As you consider buying a snake, lizard, amphibian, or other herp (reptiles and amphibians), there are a number of things you should know. It’s important to consider these things well in advance of purchasing an animal that may end up being unsuitable for your family. Research a species before you purchase. Choosing and caring for a reptile is not as simple as it may appear.
With most reptiles, you are attempting to keep an animal with very specific environmental and dietary needs in an environment very different from its native habitat. Owners must spend a great deal of time-and money working to keep their reptile’s enclosure warm enough or cool enough, and dry enough or humid enough, or the reptile will sicken and die. What works to provide the right temperatures and humidity during the summer may not be enough during the winter. During the spring and fall, the great disparity between ambient day time and night time temperatures makes almost daily fiddling with heating equipment a must.
Your first step in herp ownership should be a trip to the library, bookstore, or quality Internet sites to obtain as much information as possible. Also, remember that the initial purchase price of an animal is just a fraction of the cost of care. You will need to make allowances in your budget for housing, heating, feeding, veterinary care, etc. As you read about various species available, be especially aware of the following:
How big will the animal grow, and what will you do when it reaches that size? That beautiful 20-inch Burmese python may seem like fun now, but within 5 months, it’s likely to reach 5 feet, and it has the potential to grow to 18 feet at maturity. How large of an animal are you comfortable handling? What will you do if it becomes aggressive? Even species that don’t like much handling need consistent care. Cages need to be cleaned, they need to be fed, what if it becomes ill and needs medical care?
Housing Needs (habitat/husbandry)
It’s important to provide the proper living environment for your reptile. Cages or vivariums need to be escape-proof and you must provide enough space for mobility. You also need to consider factors like cleaning, sanitizing, and routine maintenance.
One of the most common mistakes is that people buy enclosures that are too small. While the enclosure may fit the animal at the time of purchase, reptiles grow, often reaching adult size within a year or two. It is cruel and inhumane to house an animal in an enclosure that is too small. It not only causes severe stress which leads to illness and behavioral problems – it also makes taming and working with territorial species that much more difficult. Such animals spend most of their time trying to break out of their enclosure, often injuring themselves severely enough to require veterinary care. For some reptiles, such as iguanas and large pythons and boas, there are no commercially made enclosures big enough for these animals, and much of what is available is not the right shape for them. This means that you must build, or have built, an enclosure that may ultimately take up a good portion of your living space.
Feeding and Nutritional Needs
There are commercially available diets, but almost all herps require fresh fruits and vegetables as a majority of their diet. Some herps must be fed live food like mice or items such as live worms, brine shrimp, water fleas, or crickets, which can become costly. Raising your own feeder insects can save you money, but you will still incur expense in dusts or gutload products and supplements.
Most snakes and lizards that eat rodents will cheerfully take killed prey, and for their own safety and for the humane treatment of the prey, should be fed killed prey. That means, however, that if you cannot find a pet store that will kill it humanely for you, you will have to kill the prey humanely yourself, or buy prey in bulk from breeders who will ship it to you already killed and frozen. Which means that the family needs to accept the fact that, in the freezer, amongst the chicken and ice cream, is a bag or two of mousicles…
Mealworms and crickets need to be fed live; the large Zoophobas (“kingworms”) should be killed by quickly crushing their heads before being fed.
If housing and caring for insects, keeping containers of worms and beetle larvae in the refrigerator isn’t appealing, or keeping baggies of prekilled mice, rats or rabbits (whole rabbits, not the neatly butchered ones from your meat market) in the freezer isn’t something you or your family can deal with (or have room for), and if you can’t kill them humanely yourself, then a carnivorous or omnivorous reptile is not for you. The commercial foods and dried insects available at pet stores are not appropriate replacements for fresh, whole prey, and in many cases the reptiles will not even touch them.
When you have an herbivorous lizard or tortoise, or an omnivorous lizard or turtle, you must be prepared to buy a variety of healthy vegetables, greens, and fruits, and prepare them in such a way as to enable the reptile to maximize its intake and digestion. You may have to hit a couple of grocery stores, or convince the produce manager at your regular store, to get what you need, and then spend an hour or two a week preparing the foods.
As with carnivore food products, the commercially available foods for herbivores are not appropriate replacements for a properly constructed fresh food diet.
Being cold-blooded, a captive reptile doesn’t have the luxury of maintaining its body temperature within the range that it needs. It has to rely on you to provide an environment that allows it to stay healthy. A temperature gradient should be provided to allow your herp to move from place to place as it needs to warm up by basking, or cool down. It’s also important to invest in a good thermometer and proper lighting. Depending on the species, you may also need to purchase specialized heating equipment like nocturnal heat lamps, basking lights, under-tank heaters, radiant terrarium heaters, etc.
A cost generally not taken into consideration is the cost of providing heating and lighting to all reptiles, but especially for desert and tropical species. While there is some respite during the winter for desert species owners, tropical species must be maintained at tropical temperatures all year round. Keep in mind that as it gets colder outside, it may take more heating equipment just to maintain the temperatures they need.
It is also recommended that you have the animals’ enclosure set up and operating at least 48 hours before you bring the animal home, this will enable you to have your temperature gradients checked and all the equipment operating according to plan. Remember, not all reptiles need high heat constantly so you need to know what your animal prefers. Don’t forget to setup TWO thermometers inside your enclosure, one down the hot end and the other in the cooler end so you can monitor your enclosure’s temperature gradient.
Light provides your pet with specific vitamins for mineral metabolism, but also creates an environment that caters to the animal’s very nature; some herps are nocturnal, while others are diurnal. For many herps, a light source can be used for both light and heating. However, for species that require darkness with higher ambient temperatures than your room temperature, combined heating and lighting solutions won’t work and the two elements must be separated.
Reptiles in the wild are accustomed to locations with fairly stable humidity. Depending on the animal’s needs, you will need to provide a means to regulate the humidity in your pet’s home. You may need to install misting equipment, drippers, or foggers. And, of course, if your pet is sensitive to humidity, a good humidity alert device is an absolute requirement.
Amount of care
If you select a herp that requires careful monitoring, you must be prepared not only to commit the time and energy to provide that monitoring, but also be prepared for emergencies like equipment failure, illness, stress, malnutrition, and general difficulty in keeping and handling. You’ll need to make arrangements for someone knowledgeable to take care of your herp if you’re away and if your herp gets sick, you want to be sure there’s a veterinarian in your locale familiar with herps.
If you’re looking for a pet you can handle a lot, you probably don’t want a herp. Among herps, there’s obviously a wide range in the amount of handling that is necessary, possible, or desirable. How you will, or can, approach the handling of your pet is something you must factor into the decision about which species to purchase. As always, after handling any reptile, hands must be washed to prevent the spread of disease.
Reptiles carry Salmonella, a bacteria which can be transmitted to humans through direct contact with feces, or through contact with something that has been contaminated with feces. The disease is most commonly transmitted through oral ingestion after handling a herp or equipment that has been contaminated, through open cuts/sores during handling, and through direct contact with contaminated soil or environmental items.
The “Vet” Factor
Not all vets are knowledgeable about reptile medicine. If you cannot find a reptile vet in your area, be prepared to widen your search, geographically. PLEASE do not rely on pet store personnel for medical advice, take the time to find a veterinarian specially trained in the medical care of reptiles.
Where to Buy
With your environment all setup and ready to go, the next thing you will need of course is an animal. Even though this might sound obvious, it is vital to make sure you purchase an animal that is HEALTHY and disease free. Reptiles can hide health problems very well and while they might appear on the outside to be healthy, they could in fact actually be deteriorating in health and die shortly after you take them home.
That is why it’s so important to buy your animals from well-known reputable breeders or SPECIALIST pet stores. There, you can check out the conditions under which they are kept & raised, as well as getting the chance to inspect them before you buy them and make sure they are feeding properly, especially snakes. Ask the breeder or pet store when they will next feed the animal so that you can be there to watch the animal eat and make sure they have a good healthy appetite.
Spend the time and effort to research the needs of your chosen pet reptile before acquiring the animal so that you can fully understand them and can provide to them as natural, realistic and healthy an environment as possible. Too many of these animals die from neglect, being kept in less than ideal conditions and/or not being fed an appropriate diet.
When it comes to finding sources of information about your animal, there are lots of places to look and they include:
- Reputable specialist reptile pet shops
- Reptile magazines and books
- Herpetological Societies and Associations
- Reputable Reptile Breeders
- Reptile veterinarians