Welcome to the second in our occasional series challenging the old myths of the reptile keeping world! We thought we would tackle one of the most frustrating, infuriating things that gets said to us on an all too common basis, a statement that is usually (but not always) applied to tortoises.
Things change, as we have said before. The old methods of tortoise keeping that we all used in the seventies are now regarded with horror by anyone who cares about their tortoise, and rightly so; but there are still some elderly torts about who have been kept that way for decades, and this is where the problems start. It gets said about other animals too, but not nearly as often.
My animal (usually a tortoise, but not always) has been kept this way for years. If I change it now, the shock to its system will be too great, and it will be harmed.
How This Became A Myth:
An animal has been obtained, usually from a non-reputable source. It might have been inherited, or given away, or purchased over the internet. It may have been rescued, or found, or have been in the person’s possession for years (tortoises again).
The owner has noticed something about the animal’s behaviour, or general outlook on life; perhaps it’s a little quieter than usual, or scratching to get out, or some other aspect of its personality may be different. It may not want to eat, or only want to eat a certain thing. A reputable source is consulted, such as a vet or a good reptile shop, and they give advice that often runs counter to what the person has been told before – they may even be horrified, and they advise that everything has to be changed.
The changes are made, and the animal either becomes very sick, or outright dies.
It must be bad advice, right?
When you think your animal is ‘perfectly happy’… is it? Sometimes, they’re just surviving. Everything that lives strives to survive; from the simplest single celled organism to a bearded dragon, a tortoise to a human, we all have that instinct to keep living. We will all eat and reproduce, even if the conditions are pretty bad. It’s universal.
We realise that this imposition of less than perfect conditions is almost never deliberate. We love our pets, and want to do the best for them – sadly, this desire to make them happy can end up doing them harm. (Overfeeding your pet and killing it via the complications of obesity is the classic example of this.)
When behaviour changes, it does so for a reason. If it has changed enough for you to notice and go to the vet or the reptile shop for advice, then there is a reason. If the care has been poor for a long time, often years, then the problem has been developing over this length of time. It’s not going to go away quickly. And it may be that whatever you do, it’s too late; remember, even the most domesticated of our reptile pets still has the instincts of its wild ancestors, and doesn’t realise that it’s perfectly safe in our care, and won’t be eaten by a predator the first time it shows weakness.
It doesn’t know this. So it hides any illness, or weakness, until it can’t hide it any more. The signs might be a reluctance to eat, or move, or bask, or perform any one of the functions we think of as normal.
So is it ‘perfectly happy’? Probably not.
It may be that no matter what you do the damage is done. It may be that your animal will simply take longer than you thought to recover.
So should you even bother changing the way you do things? Yes, absolutely! If you care about your pet – and if you’ve read down this far it’s a certainty that you do – then you can always make things better for them. It might be a bit bewildering, they might need some help to adjust, but why would you deny an animal you care about the opportunity to be happier and, ultimately, healthier?
It’s never too late!