Before leaping into reptile keeping as a hobby, you should ask yourself if reptiles are the right pets for you.
Reptiles (and amphibians) make great pets if you understand their unique qualities. While dogs and cats are what people usually think of as “real” pets, our reptile friends are also fantastic animals to care for, even if they usually aren’t interested in being our social companions. They also vary in how active they are; some love to be out exploring their habitats while others like to hide all the time, which can be boring to some. Reptiles make great alternative pets for people allergic to mammals and birds.
Most reptiles are not particularly cuddly, and don’t desire or need social interaction with humans. Most don’t even want to be around others of their own kind! In general, reptiles don’t need friends, and that is part of the appeal as great pets for busy people. Even if you’re scared of snakes or leery of lizards, there is probably a reptile that fits your lifestyle!
Carnivore, Insectivore or Herbivore?
When people think of reptile pets, they often think of feeding live foods such as rodents, goldfish, crickets and mealworms. While snakes in particular need to eat whole mice, rats, and even bunnies depending on the snake’s size, most captive bred animals will eat pre-killed and frozen prey. This makes it very easy to keep snakes as pets, as whole prey doesn’t usually need supplementation.
Insectivorous reptiles, like bearded dragons and leopard geckos, do need live invertebrates in order to be healthy and happy, so keep this in mind if you are squeamish about live feeding or bugs in general.
There are also several herbivorous types of reptiles, who need a daily diet of leafy vegetables, grasses, flowers and some legumes and seeds. These include iguanas, Uromastyx species and most land tortoises. Crested Geckos are frugivorous (fruit-eaters) and are one of the few reptile pets that can live entirely off of an appropriate commercially prepared diet, with live bugs as a treat.
Regardless of the type of food your pet likes (or needs) to eat, you must fully research their nutritional requirements in order to provide them with a healthy diet!
Big or Small?
Reptiles can be as large as a 20 foot crocodile or as small as a one-inch dwarf chameleon. However, most species commonly kept as pets are larger 3 inches but under 2 feet long. The size of your animal is a consideration if you have a small amount of space, but be aware that even some small species require a larger than expected amount of space. Smaller species of Uromastyx are active and require a minimum of 40 gallons, with 75+ preferred. An Crested Gecko should be housed in a 12-20 gallon tank or equivalent tall specialty terrarium.
Handling, or Hands-Off?
Pets are usually pet-able, but in many cases, reptiles should be considered a “look but don’t touch” display animal. Not because of their ability to bite, but because they are delicate or easily stressed. You don’t pet your fish, do you? (You shouldn’t!)
However, some reptile species enjoy interacting with you and actually seem to be friendly! Bearded dragons, blue tongue skinks and many tortoises fit this description. Most reptiles do not like to be picked up and held, but will accept gentle petting and scritches if there is food involved. Some Uromastyx can be friendly, but many are shy. Watch out for that tail if he’s in a grumpy mood! Crested Geckos are handleable, but usually prefer not to be grabbed. It’s best to let your reptile pets climb onto your hand instead of being forcibly picked up. Be mindful when imposing yourself on their personal space.
Amphibians are also a pet that you shouldn’t handle often, as their skin lacks scales and is very delicate. They absorb oxygen and other substances through their permeable skin, so water quality must be strictly controlled. Chlorine is deadly so tap water cannot be used. Opt for reverse-osmosis or distilled water. Always remember to research your prospective pets thoroughly! There are many concerns like this that your average pet owner won’t know about all the different reptiles and amphibians.
Diurnal or Nocturnal?
Diurnal reptiles are up during the day, when you are most likely to see them eating, exploring and exhibiting natural behaviors such as digging, hunting, etc. Nocturnal reptiles are awake when the lights go out. Most are insectivores and use the cover of darkness to stalk their prey. Many people prefer the nightlife as well, and a nocturnal pet makes sense for them. Just keep the lights dim when you watch them, or use a red light for viewing. Be sure to turn the lights off when you aren’t observing them. The red light wavelengths are still visible, even if they are less obtrusive.
Easy or Advanced?
Some reptile pets are very low-maintenance, while others need specialty lighting, feeding or heating. Some are better for beginners, and some should only be kept in a zoo or botanical park environment. Leave the alligators to the experienced herpetologists! Even hobby keepers can work their way up to more challenging and delicate animals.
Leopard geckos, bearded dragons, blue tongue skinks and corn snakes are all very common species for first-time reptile owners. They are comparatively easy to care for but do require a modest investment in heating & lighting supplies.
Crested Geckos are fairly low maintenance, easy to care for, velvety soft, and incredibly beautiful. They are perfect for beginners as long as they get the right housing and food. Remember, these are not miniature dogs or cats; they aren’t your household companion and should be kept in a secured enclosure most of the time, with brief periods of handling every few days.
Uromastyx should be for keepers familiar with tortoises or adult bearded dragons, or those who understand their dietary and housing requirements from Day 1. However, these guys are strict vegetarians and require even hotter and drier conditions than bearded dragons. Strictly herbivorous reptiles are the hardest group to keep, as they require daily feeding of a variety of fresh foods, including “weeds”, grasses and flowers.
Large reptiles in general are not for beginners. Large snakes are all muscle, and often require 2-3 people for safe handling. Iguanas start out small but mature adults get up to 6 feet long and up to 20 pounds. Their dietary and husbandry requirements are also outside the scope of most keepers. Research, research, research before you commit to owning any animal!
Advantages… and Disadvantages
So we know that reptiles are a unique pet choice that are great for people with allergies to furred or feathered pets. We know that they are more like fish as a “look but don’t touch” pet, depending on the type. We know that they can be big enough to fill a small room, or small enough to fit in a terrarium on a desk or counter top. We know they can be active when we are, depending on our schedules, so we can find the right fit for day or nighttime viewing. And we know they are fascinating creatures that can teach us more about the natural world.
But are there any disadvantages to having reptile pets? Yes, depending on your lifestyle and expectations for a pet.
Most reptiles are long lived. Are you still going to be able to or will you want to provide for said critter 10, years, 20 years, 30 years or more down the road? Most tortoises will easily outlive you, so be prepared to commit to their care past the typical human lifespan.
Reptiles are absolutely not for young kids. In fact, most children should not be the one “in charge” of any pet until they are old enough to show they are responsible. However, even then, as parents you must ultimately provide the care and financial support needed to properly house, feed and care for a pet reptile. This will include vet costs, either with routine checkups or emergency situations.
Sadly, reptiles are still misunderstood, even by vets. Finding quality veterinary care for reptiles can be a challenge. You can use Herp Vet Connection or the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Vets. Even the most well-meaning vet can do harm to a reptile if they aren’t familiar with general anatomy or up to date with the latest medical advancements when it comes to exotics in general, and reptiles in particular.
Unfortunately, many reptiles are cheap to buy, and are considered “disposable” pets. Combined with the above issue as an unsuitable child’s pet, this can lead to neglect, abuse and ultimately death or abandonment. Do not release your unwanted pet into the wild! You need to responsibly turn the animal in to a reptile rescue or a herpetological society. You can put an add online (such as local reptile forums or Craigslist) to give away to a good home, and often pet stores will take in healthy animals to adopt out free of charge. However, there are often unsuitable candidates who want to take in a reptile, so please screen anyone who is interested, as you might be sending your pet to a worse environment. Please consider what is best for the animal.
And finally – we can’t stress this enough – reptiles require research. Find as many sources as you can to confirm and cross check their nutritional requirements, housing criteria, care needs, etc. which are not readily known as with cats & dogs. Internet forums can be a good resource, as books can be out of date, but any source can provide well-intended yet misleading information. There is more than one “right way” to keep an animal, so find some experienced keepers and ask questions. Find out all the dangers ahead of time, and don’t jump into breeding right away for any animal. Most reptiles do best housed singly, so there’s no harm in starting small. You will need to find out what way of keeping is best for you.
Reptiles aren’t a generic, “one size fits all” pet. Each species has its own set of requirements. If you have the interest in researching and providing for the needs of a reptile pet, there is a wide variety of animals that you can keep. If you are ready to enter the world of reptile and amphibian keeping, welcome to the hobby and good luck with your new pet!