Captive Care

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A few words of caution

Gila monsters are fairly easy to keep and maintain, but there are a few special and critical considerations when choosing to share your life with one of these reptiles;

  • The emphasis on the fact they are venomous cannot be understated. There are few, if any, records of bites being fatal to healthy adults but anyone that has been bit agrees that it is one of the most painful things they have ever felt (check out this video from Brave Wilderness). A careful approach is always recommended when handling Heloderma.
  • Gila monsters are protected throughout their native range and cannot (nor should not) be collected from the wild. There are quite a few reputable breeders in the United States (and around the world), so do your homework and ask questions of prospective sellers about the animal(s) you are purchasing. This will go a long way in establishing your new Gila will be healthy and happy in its new home.
  • Many states and cities have laws pertaining to the ownership of venomous reptiles. For example, in Florida (where I live) the State requires that a license be obtained to own venomous reptiles (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission). Make sure to check what the laws and regulations are BEFORE considering buying a Gila monster.

Now that we have that out of the way…..

Caging

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While Gila monsters can be kept in a variety of cages, from space-efficient rack systems to massive outdoor pens, adults seem to benefit from at least a few square feet of floor space. This allows them room to roam, dig, and hide. They type of material the cage is constructed of can also vary and is not restrictive. Glass aquariums commonly used for reptiles do well, as do plastic enclosures. Wood can also be used but it has to be sealed for moisture so mold and fungus cannot be allowed to flourish. I am currently using Neodesha Plastics 36″ stackable cages, which measure 36″ wide, by 18″ deep, by 13″ high and am very happy with them. I have used Vision cages model 221 (28″ wide x 24″ deep x 12″ high) and the ZooMed 40 gallon glass aquarium (36″ wide x 18″ deep x 18″ high) over the years with success. I think that approximately 4.5 square feet is about the minimum an adult Gila should have. A minimum height of 9″ is also preferable to allow them to move freely around the cage. Regardless of type, the cage should be lockable or have a locking mechanism that can be attached to prevent unauthorized entry. You may know your Gila, but a visitor or roommate who is curious may not fare so well!

A substrate that is easily cleaned and does not facilitate the growth of mold or cause impaction should be chosen. Avoid pine and cedar beddings as they have been shown to have issues with reptiles in general. I have been using aspen bedding for over 20 years with no issues. Aspen bedding is reasonably priced and easily available at most pet shops or online retailers. The cage should be checked daily, especially after feeding, and cleaned with waste being immediately removed from the enclosure when found.

Feeding

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Feeding Gila monsters is inherently dangerous as they can develop a conditioned response and lunge surprisingly fast in an attempt to grab food, so NEVER use your hands to feed your monster. Hemostats or tongs are a great way to safely feed your animal as long as they are long enough to keep your hands and fingers out of the danger zone. The hemostats I have been using are 18″ in length and have served excellent well without incident.

In the wild, Gila monsters seek out nests of birds, rodents, and other reptiles to feed. Eggs and the young of other animals comprises the greatest part of their diet, but in captivity a diet of frozen rodents is the best bet. Frozen rodents have many benefits; they are easy to feed, don’t risk injury to your Gila, do not have parasites or bacteria, and are readily available from your local pet shop or online retailer (Big Cheese Rodents, RodentPro). The size of the rodent you feed is dependent on the stage of life your right Gila is at, adults can easily consume several adult mice in a feeding, while baby and juvenile monsters can eat the appropriately sized mouse (pinkies, fuzzies, hoppers, or sub-adults) in similar quantities. Rat pups can be fed, but most adult rats are pretty large and can be some work for a Gila to get down. Mice are a great size and the feeding can be controlled though quantities fed which is vital in maintaining a healthy lizard. Some people feed quail or other eggs, but this is an unnecessary risk when frozen rodents are easily available.

A note on Gila obesity should be mentioned here. Ever been to a zoo and saw a Gila monster that looked like a package of Jimmy Dean sausage? That is NOT the way to keep a healthy Gila monster! These lizards have a slow metabolism and low aerobic state, making them especially vulnerable to obesity in captive conditions. Keep an eye on your Gila’s weight and adjust feeding as necessary. Gilas can go for months without food, so don’t worry about starving your animal (as long as it’s not underweight with no fat reserves in the tail). Weight management is especially important for breeding colonies as obese adults will not often successfully produce viable eggs.

Water

Clean, fresh water should always be available to captive Gila monsters. I like to provide a bowl large enough for the animal to soak as they often like to lounge in the water for hours or even days. I have been using VanNess Jumbo Heavyweight 106-ounce Crocks for many years. They are the perfect size for an adult Gila and easy to clean which is important as the lizards often defecate in their water bowl. Make sure the water is clean and not stagnant, changed at least weekly to ensure freshness.

Veterinary Care

Finding a veterinarian that specializes in reptiles, let alone venomous reptiles, can be a tricky endeavor. While it is true that captive bred Gila monsters are normally healthy animals requiring minimum care, the day may come when your sweet little lizard isn’t feeling so well and needs to get checked out. This is especially for true if you plan on breeding as the stress of egg production and subsequent laying takes a heavy toll on the females. Knowing or having a vet can literally be the difference between life and death. Reptiles, like birds, are stoic animals that done show signs of stress (weakness in the wild) until the animal is very sick. Don’t wait until the last minute to find a vet, have one in place BEFORE purchasing your Gila monster. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box, for instance I found excellent care for my monsters at the University of Florida’s Small Animal Hospital. University’s with herpetological or exotic veterinary programs should be able to help, or provide guidance in this pursuit.