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Nilecrocodile.jpg
Chris Hunter of Nature Coast Exotics feeds one of his Nile crocodiles.

 

      In captivity it is the responsibility of the crocodilians keeper to offer a balanced diet that will maintain the animal’s fitness. Keepers rarely have access to the smorgasbord available to wild crocodilians but a suitable variety of domesticated foods are available and a varied diet can be proffered for the captive crocodilians. Each food has a range of amino acids, vitamins, and minerals that differ from the others. By offering a variety of food items it helps to ensure that the crocodilian is getting all that it needs and is not suffering from any subtle nutritional deficiencies.

 

 In wild crocodilians the vast majority of food items are consumed whole. The subtle benefit of this is that whatever the prey animal had consumed prior to being eaten is passed on and digested by the crocodilian. This virtually ensures a wide spectrum of vitamin, minerals, proteins, fats, and carbohydrates the crocodilian needs for health and proper growth. As captives whole prey animals can perform the same function. Whatever the prey animal has eaten prior to being fed will be passed on to the crocodilian. In the reptile hobby this is called gut loading and is a principle used extensively by keepers of insect eating animals. The same basic idea can be applied to animals that primarily eat vertebrate food items.

 

 Lean incomplete meats can be used but their imbalances should be figured into the overall dietary regimen. There is often a temptation to use these easy to acquire and inexpensive food items in place of the more expensive whole animals. A properly thought out diet can balance nutrition and cost without sacrificing quality. With proper supplementation even an incomplete food item can be improved. As a general rule the diet should consist of approximately 50% whole quality food items and the remainder spread across a variety of varying choices. ‘Red’ meats seem to produce healthier looking animals and research has shown them to breed better than those fed on fish or ‘white’ meat diets. Fish provide important elements to the crocodilians diet and while they should not be fed exclusively they should be a part of an overall dietary plan.

 

Obtaining and storing food

 

The basic crocodilian diet in captivity is usually comprised of poultry, beef, rodents, and fish. Larger animals may appreciate the variety provided by the feeding of rabbits, pigs, or goats as prey. Fortunately for modern crocodilian keepers finding food for even large crocodilians is often easier than finding food for large constricting snakes. A walk into any neighborhood supermarket will provide many good choices for the crocodilian keeper. It is often possible to acquire large amounts of chicken or beef directly from the stores manager at a discount price. In some instances food may be given to the keeper if it is deemed unfit for human consumption. Some crocodilian facilities have been able to make use of the misfortune of poultry truck drivers. It seems on occasion a truck carrying large quantities of various poultry on the way to the supermarket will have some form of mishap. The poultry contained within the vehicle, by law, is deemed unfit for human consumption. The chicken company must then destroy the load or if a lucky crocodilian facility is around have it delivered for low or no cost. It’s a win/win scenario, the company saves the cost of destroying the chicken, and the crocodilian facility gets free food.

 

A large number of southern United States crocodilian farms make use of the native nutria as a food item. This is akin to a hobbyist using the more normal rodents (rats and mice) as prey. Rodents are a very good food source and when offered in their complete form gives a crocodilian a very balanced nutrition. Rodents can be ordered from a variety of suppliers listed in the backs of herpetological magazines or via the Internet.

 

Fish are a popular and well-received crocodilian food. A visit to most pet stores or fish bait stores will allow the keeper to see a few varieties of ‘feeder’ fish. Most pet stores focus on goldfish while the bait store will focus on minnows. A third option is fish farms that breed fish for restocking lakes and ponds. It may be possible to acquire a multitude of species for a relatively inexpensive price. They will even deliver the fish to you if sufficient quantity is ordered. Large catfish or tilapia is a good source of food for large sub adult and adult animals. Both species are farm raised and available for a moderate price.

 

It should be mentioned that fish have a few disadvantages as a food item and perhaps should be used less frequently than other food sources in a captive crocodilians diet. A primary disadvantage to a fish based diet is that fresh and frozen fish often contain large amounts of the enzyme thiaminase. And as a continued downside freezing appears to increase concentrations of thiaminase in the tissue of the fish. Needless to say frozen fish should be used sparingly in the diet of a properly cared for captive crocodilian. If you must maintain crocodilians on a regular fish diet it is important to use a supplement of vitamin B1in the animal’s diet. Of course not all fish contain thiaminase, but if you include thiaminase possessing fish in the diet it is important to also use proper supplementation.

 

Another and perhaps more serious problem in regards to fish is that of fish oil. Crocodilians fed a large proportion of fish in their diet are prone to steatites, which results from a vitamin E deficiency. As the fish oils break down the pigments result in the death of fat cells and inflammation in the crocodilian. If the crocodilian is not properly treated and the diet corrected the condition can rapidly become fatal. The bottom-line for good health in a captive crocodilian is that fish should be a part, and preferably a small part, of a varied diet.

 

Another, perhaps overlooked, food source is local hunters and wildlife rescue organizations. Often at the end of a season a successful game hunter may have more venison than his family can use. If it has been in his freezer for a while it is usually possible to have it donated for use in a crocodilians diet. Once word gets out that an outlet such as this exists a steady flow of wild game for food often follows. In the south wild boar is a very good, very common alternative food source. Many wildlife rescue organizations get many offers of meat donations. Acquainting yourself and perhaps volunteering with these organizations can obtain a steady supply of ‘free’ food for a collection of crocodilians vastly reducing the costs associated with keeping the reptiles.

 

Whatever food sources a keeper chooses it may be necessary to store large amounts of crocodilian food as to make the process of feeding the beasts cost effective. The acquisition of a large freezer specifically for crocodilian food makes it easier to purchase a bulk of food at discount prices. The freezer also gives you piece of mind knowing you have several weeks or months of food stored away.

 

Food preparation

 

Typically crocodilians will require little in the way of actual preparation in regards to a food item. Most crocodilians can be fed uncooked prey and if it is a whole food item it should remain intact. It has been mentioned by several keepers and hobbyists that the skin of uncooked chicken may be removed to lower its fat content. This is an option but perhaps one with dubious benefits. A well-rounded crocodilian diet will not rely so heavily on one food item and hence a continuous need to lower the animal’s dietary fat should not be present.       

 

It is advisable to offer captive crocodilians fresh food items. There is a tendency to feed large captive carnivores such as crocodilians food that is often unfit for human consumption. This approach is certainly cheaper and will stretch an owners funding further but ultimately may adversely affect the health of your captives. While the urge to purchase outdated or condemned human food items may be a temptation it is one best resisted as a sick crocodilian will be more expensive to nurse back to health than the proper food item would have initially cost.

 

Supplementation

 

Supplementation in crocodilians may provide the benefit of ‘filling in the holes’ that the primary diet is providing. Truthfully, a whole animal diet should provide all the vitamins and minerals that a crocodilian needs for growth and vitality but variances exist in how prey animals are raised.

 

In younger crocodilians, in particular hatchlings, additional multivitamin or calcium may ensure the animals are receiving the proper base materials for complete bone growth. It is important not to over use supplements. With adult animals fed on whole prey animal’s supplementation may never be necessary although the use of a good multivitamin once weekly to biweekly will help prevent any shortfalls in the animal’s base diet.

 

The supplement used can come from a variety of sources. Many animal retailers supply various powders that can be used to ‘dust’ food items before feeding to a captive crocodilian. A very inexpensive and effective way to supplement a crocodilians diet is to place a human multivitamin inside a food item. The crocodilian then ingests the tablet when the food is swallowed. This has the added benefit of not washing of in the pool when the crocodilian submerges, something which is almost inevitable with the various powders that dust the crocodilians food.

 

Feeding methods for different size animals

 

Feeding crocodilians is one of the most pleasing, exciting, and dangerous aspects of maintaining and interacting with crocodilians in captivity. To be so close as to feel the rush and sound of a crocodilian’s jaws is a familiarity few humans are able to experience. It is both fascinating and exciting. The protocol for feeding crocodilians is largely dependent on the size of the animals being fed. It is obviously safer to feed hatchlings than it is adult animals. It should be stated that almost invariably captive crocodilians will begin to associate their keeper’s presence with the possibility of a meal. This means that captive animals are generally more aggressive and bold than their wild counterparts having come to see man as a food source rather than something to be feared. With this fact in mind it is best to have the keeper’s safety in mind during any attempt to feed captive crocodilians.

 

      Hatchlings and juvenile crocodilians present little in the way of actual danger to a keeper. However many of the feeding habits the crocodilian will follow for a lifetime are ingrained in young captives. As a general rule it is good to allow crocodilians to feed off of a platform of some sort situated at the waters edge. Sub adults and adults can be fed from a platform, tongs, or elevated wire. It may be necessary in the case of large and aggressive adult crocodilians to have an elevated or enclosed platform for the keeper to keep out of the reach of the crocodilians being fed.

 

 Many private keepers like to feed their smaller crocodilians by hand or via tongs. This is an entertaining practice but often unwise as crocodilians fed in this manner often ‘bull’ rush their keepers as adults. Feeding off of a ledge will generally help prevent the ‘bull’ rushing associated with hand or tong feeding but will not prevent an outgoing crocodilian from moving towards it’s caretaker with the anticipation of being fed. With this in mind it is advisable to use tongs to place the food on the feeding ledge. Some species, such as Nile crocodiles, are more aggressive in their feeding responses than others but all should be treated with caution during the excitable time of feeding. Injuries related to the keeping of crocodilians are virtually synonymous with feeding or handling errors on the part of the keeper. Always be aware of your position and the position of the crocodilian within the enclosure.

 

Feeding frequency

 

      Typically hatchling and young crocodilians that are spending energy on rapid growth will benefit from daily or at least every other day feedings. This will generally result in four or more feedings per week. Since the items being fed are small the crocodilian can ingest food with a greater frequency. As the animal matures and food item size increases digestion may take longer ad the frequency of feedings may be reduced.

 

      It should also be noted that captive crocodilians have a tendency towards becoming quite portly. Some may in fact be called obese. Rather than specifically going by a hard and fast feeding rulebook each keeper should observe their individual charges and assess their physical condition daily. An animal that is overweight should not be fed in the same manner as a trim specimen.

 

Temperature and time of year may affect a crocodilians appetite. American alligators kept outdoors will often not feed annually from October through April, and perhaps even longer in some parts of their range. A healthy crocodilian can weather periods of extended fasting with no difficulty.

 

Parasites in food

 

If a good supplier of whole animals is available and the remaining food items come from human food providers the chances of a captive crocodilian encountering parasites in their food is greatly diminished. Pork is known to carry roundworms and the feeding of raw pork should be avoided. Any source of food taken from the wild and fed raw has a greater chance of bringing parasites into your crocodilian than a dietary item procured from normal avenues. Fish, reptiles, and amphibians are notorious for carrying parasites that can infect your captive. Many of these parasites can be removed by the heat of cooking; unfortunately this often makes the food less nutritious and unpalatable for a crocodilian. As a general rule it is best to not feed anything that is questionable as to it’s quality of parasite load. Worming and veterinary bills for crocodilians are expensive and this is area where a mistake in the health of your animal is easily avoided.

Feeding Hatchlings & Yearlings crocodilians

 

1. Feed daily or every other day

 

2. Primary diet items: pinkie to adult mice, poultry, beef, feeder fish.

 

3. Secondary diet items: Crickets, superworms, reptile pellets, krill, crayfish, prepared pellet diets.

Feeding Sub adult crocodilians

 

1. Feed two to three times weekly

 

2. Primary diet items: Adult mice to medium rats, poultry, beef, and whole fish.

 

3. Secondary food items: Prepared pellet  diets, insects, and crustaceans.

 

Feeding Adult crocodilians

 

1.       Feed one to two times weekly. Adjust for the animal’s weight, health, and seasonal variations.

 

2.       Primary food items: Large rodents, pigs, goats, poultry, and whole fish.

 

3.       Secondary diet items: Wild game, prepared pellet diets, crustaceans.

Crocodilian Food item amino acid profile

 

Arg

Cys

His

Iso

Leu

Lys

Met

Phe

Thr

Try

Tyr

Val

Chicken

1378

311

655

1125

1653

1765

591

899

922

257

732

1100

Turkey

1979

308

845

1409

2184

2557

790

1100

1227

311

1066

1464

Beef

1329

2081

2220

631

1045

1122

297

-

1411

Lamb

-

-

-

1068

1595

1667

494

837

943

267

-

1015

Pork

-

-

-

1510

2164

2414

733

1157

1364

382

-

1529

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuna

1518

-

1619

1316

2024

2327

810

1012

1214

-

303

1417

Herring (Atl)

-

-

-

882

1315

1522

502

640

761

173

-

934

Herring (Pac)

-

-

-

892

1312

1522

508

648

752

175

-

928

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