For a store that sells herptiles, offering live food means more product diversity and more satisfied, repeat customers.
The idea of having a pet herp has been shunned by many parents, spouses and even enthusiasts themselves due to the longstanding expectation that herp pets would require live prey items as the bulk of the diet. Whereas dogs, cats and birds can be fed manufactured diets straight from the bag, the thought of crickets, mealworms and other creepy-crawlies has no doubt prevented more than one budding herper from being able to purchase his or her desired pet.
While alternatives to live feeders do exist (there are prepared pelleted diets, canned foods and frozen rodents) most, if not all, common pet herp species should receive live food as part of a balanced diet. There is nothing wrong with incorporating manufactured diets into the proposed menu as a source of additional nutrients and dietary variety, but one must keep in mind that in nature, most snakes, lizards, turtles and frogs consume a diet almost exclusively composed of live prey.
In the wild, snakes, large lizards and some amphibian species make rodents a regular part of their diet. Mice are the most commonly purchased food item, and they are available in different sizes, based on age. If a retailer plans to keep live rodents in stock, he or she should be prepared to offer them optimal care. It takes a lot of extra time and energy to keep feeder rodents clean and healthy.
It is important that all feeder mice and rats be offered a high-quality diet designed specifically for rodents. Feeders that are poorly fed tend to become sickly more often and offer less nutrition to customers’ animals.
The smallest mice are known in the herping world as “pinkies.” Pinkies are mice ranging in age from one to four or five days. They make up the staple diet for very young snakes or are served as treats for larger lizards.
Once the pinkies begin to get larger and start to grow hair, they are known as “fuzzies.” Fuzzies are slightly larger than pinkies, but remain unweaned and have yet to open their eyes.
Once a herp outgrows fuzzies, they can be fed “hoppers.” These are weaned mice that have opened their eyes and are much more mobile than even the largest fuzzy.
Lastly, there are adult mice, which are nearly or completely mature. Rats should also be made available in a variety of sizes.
The common house cricket makes up the staple diet for nearly all insectivorous herps. They are the prey item most commonly associated with pet lizards and frogs and should be offered in a variety of sizes to suit the needs of customers. There are a wide variety of methods for housing large quantities of crickets, and the one a store chooses will ultimately depend on the amount it intends to have on hand. Some forward-thinking companies also offer crickets pre-packaged.
Crickets should be well fed prior to being sold. A process known as “gut-loading” is the simple act of offering crickets a high-calcium diet with as wide a variety of nutrients as possible. There are many commercial gut-loads available that can be used by retailers or offered for sale to customers. Crickets that are not gut-loaded or fed within 24 hours of being consumed are not nutritious.
Customers should be encouraged to purchase a high-quality calcium/multivitamin to dust the crickets with just prior to feeding them to their pets. This ensures that the herp is receiving the most nutrition from each single insect.
All About Worms
Mealworms are second to crickets in popularity and availability as a reptile food source. The most common type of mealworm is the Tenebrio molitar. These measure about 1.5 inches in length. There are also giant mealworms that are hormone induced to grow to four-times the size of a regular mealworm.
Mealworms can be stored by refrigeration, as this halts their metabolism and puts them in a dormant state. They can stay this way for weeks (if not months) if conditions are suitable. Once brought to room temperature, they will start to wiggle about and “come back to life.” Mealworms, like crickets, should be dusted with a suitable powdered supplement prior to being offered to a herp.
Superworms are the largest type of mealworm and a different species altogether. Zophobas morio get much larger than even giant mealworms and are a great food source for adult bearded dragons, monitor lizards, tegus and even turtles. These worms are a tropical species and should be kept at room temperature and fed an appropriate diet of dark, leafy greens and commercial gut loads.
Waxworms are plump, soft-bodied worms that are the larval stage of the greater wax moth, Galleria mellonella. Like mealworms, they will go dormant if kept refrigerated, and are almost always offered in this larval form. Waxworms are slow moving and high in fat and protein. They are a great way to help customers with underweight herps or those recovering from illness or recent egg laying.
Silkworms, giant horned worms, phoenix worms, feeder fish and various species of roaches are not uncommon requests at reptile specialty stores. While a wide variety of dietary creatures is best for most herps, it may not be feasible or even possible to have all of these feeders on hand at all times. Some are seasonal, while others are just not worth the effort based on demand. It is up to the retailer to determine, based on the store’s clientele and their requests, what feeders should be offered for sale and what quantities to stock and sell them in.
Jonathan Rheins is an avid herpeteculturist who is a manager at LLLReptile & Supply Co. in Escondido, Calif. When not fulfilling that position, spends his time working with and writing about a wide variety of exotic reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates.