Reptiles, Amphibians, and Fish
Disaster Preparedness Manual
Melissa J. Nixon, DVM


Cold-blooded creatures like these can get too cold, in which case they will not eat and may not move. They can also get too hot - in which case, moving them to a cooler area and spritzing them with a water spray bottle may be necessary.

Shredded paper towels, unprinted newsprint, or cage carpeting are the best cage liners for reptiles. NEVER use shavings or any type of sand (i.e., calcisand).

Do NOT house predators such as snakes near prey such as mice; in the case of king snakes, do not house them near other snakes either!

Most likely fish to be evacuated: betta. Do not put fish together in same bowl. Bowl should be cleaned every other day with non-chlorinated water and refilled with bottled potable water. Do not use distilled water, but the bottled spring water or drinking water is fine. The clumps of bubbles floating on top of the water are normal - it is the male's attempt to make a nest that will attract a female.

If by any chance we do have saltwater fish evacuated, they must have the oxygen bubblers and tank heaters going all the time. If possible, we should monitor tank temperature, salinity, and pH. Algae build up is a problem, but only an experienced person should attempt tank maintenance care.

Amphibians may do ok in a plastic tub with just a bit of water, perhaps ¼" deep. They must be kept moist; if their skin dries out they will die. Never put them on dry bedding. A small container with moistened sphagnum moss may be helpful as well.

If at all possible, supply a fluorescent UV-B bulb for all non-carnivore reptiles and amphibians. A zoomed reptisun 5.0 or a zoomed iguana light 5.0 bulb in a fluorescent fixture is ideal, assuming the bulb is less than 6 months old. If there are more reptiles than bulbs, then rotate the UV light from cage to cage throughout the day, preferably placing the bulb over the cage when the pet is not hiding under a rock!


If we are transporting or housing reptiles, it is important to keep them warm enough. Ideally the heat should be at one end of the tank so that the pet can get as near or far from it as needed for its optimal temperature. One way to do that is with a tube sock filled with dried rice and micro waved for a couple of minutes. However, once that sock has been with a reptile, it may have Salmonella on it. So, best to put the warmed sock into a ziplock bag, then you can take it out and microwave it again - if you have the opportunity - without contaminating the microwave. Basking bulbs can be placed at one side of larger cages as long as the temperature of the cage is monitored closely to avoid overheating. Avoid commercial "hot rocks" at all costs, as they frequently cook the reptile that sits on it.

Wire cages are not adequate for either transporting or storing reptiles or amphibians due to temperature and humidity requirements.

Lizards and turtles should be transported in a firm plastic container or aquarium.

Snakes can be transported in a pillow case securely tied shut if carriers are not available.

Amphibians need to be kept moist even during transport.

Be sure that fish cannot slosh out of their bowl during transport.


For omnivores and vegetarians, fresh salad greens (organic, so no pesticide residue), dandelion greens (wash them!), and fresh fruit like shredded apples are good snacks while we are looking for their specific diets.

Frozen vegetables can have an enzyme that depletes an important B vitamin, so best not to feed those; however, they are better than nothing. If you simply must feed a frozen vegetable mix, be sure to remove the corn before feeding the rest of the mix, as corn can cause digestive problems in some species.

Predatory reptiles (that would include all snakes) can actually go weeks without food, so do not be in a rush to feed somebody else's pet mouse to that snake. Better to wait than to feed the wrong thing in this case.

No avocados for any nonhuman species; also be aware that leaves, pits, and skins, as well as the flesh, can be very toxic.

Calcium tetany can be a problem; placing a chewable calcium citrate tablet in each reptile container may help prevent problems. They will lick the tablet to get their calcium. Commercially available powdered calcium supplements sprinkled on the food may be a good idea as well, but avoid any supplements containing Vitamin A, as this supplement can be toxic in high doses.

Iguanas and many tortoises are strict vegetarians.

Bearded dragons are omnivores; the rest of the reptiles we are likely to see are carnivores. Crickets work as food for most of the omnivores and carnivores. Moths may work in an emergency. Whenever feeding bugs such as crickets, try to "gut load" them. That means letting the cricket have a nice meal of sweet potato or carrot before the pet eats them. Then the pet gets the same nutrients.

Frogs like crickets and earthworms, which may be available at sporting goods stores or bait shops.

Turtles and tortoises like washed dark green salad greens (not iceberg). Turtles and tortoises can also have other shredded vegetables and fruits (wash them first!) and tofu as a treat.

Box turtles and water turtles are omnivores as well. It is important to feed these species crickets or earthworms in addition to the vegetables and fruits.

Most tortoises can be offered hay in addition to vegetables.

Try to feed water turtles in a smaller tank (aka, "the feeding tank") to help keep their main enclosure cleaner. If they do not eat in the feeding tank, you will be forced to feed them in the larger tank, but cleaning of the tank must then be more frequent.


Always move slowly, smoothly, and quietly around these critters. If they are frightened and they cannot take flight because of restraint, they will fight!

Be aware of the risks when handling reptiles. They can send you to the hospital as fast as a dog or cat can. All reptiles can bite, but some, such as iguanas, monitor lizards, large snakes, and turtles can easily leave a very deep cut to the bone. Snakes are very quick biters. Turtles can extend their head a surprising length out of their shell to bite their handler. In addition, iguanas can claw deep into skin and can whip their tails very effectively. Do not handle these reptiles if you are inexperienced. Always wear the appropriate safety equipment if you do handle them.

ALWAYS wash your hands before and after handling each animal. If soap and water are not available, use the water free disinfectant gel. Not only is Salmonella a very real concern for us when we handle stressed reptiles and amphibians, but there are some very serious diseases that we do not want to pass from one critter to another.

Ideally, use powder-free disposable gloves when handling amphibians, as they can absorb toxins through their skin.

Furthermore, reptiles are odor driven and if you smell like food they will react. Some snakes and lizards are reptile eaters so go figure how they will react if you smell like one of their favorite dinners! The disinfectant gel will not sufficiently remove the smell, so soap and water is best when available. Baby wipes may help to cover odor but will not disinfect.

Air swimming - that desperate movement of the legs when we hold a critter without proper support - is no fun for the creature and may lead to you or the creature getting injured in the struggle. Always support the trunk and neck; offer footing for all four feet. In snakes, support the whole body. Never pick up a lizard by the tail; you may end up with a tail and no lizard.

Avoid larger lizards' claws, such as iguanas', as their nails can cause serious damage.

Many of these can bite. We will not be handling any rattlesnakes tonight, but please take a good look at the pictures provided by our speaker. Crazy at it seems to me, some folks do keep rattle snakes intentionally. In other cases, they may have wild captured a young snake and not realized it was a venomous rattler! Remember, baby rattlers tend to have the most dangerous bite and be the hardest to recognize. They have no way to warn you they are going to bite since they do not yet have rattles.

After hurricane Katrina, one rescue crew spray-painted the word "SNAKES" on the side of the house. The animal response group figured there were pets inside needing help. In actuality, there were venomous wild snakes that had entered the structure with the floodwaters! Rattlesnakes also swim well and have been found in significant numbers in California floodwaters.

It has been noted that most handling of reptiles and amphibians is stressful to them. In a rescue situation, avoid extra handling if at all possible.

When handling a reptile always move your hand from head to tail; stroking against the scales may cause damage. Since we do not know how socialized an individual might be, probably it is best to not stroke them anyway.

Do not let lizards sit on top of your head or anywhere on your clothes, as you will then be a potential carrier of Salmonella.

Do not put snakes on your shoulders, around your neck, or around your waist. In addition to the Salmonella risk, some larger snakes can cause injury with constriction.

Do not turn them upside down. If they get quiet in that position, it is because you have adversely affected their blood pressure, not because they are in a healthy relaxation state.

Avoid handling amphibians; not only can we harm their skin; they can harm ours. Many have surface toxins; the White's tree frog and certain toads have toxins that can seriously affect the handler's health. By the time we meet it during an evacuation, every amphibian will be producing toxin due to stress.


Turtles and tortoises can be very long lived; some are family heirlooms. They also can survive some injuries that may look terminal to someone not familiar with that species. It is important that we do our best to get these animals to a veterinarian knowledgeable about their specific needs. We are lucky to have vets with experience in exotics in our community. If we are deployed elsewhere, one of the things our planning group will be doing is locating a veterinarian familiar with these species in the destination area.

Signs of illness may include sunken, swollen, or closed eyes, open mouth breathing, bubbles from nose, refusal to eat, lethargy, redness on the scales (especially the underside), regurgitation, lesions in the mouth or on the guns, weakness (especially in the hind end), and unusual posture.

Vomiting, regurgitation, or loose foul stool may be the first sign of stress in reptiles.

Reptile stool should be dry and dark with a ring of white urine on the outside. If either component is missing, or if it is wet and runny, notify the veterinary crew.

Never mix species, as some reptiles can pass off diseases to other species. Also remember that many reptiles and amphibians carry parasites, and can easily transmit these to other reptiles or amphibians without proper sanitation between cages.

Never leave large reptiles with small reptiles. Even if the larger one does not attack the smaller one, often the smaller one is intimidated and will not eat.

My most heartfelt appreciation goes to Carol Noble and to John Edwards, DVM, for their extensive assistance in preparing this information sheet!

Speaker Information
(click the speaker's name to view other papers and abstracts submitted by this speaker)

Melissa J. Nixon, DVM

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