your methods will need a very good note of all the important factors involved. Herpetology as a hobby can only evolve, to the benefit of both animals and keepers, if information is shared. At its most basic, if no records existed every new hobbyist would have to start from scratch - with all the suffering to animals that that would involve.
Zoos have captive-breeding management schemes, generally world-wide, for most endangered species of animals. These are basically designed to spread the available genes as widely as possible throughout the population, to try to avoid inbreeding as much as possible. This is not the place to discuss genetics, but as a rough guide, increasing inbreeding (resulting from breeding closely related animals together) will lead to decreased healthiness of a population.
This concept is also applicable to the amateur hobby in many cases where the availability of a particular species is low, perhaps in a particular area. For this concept to work and contribute to the general fitness of the captive population, good breeding records are necessary.
What Records should be kept?
Again it must be emphasised here that the following discussion considers a very “ideal” situation, and many factors will be difficult if not impossible to record fully in many situations (particularly community tanks).
Regarding the important facts which should be recorded, there are two main headings to consider - the environment and the animal. The importance of the environment here cannot be overstated - by far the great majority of health problems seen in captive herptiles are related to the environment they are kept in and the general care.
The general layout, substrate and furnishings of the housing should be recorded, preferably with drawings or photographs. This should be updated as necessary. This will be of most use when describing the set-up to someone else, but putting in an extra hide box at one end may make all the difference to the acclimatization of shy species. To record the temperature and humidity of a reptile or amphibian enclosure, two thermometers (both maximum/minimum type) and two humidity meters (the cheap dial- type from garden centers are usually adequate) are suggested. One of each should be placed at the two extremes of the tank, i.e. below the peak heat source, and at the opposite end if the cage is very large, further thermometers might usefully be used.
A suggested routine recording regime would be weekly recording of maximum and minimum readings, with analysis of the variation throughout one day carried out weekly to monthly, depending on the variation of conditions (e.g. when cooling off progressively for hibernation, weekly might be suitable). This can be done by reading actual temperature and humidity at both ends every 2 - 3 hours throughout the day.
If the set-up is wholly aquatic, or containing a significant amount of water, then water quality parameters must be monitored, just as they would be for fish. The main thing to watch for is build-up of nitrogenous waste; thus ammonium, nitrate and nitrite levels should be tested regularly, preferably at least weekly.
The pH, or acidity/alkalinity, of the water should also be checked on a regular basis. For completeness, dissolved oxygen, hardness and even trace elements might also be considered, but they are more difficult/expensive to test for and unlikely to be of great importance in most situations. (A great selection of aquarium books are available which go into suitable detail on water-quality parameters).
Certain facts should be recorded when an animal is initially purchased; these include the following:
Species, subspecies if recognized.
Date of birth, as near as possible.
Sex, if known (a note of the method used might be useful).
Weight and length.
Source obtained from.
Captive-bred or wild-caught.
Housing at source.
Feeding at source - favourite foods, dislikes, amount, frequency, and supplements
Any other past history, especially reproductive and medical.
Other factors come under the general grouping of ongoing recordings. This includes the following:
1. Weight - for adults, weighing at least monthly is suggested, while for growing juveniles more frequently might be appropriate. This can be very important in spotting potential health problems. Try to weigh at a constant time relative to feeding; weighing one month just after a snake has eaten a large meal, then after a fortnight without food the next, will not give reliable information.
2. Length - snout-vent for most species, carapace length for Chelonia. In combination with weight, contributes to spotting problems early.
3. Feeding - when, what and how much. Changes in an established feeding pattern are usually significant in some way.
4. Drinking usually impractical to record, but if possible may be useful. Many health problems may involve increased drinking, for example.
5. Faeces/urine - again, may be difficult to record, but can be very important. Appearance should be noted, and if you do need to take the animal to a vet, a recent faeces sample may well be very useful (depending on the problem).
6. General activity level - it may be useful to know just when an individual became lethargic before hibernation, for example.
7. Any breeding activity - not just for your own records, but in many cases basic reproduction data is very scanty, and you can make a definite contribution to knowledge about this.
8. Any medical problems /procedures - this might include routine checks /treatments or anything else. If your animal is under treatment, very detailed notes of response to the treatment should be made, as they may be invaluable in assessing whether any modification of the treatment is warranted.
9. Anything else of note - the really keen will note everything the animal does. This is all part of getting to know your animals, which is the key to spotting any problems early (quite apart from the satisfaction).
In summary, keeping good herpetological records should immeasurably improve the care of our herptiles, both on an individual and more general basis, and by encouraging us to get to know our animals better, they improve the chances of spotting any problems before they become irretrievable.
For the sake of our animals, and of herpetology as a whole, the keeping of good records must be seen as part of keeping herptiles. Good records are definitely worth the effort.
Reproduced with Kind permission of the Reptilian Magazine.