Reptile owners, handlers and some former PetSmart employees say they are shocked by how the animals are cared for at large pet stores, saying they have seen obvious signs of malnourishment and that many of the prospective pets are in need of medical attention.

Once considered rare and exotic, lizards and snakes are now widely available through internet sites, trade shows and pet stores.

Joel Monfront of Ottawa owns a bearded dragon and calls it an affectionate pet.

"I love them, they are very nice and calm, and you can cuddle with them, they are surprisingly a nice pet," said Monfront.

But he and other people who met at a backyard get-together for Ottawa reptile owners in July said they've seen lizards, snakes and turtles in poor condition at pet stores.

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This lizard died after another lizard attacked it at the store, two former employees say. (Submitted photo)

'If we don't buy him, he's going to die'

Monfront said he went to the PetSmart outlet in the west-end Ottawa neighbourhood of Kanata earlier this summer to try to rescue a baby lizard.

"He was sitting in a pool of water and his head was dipping up and down below the surface, and I told my wife if we don't buy him he's going to die," said Monfront.

"We bought him but sadly he still died that very night, the very night we brought him home," he said.

Sarah Leduchowski, a veterinary technician and reptile owner, said she has seen terrible sights at many different pet stores and chains.

"I've seen animals that are starving. I've seen animals that are being attacked by their own food, such as crickets eating the skin, the eyelids off reptiles in their containers. I've seen where the reptiles have cannibalized each other because they are overcrowded," said Leduchowski.

Former employees say animals got worse at store

Two former employees at PetSmart who combined worked nearly four years at the Kanata outlet say they saw dozens of the animals die there.

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Joel Monfront says he bought a baby lizard from the Kanata PetSmart in an effort to save its life. It died the night he brought it home. (CBC)

The former employees, who spoke to CBC News on the condition of anonymity, started to take photos and document the conditions after they said their complaints to management were mostly ignored.

Their before-and-after photos appear to show the deterioration in health and in some cases the deaths of the reptiles.

They said small lizards were often given crickets far too large for them to eat and that fruits and vegetables, key to a healthy diet, were sometimes missing completely.

Reptiles appear to be malnourished, say experts

Anthony Sinn, the president of the Ottawa amphibian and reptile association, said after viewing the photos that he was shocked by the condition of the animals, saying some clearly show signs of starvation.

"It's hard to understand how a pet store could even put anything like this on display," said Zinn, referring to a photo of what he said was a malnourished leopard gecko.

Local reptile breeder Norm Fairhead and his wife, Diane, often take in sick, rescued animals. He said he works close to the Kanata store and that he often alerts the staff about reptiles in poor health.

"I've seen animals on starvation diets in that store. I've asked employees how much an animal was getting. In most cases it was way undernourished," said Fairhead.

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This mountain horned dragon died shortly after arriving at the store healthy, two former employees say. (Submitted photo)

PetSmart says initial investigation does not support allegations

The store manager at the Kanata PetSmart refused to comment, but the head of communications at PetSmart's head office in Arizona defended the chain's record.

"We do everything in our power to provide the best possible care for the pets in our stores," said director of corporate communications Michelle Friedman. "Are we perfect? No. Do we look for ways to improve? Always."

Friedman said an investigation is underway into the allegations concerning the Kanata outlet, but that "our initial findings do not support these allegations."

Friedman also said a Humane Society inspector recently went into the store, but found nothing wrong. She said the company veterinary team has also had difficulty determining if some of the animals in the photos were really dead.

"While some of the aspects of the photos we received were concerning, we don't see overt signs of abuse," said Friedman.