Tips for First-Time Reptile Owners
Reptiles can be fragile creatures, but they can live happy, healthy lives in the hands of people who know how to care for them. While some reptiles are good for beginners, others require a much more experienced owner. Rescue organizations dedicated to these species can offer tremendous guidance when it comes to adopting the right scaly, slithering friend.
Reptiles as Pets
“Reptiles make wonderful pets,” says Marion L. Janusz, Certified Reptile Specialist for R.A.R.E., Reptile Adoption, Rehabilitation and Education, in Cheektowaga, NY.
They are quiet and gentle if handled properly. If you show them respect, they will make a wonderful unassuming pet. They cannot tell you when they need water or food or when they need to be cleaned so you must check on this daily.
It's vital to thoroughly research the specific needs of a pet before committing to an adoption and there is certainly no exception when it comes to reptiles. Here are some important questions, recommended by Janusz, to ponder as you delve into the individual needs of reptiles:
- How large will it get? What size cage will you need when it reaches full maturity?
- What kind of heat, lighting, substrate will it need?
- Are you willing to clean its enclosure and offer fresh water daily?
- Are you willing to shop for fresh vegetables and fruit?
- If your reptile eats meat, are you willing to keep frozen rodents in your freezer to have on hand?
- What will your family think of this arrangement?
- If it eats insects, are you willing to set up a separate aquarium to feed and house your insects?
Did you know that reptiles include carnivores, herbivores and omnivores? Their diets can include anything from small animals to crickets, rose petals and avocados.
The Humane Society recommends specific examples of reptile care, including:
- Chameleons require precise levels of humidity and special diets.
- Large constrictors need a very large space and (in many cases) live animals as part of their diet and can also pose a safety risk.
- Monitor lizards require the same space and dietary needs of large constrictors and can also be aggressive toward humans.
Reptile Disease and Veterinary Care
One of the most important steps you should take while adopting and caring for a reptile is to locate a veterinarian experienced in treating reptiles and amphibians.
The overwhelming majority of all reptile deaths are caused by improper husbandry; that is, how the animal is maintained in captivity, quality and quantity of food given, water needs addressed, improper heating and lighting, over-handling, and cleanliness of enclosure,” says Janusz.
Here are some common issues Janusz says may require veterinary care:
- Metabolic bone disease, the number one reptile heath problem, can usually be avoided with proper care.
- “Egg bound” females who don’t get enough calcium, have improper diets and whose nesting needs aren’t met.
- Prolapses of the hemipenes or "penis" of males.
- Trauma caused by a cage mate or other pet.
- Internal and external parasites.
Reptiles don’t require a rabies shot or distemper; however, all reptiles should get an annual veterinary check-up, including a fecal check for internal parasites.
People and Reptiles
Part of contemplating whether you’re fit for a reptile is exploring how big it might become, says Cory Smith, Program Manager for Animal Sheltering Issues for The Human Society. With the proper care, many species of reptiles can live for many years. It’s important to explore whether you can accommodate the long-term needs of a reptile.
In addition, people should also be aware that reptiles carry salmonella. The Centers for Disease Control attributes approximately 6 percent of all salmonella cases in the U.S. to reptiles or amphibians.
Home visits may be a requirement for adoption from a shelter or rescue group but would vary according to individual adoption procedures, says Smith. Reptile permits vary based on state law and local ordinances.
Many states have outlawed certain exotic species and in some cases that includes reptiles,” says Smith. For example, Florida outlawed all red-eared sliders and instituted a permit system for boa constrictors. Most restrictions apply to venomous snakes, large constrictors and crocodilians.
Finding a Reptile
If you think you have what it takes to care for a reptile, or if you want more information, here are some organizations that can help.
- R.A.R.E., Reptile Adoption, Rehabilitation and Education
- Herp Societies and Rescue
- New England Amphibian & Reptile Rescue
- American Tortoise Rescue
- The Humane Society of the United States