Reptile Ownership 101
Things to Consider When Choosing a Reptile
Let's start with some questions to consider:
- Who will be caring for the reptile most of the time? How old is s/he? Buying a pet for a 10 year old and a 30 year old are very different things!
- What is the skill level of the person? If you've never owned a reptile before, you shouldn't launch head first into the advanced and specific care demands of a chameleon.
- Do your living arrangements require that you get one type of reptile over another? If you can't fit a custom built 6 foot cage into your studio apartment, maybe don't buy a fully grown burmese python.
- Do you feel comfortable feeding mammals to snakes? (Sorry, they are all carnivores)
- Would you like to be able to handle your reptile, or are you okay with a reptile that is restricted to very little handling? (For example, all frogs should be handled very rarely because the oils in your skin can damage their delicate skin!)
- How much money do you have to spend? Some animals are cheap when first purchased, but cost hundreds of dollars in equipment (special UV lighting) and food (crickets, mealworms and fresh fruit and vegetables for a lizard adds up!)
- How much time can you devote to caring for your pet? If you work 13 hour days and come home exhausted, will you really enjoy cleaning a tank and carefully removing uneaten food?
Some reptiles cost more than others.
Here are some things you should factor into the cost of your reptile:
- Cost of tank (bigger=more expensive)
- Cost of substrate (monthly)
- Cost of food(s) (a mouse/fresh insects each week adds up)
- Cost of animal itself (usually cheap comparatively)
- Cost of hides and bowls, fake plants, etc for tank
- Cost of heating, special lighting, and light bulbs (bigger expense for special UV requirements)
Reptiles for Beginners
Always do your research and become completely versed in the proper care of your animal before buying it. This is not a substitution for doing research. If you don't have the proper supplies, for example a heat lamp, set up properly on only one side of the enclosure with hides on both sides, your snake will eventually die because it cannot regulate body temperature like we do.
The leopard gecko makes a good reptile for the beginner because it does not require special lighting, just a heat lamp, and with regular handling can become very docile.
Corn snakes are small, colorful and easy to care for. A corn snake will accept handling with attention and time. It is one of the easiest and cheapest snakes available to care for.
These guys get a little bigger than the corns, and in a similar vein they are also fairly easy to care for.
A larger lizard, but still manageable. If you're a beginner looking for a little bit of a challenge, this would work well for you. They do require special lighting so read up on this species before making a decision.
Frogs -- NOT for kids
White's tree frog makes a great beginner frog. The only concern that differs from the others on this list is that of the humidity- which you'll find the amphibian species less forgiving of.
Why not for kids? It is generally recommended that owners do not touch their frogs, or only do so on the rare occasion. The salts and oils on our skin can irritate and harm your frog's skin. Kids might have impulse control problems with this.
Reptiles for kids:
Parents should assume their child's pet is their responsibility. Older teens might be able to make responsible decisions, feed, clean and care for their pet, but all bets are off for kids. If you intend to get your child a pet to teach him responsibility, rethink it. Don't put a living creature in harms way for that lesson. Instead, model responsibility by caring for the family pet and letting your child help.
Sorry to break it to you, but there is no such thing as a cheap reptile. Here's why:
- All reptiles require tanks, which can cost anywhere from $50 to thousands, depending on the size required.
- All reptiles must be fed special food. Some of these foods aren't so bad, but even lizards need fresh fruit and vegetables in addition to any pellet food. Snakes require food only once a week, but full grown mice and rats add up.
- Nearly all reptiles require a controlled environment to survive. Heat, lighting and other necessities cost money every month in electricity bills, light bulbs and bags of substrate. You cannot get away with going without these things, or your reptile will stop eating or worse.
Advanced Keeper Only Reptiles
Semi-Aquatic or Aquatic Turtles
Turtles that require an aquatic environment are not easy to care for. Tanks must be filtered, cleaned and sometimes slight variables in water quality can make a turtle sick. Add heat lamps, special lighting and specific food requirements and turtles can eat up a person's time, money and overwhelm a beginner. Turtles like this should only be owned by someone with knowledge of keeping difficult, advanced fish tanks AND knowledge of keeping advanced amphibians or lizards.
Large snakes require large cages and large prey. Are you willing to buy a rabbit every week for your snake? Danger is also a factor. If a large snake got loose it will wreak havoc on the local ecosystem and there are even reports of small children being suffocated while playing with the snake. If you are unsure of your ability to keep a large snake in control, don't get one.
These beautiful lizards are easily stressed, and cannot be held. They have very specific care requirements that a beginner will have trouble with. They must have full spectrum lighting and will only take water from droplets sprayed in their tanks- they refuse to drink from a dish. Typically specialized drip systems are rigged or purchased in order to provide the chameleon with water when it needs it.
Iguanas get large, and territorial. They need special custom made habitats. As adults, many are relinquished to special shelters or simply dumped on the side of the road to die because the owners did not realize how aggressive they typically get and how difficult to handle they are. Don't be one of these people. Also be aware that this is a 10 year commitment, and in rare cases up to 15 years.
Similarly to the iguana, a large monitor lizard will need to have a custom cage made or specially purchased. They get big. (We're talking a 70 sq foot enclosure here!) They should not be allowed to roam free in a house as they can easily injure themselves, dig into furniture, flooring or walls, or escape. They have very strong jaws and bites are nasty, although if given enough time, they are much easier to tame than an iguana.
Common Pitfalls of Reptile Ownership- Things to Avoid
- Avoid placing a new reptile next to or with an existing one. If you have more than one reptile of the same species, you probably shouldn't keep more than one together. Reptiles are almost always solitary creatures with very few exceptions.
In fact, if you purchase a new reptile, you really shouldn't even have it in the same room as your other animals, even in separate cages. Always have a short incubation period in which the new reptile is kept away from the others. This is to watch for disease, mites or other possibly contagious health problems. A new pet should be ideally placed as far away as possible and anyone who handles it should wash their hands before handling your existing reptile.
- Avoid using faulty or badly designed equipment. Heat rocks, tanks that are not secure, etc can all put your pet at risk. Always read up on something before you buy it. Look at reviews and think critically.
- Avoid counting on salespeople to disperse accurate information. They often don't.
Where to purchase a reptile
Your options can be limited when looking to adopt a reptile. Always try to buy captive-bred, which means that the animal was bred in captivity. This helps lessen the risk of the animal having parasites, or being sick and stressed from being removed from the wild. Animals born in captivity deal well with captivity. Animals born in the wild typically do poorly.
Look for specialty exotic stores. Often the owners of such stores are knowledgeable about reptiles in particular and at the very least may know where you can purchase one.
Individuals selling their pets on Craigslist are a risk, but one that may be worth taking if the animal has been well cared for.
Breeders flock to forums such as kingsnake.com to sell their stock. Only purchase from a breeder you trust.
Only go to a big box store like Petsmart or Petco if you can't find anywhere else to get your pet. Reptiles at these stores are often treated badly, wild-caught, or dealing with incorrect care. You may be buying something that won't live more than a few weeks.
How to Be a Good Reptile Owner
- Pay attention. If your snake isn't shedding completely or refuses to eat, it means something is wrong. If your reptile is breathing more visibly, he is probably ill. Tiny, insignificant seeming things can be huge when reptiles are involved, and for some species, small variation in temperature or humidity can cause illness.
- Do your research! Yes, it takes a lot of time, but knowing how to care for a reptile isn't intuitive. When your dog needs food, it may whine, pace near it's bowl and in general try to communicate with you. A reptile is not a domesticated creature and it does not know how to tell you what it needs. Regardless, you chose to keep it in your home and you must figure it out by reading about its general care.
- Keep your pet's habitat clean. That means removing feces, leftover food and giving your pet fresh water every day. Reptiles are sensitive to toxins in their environment.
- Give your reptile a place to hide from you when it needs to. Most reptiles feel stressed out when being stared at or handled all of the time. All that stress can lead to illness. Only handle your reptile once or twice a week, at most.
Lizards & Their Requirements
The leopard gecko is one of the most popular species of geckos kept in the United States. Easy to care for and cheap, this lizard can be a very rewarding pet.
Lifespan: Sometimes up to 10 years.
Food: Live insects such as crickets.
Size: Average 8 inches
Can be tamed and handled if done so carefully
The Blue-Tongued Skink
As you might guess by the name, this reptile has a bright blue tongue.
Lifespan: 10+ years
Food: Omnivore, requiring both insects and leafy greens
Size: 20 inches (requires large cage)
Can be tamed and handled if done so carefully
Requires UVB lights
One of the easiest lizards to care for, the Green Anole can be kept with more than one to a cage, so long as the cage is large enough.
Lifespan: 6-8 years
Size: 5-6 inches long
Do not require special lighting
Cannot be handled; too flighty
Most of the time, putting more than one reptile in a single cage is a bad idea. Even reptiles of the same species can kill one another. In the wild, most adult reptiles seek solitude for most of their lives and only briefly interact with others to mate.
Putting some species of reptile in the same cage can be downright cruel. They can stop eating, be stressed and get sick or die. Some will fight til their deaths.
Consider bearded dragons, which sit atop one another as a sign of dominance, preventing the smaller dragon from getting much needed UV rays. Some uneducated pet store workers will tell you they're hugging or showing signs of affection, but this simply isn't true. Similarly, snakes of different sizes will see one another as prey. Snakes of the same size will retreat as far away from one another as possible, and possibly refuse feed.