If you’ve ever looked up “what is chitin?” hoping to find out what it means for reptile health, chances are you’ve come across a confusing definition like this one from Oxford Languages:

noun

BIOCHEMISTRY

  1. a fibrous substance consisting of polysaccharides and forming the major constituent in the exoskeleton of arthropods and the cell walls of fungi.

Um, yeah.

As a reptile owner, this definition is about as helpful as when your beardie poops in his water dish.

So, what is chitin in plain words? And how does it impact your reptile’s health and wellbeing?

In this article, we break down what is chitin in simple terms, and why it matters for your reptile.

photo of a female dubia roach
Chitin forms the exoskeleton of most feeder insects.

What is Chitin

What is chitin? Put simply, chitin is one of the main components of an insect’s exoskeleton. Together with proteins, chitin forms the hard shell of insects such as mealworms, crickets, dubias – almost every feeder insect.

Chitin is a polysaccharide, which means it’s a carbohydrate. Know what else is a polysaccharide? Cellulose – what we know as fiber.

So, we can think of chitin as the fiber that makes an insect’s exoskeleton.

Chitin and Reptile Health

If you’ve been in the reptile community for any amount of time, you’ve likely heard people mention chitin. Because of its fibrous structure, chitin is thought to cause impaction in reptiles – a condition that can be fatal if not treated.

But chitin is naturally found in insects, the natural prey of bearded dragons and other reptiles. How can it be so bad?

And that’s a good point. In a healthy reptile, the chitin content of their food generally won’t cause problems. In fact, according to ZooMed.com, “Impaction is a secondary condition brought on by deficiencies in the diet, temperature regime, or other inadequate conditions found in captivity.”

So, if your reptile is healthy and kept in a safe, clean environment at the appropriate temperatures, impaction is unlikely to be an issue.

However, if your reptile has a history of impaction – and you’ve already done what you can to fix other environmental factors – it may be worth it to take a look at how much chitin they’re ingesting.

Best Chitin Ratios for Reptiles

A veterinarian examining a rescued reptile at an animal shelter.
We strongly recommend discussing impaction with your vet if it’s causing problems.

Remember, the top cause of impaction in reptiles is environmental – that includes hydration, temperature, cleanliness, nutrition, and overall health. If your reptile is healthy and well cared for, your chance of impaction is low. You shouldn’t have to think too much about chitin content.

But what if you have a reptile with other health conditions? How much chitin is too much? Unfortunately, this topic isn’t well researched. We just don’t have enough information to give a good answer.

What we do know is that the digestibility of an insect’s exoskeleton doesn’t always correlate with chitin content. Studies by M. Finke show that the hardness – and perhaps the digestibility – of exoskeletons has more to do with the bonds between chitin and proteins than the chitin itself.

Are Dubia Roaches Safe to Feed Impaction-Prone Reptiles?

Dubia roaches are widely considered to be a preferred feeder insect because they are lower in chitin than many other insects. But as mentioned there isn’t a lot of research out there about chitin and digestibility. It can therefore be hard to know for sure what the best feeder insects are safe to feed to any given impaction-prone reptile and which are not.

We recommend keeping a food journal for your reptile if you are dealing with impaction issues. This may help identify patterns to figure out what the culprit could be.

We also strongly recommend discussing impaction with your vet if it’s causing problems. A vet who is experienced in reptile health should be able to help you figure out what is causing your reptile’s impaction and how to avoid future issues.

Feed Healthy Insects

The best defense against impaction is a healthy lizard. And that’s only possible with a healthy diet. We provide well cared for dubia roaches for bearded dragons, geckos, and other insectivorous reptiles to help keep them happy, healthy, and free of impaction.

Shop our selection of dubia roaches today!