Restraint, physical examination and venipuncture techniques in reptiles (Proceedings)


Restraint, physical examination and venipuncture techniques in reptiles (Proceedings)

Aug 01, 2011

Capture and restraint


Most snakes can be easily captured directly out of the carrier or cage they are in. If the snake is aggressive, it may be necessary to use a towel along with leather gloves to safely capture it. In these cases, it is easiest to gently toss the towel over the snake and find the head. Once the head has been isolated and restrained, the snake can be safely taken out of the enclosure. If the snake is extremely aggressive or if it is a venomous snake, a snake hook should be used to pin down the head of the snake long enough to safely grasp its head and body. Improper use of the snake hook can cause trauma to the patient; therefore, extreme caution should be taken.

Snakes are commonly brought into the clinic in pillowcases. It is important that the veterinarian or technician does not just open the pillowcase and quickly pull the snake out (especially if unfamiliar with the patient). It is important to first know what type of snake is in the pillowcase. To safely remove the snake from the pillowcase, first find the snake's head and gently grasp it from the outside of the pillowcase. Once the snake is restrained, the restrainer should put his or her free hand into the pillowcase and transfer the head to the "free hand." After this is accomplished, it should now be safe to take the entire snake out of the pillowcase.

It is important to gently hold the snake directly behind the head with one hand (so it cannot turn around and bite!) and support the body with the other hand. If the snake is large, more than one person may be needed to restrain it. A good rule of thumb is one person per 3 ft of snake.


Lizards can be challenging animals to both capture and restrain. Smaller lizards are generally easy to capture but can be difficult to restrain because they tend to wiggle and squirm while they are being held. Most small lizards can simply be picked up with both hands and taken out of the enclosure. This is also true of the larger lizard species as well. However, some of the larger lizards can be both difficult to capture and restrain, especially if they are aggressive. If the lizard is aggressive, a towel or blanket along with leather restraint gloves should be used. It is important to remember that lizards can scratch and bite when they are scared or nervous. Therefore, it is a good idea to wear long sleeves when possible and always keep track of where the head is. Long-necked lizards (i.e., monitors) can easily turn around and bite if their head is not properly restrained during capture. Keeping one hand on the neck, just behind the base of skull, will help prevent getting bitten. Many species of lizards have a natural predatory response to voluntarily "drop" or autotomize their tail in an attempt to escape predation. It is a good rule of thumb to never capture any species of lizard by their tail.

In general, lizards can be restrained by placing one hand around the neck and pectoral girdle region while the other hand can be used to support the body near the pelvis. Although it is sometimes impossible, try to avoid smashing down and damaging the dorsal spines of lizards such as iguanas when they are being restrained. It is also important to remember that not all lizards have durable and tough skin. Some lizards such as geckos have extremely delicate skin that can easily be damaged by capture and restraint (make sure only soft towels are used on geckos).


Although chelonians (i.e. turtles and tortoises) are usually the easiest to capture, they are the hardest to restrain. Unless working with extremely large tortoises, most chelonians can just be picked up with both hands and placed on the exam table. When examining large tortoises (i.e. several kilograms), it is easiest to set up an exam area within the animal's enclosure or on the floor in the clinic's exam area. Since there is such a great deal of variation in size and strength, restraint techniques may vary between small and large chelonians. Once the animal's body is under control, it is imperative that the head is properly restrained. Although this is relatively easy when the animal is sick, it can be difficult on strong healthy chelonians, especially large tortoises and box turtles.

There are several ways the restrainer can gain control of the animal's head. Many turtles and tortoises are very curious. If they are set down on the table or the ground, they may just start walking around to check things out. If this is the case, the technician can just walk up to them and grasp their head with one hand while restraining the body with the other hand. To keep control of the head, it is best to position your thumb on one side of the cranial portion of the neck and position the rest of your fingers (or just the index finger for smaller species) on the other side of the neck just behind the base of the skull. Healthy chelonians are strong so it may take a lot of constant but gentle force to keep the turtle or tortoise's head out of the shell. If the animal is extremely active, an additional person may be necessary to help restrain the limbs and body.

Another way to gain control of the head is by trying to coax the animal out of its shell. Many chelonians will extend their head out of the shell if food is offered to them or if they are placed in a container of shallow warm water. Once the head is extended, the same techniques mentioned above can be used to gain and keep control of the animal's head. If these techniques fail, it may be possible to slip a small blunt ear curette or spay hook under the horny portion of the upper beak, known as the rhinotheca. Once the probe has been placed, it can be gently pulled back to extend the neck to a position for the restrainer to grasp. It is important to note that this technique can be dangerous. The beak can be chipped or broken if the animal struggles or is in poor health. If a spay hook is the tool of choice, it may be a good idea to pad the hooked portion of the instrument. Padding can simply consist of tape or an elastic wrap cut to the appropriate size. It is important to note that caution should be taken when dealing with any aquatic turtle, especially snapping turtles. These species of turtles have a tendency to bite, and many of the larger turtles can cause serious bodily harm to the people working with them.

Box turtles can be the most challenging chelonians to properly restrain. Since box turtles have a hinge on their plastron, many species are able to completely tuck themselves into their shells. The easiest way to extend their head is to gently prop open the cranial portion of the carapace (upper shell) and the plastron (lower shell). Extreme care must be taken when trying to prop the shell open. It is suggested that a well-padded object be used when attempting this. This will help avoid traumatizing or fracturing the shell. Another way to extend a box turtle's head is to grasp one of the forelimbs, keeping the leg extended out of the shell until the head can be successfully pulled out and properly restrained. This method works well because once the leg is extended, the turtle will usually not close its' shell down on its' own leg. It is important to remember that any of these capture and restraint techniques can potentially cause a fair amount of stress to the turtle or tortoise. If initial attempts at capture and restraint are not successful, chemical restraint may be necessary for any reptile, especially large tortoises and box turtles.

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