When one thinks of “exotic pets” most normally one thinks immediately of reptiles – snakes like pythons or kingsnakes, or lizards like iguanas and bearded dragons.
With all the interest in keeping reptiles as pets then I wanted to put together a short article which really contains beginners advice on what to consider before actually going out and buying your first pet reptile.
Whilst many people think of pet reptiles as difficult animals to care for properly in captivity this is often not the case. Whilst there is considerable initial research and effort required before buying a pet reptile, the day-to-day maintenance is minimal with many reptiles.
Housing is one element that it is essential to get right before buying your first reptile. Because few people can safely and kindly keep a crocodile or alligator in captivity, that really boils down to four main types of reptiles; snakes, lizards, tortoises and terrapins (turtles to our American cousins).
To live a long and healthy life, a pet reptile needs to have the right housing which will depend on the individual species kept. Obviously the larger or more active a reptile is, the larger the vivarium will be required. Also the habitat that a reptile comes from should influence the housing chosen.
For example a terrapin likes to spend much if it’s time in the water and tends to come from moist environments like ponds, streams and ditches so for a terrapin, a good-sized aquarium will be required where open water is available for swimming, but also dry land for sunbathing and drying out.
In contrast, bearded dragon lizards come from the dry, dusty areas of Australia so prefer a cage which is dry and very hot, with places to rest and hide, and so a purpose-built vivarium would be a much better choice.
So while considering a pet reptile, ensure you do suitable research into it’s housing, which can often prove to be both large and expensive if properly done.
For example a baby water dragon may look cute enough in the pet store but by the time it becomes an adult, it will need a cage of over a metre in all directions, ideally with somewhere to swim, places to climb and something like this may well cost hundreds of dollars, if not thousands.
The second key to success with pet reptiles is to appreciate that buying the right type of cage alone isn’t sufficient to guarantee the health of your pet. The environmental conditions are also important to understand.
For example, most reptiles hail from warmer areas of the world and so in temperate areas they will normally require some form of supplementary heating if they are to survive. Depending on the reptile species this may be a small, cheap, low power heat pad or it could be a great big infra-red heater knocking out 40’C throughout the day and eating through your electricity like a monster!
Humidity is a further condition with some reptiles from tropical regions preferring higher humidities while those from desert regions prefer low humidities to the point that they can develop skin problems if kept too moist.
Lastly, many reptiles, most notably lizards, but also the tortoises and terrapins, will require artificial lighting. This is because the UV light coming from the sun helps them to metabolize vitamins properly and without this lighting many will struggle with lack of appetite, joint problems and brittle bones.
Even worse, these UV waves don’t penetrate glass so it’s not just a matter of putting a cage in the sunshine on a nice day but instead installing artificial sunlight bulbs. Rather than standard strip lights used by humans these must be specialist reptile lights designed to emit the necessary levels of UV light to keep your pet healthy.
Once again, be aware of the importance of understanding, implementing and monitoring these environmental conditions if you want your pet to live a long and happy life. These factors of heating, lighting and humidity can also add considerably to the cost of setting up a reptile cage and these extras can even double the cost of housing when you take all the necessary equipment into account.
Reptiles eat a wide variety of food. Whilst a tortoise or a bearded dragon may be happy with a range of fresh fruit and vegetables to eat, be aware that snakes will typically require dead animals to eat (mice and rats being the most common) while most other lizards will require live insects to eat in the form of crickets, locusts and so on.
Consider how you’re going to get hold of these foods (is there a reptile store near you?) and if you will feel comfortable handling them and indeed feeding them to a reptile.
Many people love the idea of keeping a lizard until they realize they’ll need to be handling live crickets in order to feed their lizard, while others like the idea of a snake until they realize they’ll need to keep a bag of frozen mice in their freezer.
Carefully consider what you’re realistically willing to do for your pet and use this as a further aid to deciding on the ideal pet reptile for you.
Some reptiles such as corn snakes and bearded dragons seem perfectly happy to be handled if introduced to it from an early age whilst other reptiles such as some terrapins never seem to take to it. Furthermore, larger reptiles such as larger lizards and snakes can potentially be quite dangerous to handle alone so carefully consider whether you are hoping to buy a pet reptile to watch in it’s vivarium or if you’re expecting to be able to handle your pet on a regular basis.
As well as larger reptiles having sharp claws, fangs and, in the case of snakes, the ability to constrict if they get angry, also be aware that many reptiles suffer from salmonella which can be passed on to humans if correct hygiene isn’t adhered to. Again, consider the health risks of keeping a pet reptile, particularly if you have small children who may take less care with hygiene and handling than you.
What Type Of Reptile?
Some reptiles are easier to keep and handle than others and so here I’d just like to offer you a few pointers as to what I would recommend a beginner considers. Please be aware that this is just my opinion, rather than fact, and so other reptile keepers may disagree with you. On the other hand, I have been keeping reptiles for over a decade so I do have a lot of experience on the topic.
Whilst lizards are fun, and are arguably the most popular pet reptiles, be aware that most will require artificial lighting, vitamin supplements, can be very fast and will require live insects to eat.
Compare this to many popular snakes which don’t require live food, don’t need UV lighting and are docile and easy to handle and personally speaking I believe that for a beginner a small species of snake will make a better starter animal than a lizard which requires far more specialist care.
Terrapins can be aggressive, grow to a large size (some may grow to over 30cm long), require plenty of space, UV lighting and regular cleaning because they often soil their water. Tortoises, on the other hand, while more expensive can be easier and cleaner to keep.
It boils down to this. Whilst any reptile can be kept, ideal beginner species in my opinion would either be a tortoise or a small snake, and one can always move on from there once you’ve gained experience to keeping a lizard or terrapin.