Understanding Dusting and Gut-loading, why it may be necessary, it's risks and pitfalls

Dusting and gut-loading is a popular topic in reptile husbandry, and drives a lot of dry-good sales at retail for various insect dusts and gut-loads that promise to deliver a broad range of benefits to the insectivore.  There are major failures in the market both in product quality, unsubstantiated claims, and poor education.  We will discuss the following items more in depth in this post:

Ask a group of reptile owners, retailers and breeders about how to deliver proper nutrition to pet reptiles and you’ll find a wide variety of answers.  Some folks that we meet on the road have an excellent understanding of proper nutrition and method of accomplishing a complete diet for their reptiles – but honestly just as many hobbyists, retailers and even breeders surprisingly have little knowledge of nutrition.

We’ve learned so much over the past 20 years about exotic pet nutrition.  Todd always likes to tell the story of how our understanding of sugar gliders evolved just in the last several years.  When these cute little marsupials came to the US, people observed their natural behavior of consuming a lot of fruits and replicated that observed diet in captivity.  It wasn’t until observers noticed that sugar gliders require a significant amount of protein to meet their dietary needs to grow to their potential and reproduce.  Upon adding bugs and other protein sources, reproduction success improved and their captive lifespans increased dramatically.

Historically our industry has always understood that standard captive raised live food options were not nutritionally complete enough for healthy reptiles.  Although many hobbyists understood that fact, they haven’t figured out, or haven’t considered the question of why reptiles face these challenges in captivity but not in nature.  Here at Timberline we fully understand that it’s the diet of the standard captive raised insect that is lacking – therefore the feeder insects cannot possibly deliver the nutrients to the reptiles that it never receives in its own diet.  Nutrients of note that are typically absent from a captive reptile’s diet are Calcium, Vitamin D3, Vitamin A, Vitamin E, and Vitamin B1.  Without proper UVB lighting and these nutrients in their diets captive reptiles will face serious health risk, pain and short lifespans.

You see, insects in nature – that are consumed by reptiles in nature – are indiscriminate eaters.  They eat a broad range of plants, roots, and other insects – absorbing the benefits of their broad range of food into the makeup of their bodies throughout their lifespan.  If they’re unfortunate enough to be snagged by a hunting reptile, they’re delivering the vitamins and minerals they’ve assimilated into their tissue directly to the reptile in a natural form.

Conversely, all commercially bred insects besides Vita-Bugs® are fed a cost-conscious diet designed to grow the bugs quickly and allow them to reproduce, but leave them void of reasonable levels of vitamins. 

If hobbyists understand that standard commercial bugs must be improved, there are two common options.  Dusting is quite literally coating the feeder insect in a calcium/multi-vitamin powder and feeding the insect directly to the captive reptile.  Gut-loading is simply force feeding the insects a diet packed with calcium and nutrients to temporarily fill their gastrointestinal tract.  Once engorged with the beneficial mixture, those insects are fed to the reptile.

When dusting and gut-loading are performed correctly with high quality products hobbyists can be successful but there are several pit-falls that impact even the most experienced keeper.

Gut-loading Pitfalls:

First, there are studies from several years ago that clearly demonstrate that common and commercially available dry gut-loads, along with high moisture calcium gut-loads are wildly inconsistent.  The study proved that while some products are of high quality, nearly half of them do not contain the nutrients promised on the label.  Often, even if they did contain the nutrients, they were in a form or particle size that was impossible for an insect to eat – making it impossible for them to be delivered to the reptile.

Second, even when using high quality gut-loads it’s important to understand that feeder insects will not keep the gut-load onboard for very long.  Common feeder insects are unable to absorb or retain calcium in any reasonably beneficial capacity – so hobbyists are hoping the gut-load is still in the belly of the insect when it is fed to the reptile. Many of the additional nutrients necessary are also off-loaded rapidly by the feeders, again making the gut-loading process untrustworthy – even when done correctly with high quality products.

Dusting Pitfalls:

Successfully delivering nutrients with dusting is also very difficult to measure in any meaningful way.  Again, the success starts with using a high-quality product in a market where poor products are common.  Next the amount of supplements received by the reptile are subject to the size of the insect dusted and how long it takes for that insect to groom that dust off of them.  It’s impossible to know if you’re delivering too much, or not enough using the dusting method.

Feeder insect producers, food manufacturers, retailers and breeders MUST do a better job of cutting through the pseudoscience and internet chatter to deliver sound and consistent advice to reptile hobbyists.  Without straightforward honesty and professional insight new entrants will not be successful with their reptiles and leave the hobby indefinitely.  The growth of our industry hinges on proper nutrition at the hobbyist level.  Without the consumer demand for reptiles we, as an industry cannot grow.

From my experience speaking to reptile enthusiasts across the country and into Canada there is broad misunderstanding of the difference between a reptile’s diet in nature versus it’s diet in captivity.  It only makes sense that we, as hobbyists or industry professionals, should demand to feed our animals a natural diet that is nutritionally complete.  Vita-Bugs® and Calciworms are the only scientifically proven and patented commercial method to deliver that natural, complete diet to nurture our animals.