Despite their superior nutrition, we recommend gut loading Dubia roaches.
There is little doubt that feeding Dubia roaches to reptiles, amphibians, arachnids, and other insectivores reduces or eliminates the nutrition gaps of other feeder insects. However, some nutrition-related health issues common in these animals are caused by the realities of captivity rather than feeder insect deficiency. These realities include less (if any) natural sunlight, lack of dietary diversity, and less physical activity compared to animals in the wild. All too often, the result is stress, general decline, and acute illness in the insectivore.
Fortunately, you can address these issues with gut loading. This article discusses what, why, and how to gut load Dubia roaches.
Table of Contents
- What is gut loading?
- Why gut load Dubia roaches?
- How to gut load Dubia roaches
- What not to use as gut load
Gut loading feeder insects is common practice among those who keep insectivores. Whether we do it for additional calcium, vitamin D, or other important nutrients, we know it’s something we need to do for the health of our animals.
The good news is that gut loading requires little effort and reaps huge benefits. And it’s easy. All you need is the right information, a little gut load, some Dubia roaches of course, and a desire to make it happen.
What is gut loading?
Gut loading is the practice of providing insects with nutrients intended not for them, but for the animals that eat them.
The process is simple. First, feeder insects are given “healthy” foods or foods containing nutrients thought to be healthy for the insectivore. Then, after consuming the food, the insects are fed to the animal.
General gut loading concepts
Gut loading is an indirect way to get primary nutrition to an insectivore. Instead of eating a particular plant, for example, the insectivore eats an insect that has eaten the plant. As such, the nutritional value of a gut loaded insect is the insect itself, plus whatever is inside its stomach and intestines. Of course, the idea is to give the insects healthy fare that will benefit the animals that eat them. This can be specific vitamins and minerals, general macro or micro-nutrients, or any combination thereof.
For the insectivore, not the insect
It’s important to note that gut loading is done exclusively for the benefit of the insectivore, without regard for the health of the insect. The nutrients given the insect are meant to feed the insectivore, not the insect. The purpose of gutloading is to get (often plant-based) food and its nutrients into an (often carnivorous) animal to satisfy that animal’s nutritional needs. Therefore, a gut load is anything good for the insectivore, even if it is bad for the insect itself.
Because of this, gut loading is often a short-run proposition for the insect. In cases where a gutload does not satisfy its nutritional needs, the insect will make up the deficit with its own reserves. This reduces its nutritional value to the insectivore, so ideally you want to start with healthy insect stock and gut load them for a short time before feeding them off.
The exception to this general rule is when the gut load material happens to be healthy for the insect. In this case, insects can be kept longer without compromising their nutritional value.
How long to gut load?
Gut loading is usually done hours or days before feeding the insects off. However, most feeder insects digest their food within 24 hours, so the practical value of their gutload is measured by what they consumed the previous day. However, as you will see, Dubia roaches are different. They have a unique digestive system that extends their effective gut-loading time to as many as three days. This has added benefits for the animals that eat them.
Making up nutritional gaps
With respect to the balance of intrinsic (the insect) versus extrinsic (what it ate) nutritional value for the insectivore, gut loading is supplemental. It’s a way to get additional nutrients to an animal, or to supply nutrients that may be absent from its diet. In either case, the insect is still the primary nutrition source. The food in its stomach is secondary. However, both are important. Perhaps not equally so, but there’s no need to choose one over the other. Dubia roaches allow you to select both to a greater degree than other feeder insects.
Why gut load Dubia roaches?
Proper nutrition is essential for keeping captive reptiles healthy. The same goes for amphibians, arachnids, and other insectivores. Providing feeder insects with nutrition appropriate to the animals that will eat them can maintain good health, and it can help bring sick or stressed animals back to good health. The key to good feeder nutrition is (a) choosing a nutritious feeder then (b) loading its gut with healthy food.
Being the most nutritious feeder insect doesn’t mean having all the nourishment your animals will ever need. It would be nice if this were true, but it’s not. Animal nutrition is complicated, and so is the interplay between nutrition, diet, and health. As it stands, there is no single insect that meets all the dietary needs of every insectivore. Dubia roaches come closest to this ideal, but there is still room for improvement via nutritional enhancement through gut loading.
Calcium is a good example. Like all insects, the Dubia roach doesn’t have a skeleton, and its exoskeleton doesn’t contain calcium. Dubia roaches provide animals with dietary calcium, but it comes from their body and not their exoskeleton. And importantly – assuming the animal that feeds on them has its own skeleton – the calcium from Dubia roaches is not enough to grow and maintain it.
So then how do insectivores get enough calcium from insects in the wild? Part of the answer is that nature gut loads. Calcium comes from the ground. It is abundant in soil, compost, and vegetation, and these are all things insects love to eat. Many or most of the insects eaten in the wild themselves ate in the previous 24 hours, and this is how insectivores get their calcium. It’s also how they get other minerals and vitamins. In a sense, insects come gut loaded in nature.
lack of dietary diversity
In addition to eating a bug and its lunch (and maybe its dinner too), wild animals tend to eat a diverse diet. The variety of prey they encounter in nature is far greater than what is practical in captivity. This is another way animals in the wild meet their nutritional needs. Dietary diversity keeps them healthy while dietary monotony in captivity is a reason to gut load.
And many herp keepers do. As a group, they put significant effort into replicating their animal’s native habitat, but the natural diet of exotic animals is usually very difficult to imitate. It’s just not feasible to provide an insect buffet of ten or twenty different exotic species. While replicating a captive insectivore’s natural diet may not be doable for most people, feeding them gut loaded Dubia roaches is. Dietary diversity can be replicated by (1) choosing Dubia roaches as a primary feeder, (2) supplementing with occasional treats for variety, and (3) gut loading.
Gut loading: what experts suggest
In case you need more convincing, Merck veterinary manuals considers nutritional supplementation a “must” for amphibians (external link), and “required” for reptiles (external link). They point to two forms of supplementation: gut loading and dusting. We agree that dusting is beneficial, but dusting is different from gut loading.
Superior Dubia roach gut-loadability
Another reason to gut load Dubia roaches is their inherent gut-loadability. First, they can eat a tremendous amount of food. The difference between a hungry Dubia roach that has not eaten in a while and one that is full can be as much as three times its body weight. This is a huge opportunity to load them up with lots of fresh, whole foods to increase their nutritional value.
In addition to their massive storage ability, Dubia roaches are also unique in their capacity to keep food in their belly for up to three days. So the volume of matter in their guts may be greater than that of other gut-loaded insects on a per-weight basis, and what’s in there will be in various states of digestion.
The first point is important because more gut load means more nutrition, but the second part is also very interesting and may be significant. The nutritional profile of plant matter differs according to its stage of digestion. Different digestive stages provide different nutrients for any given food over time. There isn’t much research on this, but the idea that insectivores need insects to do some of their food processing for access to certain nutrients is something scientists are looking into.
Dubia roaches: unique digestion abilities
This leads to yet another reason to gut load Dubia roaches, which is that they can digest plant matter other feeder insects can’t. Roaches digest plant fibers with the help of specialized bacteria in their guts. This means roaches have access to nutrients carnivorous animals on their own don’t (external link). The only way insectivores can get these nutrients is to eat the roach, or perhaps something else.
It’s reasonable to think at least some nutrients unlocked by roaches are required by insectivores for good health. How much of these nutrients is unknown, but the idea goes back to evolution and dietary diversity. The inter-dependency among predator and prey makes sense, and it’s a common relationship found throughout nature.
The bottom line is that captive insectivores living outside their natural habitat eating insects other than their natural prey need nutritional supplementation to achieve full health. Dubia roaches are super-nutritious, but we still advise supplementation. Gut loading Dubia roaches with nutrient dense plant foods should be done at least occasionally, but preferably often.
How to gut load dubia roaches
Gut loading Dubia roaches is easy. At its most basic level you could simply throw in some fruits or vegetables and call it done. This is one way to go, and your animals will likely be better off for having done it. However, this approach may leave something on the table. You could do more, and your animals might be healthier if you did. You can avoid this missed opportunity by learning from our experience below.
The following are some basic steps to gutloading. They’re based on our experience and are fairly self-explanatory. You will find general guidelines, specific reasons, and some things that we think are good to know.
Decide what you want to accomplish
First, decide what you want to accomplish and why. The practice of gut loading can be divided into two categories. We call them “specific” and “general”. They overlap somewhat but are separated by how an insect is gut loaded, with what (to some degree), and for what purpose.
Strategy 1: general gut loading
General gut loading involves feeding the roaches foods considered “generally healthy” for the target animal. These might include any number of fruits or vegetables containing a wide range of essential macro and micro-nutrients. Examples include carotenoids, carbohydrates, calcium, and vitamin C. These are all nutrients animals need in some quantity depending on the species, diet, environment, etc.
The goal of general gut loading is the reliable, long-term provision of basic nutrition via healthy feeder insects (the roach) supplemented with whole plant foods (the gut load). Examples include any number of whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. Dubia roaches particularly enjoy apples, oranges, and bananas. They also really like sweet potatoes, beets, and carrots. These foods are excellent general gut loads because they contain basic nutrients animals need, and because and they’re available in most supermarkets throughout the year.
The key is to find something that works for you and your animals, then provide it consistently. This might include a single food or two, or you might mix it up occasionally. How you proceed is entirely up to you. The key words in our view are “healthy” and “reliable”.
Consider organic produce
At this point it’s worth mentioning that organic foods – particularly fruits and vegetables – are the safest choice for gut loading. Pesticide exposure from conventional produce may not kill an animal, but it probably causes at least some degree of metabolic stress. How much stress and what impact that has on the animal may depend on the species, its relative health, and other factors specific to your unique situation. This goes to the purpose of gut loading, which is nutritional support. You don’t want to defeat that purpose.
Whether or not you end up going organic is your choice, but we wanted to let you know it’s an option and why it might matter.
Related reading: Organic dubia roaches and pesticides in produce »
Strategy 2: specific gut loading
The alternative to “general gut loading” is specific or targeted gut loading. The two are very similar. For example, general and specific gut loading often include the same foods. However, they differ in important ways. Intent and approach are probably the most obvious.
Specific gut loading involves feeding the roaches foods that contain certain nutrients for a specific reason. One example could be carotenoids (that would provide vitamin A) to address an animal’s existing eye issue. Or it could be that a particular species is prone to developing eye problems, so a gut load can target carotenoids to help prevent them from developing.
Any nutrient or micro-nutrient can be targeted in specific gut loading. It could be carotenes for vitamin A, vitamin C, or any other vitamin. It could be foods with high iron or calcium, or foods with low iron or calcium. Specific gut loading is for animals with a nutritional deficiency, animals that may be prone to a particular deficiency due to species or situation, or animals that may simply benefit from an additional boost (or reduction) of one nutrient or another.
After deciding what you’re doing and why, the next step is figuring out what foods to use. Dubia aren’t particularly finicky eaters but they do have preferences. To maximize your efforts, look for foods that achieve your objectives for your animals, and that the roaches also like. Food they only mildly enjoy won’t be a “failure”, but like haphazard gut loading, they may leave something on the table. The effort won’t be as successful as one where the roaches love a food so much they fill their bellies to capacity. This is obviously what you want them to do.
Foods that are good for specific gut loading that Dubia roaches have a taste for include: apples, bananas, beets, broccoli, carrots, oranges, squash, sweet potato, various cooked grains like oats, wheat, and rice, and zucchini. Of course, you can also create your own concoction of food and added vitamins or minerals that you may want to provide to your animals in higher amounts than any foods naturally contain.
Food issues: Gut load palatability
With this approach, you may run into a situation where the roaches don’t like what you’ve fed them. Don’t worry if this happens. There’s a trick to getting Dubia roaches to eat a gut load they don’t like.
The trick is to mix it with some fruit, sugar or bread. Dubia roaches love sugar. They also like yeast. While neither sugar nor yeast will contribute much to the quality of the gut load, they serve a purpose. Just use them sparingly. It doesn’t take much sugar to get Dubia roaches interested. You can also try both sugar and yeast. Let the mix sit in a warm, dark place for an hour or so and the yeast will consume some of the sugar. While table sugar works, whole fruit is probably a better option because it contains vitamins and minerals. In our experience, fruits (except citrus) can be added to a gut load in any amount without negative consequences. We recommend adding citrus sparingly because some animals seem to have issues with it.
Whether or not citrus is part of your gutloading depends on the animals that will ultimately consume the insects. We’ve seen and heard that some reptiles, for example, are not at all impacted by citrus fruit while others are. That might be something to consider researching with your particular situation in mind.
Gut load cautions
While almost everything is fair game, there are a few foods that you should gut load with caution, sparingly, or not at all. These recommendations are based on our own observations. While we’re fairly confident in what we’ve seen, your mileage may vary. We don’t know if our list is exhaustive. There may be things we haven’t tried that should be added to this list.
Beans: bad for insectivores
Don’t gut load with beans. We’ve noticed that beans may have potentially negative effects on both roaches and the animals that eat them. Beans are protein-rich, full of nutrition, and healthy for humans, but they may not be quite as healthy for insects or insectivores. We don’t have more information on this. It’s just something we’ve noticed. Maybe it’s the lectins, which are part of a plant’s natural protection against being eaten. Humans have evolved ways of dealing with lectins, but perhaps some insects and insectivorous animals have not. Whatever the case, we suggest avoiding beans.
Be careful with citrus
Don’t gut load with too much citrus fruits. How much is “too much” depends on the situation. Dubia roaches are not sensitive to citrus, but some animals are. Be aware of this if you gut load with oranges, grapefruit, or other citrus fruits. Tomato products too. One solution may be to wait at least a day before feeding off roaches loaded with citrus. If your animals lose their appetite after feeding on citrus-stuffed roaches, or if they start losing interest in Dubia roaches altogether, it could be a problem.
Avoid gut loading with meat
Don’t gut load with meat. Dubia roaches will eat meat, but it’s really not their thing. They prefer plants. As gut load, meat may not negatively affect your animals in a direct or significant way, but it sort of defeats the purpose of gut loading. Gut loading should provide nutrients your animals otherwise wouldn’t get from the Dubia roaches themselves. They are already getting lots of protein from the Dubia roaches. What’s missing – and what they need from you – are nutrients they don’t get from the roaches. This will be things found in the plants Dubia roaches eat, such as vitamin c, plant phenols, fiber, etc.
We also recommend avoiding dog food, cat food, or similar processed feeds. While probably not the worst thing in the world, we maintain the same caution for pet food as with meat. Yes, pet foods have “high protein”, but so do Dubia roaches. You already have that covered. Pet foods also tend to contain grains like rice, wheat, and corn. These aren’t usual gut load foods. A pet food gut load is high in protein and fat, and low in the nutrients you should be targeting. The more whole (unprocessed), natural (unprocessed), plant food (not meat), the better. Pet foods can be used as a gut load if you insist, but again, we think they leave something on the table.
Keep it fresh
Don’t gut load anything rotten. This probably goes without saying. Dubia roaches can and will eat almost anything, but this doesn’t mean they should. And your animal probably can’t eat anything and everything, so be mindful of the quality of the gut load. Unless of course you’re feeding a monitor lizard, in which case it doesn’t matter and you can do whatever you want.
Save supplements for dusting
Don’t gut load with calcium or vitamin powders. These are meant to be dusted on insects before feeding them off. Mixing them in with your gut load means you lose control of the dose. There’s no guarantee Dubia roaches will eat pure calcium, for example. In fact, it’s reasonable to believe that they may avoid it altogether. Cockroaches have a known ability to eat preferentially, so it’s conceivable that they might “eat around” something like pure calcium or other vitamins and minerals. In fact, this seems likely.
We think gut loading should be fun. It involves some measure of creativity, you get to see the result of your efforts, and it’s an easy way to improve the health of captive insectivorous animals. In a sense, it’s a way to positively interact with your animal(s). It has the very real potential to improve their lives, which is worthwhile in and of itself. And of course, anything that improves their lives increases your enjoyment of them.
While we suggest following these basic guidelines and gut loading your Dubia roaches, this area is ripe for experimentation. We encourage you to try new things. However, a word of caution: It’s best to stay within the boundaries we’ve described above. Of course, each animal and situation is different, and what works in one case may not be right in another. Start with the basics, find what works for you and your animal, then branch out and test new ideas and foods from there.
As always, we’re interested to know people are doing with their gut loads. Let us know if you find something that works particularly well for your animals, or your roaches!