PALS help fellow enthusiasts

PALS help fellow enthusiasts!
Just as the veterinary care of reptiles has advanced significantly over recent years, so have the diagnostic tools available, to prevent, identify and treat cases of illness. David Alderton investigates this vital yet often rather overlooked area, and acquires some useful practical tips.

Tackling everything from aardvarks to zebras, there is very little that fazes the team of biomedical scientists that run the UK's only independent exotic veterinary diagnostics laboratory.
“We started out around 15 years ago, and have recently moved to our new purpose-built premises here in rural Cheshire,” says Mary Pinborough, who runs the business with her colleague Debbie Moore.

Pinmoore Animal Laboratory Services - better-known simply as PALS - receive samples from a wide range of sources, including veterinary practices, zoological collections, private keepers and animal food suppliers.
Their laboratory is fully equipped to carry out a wide of tests from haematology (blood studies) and biochemistry profiles right through to professional postmortem services.

“One of the really interesting things I find about this job is the range of work that we undertake,” says Mary, who has been a keen reptile keeper herself for many years, and recently lost her green iguana (Iguana iguana) which she acquired as a youngster some 47 years ago. This could well be a record for longevity in this species!

Spotting trends

The work that the PALS team undertake means that they are uniquely placed to know what can go wrong. “What people often don't realise is that they are literally killing their pets with misplaced kindness these days,” explains Mary.
“We hear a lot about zoonoses - diseases that can be transmitted from animals to people - but what is less often reported is the simple fact that this is a two way process, with such infections spreading both ways.

“We're seeing a growing number of cases of Staphylococcus aureus in bearded dragons for example.
This bacterium is common on our skin, and owners who insist on kissing their pets can easily transmit it at the same time, triggering eye and sinus infections in these lizards as a result.”

Another problem that seems to be increasing is cases of both zinc and lead poisoning in pet reptiles.
“This appears to be linked with certain brands of hand cream,” explains Mary. “The risk is greatest when you are picking fresh food and preparing this for your pet, as obviously, you are handling it repeatedly, potentially transferring these heavy metals across on to the food at the same time.

There's actually a case therefore to wear disposable gloves to protect your pet when you are attending to its needs.”

Mary emphasises how important it is to wash your hands before handling or attending to your reptiles, as well as obviously doing so afterwards.
“It's not that uncommon to get cases of fungal infections that have been spread from an owner's feet via their hands to their bearded dragon…” she explains.
Walk-through set-ups represent another area where it is possible to see human infections transmitted to reptiles and other animal occupants.

The time of year
Seasonal issues arise as well.
“At this time of year, it is so important for tortoise owners preparing their pets for hibernation to ensure that there is no uneaten food left in their intestinal tract. This can otherwise ferment, leading to a build-up of gas, which can literally cause the tortoise to explode while it is hibernating.
“We would always recommend a pre-hibernation check, with a full screening once a year.
Outside, tortoises come into contact with deposits left by animals such as foxes and rats, and this can create issues. Inside too, if you have a cat, it can be a problem, as some do like to use a tortoise table as a large litter tray, in our experience.
“We also advise a parasite screening for tortoises in-between the full screening, which will highlight any parasitic worm issues. We supply a special kit for this purpose that owners can buy from us, in order to send us samples safely and securely,” adds Mary.
“Yet there is one issue that owners aren't often aware of, when sending faecal samples.
Reptiles produce semi-solid, creamy-white urates - their equivalent of urine - along with their faeces. So, when people are sending us a sample for faecal examination, we must have the dark faeces which have come from the intestines, not the urates that have come from the kidneys.”

Different management
Changes in the way that people are keeping reptiles today has had an influence on the type of infections that are being seen, according to Mary.
“Bioactive set-ups have led to an increase in fungal infections, based on our experience,” she explains.
“Clean-up bugs can be very effective at breaking down the waste of the larger occupants of the vivarium, but the bugs' waste can then accumulate in the environment and may adversely affect terrestrial occupants in the enclosure in particular.”

High humidity and restricted ventilation are likely to be triggering factors involved in the issue.

“Ideally, I would have two separate bioactive set-ups, transferring the occupants every three months to reduce the risk,” says Mary.
“Then use F10® disinfectant in a fogger - our tests have shown this is very effective for all general disinfection purposes within the vivarium.
Often, although people clean out their reptiles' quarters thoroughly, they forget to do the furniture. This can be a particular issue, simply because the occupants are often climbing on these items and so will be in close contact with them.”
Racking is a housing system that poses different health concerns. “It's clearly so tempting in this situation to go through and deal with all the different snakes at once, but you need to disinfect your hands ideally between caring for every one,” advises Mary.
“Otherwise, it's easy to transfer an infection in this way.”

Monitoring invertebrate health

Yet PALS do not only deal with sick animals. Monitoring on behalf of live food and rodent breeders who supply the trade and private breeders is carried out on a very regular basis.
“I think people might not appreciate just how much effort leading suppliers put into ensuring their food is healthy, and represents no danger to the animals eating it,” she says.
One of the great benefits of being independent, according to Mary, is that the laboratory can put its profits into research.
There is so little information known about many species, in terms of what constitutes normal healthy parameters in terms of blood cell counts, biochemical data and much more.

PALS has recently been involved in several interesting research projects, with a range of different species.
At one extreme, the laboratory has been examining the haemolymph of subadult Chilean rose tarantulas (Grammastola rosea).
“It is surprisingly safe and straightforward to sample what is basically the spider's blood, but you need to replace it with suitable fluid at the same time,” Mary explains. “The haemolymph is drawn from the pericardial sac, which surrounds the heart.”

There is increasing veterinary interest in invertebrates these days, as they assume greater importance not just as pets, in the case of tarantulas, but also potentially as a source of food for us in the future.
Building up a basic understanding of what is normal means that it is then much easier to recognise when illness strikes, what it might be, and its effects on the blood chemistry.

With female tarantulas having a life expectancy that can potentially extend to nearly 50 years, investment in veterinary care is important for breeders too.

Bigger challenges
While it is relatively easy to handle invertebrates, not all research subjects are as straightforward to deal with.
“We've been looking at the bacteria present in the mouths of Komodo dragons,” explains Mary. “They have pretty foul breath, thanking to the rotting flesh between their teeth. But it's clear now that those in zoos have a very different bacterial flora, compared with their wild counterparts, which obviously relates to dietary differences between these two groups.”

Not being put off by handling these large lizards, which also have venom glands in their mouth, Mary and the PALS team are currently engaged in a project at Crocodiles of the World, in Oxfordshire.
“We're examining the blood of the alligators there with owner Shaun Foggett, to investigate whether ultraviolet light makes a difference to their Vitamin D3 and calcium levels,” she explains. It seems that whatever the challenge, the PALS team are happy to embark upon it! ✥

Pinmoore Animal Laboratory Services (PALS),
The Acorns, Town House Farm, Clotton, Cheshire CW6 0EG.
Tel.: 01829 781855 Email:
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