Selecting the Proper Reptile Species
Dr. Margaret Wissman
While it's easy to become enamored with a particular creature that you've seen in a pet store, an impulse buy is never a good idea. To make sure your reptile of choice is the right pet for you and to avoid the common mistakes that make for a disappointing experience, it's important that you do your homework before you bring your new pet home. Corn snake
Prior to acquiring your new pet, it's best to research the herp you're interested in. How much does one usually cost? Are there breeders in the area who have some for sale? If you're planning to purchase one from a pet retailer, check several stores to compare prices. Regardless of the price, what sort of guarantee is offered?
What sort of diet will your new pet consume? If your whole family is vegetarian (or just squeamish), will you be able to feed a mouse to your pet snake (even a frozen and defrosted one?). If your new pet will eat insects, is there a constant source of them available to you? Can you provide the appropriate diet at the recommended intervals?
You must be able to provide a proper environment for your new herp in order for it to remain healthy. Purchasing an escape-proof cage or tank of adequate size is a must, but you must also take into account the growth rate and final size of your new pet. That cute little iguana hatchling that you just bought may fit in the palm of your hand now, but within two or three years, it may end up taller than your youngest child!
You'll not only need to provide correct caging, but you must also purchase appropriate heating devices, water receptacles, lighting (full-spectrum and basking), devices to monitor temperature (thermometers) and humidity (hygrometers) and soaking/swimming equipment. Some herps will quickly outgrow their habitats, requiring additional expenditures.
When choosing a potential pet herp, you should learn what the mature size and weight will be, along with the average longevity. For example, many little tortoise hatchlings are available now in the pet trade. They're adorable when they're the size of a golf ball. But if cared for properly, they may grow to be quite large and they may live for 50 to 75 years or longer!
Specific Habitat and Diet
Each type of reptile and amphibian requires a specific type of habitat and diet. Each has an optimal temperature range for keeping it healthy. Reptiles and amphibians are cold-blooded animals, or ectotherms, which means that they're dependent on external environmental temperature to maintain their own body temperature, unlike mammals and birds, whose primary source of body heat is internal.
Some lizards, such as the uromastyx, come from desert locales and, therefore, require a hot and arid environment. Others, like the green iguana, come from tropical areas, and thrive in a hot and humid environment.
Providing the correct temperature, humidity and environment is extremely important. It's not good enough to provide a young water turtle, such as the red-eared slider, with a fish tank, rocks and a light. As a matter of fact, water turtles are among the most difficult of all reptiles to maintain properly. They require warm water, a basking light, a place to climb out of the water completely and clean water.
Your Own Species-Specific Requirements
Some reptiles seem to accept handling better than others. Some may never tame down at all, skittering away at every chance. Others become very stressed by handling, especially chameleons. Some green iguanas, bearded dragons and tortoises seem to enjoy human companionship and may seek out a human for affection or food treats. Some snakes also appear to tolerate handling very well (never handle a snake for at least several days after it eats a meal to prevent regurgitation).
What is your family's expectation for your herp? Do you want a reptile that you can hold or do you prefer a critter that you can just watch and feed?
The ages of family members should also be taken into consideration. Your small child shouldn't be allowed to handle a reptile until she's aware of how to properly handle it and should only handle herps under adult supervision. Your young child should be taught that she must wash her hands with antibacterial soap afterward. And she must also learn not to touch her eyes, nose or mouth after handling it. This is because reptiles may carry potentially harmful bacteria, protozoa or parasites that can cause disease in humans. Finally, consider whether or not your young child possesses the skills to handle some of the more fragile herps.
Another factor to consider is the cost of veterinary care. Experienced herp veterinarians can provide preventative veterinary care, as well as care for a sick pet. There's always a financial commitment with any pet. For a better chance at obtaining the healthiest pet, it might be wise to seek out a domestically bred herp.
How Many Do You Want?
You must also consider the number and types of herps you're planning to keep. Some lizards, for example, prefer a solitary existence and will become stressed if more than one is housed per enclosure. This is very true of most chameleons, which only come together to breed.
Other types will fight if kept together (mature green iguanas are notorious for this). Still other herps will eat each other if housed together: Snakes fighting over a food item may bite it simultaneously, and the larger one may end up swallowing the smaller one in the process. Argentine horned frogs (also known as Pac-Man frogs) will often eat anything smaller than themselves, including their pond-mates.
What Age Range Do You Want?
Your final decision is related to the age of the herp that you're planning to own. Do you want a hatchling? For example, the babies of many species of lizard and tortoise require a precise diet and excellent husbandry during their first year of life in order to grow properly into a healthy adult. Often, there are adult herps offered for free or for a reduced price from families that are no longer interested in or able to care for them properly. However, a formerly owned herp may make a great pet - or it might have medical or behavioral problems beyond your expectations.
For the novice hobbyist, here are some of the most attractive, readily available, docile and easy-to-care-for species:
Captive-bred ball python
Asian box turtle
Chinese water dragon