Lizards do not acquire dusted supplements in the wild, yet it’s vital that they receive them while living in captive requirements. Ever wonder why that is?
*Note that this page will be updated as needed. Last update: 02/28/18*
Reptiles receive proper variation in their diet in the wild while receiving adequate amounts of UVB (output of vitamin D3) from the sun. In captivity we must provide our reptile with artificial vitamin D3 from dusted supplements or UVB light bulbs. And even then some reptile keepers use both methods and over supplement vitamin D3 resulting in several health complications including, including MBD (Metabolic bone disease (yes you can give your reptile MBD from over supplementing too)). Reptiles have access to something in the wild that proves to be challenging for us to offer our reptiles in captivity: variation in prey and dirt (hold your pitchforks anti-substrate reptile keepers).
It’s important to understand that each prey item (bugs in most cases) have very different nutritional values to offer once consumed. And to complicate matters further, each species of reptile requires certain amounts of vitamins and minerals.
For example the Jacksons Chameleon has a very specific requirement for Vitamin A and cannot tolerate the amount that a bearded dragon could tolerate and furthermore requires. Some species require higher levels of UVB while others require none at all.
One thing most reptiles share in common when it comes to nutritional balance is the calcium to phosphorus ratio. Calcium and Phosphorus go hand in hand. I will speak briefly about the calcium to phosphorus ratio, as that topic is a lengthy one. Basically you want a balanced ratio of ideally a 2:1 calcium to phosphorus. The body requires 1:1 ratio minimally. It take 1 part of calcium to process 1 part of phosphorus, and you still need some calcium for the rest of the bodies every day functions! So if you have a 2:1 (Ca:Ph) ration, that 1:1 ratio of calcium : phosphorus will be equally absorbed leaving some calcium to be absorbed for bone formation and proper organ function.
Another important factor that reptiles have access to in the wild and not in captivity is dirt. Healthy dirt is an organic mixture of several different variations of dirt, micro fauna, decomposers, decomposing leaves to release nutrition back into the soil, poop from worms, and even the motion of worms burrowing that rotates the soil. Healthy dirt contains many essential vitamins, and minerals. Depending on the reptiles natural location, dirt plays a big role in the reptiles diet. It could vary from the insects who live in the dirt that the reptiles eat or the insects ingested the dirt now act as carriers to whatever feeds off these bugs. Or even dust from the soil left on leaves that the reptile will lick up and ingest during rainfall.
Healthy dirt is essential. For example Jackson Chameleons (Xantholophus) in Hawaii vs. Kenya. Hawaii is made from volcanic rock, where as Kenya has variations of soil containing higher levels of calcium. Chameleons found in Hawaii are all slightly smaller and have bowed horns compared to Jacksons found in Kenya. This is because Jackson Chameleons on Hawaii have a slight form of MBD due to high amounts of phosphorus being in volcanic rock which imbalances the calcium absorption.
Try and mimic your reptiles natural living conditions, feeding and watering schedule. Take the Jacksons chameleon again for example, they love flies and eating later in the morning through to the early afternoon. The flies they mainly ingest are hovering around flowers covered in pollen so the Chameleons ingest a good amount of pollen which is natural antibiotic and contains all the essential amino acids in its own!
Why is this important with gutloading?
Crickets (being the most common reptile feeder) are naturally higher in phosphorus than they are calcium making them an insufficient source of calcium. That’s before gutloading.
Gutloading not only provides the appropriate Ca:Ph ratio but is essential for other nutrients the body requires to function such as amino acids, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins (A,D,D3,E,K to name a few which all require amino acids for absorption), proteins, fiber, salts, minerals, iron, calcium etc. A proper delivery of these nutrients is why gutloading is so essential as the bug acts as a vessel to transport these nutrients to your reptile.
Just like in humans, there is such thing as over-supplementing reptiles with certain vitamins and minerals, except in reptiles it is much easier to do. Over supplementing can result in various illnesses in reptile which often result in death. This is just another reason why gutloading is essential. If you over supplement something, its kidneys and liver process the excess and filter it out. Sounds easy enough if it happens once or twice as it sometimes does, but this takes a long term tole on any creatures organs and often results in nutritionally imbalances as everything is a chain reaction on a microscopic level. This is why gutloading a bug prior to feeding it to your reptile allows the bug to filter out the excess for your reptile without its organs taking the hit.
This is great and all but, what IS gutloading?
Gutloading is literally loading prey up with all the good stuff. Eg, plant based proteins and super foods. I design each one of my gutloads specifically for certain bugs that are being fed to specific species of reptiles as like I mentioned earlier, each species requires different levels of vitamins. Regardless I always use plant based proteins as the foundation of all my gutloads as rich proteins such as animal fats (fish food, meats, cat foods, etc) not only then delivered in high amounts to the reptile but on top of that the reptile is also receiving animal protein from the crickets meat as well. And excess protein that the body has too much of is processed into fat which is stored in the liver rendering it useless to the body and quite literally making the liver fatty, hence fatty liver disease (fatal) which many species are prone to. So, to avoid all that, I don’t use any animal based proteins in any of my gutloads.
What are some safe plant based proteins? Alfalfa is usually my go to, easy to acquire and most bugs love it. Spirulina is another plant based protein that is included in my gutloads, as well as barley grass, whey grass, oat grass, algae, hibiscus flower, grade A bee pollen, pea powder, hemp protein, chlorella, phosphorus free calcium, ground flax seed, sesame seeds, alfalfa leaves, and much much more. I lot of reptile keepers do not have access to these ingredients or do not have the resources or knowledge to avoid certain foods for certain reptiles and do not have the time to blend these up for their bugs. I sell my human grade ingredients gutloads to the public if there is a demand for it but for now am just happy with the benefits I have seen in my reptiles and friends reptiles alone. Provides natural immune system boost, colour enhancement, essential vitamins/ minerals, promotes healthy digestive tract and is packed with antioxidants! Excellent source of vitamin A, B6, B12, C, E, K, magnesium, iron, calcium, selenium. Organic barley grass, organic alfalfa grass, organic wheat grass, organic oat grass, organic barley, organic kamut, organic broken cell wall chlorella, organic grade A bee pollen, organic kale, organic hemp protein, organic pea protein, organic ground flax seed, raw hulled sesame seed, organic rose hips, human grade calcium carbonate Basically my crickets eat better than I do…
Living here in Canada it can be difficult to acquire variations of bugs making gutloading so much more important.I quarantine and gutload any new feeder bugs at least 48 hours prior to offering them to my reptiles. Oh, and don’t forget to hydrate your bugs and reptiles when offering bugs as these nutrients require proper hydration to transport throughout the body.
If you’re to take anything away from this blog post, variation is key for reptiles in the wild as certain bugs offer different balances of nutrients and they receive their vitamin D3 from the sunshine to metabolize the calcium and phosphorus for optimal absorption. This is why common reptile diseases seen in captivity are virtually non existant in reptiles in the wild ( MBD, fatty liver disease). As a reptile keeper it is our responsibility to provide these essential nutrients to our reptiles as we often don’t have a great variation in bugs to offer to our critters as well as proper housing requirements including UVB lighting to process this bundle of nutrients we are offering to our pets. I have seen a significant positive difference in not only the quality of the bugs I am feeding this gutload to, but my reptiles that eat these gutloaded bugs. Their overall colour has improved, general and reproductive activity/ health and of their young, and their appetite for bugs! And I contribute that to the fact that their bugs aren’t covered in dust anymore as who wants to eat calcium coated dusty bugs? Especially a sick or picky reptile. I have no longer needed to supplement my reptiles nearly as much as I can see their calcium sacs are at a ideal level with just their gutloaded bugs alone (and Pangea diet for my fruit eaters). Don’t get me wrong, I still supplement phosphorus and vit D3 (as my reptile already have a UVB/ vit. D3 source in the enclosure and too much is just as bad as too little) free calcium supplements from time to time especially in breeding animals, but I have found the need to supplement my reptiles by dusting the bugs to have greatly decreased as the bugs are carrying these same (except in a more accessible form as the crickets have literally loaded with it and have already filter out excess amounts) nutrients into the reptile after being eaten. It is important to watch that your reptiles are eating the appropriate amount so they are receiving the proper amount of nutrients.
So once your cricket is gutloaded and feeling fantastic for receiving such a nutrient rich meal, its optimized with nutrients for you reptiles consumption. I mean, you are what you eat after all.