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Deciding on a Reptile as a Pet

By: Rebecca Sweat

Read By: Pet Lovers
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"Cuddly" may not be the first word that comes to mind when you think of iguanas, bearded dragons, tortoises, turtles, chameleons, salamanders, geckos, frogs and snakes, but it's possible to love them anyway – just as much as any other pet.

Many species of reptiles and amphibians make wonderful pets. In fact, some pet industry professionals estimate that 10 percent of all American families own at least one reptile.

A Nationwide Phenomenon

What is it that draws people to reptiles? Al Miller of Escondido, Calif., likes watching and admiring his green iguana, Dino, as he hangs out in his cage.

Carol Meyers of Kenosha, Wis., enjoys the beautiful coloration on her marbled newt and fire salamander.

Todd Smith of Arcadia, California, says his bearded dragon, Spike, is quite friendly and climbs onto his hand when he opens the door to his cage.

Arlene Johnson of Albuquerque, N.M., says her box turtle, Mr. T, comes when she calls his name and follows her around the yard when she has tortoise food in her hand.

Many people are simply fascinated with the sheer variety of reptiles that exist. "There are around 7,900 species of reptiles, although not all of them are available as pets," says Dr. Stephen Barten, a veterinarian in Vernon Hills, Ill., and a charter member of the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians. "They come in so many bright colors and interesting forms. I think people are fascinated by just what they are; the fact that they are so varied and unusual."

Not a Dog or a Cat, But...

That said, reptiles and amphibians are obviously not going to "warm" your heart in the same way a dog or cat might: there's no purring, licking your face or leaping on you the minute you walk in the door after a long day at work.

In fact, some reptiles don't care for physical contact at all. "Too much handling can be life-threatening to some species," says Dr. William Chavez, an avian and exotics veterinarian in Miami, Fla., who sees a lot of reptiles. "Many reptiles view handling and touching as a threat. Over-handling a species that doesn't appreciate it will result in stress. Too much stress and that animal may hide, refuse to eat and may eventually die."

The vast majority of reptiles are naturally solitary creatures. "They don't hunt together, sleep together, play together or live in family units," Barten says. "Usually their social activity is limited to mating and, after that, they go their separate ways." He says reptiles don't have the genetic capabilities of forming relationships. "I don't believe the reptile misses the owner when he or she is gone," he says. "I think at best the reptile can learn that when the owner picks him up he doesn't have to be frightened or defensive."

A few reptile species are colony creatures and little more social, Chavez adds. "Bearded dragons and water dragons are colony lizards and like being with others of their kind and don't mind contact with humans."

Know What Your Reptile Can Handle

But while your reptile may never show affection like a puppy or kitten, you can still get a lot of pleasure from owning a cold-blooded pet. The key is knowing what your reptile species can and can't handle. Here are some points to keep in mind:

  • Know which species are social and which aren't.

  • Visit herpetology-related web sites on the Internet and read recently published books about reptiles.

  • Talk to breeders. Get expert recommendations regarding what reptile species are better with people. In addition to bearded and water dragons, most experts say corn snakes, king snakes, boa constrictors and box turtles also tolerate handling well.
            
  • Buy a captive-bred reptile. Wild-caught reptiles are far shyer than their domestically bred counterparts. "A wild-caught reptile will never be completely tame and will always be under stress when you're handling it," Chavez says.
            
  • Seek a happy medium with handling. Don't handle your reptile too little or too much. Barten says: "Some handling is beneficial so that the animal becomes calm when you go to handle it. However, too much handling can cause many reptiles stress." Just five or 10 minutes of handling a day may be enough to keep your reptile "people tolerant."
            
  • Stick to a routine. Once you've gotten your reptile used to a certain amount of attention, stick with that same amount of handling on a regular basis. Reptiles, like all other animals, feel more secure when their lives follow regular routines.
            
  • Learn to appreciate just observing your pet. While reptiles aren't "hands on" pets, they're still unique, colorful and interesting to look at. Don't expect your reptile to be something he isn't. Learn to appreciate cold-blood critters for the fascinating creatures they are.

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