Monday, July 17, 2006

A Word about UV

Everyone is uptight these days about avoiding Ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure: stay out of the sun; put sun cream on; make sure you're protected against UVA AND UVB; UV causes skin cancer! All of these things are important to remember if you are a human, particularly one of Scottish descent (complete with reddish hair and freckles) like me.

If, however, you are a reptile, UV takes on a completely different significance. UV radiation allows a complex organism like an iguana, tortoise, snake, or, yes, a human, to make vitamin D which helps with calcium absorption and metabolism. When we avoid UV radiation we are preventing our bodies from making this useful molecule. This isn't a problem if you are a human drinking vitamin-D fortified milk and eating fish or eggs. If you are a vegetarian iguana or Spur-thighed tortoise, then to be deprived of sunlight or other source of UV light is to be deprived of normal bone growth and strength. This leads to deformed bones and can result in multiple broken bones.

Reptiles in captivity need to have regular access to unfiltered sunlight (sometimes a challenge in Great Britain, but make the most of it when you've got it!). When sun exposure isn't a possibility, then a good UV lamp is the next best thing. Unfortunately not all reptile owners realise a few key aspects of UV supplementation:

(1) There can be no glass or plastic between the animal and the light. If you are concerned about your pet breaking or burning himself on the light, then put a sturdy wire mesh in front of it, but no other barrier.
(2) The UV portion of the light only lasts 6-9 months. This is long before the actual light burns out, so be sure to mark on your calendar when to change the light - twice a year (it's easy if you remember to do it when the clocks change, for example). You don't have to throw the light away, you can use it elsewhere in your house as just a regular light.
(3) The UV portion of the light doesn't extend very far. Only 12-18 inches. It therefore needs to be positioned near where your pet likes to bask. For a tortoise or a snake this will be near the floor of the enclosure, for an iguana or chameleon this will be near the top of the enclosure.
(4) Be sure to buy a lamp for reptiles, not one simply marked "broad spectrum" or labelled for fish. These other lights won't necessarily have the wavelengths your pet needs.

Finally, the need for UV has been best documented in reptiles, but birds and small mammals do also benefit from a trip (in safe accommodation) into the back garden on a sunny day. It's best not to do this when the family is over for a barbeque, or the neighbourhood dog is barking his head off. Choose a quiet time when there isn't much of a breeze and gradually introduce your pet to the big wide world. Don't be surprised if they are a bit scared at first. There are a lot of predator smells/sounds that we won't necessarily pick up on. As they spend 10-30 minutes outside a couple times a week, you will hopefully notice an improvement in their health and well-being.

Bring on the summer sun!

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