“…keeping a pet is a lifestyle choice made by the owner…”—Frank Pasmans
So, you have decided that you want a companion animal, but not the traditional cat or dog, something more exotic. Well, you are not alone; according to the National Pet Owners survey from 2017-2018, approximately 37 million households in America had a pet other than a dog or cat, and of that, 4.7 million or 3.26% had a pet reptile. Several recent studies have cited the keeping of reptiles as pets to be a continually increasing trend that might surpass keeping other small pets such as hamsters.
Interestingly, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or RSPCA, released a report as to the motivations that people have when it comes to getting a pet reptile. They found that the motivations for having a pet reptile vary from media-based interest, wanting a reptile for a status symbol, wanting a pet, wanting a reptile since childhood, and interest in biology or natural history. Additionally, they found that age group and sex of responding individuals resulted in different motivations and owning different reptiles. For example, owners of reptiles in the age group 20-30 were more often males owning corn snakes or royal pythons, while females more commonly owned bearded dragons. To read more, check out RSPCA’s report. Keep in mind that the RSPCA works in the United Kingdom, and for more information for companion animals in America, check out the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA.
Commonly kept pet reptiles include lizards, snakes, and turtles. In this post, you will find pros and cons of owning a pet reptile, information about the exotic pet trade, how to keep reptiles alive, healthy, and safe, and why enrichment is important for reptiles.
Pros and cons
If you are still deciding whether or not a pet reptile is for you, it is important to consider some pros and cons to keeping a reptile as a pet in your home and life. In a review by Frank Pasmans and colleagues from 2017, they list some of the cons of keeping a reptile as a pet as zoonoses (or diseases transmitted between the animal and the human caretaker), allergies, trauma from injury resulting from the pet such as a bite, and poisoning. Pros of keeping a reptile as a pet include benefits to human well-being, connecting with animals, public education, interest, and dispelling prejudice for reptiles and amphibians. For more information on selecting a pet reptile, check out this article from the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Keep in mind that you CANNOT release a pet reptile into the wild for any reason. Not only is this illegal, but the animal can become an invasive species to the area. One example is that of Burmese pythons released in Florida, which are now second in predatory status in the state.
Before you buy:
- Remember that a reptile is just as much of a commitment as other pets
- ALL pet reptiles are considered exotic, which means they are non-domesticated species that are not as selectively adapted to the companion animal role as a dog or cat would be, which means any exotic pet has highly specialized and diverse needs.
- Knowing how to care for a pet reptile isn’t necessarily common knowledge, so you will likely need to do some research in addition to what the pet store tells you.
- Be aware of mislabeling and understand easy, moderate, difficult, and extreme level of experience before obtaining pet reptile. An example of this is pictured below of advertising a lizard as a beginner level pet when lizards require higher levels of experience.
- Consider setting up the enclosure before you buy the animal, and at least a week before bringing it home.
- Rules, regulations, and laws vary depending on the country or state you are in, so be sure to do the research prior to obtaining a pet reptile, specifically larger snakes. For more information, check out the US fish and wildlife state directory here.
Think about where to obtain your pet reptile and the deeper issue of the pet trade
If you have decided or are in the process of obtaining a pet reptile, it might be easy to simply buy one from a pet shop, but there is a very critical step: be informed and buy responsibly. As a potential owner, you should ask where the animal was acquired. For example, you can ask “is this animal captive bred or wild caught?” One reason to seek out captive bred over wild caught is because it is likely that the reptile was illegally taken from the wild and traded. According to one study by Robinson and colleagues in 2017, mortality rates in captive bred animals may be lower than that of the exotic pet trade, and another study by Toland and colleagues in 2012 reports that 80% of exotic trade animals are sick, injured, or even dead, and so it is important if not crucial to consider where your new exotic pet is coming from.
Now that you have your pet reptile, what does it take to keep your pet alive, healthy, and safe?
What should the enclosure be like? In 2013, Warwick and colleagues proposed two common myths about reptiles and the amount of space they need. The first myth is that reptiles feel safer in small environments because they are sedentary and do not need space. A second common myth is that reptiles are not active and therefore do not need free space. While reptiles may seem slow moving, they still require adequate space, temperature, humidity, light, airflow, and furnishings. So, it is best not to assume that your pet reptile is sedentary and do provide a spacious and diverse shelter that allows for voluntary withdraw. In other words, provide enough space for the animal to move, crawl, or slither including areas to hide, which helps regulate body temperature, allows species specific behavior, and provides diversity and choice in the environment.
Should you handle your pet reptile?
Handling can be an important method to assessing your reptile’s physical health, but some reptiles should be handled more than others. For example, slider turtles should not be petted whereas leopard geckos can be held (see images above). Sliders are fragile especially when they’re young, so improper handling has the potential to hurt this reptile. Additionally, if you are handling your slider turtle, RSPCA recommends picking the animal up from the sides of its shell to avoid being bitten. It is important to keep in mind how long the reptile is out of its enclosure, as the temperature may be different and harmful if too much time passes. RSPCA recommends 10-15 minute intervals for handling and to never surprise your reptile or force them into your hand. Howell & Bennett (2017) point out that, “even if daily handling is not recommended, daily behavioral observation of the lizard is desirable.”
What are some unhealthy behaviors?
You can’t always see negative effects physiologically, but you can look at behavior. Specifically, you want to look for captive stress related behaviors such as interaction with transparent boundary (i.e. persistent climbing of glass walls), hyperactivity, hypoactivity, co-occupant aggression, habit related consumption such as pica (see images), which is consumption of non-food materials such as bedding. Pica can be a sign that your pet is under stimulated. You want to ask and answer questions such as, is my reptile basking (a species-specific behavior), or is my turtle acting unusual, such as extension of its neck, which can be a possible indicator or anxiety, according to Benn and colleagues. The full list of behaviors to measure welfare can be found here.
How to keep your pet snake healthy and safe
You might have a corn snake, royal python, or garter snake and as mentioned above, you will want to look at behavior to get a better understanding of your snake’s well-being. If the animal is stressed, you may see clutching behavior, for instance clinging to something tightly, or the snake might demonstrate escape behavior by interacting with a transparent boundary. Especially if these behaviors are repetitive, they can be signs of stress. You can also look at physical signs that the environment isn’t safe for your snake. This can be lamp burns (see right image below) from artificial lights—are the lights too close to the snake or is there self-mutilation behavior? According to RSPCA’s “Handle with Care,” snakes need access to a range of temperatures, which can be provided through a diverse enclosure giving the snake choices (i.e. provide areas in enclosure for snake to hide in hot or cooler area). However, it is important not to raise the temperature for a sick or injured reptile as you might do more harm than help. Most importantly, your snake needs AT LEAST a large enough enclosure to be able to be stretched out in a straight line. This is for comfort and proper digestion. The image on the left shows an extreme example of improper space for a snake.
What about lizards?
Whether you have a bearded dragon, leopard gecko, chameleon, or blue-tongue skink, all pet lizards have some environmental needs in common, such as space, light, humidity, substrate, etc. Reptiles are ectothermic, which means they use their environment for temperature regulation, so the enclosure should include a heat source in one area, and another area such as a rock that is cooler. The temperature, size of the enclosure, and diet varies among the different species, so it is important to look up the specific requirements for your reptile. For individual species care sheets in more detail, check out RSPCA’s website.
If you’re keeping a turtle, keep in mind that zoonotic transmission of salmonella can occur easily without proper cleaning and care, which puts especially the younger population at risk. Turtle diet can have specific, even difficult, requirements, and again how and where you obtain your turtle can be problematic. To read more, check out this article about whether or not you should keep a turtle from the wild.
How to provide enrichment for your pet reptile
Most people might not think to buy toys for their pet reptile as you would for a cat or dog, however, reptiles benefit from enrichment that increases behavioral opportunities. A study by Gordon Burghardt in 1996 showed that providing a captive turtle with objects such as balls, sticks, and hoses lead to a decrease in self-mutilation behavior. In other captive settings such as a zoo, Komodo dragons showed increased activity levels as well as nearly triple the amount of behaviors they exhibited. This was done by Veasley and Guerra at the Woodland Park Zoo by providing Komodo dragons with various forms of enrichment. This shows that providing different enrichments will result in different responses and aid in keeping your pet active. Importantly, you should provide enrichment items based on motivation and interest and not just novel items. For your reptile, you can provide balls, natural items such as sticks, hide food in the enclosure, and create scent trails in hopes that these items will promote digging, climbing, and other natural or species-specific behavior. It is very easy to observe exploratory behavior in reptiles, and even just small changes to the enclosure, such as moving the heat source or rearranging furnishings, can encourage exploratory behavior.
Snakes, and Lizards, and Turtles, oh my!
Keeping reptiles as pets is becoming more common in households. To help decide if a pet reptile is for you keep in mind to be aware of mislabeling, buy informed and responsibly, and understand how to provide a safe and enriching enclosure for your reptile. Regardless of which species you choose to keep as a companion animal, it is a commitment. When considering all of the above information, it is understandable to take some time to think about making the commitment to keeping a companion reptile. After all, “…keeping a pet is a lifestyle choice made by the owner…”—Frank Pasmans
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