Reptiles ~ their Identification and care


This section briefly outlines the basic procedures and husbandry of reptiles for wildlife volunteers likely to encounter them. This is by no means a complete guide to reptile care, but should enable the novice to adequately care for sick or injured reptiles on a short term basis. More detailed texts on reptile care, diseases and treatment are listed at the end.


Correct identification is the most important step to take when presented with a sick or injured reptile. This is particularly important with snakes because a large proportion of our snakes are venomous, and some of them are the deadliest in the world. If you do not have the means, ability or the confidence to correctly identify a snake presented to you, then you should regard it as potentially dangerous and refer it to someone who does.

Accurate identification of lizards and turtles is perhaps less critical, but you should be able to identify them into their general groups, so that you know how and what to feed them.

There are a few good reptile identification books available in most bookshops.  

Handling of Reptiles 

Reptiles, like other animals should be handed gently and confidently. Only use the amount of restraint necessary to enable you to efficiently accomplish your task – don’t over restrain – it is stressful to the animal.  

Only experienced people who can correctly identify and handle snakes should attempt the following:

Non-venomous snakes can be picked up by the tail close to the vent, for short periods of time; or mid-body. If holding for longer periods of time, support the body with both hands. Some non-venomous species will bite, especially pythons, and may need to have the head restrained whilst being examined or treated.
The thumb and middle finger should hold the neck just behind the angle of the jaw, with the index finger on top of the head. The less dangerous elapid snakes can be handled in a similar way, however all, except the most harmless of them should be handled only by experienced reptile handlers.

Skinks can drop their tails if they feel threatened,(, so don’t handle them by their tails – support their body in your hand, with a thumb and/or index finger around their neck to prevent them from wriggling free.

Dragons can be restrained by the tail with one hand and supported under the thorax and abdomen with the other, water dragons can bite (hard) always keep your fingers away from their mouth.

Monitors should only be handled by people that are confident and experienced in restraining them, they are extremely strong and quick – hold only forelegs against the thorax with one hand, and the hind legs against the base of the tail with the other. Monitors have very sharp and dirty teeth and can inflict savage wounds when they bite,  they also have very sharp claws, which is why you must restrain all four legs.

Are relatively easy to handle – larger specimens can be gripped with both hands on the edge of the carapace (the top shell). Turtles can bite, and have sharp claws; they can also spray a nasty odour when they feel threatened.


Snakes and lizards can be adequately housed in heat boxes of various designs. The basic requirements are that they be secure, that they have a source of heat and be reasonably ventilated. A simple wooden box with a top or front opening door and a  Perspex or glass side (or door), will serve adequately. Heat can be provided by heating pads or incandescent bulbs, which should be guarded to prevent snakes from coiling around them. The floor of the box should be covered with newspaper for ease of cleaning and a hide box for security. 

Turtles are best housed in aqua-terraria which can provide water deep enough to allow complete submersion and an area of dry land preferably with a heat source, and large enough to allow complete drying out. Ideal water temperature is 25c, which if necessary can be maintained with an aquarium heater, and if possible test and maintain the pH of the water at 7. Some turtles that come into care are not allowed full access to water whilst recovering from injuries, check with your vet before allowing them to swim.

Heat and Humidity: 
The temperature within heat boxes will vary greatly depending upon the species being housed.  It is imperative that when housing reptiles, that you know what their “preferred body temperature (PBT)” is. A range within their PBT should be provided, by placing the heat source at one end of the box. Reptiles should also have access to UV light either naturally or by an artificial source such as a black light. UV lights have a short lifespan and need to be changed on a regular basis in order to provide adequate UV light. If you are unable to provide UV light, the reptile will need at least 30 minutes of natural sunlight each day.

Humidity is dependent on ambient humidity, temperature and surface area of water bowls in the box. Water bowls with a large surface area will cause high humidity within the box, those with a small surface area – less humidity. Some of the arid region reptiles can be a bit susceptible to respiratory problems in high humidity, so water bowls should be appropriate size, or only placed in the enclosure 2-3 times a week.

Turtles can safely be transported in cardboard boxes, whilst the most convenient mode of transport for lizards and snakes is in a pillow case that can be tied off, to prevent escape.

Injuries, Diseases and Conditions Commonly Seen in Wild Reptiles 
Listed below are some diseases or conditions you may encounter.

Trauma is the most common reason for presentation of wild reptiles.  Most reptiles that present as a result of road trauma have a poor prognosis. They can often have no apparent injuries but may be fatally wounded; immediate veterinary attention should be sought. .

Turtles that are victims of road trauma, in most cases have single or multiple fractures of the carapace. All shell fractures, except for chips around the border, should be repaired by a specialised wildlife veterinarian.  Even quite bad fractures to the carapace and/or plastron carry a reasonable prognosis if treated by a veterinarian promptly. Severe multiple fractures of the carapace and plastron with exposure of internal organs and possible internal crushing, carry a poor prognosis and these tortoises should be euthanased immediately.

Turtles are often presented with fishing hooks in their mouths or lodged further down. Unless you are easily able to visualize the hook and the wound is minor you should not attempt to remove the hook, consult a veterinarian.

Any reptile that is attacked or suspected of being attacked by a domestic animal needs immediate veterinary attention.