Test the water before buying an amphibious friend
Reptiles and amphibians have a certain popularity in Hong Kong, but many suffer from inadequate care, according to Karthi Krishnasamy, who handles plenty of these animals at Happy Pets veterinary centre in Tai Hang.
'Reptiles are cool. I am a Malaysian and used to live on the fringe of the forest. We grew up seeing snakes and monitor lizards as our normal fauna. And we had so many snakes as pets, often rescued snakes.'
At work in Hong Kong, the veterinarian sees ball pythons, bearded dragons, chameleons and different species of turtles - most commonly red-eared sliders, a type of terrapin - and other species such as red-footed tortoises, sulcata and leopard tortoises.
'I think pet reptiles suffer more than any other pets. They are hardy animals and survive despite the poor care that many owners give them. If a dog or a cat is kept badly, everyone is quick to notice, but a pet reptile's suffering just goes unseen,' Krishnasamy says.
'For example, we've seen a red-eared slider that was kept on land for 12 years and only offered water during feeding.
'She was severely stunted and deformed. The owner, although genuinely attached to the terrapin, was completely unaware of his pet's husbandry needs. He was shocked to be told that this is an aquatic animal.
'Responsible pet owners should research their pets' needs and responsible pet shops should provide free and accurate information with every purchase.'
There is an organisation which aims to help: The Hong Kong Society of Herpetology Foundation was founded in 2007 and works to prevent cruelty to reptiles and amphibians through educating the public. The society says that animal abuse is often related to cats and dogs only, but tortoise and terrapin abuse is quite common - not through direct harm but by abandonment.
Red-eared sliders are now widespread in Hong Kong park ponds, for instance, as a result of irresponsible dumping of pets, but they are not native to Hong Kong and often struggle to survive.
Buying an exotic pet should not be an impulse purchase. This is often the case with turtles and tortoises, Krishnasamy says.
'When they are sold in the pet shop, they are small and really cute. The impression is that they can live their entire lives in the same type of containers they are bought in. That is obviously not acceptable - owners must be aware that these animals will grow and will need to express their natural behaviour and have quality of life.
'The cute two-inch red-eared slider will grow to the size of a dinner plate. Obviously, to accommodate this and to satisfy welfare aspects, larger space, deeper water and an enriched environment are required.'
People will often buy a few of the animals due to their cuteness, but they may fight as they grow and each one will have to be kept separately. 'Think carefully about the space that is required and the size of Hong Kong apartments,' Krishnasamy says.
Owners are not always prepared for the special living conditions required by reptiles and amphibians.
'We spend a lot of time educating owners on proper care,' Krishnasamy says. 'Most are totally unaware of the individual species' husbandry needs. Unfortunately, we only see these animals when they are unwell. I wish there could be a bigger education campaign to teach people proper reptile care, and mechanisms to protect against impulsive purchase of reptiles.
'Improving the welfare of all animals is a topic dear to me, and seeing how much suffering of pet reptiles goes unnoticed, I wanted to work more with them, learning and improving their lives as I go. Many reptile health problems could be easily avoided if the owners were better informed.'
Andrew Baker has been a practising veterinarian for more than 20 years and heads the Animal Medical Centre which has nine branches in Hong Kong. He often sees terrapins and tortoises, and occasionally snakes, chameleons, bearded dragons and iguanas.
They are suited to being kept in Hong Kong, he says, if attention is paid to their environment. This includes temperature, lighting intensity and wavelength, substrate for burrowing and food.
'Common health problems are due to incorrect environment or food, resulting in mineral and vitamin imbalances,' he says. But he once treated a toad with a more unusual complaint.
'It had swallowed some quite large stones from its tank and thereafter refused to eat. The owners knew exactly how many stones there were in the tank so they knew that some were missing.
'A quick X-ray proved that there were some inside the toad, and it was also quite easy to feel them through the skin. They were too large to pass into the intestine so I knew it was not an immediate emergency, but the owners were concerned and wanted the stones surgically removed. I was sure the toad would regurgitate them when it wanted to,' Baker says.
'After a week or so, I persuaded them to wait a bit longer. But after another week there was no change and the owners were insistent. I scheduled surgery for a few days later.
'Luckily for all of us, the toad regurgitated all the stones on the morning of the proposed surgery and never looked back.'