(This article is an adaptation of the article that originally appeared in Reptiles Magazine, August 2003)
Are you practicing good biosecurity? Maybe you are only vaguely familiar with the term. Most herpetoculturists I talk to are ill prepared to meet the bio threats that can devastate their collections. The threat is real; all reptile collections are at risk. The threat is any type of infectious agent–viral, bacterial, fungal, or parasitic. And the attack is possible whether the collection consists of one gecko or two hundred geckos. Breeders can minimize some of the risk by considering a few basic concepts.
What is biosecurity, exactly? It is the means by which a breeder prevents an attack on his collection by an infectious agent or by parasites. One web site offers this definition, “bio-security refers to those measures taken to keep disease agents out of populations . . . or groups of animals where they do not already exist” (“Protect”).
Given this definition, then, the extrapolation is that the greatest threat to a species is the same species or a closely related species that carries pathogens. Rarely is an attack waged on a species by the pathogens of an unrelated species. Therefore, a new Leopard Gecko might bring with it pathogens dangerous to the Leos already in a colony. But it could also pose a bio-security threat to the African Fat-tails in the same colony, because some of the pathogens are exclusive to geckos in general, and not species specific.
Joan S. Jeffrey, DVM, of the University of California-Davis, outlines the three major components of biosecurity:
2. Traffic Control
These three components are the building blocks for developing a bio-security plan that fits the circumstances peculiar to each gecko breeder’s unique situation.
Isolation for the gecko breeder is problematic. It is difficult to isolate a breeding colony if the breeder is constantly adding new animals to the collection or has visitors on a regular basis. After all, many hobbyists keep their geckos to share with friends and family and their fellow herpetoculturists. Commercial breeders, on the other hand, want to showcase their breeding efforts to potential customers. Neither can maintain total isolation of their collections in order to enjoy their hobby or further their business enterprise. At least not easily.
The notion of a “closed” colony is not new. There are breeders who practice this extreme form of isolation. They have developed a “closed” breeding colony that is self sufficient, if you will; they do not bring in new species or new breeders on a yearly basis. They produce the breeders they need themselves. Self sufficient is the right term. This amounts to adding no new animals to the collection for years. Years! Can you imagine! No new morphs, no new bloodlines, no new “look what I just bought” geckos! But it is the only way to ensure a collection is isolated from outside pathogens that are often introduced into a colony by a new gecko. And the reverse is also true. Geckos in an established collection might harbor pathogens that are relatively benign to that particular group; however, a new gecko might not have immunity built up against this pathogen. So that new high-dollar caramel albino AFT has its immune system challenged the minute it arrives in your gecko room. The results could be disastrous in either instance.
What to do? The simple answer is quarantine. But how does a breeder quarantine a gecko if he has one, small gecko room? Or, more commonly, no gecko room at all! Although a challenge, it can be done by placing the gecko in the far corner of the gecko room away from the other geckos in the collection. The ideal is to have a separate room for the quarantined animal. What should a quarantine cage look like? Spartan, simple, and stark! Use newspaper or paper towels as the substrate. Don’t use branches, vines, or hide boxes. Use water bowls set aside strictly for quarantine use. Tend to the quarantined gecko or geckos last.
Never employ any utensils used for the established collection in the quarantined gecko’s tray or cage, such as tweezers to offer feeder insects. Have separate tweezers for the quarantined gecko, or use disposable plastic spoons. Have a separate set of water bowls used ONLY for quarantined geckos. NEVER use them in the established collection even if you do NOT have a gecko in quarantine. Buy bright red plastic crock bowls, for instance, so you know it is a quarantine bowl when you see it. If you can’t buy them already distinctively color-coded, color-code them with spray paint. Or use a Sharpie pen and mark them yourself. Don’t worry how pretty or how ugly they look. Worry that they are readily and easily distinguished from the bowls used in the established colony. Or better yet, use disposable bowls for ALL quarantined geckos. Use them for the established colony as well.
Never place a gecko from an established collection into a tray or shoebox or enclosure used for quarantine. Store the quarantine trays in a separate location. Mine are stored in a shed outside the house. The trays for my established colony are stored inside my garage attached to the house. The two never meet; the two never come into physical contact with one another. Drastic? You bet. I mean this to be drastic. I don’t EVER want to lose an animal—high dollar or otherwise–to a stupid mistake that I made. Once, when I was a rosy boa breeder, I brought in a neonate rosy from a California rosy breeder. I set it up in a tray away from my own neonates, BUT one day I used a set of tongs to dangle a pinkie in front of that rosy, THEN I preceded to use it on several of my neonates. Before I realized what happened I had unexplained deaths. The diagnosis was Cryptosporidiosis. If you don’t know what Crypto is, then I suggest you look it up here:
Here’s what the article states that is important to this discussion:
“Strict hygiene and quarantine of infected and exposed animals are mandatory for control of Cryptosporidiosis, however most ellect [sic] euthanasia of the infected. The best method to prevent Crypto from spreading is to euthanize infected reptiles” (Cryptosporidiosis in Reptiles).
Bottom line: mixing and matching water bowls and trays is reckless at best. Don’t think so?
What constitutes a minimal quarantine program? I’ve seen 60- and 90-day quarantines listed at a few web sites maintained by veterinarians, as in the site maintained by Veterinary Associates Stonefield where they offer this advice specifically for snakes:
“Most viruses are highly contagious. Hobbyists must be aware of this and quarantine all newly acquired snakes for at least 6-8 weeks. This involves complete isolation of new snakes and careful scrutiny . . . during this period for any signs of illness” (“Snake Ailments”).
Others say 120 days, or longer, is the absolute minimum time for effective quarantine. For instance, Craig Mosley, DVM suggests, again with regard to snakes:
“. . . a quarantine period of 6 months (minimum 2 months!) because some diseases take much more than a month to become apparent. Apparently Inclusion body disease (IBD) in Boas and Pythons, in one study, took 28 days to incubate in the snakes. The snakes were infected on purpose to see how long it took the retrovirus to start making the animal ill. If a person with either of these types of snakes were to quarantine for only 1 month (or not at all) the risk of infecting the rest of the collection would be much higher! (“New Reptile”)
Some breeders quarantine new acquisitions for 365-days.
One breeder notes:
“The animal should be left in quarantine for at least a month . . . but the recommended time is roughly 6 months. After that time the animals can then be placed in the same room with established stock but it is wise to wait at least a year or two before placing the animal in . . . with one of your “long term” animals” (“Quarantine Procedures”).
The ideal is 120 days; the most practical is at least 60 days. You decide. How much did you spend on that new morph? Are you a gambler? I didn’t think so.
Coupled with quarantine is an effective program to eliminate any parasites the gecko might carry, either external or internal. Most herpetoculturists can identify mites easily. Although geckos rarely, if ever, have mite infestations, check the new gecko carefully, particularly around the eyes and cloaca–those moist spots on a rather dry reptile. And since a qualified veterinarian will have to check the gecko for internal parasites via fecal flotation or a direct smear, have her check for external parasites again as well. Or, as in my gecko room, always have a can of Provent-a-Mite™ from Pro Products on hand; follow the directions supplied by the retailer. This is important if your geckos are housed with other reptiles, like snakes or other lizard species, as they CAN become infested with mites.
In order to maintain complete, effective isolation in a collection—to have a “closed” breeding program–the not so simple answer is to buy sufficient breeding stock at the outset. If you add a new morph to a collection, I suggest adding at least 2.4 of that morph from one source, when possible. Don’t “onesey” and “twosey” purchases from six or eight different sources over the course of a year, unless that’s the ONLY way. But if this is the course of action, quarantine, quarantine, quarantine! Buying 2.4 geckos should provide ample genetic diversity and breeding combinations to keep that morph project going for a few years or much longer. Remember reptiles have had 36 million years of evolution. Buying 1.1 that MIGHT be siblings is NOT a good plan despite this evolutionary history. But the reasoning is apparent here. More is better. I’d opt for 3.6 personally, which is exactly what I’ve done when establishing my SHTCT breeding groups.
Traffic Control is another aspect of biosecurity that is difficult to accomplish for most hobbyists, but there are a couple of factors that are easy to implement—and the herpetoculturist does have some control here.
First, begin daily chores with the neonates of the year, followed by the yearlings, then the adults, and, finally, to any new acquisitions or animals in quarantine. If the collection has any imports of any species, this process is even more important. Never start with the adults (or the imports) and work to the neonates! Of course, the rationale for this approach is simple. By beginning with the youngest animals in the collection, the breeder is NOT spreading diseases harbored by the older, more established (and, therefore, more likely to have experienced some diseases) geckos. This will work even if you have two geckos–an adult and a neonate. Although this seems to be based on a commonsense approach, some herpetoculturists overlook the simplicity of this notion. Use it. In fact, it is easy to organize a gecko room so the chores flow logically and in this fashion. And wash hands thoroughly between age groups. No, you don’t have to wash your hands between EACH gecko in your established colony, but I’d do that between each gecko in quarantine. Disposable vinyl gloves are another option.
The other aspect of traffic control is the flow of visitors into, and through, the gecko room, although in a large, commercial breeding operation, the owner must also consider the traffic of the caretakers or keepers. The main concern is the process used in daily chores–which animals are cleaned and fed first, etc. There are two basic choices, but there are some innovations possible:
1. Allow no visitors is the best choice.
2. Allow visitors is the worst choice.
If it is a MUST to allow visitors there are some precautions that will lessen the impact of visitors. Offer disposable, slip-on plastic covers for visitors’ shoes. Yes, that is correct. A fellow gecko breeder visits to see the latest hatchlings. That friend just came from his or her own, or another’s, gecko or snake room. Guess what could be on the feet? Pathogens! Mites! Yes! Those cheap, silly-looking plastic shoe covers will help. They aren’t foolproof but they are a necessary precaution. If visitors are allowed into a gecko room, provide the covers at the door to that room.
Never walk into the “home” gecko room after visiting another gecko or snake room. The breeder has control here, too. Change clothes and shoes before entering. It is possible to carry one pregnant mite from a collection—doesn’t matter if it is a gecko OR snake collection–on shoes or clothing. That one mite can start an infestation quickly, especially in warm weather. Pathogens on the hands, used deli-cups, shoeboxes, trays, etc., can find their way into a colony if not carefully considered. If the thought occurs that the author is going overboard here, then invest a couple thousand in new AFT morph projects—and that would be quite easy to do—then ignore this advice. My mother had a name for folks who think like this. I’ll let you guess what it is.
Second, provide a waterless hand cleaner to visitors; the breeder should use the same hand cleaner daily. Have the visitors apply this to their hands BEFORE handling any geckos; then have them use it again when they are finished handling that gecko. Better yet, don’t allow them to handle any of the geckos. Now that is next to impossible for my friends, but if I have a high dollar gecko in my collection, they will NOT handle it. They may view it in its tray or through the side of the tray. In a commercial reptile business, the buyer is usually allowed to handle the merchandise, and the use of an antibacterial hand cleaner is a must. Many breeders allow a prospective buyer to examine the gecko closely but the gecko is kept secured in a capped, clear deli-cup. One of my herp friends (oh, he’s a veterinarian, BTW) often quips, when asked by a “looker” at the herp expos he attends as a vendor, “Can I handle that gecko?”
“You want to handle it? Buy it and you can handle it all you want!”
Not great for PR but great for the health and safety of the leopard geckos he sells. He sells out at most. Go figure. Me, I always have some extra “not-for-sale” handling reptiles with me just for this purpose. Inevitably, however, someone wants to buy THEM, not the other reptiles I have for sale.
Here’s another great practice I stumbled upon quite by accident: I add a couple hundred small cloth, stuffed reptile figures to my herp expo box. These are for all those small children, or not so small children, who will NOT be taking a new reptile home with them. They are listed at $1 each. At the end of the show, I am always sold out. Of course, a few end up being “freebies,” but this is about building a customer base and allowing everyone to head home with a new reptile in hand. This one does NOT need a quarantine period, however. You will NOT forget how the eyes of those little ones light up when you hand them that purple turtle or yellow lizard. But I digress.
Sanitation is mentioned in the discussion of traffic control above, but it goes a bit further than that in the daily practices employed in a biosecurity conscious gecko room. This is practiced at the simplest level—keeping the enclosures, water dishes, and furniture cleaned and sanitized. The herpetoculturist can affect bio-security at this level, but it is the one factor I often see trivialized or ignored. For example, I visited a hobbyist once and noted a dirty water bowl in a cage. Couldn’t miss it! A week later, upon my return to see some newly acquired specimens, I noticed the same cage still had that dirty water bowl. Needless to say, I didn’t buy any reptiles from that breeder.
Yes, water bowls seem like a “no-brainer,” but even I am guilty of saying, “I’ll get it tomorrow.” That leaves geckos open to illness and stress. They rely on me for their daily care; I try to make it the BEST care I can provide. I check ALL of the water bowls in my trays daily. And the use of disposable water bowls is a good idea. For neonates and juvenile geckos, there is a type of deli-cup water bowl that has a lid that comes with a hole predrilled in the plastic snap on top. The regimen is up to the individual breeder, but goes something like this: Daily, or every few days, the water in the deli-cups is dumped into a bucket and the deli-cups are discarded. New, unused deli-cups are placed in the trays and filled with fresh, clean water. No bowls to clean, scrub, and disinfect. No cross contamination is possible from one tray to another tray as with permanent bowls.
For the breeder who does use permanent bowls made of hard plastic, glass, or crock material, then a regular, weekly cleaning is a must. The standby disinfectant in my gecko room is cheap, ordinary household bleach. I don’t measure it. I “splosh” it liberally into plastic bowls, although I offer this solution ratio for the faint of heart: “bleach solutions should also be diluted 1:32 as in 30 ml of bleach to 1 litre of water” (“New Reptile”). See why I just “splosh” it into the bowls? I’m not very good at math or in converting to the metric system. I let the bowls sit for a minimum of one hour and many times, two to three hours. Then I just as liberally flush and rinse the bowls with hot water followed by cold water. Bowls made of porous material can, and will, hold residual bleach. If you use these, then soak them in clean water for an hour to allow the bleach to leach out of the porous material. After all the washing and soaking, the bowls are either air dried or, at least monthly, get dried in the sun. I try to use the same bowl in the same cage each time. This is not always practical, but it is something to consider if a permanent bowl is used. Number the bowls to correspond to the cage numbers.
Cleaning the trays or enclosures is not as quick and easy as cleaning, or replacing, water bowls. Mine get monthly scrubbings. They get daily spot cleaning when necessary; a particularly potent fecal stain on the plastic will get a quick swipe with a paper towel laced with water and light bleach. But they do get cleaned. I use the same method with my plastic trays as for my water bowls. The geckos are transferred to a new tray, get new substrate (usually a paper towel), and their water bowl is cleaned and the water replaced. I place the crock water bowl back into the tray after it is cleaned. Same gecko, same water bowl. Meanwhile the dirty trays are soaking in a liberal “sploshing” of household bleach—an hour or two or three. They are rinsed copiously with water and then ALWAYS dried in the sun. If Cryptosporidiosis is an issue, household ammonia–the 10% solution–used at full strength is the ONLY sure bet for this insidious disease. The trays, or tubs, get a shot of Provent-a-Mite™ spray before I store them—just in case!
Although I do not use large cages these days, I once used 48″ Sandmar cages for the two Leopard gecko breeding groups I had in 1995. They also got a monthly scrubbing with a bleach solution. Although I didn’t measure the bleach any more accurately than when adding bleach to my water bowls, extra care was exercised so little residual bleach remained on cage surfaces. This precluded any irritants on the skin or mucous membranes of my geckos. The substrate was changed at the same time–at least weekly in these large cages. Newspapers were always the substrate of choice due to the ease with which I could change them. Bottom line is that no matter what type of caging is used, clean it regularly.
Don’t forget the racks or stands or the tables on which, or in which, all these trays or enclosures rest. How many breeders forget this? Way too many in my estimation. If you dust the furniture (and from here on when I mention furniture, I mean your racks or stands or tables) to simply get rid of the dust, make sure you sanitize the furniture as well. A bleach solution is adequate, but a good virucide (kills viruses) or bactericide (kills bacteria) is essential. You might find an all purpose disinfectant, but I suggest you use more specialized disinfectants that seem to work more efficiently. Nolvasan ™ is a good choice. The recommended strength on the container is 4-6 tablespoons of Nolvasan ™ per gallon of water. For Crypto, again, the ONLY effective disinfectant is common household ammonia at 100% strength. I’d use it on the racks as well as the tubs themselves. Just like bleach, a thorough warm-water rinse with air drying should eliminate any residue.
After a routine cleaning of the furniture, spray a liberal blast of Provent-a-Mite™ on all surfaces to prevent mites. Yes, there are other mite sprays on the market, but this is the one I use because I know it is effective and safe for the reptiles I cultivate. African Fat-tail breeders who bring in wild caught (WC) AFT’s to use in their breeding programs should take extra care in this regard. Need I say more?
One final thought on sanitation procedures. Use different tweezers for feeders for all the different age groups. By this I mean, use one for neonates, a different one for juveniles, and another one for adults. This keeps cross contamination at a minimum among the different age groups in the gecko room. Paranoid? Naw, just careful.
Trashcans are another item often overlooked in the gecko room. How often should they be disinfected? How often do they sit, over-filled usually, in the room? That is a rhetorical question, and I already know the answer. Too long. Again, I’m the first to admit that the old gecko and snake room in the garage had three or four garbage cans available. I made sure to empty them weekly, but at times they needed a trip to the landfill much more often. Two important times come to mind.
First, when an infestation of mites hit the gecko and snake room. I know, I know! That only happens to “other” folks. Right! But if it does happen, don’t empty the trays into the trashcan and then leave it in the gecko room. Move it outside immediately. Blast the inside liberally with Provent-a-Mite™. Or better yet, always sprinkle powdered Sevin™ dust inside the can before adding the trash bag. A few breeders use diatomaceous earth instead. This product, found at better lawn and garden shops, punctures the exoskeleton of the mites, they leak body fluids, dehydrate, and then die. Safe and effective and cheap.
Second, if there is a disease outbreak, clean the trays and move the garbage can outside the gecko room immediately. Empty it as soon as is practical and use a strong disinfectant like Nolvasan ™ to clean the inside and outside of the can. Since reptiles should not come into contact with the garbage can, don’t worry about removing any residue. Residue is a good thing here. Always move the garbage can outside the gecko room after the weekly substrate change or when spot cleaning of the substrate produces large amounts of dirty paper towels or newspapers. I don’t want the smell of dirty, nasty trash to permeate my house because I want my wife to keep me in the manner to which I have become accustomed. Living outside in the old chicken coop does not appeal to me.
Consider these ideas about biosecurity, then incorporate the ones that fit your circumstances and sensibilities. Above all else, employ biosecurity practices before an outbreak. It is much cheaper in the long run.
Shannon Hiatt served five years at the U. S. Army Medical Research Institue of Infectious Disesase, Fort Detrick, Maryland, while in uniform. Primary duties involved biosecurity.
“Cryptosporidiosis in Reptiles,” EzineArticles.com/3835471; http://ezinearticles.com/?Cryptosporidiosis-in-Reptiles&id=3835471
Hiatt, Shannon. “Battle Stations! Biosecurity for the Reptile Breeder,” Reptiles Magazine, August 2003.
Jeffrey, Joan S. “BioSecurity For Poultry Flocks,” University of California-Davis, http://www.texas-emu.org/nes/2002-04-23a.htm
“New Reptile–Quarantine, and signs of Illness,” October, 5th, 2002, http://www.icomm.ca/dragon/quarantine.htm
“Protect Your Livestock Investment,” August 19, 2002, http://www.live stockdeal.com/newsroom/article51.htm
“Quarantine Procedures,” http://www.pythons.net/quarantine.html
Veterinary Associates Stonefield, “Snake Ailments.” http://www.vetcity.com/ Infocenter/SnakeIllness3.html