Does Murphy have a favorite enrichment item?
Enriching Komodo dragons can be challenging, in part because they try to eat everything. So, much of our enrichment is food-based, and we rotate our offerings. Occasionally, we will offer a portion of a carcass that is too large for him to eat whole. This encourages him to use his natural behavior of tearing bits off, which helps work his neck muscles. He also spends lots of time foraging around his habitat for any food items he missed!
On warm days, Murphy has access to his outdoor habitat. He likes to explore and test out new substrates (ground cover) that we’ve added to his enclosure.
What training do you do with Murphy?
An important aspect of caring for Murphy is training him to voluntarily participate in his own healthcare. We use positive reinforcement, a type of operant conditioning where we pair desired behaviors with rewards in the form of attention or food treats.
He doesn’t have to participate, of course, but often will choose to do so since he is very motivated to receive some extra snacks! These interactions also help Murphy bond with us and build trust in us as his caretakers.
Murphy is trained to participate in a variety of medical procedures, including awake radiographs and blood draws. Like many aging animals, he has osteoarthritis—a degenerative disease affecting joint cartilage and the underlying bone with associated pain and stiffness. To keep him comfortable, our veterinary team conducts photobiomodulation (laser) therapy treatments two times a week to ease his discomfort. He seems to like the warmth on his joints.
As his reward for participating, he receives treats throughout his time in the training crate and after we have left the enclosure for any free-contact procedures. He also gets scrubbed down with a stiff bristled brush while we are doing anything involving direct touch.
Why is this training important?
Thanks to our positive reinforcement training sessions with Murphy, we can avoid having to put him under anesthesia for most health exams and procedures. Putting any animal under anesthesia comes with risk, and this is especially true for reptiles. It’s safer and less stressful for Murphy to be awake during certain procedures, and it’s also safer for us if he’s calmly participating.
At 25 years old, Murphy is considered geriatric for his species, as the median life expectancy for male Komodo dragons is around 19.5 years of age. Due to his advanced age and history of arthritis, he requires more frequent physical exams.
These training sessions allow us to get a good picture of how Murphy’s arthritis is progressing. The laser therapy treatments allow us to keep him on a lower dose of pain medications, too, which is better for him long-term. By taking routine radiographs and blood draws, we are able to evaluate how his body is reacting to medications. Our veterinary team bases his treatment plan on those diagnostics and our daily observations about his behavior.