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Disease & Choosing a Monitor Print E-mail
Captive Care of Monitors
Extract from A Little Book of Monitor Lizards © D. Bennett 1995. Viper Press, UK

Unfortunately, the diseases of monitor lizards are many and the cures are few (Kohler 1992; Stanfill 1995). The good news is that once an imported monitor is cleared of disease, it should be possible to keep it that way by keeping its enclosure and furnishings clean and avoiding any contact with sources of contamination such as wild foods and other reptiles whose health is suspect or unknown. The bad news is that wild-caught monitor lizards always harbour parasites that have the potential to destroy their host, especially when they have been subjected to the stress of capture and shipment. For this reason all new monitors should be carefully quarantined until they are determined to be free from disease. This means keeping them in a separate room in a regularly sterilised enclosure used solely for this purpose. These organisms need to be identified and destroyed by a qualified vet. The presence of most serious parasites can be identified from samples of blood and faeces and are treated with a variety of drugs. Obviously it would be very foolish to attempt to diagnose and treat the diseases of tropical reptiles without professional help. More and more vets are developing an interest in exotic wildlife and most herpetological societies or zoos will recommend a specialist. Vets are very well trained and in the best position to diagnose disease and prescribe cures but it may be necessary to haggle hard over their fees. The use of do-it-yourself guides to the diagnosis and cure of reptile diseases cannot be recommended.

Until animals have been pronounced free from infection by the vet they should be isolated from all other animals. Clinical standards of hygiene are required in the quarantine enclosure. It should be well isolated from all other terrariums and only contain furnishings that can be sterilised. In all other respects it should be designed in the same manner as other terrariums and the lizards supplied with adequate space. light, heat, food, hiding places etc. Newly imported monitor lizards are often particularly nervous and this stress further weakens their ability to withstand disease. As far a possible the animals should be left undisturbed.

Careful quarantine and early elimination of potential pathogens by an expert is the key to keeping monitor lizards healthy. Thereafter they should remain healthy providing that their basic needs (good diet, correct temperatures and humidity, freedom from stress) are met and they are not exposed to infection from other reptiles whose health is suspect. A study of cause of death in 248 monitor lizards concluded that almost half had died as the result of infections (Kohler 1988). Whenever a monitor lizards appears to be ill it should be isolated immediately and the advice of an vet obtained without delay.

As well as internal parasites monitors are host to a many external parasites that attach themselves to the lizards' skins and suck their juices. Some lizard ticks are very beautiful and their ecology is fascinating (e.g. Hesse 1985, Auffenberg & Auffenberg 1990), but in captivity they must be regarded solely as vectors of disease. They should be dabbed with alcohol and removed with tweezers, taking care not to pull off the bodies and leave the mouthparts embedded in the lizard. If ticks spread to other lizards it may be necessary to destroy them with insecticides, for which veterinary advice should be obtained.

Obviously it makes sense only to buy healthy animals in the first place. Obtaining young captive bred animals is ideal, but at present wild caught specimens are usually the only available option for most species. As in all walks of life there are a number of disreputable characters who are not adverse to selling animals which they know have no chance of survival. Again, members of your local herpetological society will probably be happy to pinpoint the rogue dealers and recommend those that are honest and conscientious. Purchasing animals without seeing them first is asking for trouble unless you are buying them from a dealer whose reputation is unblemished. No matter how honest your supplier, inevitably some species of monitor lizard are very heavily infested with parasites when they arrive at their final destination. Most have the potential to survive for long periods in captivity if they are still strong and receive immediate veterinary care, but most untreated specimens are doomed within weeks, and Doctor Dolittle himself would be unable to save them.

When buying a monitor lizard it should be examined very carefully. Particular points to look for include;

  • The monitor should be lively rather than lethargic. It should be very interested in food, be able to hold its body off the floor, walk normally and be observed to protrude its tongue. Newly imported specimens should struggle vigourously when handled. Missing toes and tail tips are not a serious problem except in highly arboreal species such as the New Guinea tree monitors.
  • There should be no sores, lumps or burns on the body or tail. Look underneath, in the folds of skin at the insertion of the limbs with the body and pay particular attention to the shape of the spine. There should be no sign of swelling in any of the limbs.
  • Open the mouth and look for signs of rot or parasites, refuse any whose breath smells rancid
  • The eyes should be clear and not bloodshot, the nostrils should be dry and free from any discharge.
  • There should be a firm deposit of fat at the base of the tail. Absence of fat does not necessarily indicate disease however. Specimens captured just after a period of inactivity or females after oviposition often appear somewhat emaciated.
  • Breathing should be unlaboured; Wheezing, coughing and sneezing are early signs of respiratory infections.

An animal offered for sale which shows any untoward symptoms should be refused. Sadly, once monitor lizards have succumbed to infections they do not often recover. It is much better to leave them to die in the shop than to buy them and encourage the proprietor to get more. Wise dealers have monitor lizards screened for major parasites as soon as they are imported, and add the bill to the animals' price. Even so they should still be subjected to a normal period of quarantine after purchase.

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Since 1999 the Butaan Project has been studying the rare, endangered, and unique fruit-eating monitor lizards of the Philippines.  Butaan is just one of several races of frugivorous monitor lizards in the Philippines ("Pandan Biawak"), all of which are of at least as great a conservation concern as the Komodo dragon, but receive virtually none of the attention. Pandan Biawak occur only in lowland dipterocarp forest. The first species (Butaan) was discovered in 1845 and not seen alive by a scientist until the late 1970s. The next species (Mabitang) was discovered in 2001. Other species remain undescribed, and some may have gone extinct without ever having been recognised.





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