After working with so many different reptile species and helping numerous reptile owners tread through all the articles, blogs, and opinions available to take the best care of their reptile, one thing I’ve come to realize is that most reptile owners have a specific vision of how reptile food companies create their food formulas. This vision tends to involve a list of nutrients and amounts required by the reptile that the reptile food company follows, trying out different ingredients and quantities until they find the ideal formula.
Formulating reptile foods is a tedious and complex task. Unlike livestock and pets, specialty pets have not received the same amount of attention when it comes to research. Don’t get me wrong, there are A LOT of great scientists out there in the form of biologists, physiologists, endocrinologists, nutritionists, and more that are doing great research on reptiles so we can better understand them. But it’s still not nearly as much in comparison to cattle, horses, dogs, and cats. What this means is that while there are nutrients and amounts required for livestock and pets that those food companies can use to formulate their foods, those don’t exist for reptiles.
Many reptile food product companies will consult with a comparative (or “exotic”) animal nutritionist. These are animal professionals that have focused and dedicated their careers on understanding exotic or specialty pet animals. They’re trained to do this, not only by using all the information that is available on these other types of critters, but also by using and applying the information available on livestock and pets with similar body systems.
Did you know that the herbivorous tortoise gastrointestinal tract is analogous to that of the horse?These species all require high forage diets and rely on hindgut fermentation for gut health, so comparative animal nutritionists will use what we know about horse nutrient requirements to formulate appropriate diets for herbivorous tortoises such as the desert tortoise, leopard tortoise, sulcata tortoise, and more!
In order to formulate a reptile food product, the nutritionist has to first gather all the information they can on that reptile species:
Next, the nutritionist will spend time finding what information, if any, is available on the reptile’s nutritional requirements. Although there aren’t any complete nutrient requirement profiles available for reptiles, there is published research regarding a few nutrients here and there, typically surrounding protein, fiber, and calcium. Next, the nutritionist will compare the information they’ve gathered with that of the most closely related domestic species (in terms of feeding strategy and naturally ingested foods). For example, comparative nutritionists use what we know about horses, a highly researched animal, to provide the most appropriate recommendations for herbivorous tortoises.
And finally, the nutritionist will start creating a food product formula using commercially available ingredients that will provide the reptile with the best possible nutrition! This step can take days, weeks, or even months depending on the reptile species and how much information is available to the nutritionist. I spent close to a year formulating a diet for a specific type of lizard, because with every tiny tweak that I made to the formula, I needed to be sure it would have the impact for the lizard that I wanted. Therefore, after making a change to the formula, I would create a new batch of food and provide it to a group of those lizards for several weeks and observe the outcome. Just because something makes sense on paper doesn’t mean it’s going to work the same way in a biological system.
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