One of the first questions I receive from people when they find out I keep a menagerie of exotic pets is “do you handle them?”. Sadly, they’re often disappointed with my answer. The fact is that while some reptiles are suitable for handling, the vast majority aren’t.
As responsible reptile keepers our first priority must always be the health and welfare of our animals so if a reptile is too small, too fragile or too quick to be handled in a safe manner we should try to avoid holding them wherever possible.
However there are a number of reptiles that can be held safely and where this is possible it can also be highly recommended. The reason, besides the fact that it’s downright fun, is that getting your pet used to handling can make routine maintenance far easier. Generally you will find your pet gets less stressed when you are cleaning the vivarium or carrying out health checks and this should be seen as a positive step.
Traits To Look For In A Reptile
If buying (or rescuing) a reptile that you can handle is important to you then there are a number of traits that should be taken into consideration.
At birth, most reptiles are scared of humans and will try to avoid contact. It is, after all, the simplest survival tactic. However while some reptiles calm down with time and effort, others will struggle to ever get over their fear.
While some reptiles will eventually happily sit on your hand or glide through your fingers, there are a large number of species for whom handling will always be stressful. They may play dead in your hand or may struggle vigorously to try and escape but handling these species will never be enjoyable for you or the reptile.
Instead, ask around and read books to uncover species that will at least tolerate a degree of handling given time which will make the whole experience far more enjoyable for you both.
Tiny reptiles have equally tiny skeletons which can easily be damaged by over-eager handling, especially if they are writhing around trying to escape from your clutches. On the other hand some species get very large indeed and even when tame may present potential problems for you.
For this reason the best reptiles for handling fall somewhere in the middle – not too small and not too large. This moderate size also has the additional benefit of keeping your housing costs down as you won’d need to invest in a giant vivarium as your pet grows.
As many reptiles are hunters they need to move fast in order to catch their prey. They also, as mentioned, generally prefer to run away from danger than fight so here too speed is of benefit to them. These two factors mean that many reptiles move very quickly indeed – especially when put into stressful situations.
Many geckos, for example, move so swiftly that they can be almost impossible to hold. You just get them onto your hand and before you know it they’ve vanished. A moderate speed therefore is important so that you can control the situation with ease and get your reptile familiar with routine handling.
Ideal Reptile Species For Handling
Fortunately despite all these different factors that one needs to consider there are still a number of commonly-available species of reptile that are ideal for handling. They are all reasonably sized, don’t move too quickly and rapidly tame down. A few even seem to actively enjoy human contact and with patience it’s possible to build up quite a bond with them.
Corn snakes are a reasonably sized species of snake that are very docile by nature.
Ball pythons reach a similar size to corn snakes but have an overall more chunky appearance.
Bearded dragons are naturally inquisitive, grow to around 60cm long (including the tail) and will become tame enough to approach your hand when you open the cage.
Uromastyx are rather more unusual reptiles than many others on the list here and as a result may be rather more expensive to buy. Like bearded dragons though, they attain a suitable size and will sit lazily on your hand without too much effort.
Chinese Water Dragons
To many people, water dragons resemble iguanas. However this species reaches only half the size of the green iguana and also normally has a far more pleasant personality in contrast to iguanas that can sometimes be aggressive.
Bosc monitors are large lizards so require a proportionately large cage. That said, if you can find the space, the Bosc is normally very docile and also very handsome and most will quickly learn to enjoy interactions with you (as well as a belly rub).