Hands Off? How to Handle a Reptilian Pet
The first thing to know about handling your reptile or amphibian is that these animals do not like being handled.
While some gradually will get used to being picked up and held, most will not. In either case, some care is necessary — even if you’re just picking the animal up to check his condition.
One of the reasons these animals are skittish is that most have poor eyesight. Reptiles and amphibians spend a great deal of time in the dark, in burrows, or in the undergrowth where they find their prey.
Furthermore, most snakes (all but one genus, in fact) cannot focus by changing the shape of the eye lens. Instead, they must move the lens back and forth like a camera lens, a less efficient method. This keeps them from easily focusing on stationary objects and makes them extremely sensitive to movement.
It is not true, however, that herps (reptiles and amphibians) are deaf. While they don’t process sounds in the same way we do, they are very sensitive to vibrations. Their other senses are also extremely sensitive.
When you approach, they sense your heat, movement, and smell. Until they know otherwise, all these things warn them of approaching danger. So the first rule is to go slow. This means allowing your herp time to adjust to its new surroundings and waiting a couple of weeks before handling the animal.
A snake or turtle will snap at a hand that comes near them if they are scared, or they will bite and hold on if they think the hand is food. Wash your hands before handling the animal to remove the smell of any other animal that might be there. Pick up snakes around the middle and the head, all at the same time if possible, and hold them securely but gently.
Here’s what you need to know about handling herps.
Herps Are Fragile
Despite their surliness, herps are fragile. Frogs should be cupped around the body by one hand and then supported beneath by the other. Turtles should be held securely around the carapace (the back shell), as well as supported by the plastron (the undershell).
Gradually increase the amount of time you handle the animal, remembering again that too much handling stresses a herp a great deal. If you want an animal that you can regularly handle, a dog or cat is a much better choice.
Children should be watched carefully when they handle herps. They tend to squeeze too hard and when the animal struggles the child gets scared and releases it. You then either end up chasing and scaring it more, or chasing the herp until it vanishes somewhere in the room. To alleviate this problem always handle the animal over its cage at first.
Children also tend to put their fingers in their mouths, so it is essential that they wash their hands after handling the herp. The same applies to you.
Most lizards will not (and cannot) become accustomed to being handled. To a lizard, being picked up by something big and ugly (that’s you) means it is going to die.
The personal downside to handling lizards is that they bite. Depending on the size and the type of lizard, being bitten may not hurt, or it may hurt a lot and need extensive medical attention (read “plastic surgery”). Even the “tamest” lizard can be spooked, feel a surge of hormones, and become aggressive.
So yes, you can handle your lizard, but this won’t be good for it and it may not be good for you. And you must always wash your hands thoroughly after handling your lizard or working in its terrarium to protect yourself from the possibility of contracting Salmonella, a bacteria that is often carried by reptiles and amphibians and which can cause illness in humans
There are a few lizards that can become accustomed to being handled; savannah monitors and bearded dragons are among them. Both are readily available in the pet market, and the initial cost of these animals is fairly low for younger specimens.
The problem with savannah monitors is that they are one of the running lizards: They literally chase down their prey in the wild. They get big too, to just over five feet in head-to-tail tip length. They also have big mouths and strong jaws, filled with teeth designed to disable and hold prey. There are people who take their savannah monitors to public places, swear it’s “gentle as a kitten,” and encourage other people to pet the lizard. From a non-lizard-keeper’s viewpoint, even touching a large lizard is a thrill, but if the lizard gets spooked and someone gets bitten, a lawsuit is a real risk.
If holding or handling a lizard is important to you, a bearded dragon is your best choice. These lizards, though omnivorous when young, are vegetarians, dining quite happily on mixed vegetables and greens. There is nothing they enjoy more than basking under a 105-degree Fahrenheit spotlight. Once “beardeds” become accustomed to being handled, they seem to enjoy resting across a person’s warm chest, atop a warm leg or on a warm arm. (The term “warm” may play a pivotal role in this enjoyment.)
To accustom a bearded to handling, scoop it up in your hands, with one hand under the front legs and the other under the hind legs and place it on a warm surface, like your chest. Do not let go if there is any chance that the lizard could fall off.
Other lizard species are to be handled as little as possible. Some smaller types, like the day geckos, have skin so fragile that it will tear if they are restrained. (From the day gecko’s viewpoint, it’s probably better to lose some skin than be eaten, although a day gecko with torn skin is a disquieting sight.)
How snakes are handled will depend upon the kind of snake and its individual temperament. Some snakes can be lifted by hand from the outset with no display of temper at all. Some may be irascible when first encountered but will quiet as they become used to routines. Others may bite persistently and be so unpleasant that they must be moved with a snakehook or a clampstick.
Traditionally snakes have been placed in three categories: harmless (non-venomous), rear-fanged (mildly-venomous) and front-fanged (venomous). While these designations may seem definitive, they can, in fact, be very misleading. It is now known that among the so-called harmless snakes are some species that produce toxic saliva. Human fatalities have been attributed, for example, to bites from some relatives of the garter and water snakes. Additionally, many non-venomous species are powerful constrictors. A few of these are large enough to be life-threatening to humans.
Among the ranks of the “mildly-venomous” rear-fanged snakes, there are also a few species that have caused human fatalities. The bites of others have caused massive swelling and tissue destruction. The venomous species — vipers, cobra allies, and sea snakes — are aptly designated and a bite should be assiduously avoided.
With all of this potential for danger, how does one go about handling a captive snake? Simply put, the answer is carefully. Since snakes usually advertise their intent with a display of body language (coiling, flattening, drawing back into an “S” to facilitate a strike), it will behoove you to learn their habits, their silent language (as a species and as an individual) and to tailor your methods of approach and handling safely.
Unlike many other reptiles and amphibians that resist owner familiarity, many snakes can be safely and frequently handled if this is done gently. If you are new to the snake-keeping hobby, discuss the habits of the species you are keeping with other hobbyists and with employees in the dealerships that offer them. Read as much as you can about the species that most interest you.
The first question to ask yourself when handling your amphibian is “Is
this action necessary?” Amphibians, with their permeable skin, are much more sensitive to touch than the scaly-skinned reptiles.
The skin affords little protection against dessication (drying) or against heat. The amphibian’s thin skin absorbs oxygen from the atmosphere, but the skin can also absorb anything else that it comes into contact with. If you have perfume, insecticide, hand lotion, or even soap residue on your hands and you handle an amphibian, the frog or salamander will absorb whatever is on your skin, perhaps with fatal results.
There is also the temperature differential to consider. Compared to the ambient temperature of a salamander or frog, your hands are hot. The heat from your clean hands (and the stress of being handled) can actually cause the death of a tiny frog or toad. But there are several ways to handle your amphibian with a minimum of emotional and physical stress.
Handling Turtles and Tortoises
Turtles and tortoises are very popular as pets, but what should a potential owner expect from these interesting shelled creatures? They are cute, but are they cuddly? They have sharp mandibles, but will they bite? And can they be handled — and if so do they enjoy it? Just what can you expect in the way of interactions from your captive turtle or tortoise?
Actually, despite the fact that they are reptiles, collectively a grouping of animals both well-known for over-emoting, turtles and tortoises are rather responsive to the overtures of their keepers. Most species quickly equate the presence of a person with the probability of being fed, and once acclimated, will eagerly paddle or plod to a position where they can greet their keeper.
Most turtles and many tortoises don’t ever go much beyond this stage, but some tortoises become surprisingly tame. However, neither species enjoys being lifted from the ground and will hiss in concern and promptly withdraw into their shell if such liberties are taken.
Semi-aquatic turtles, even relatively tame, long-term captives, usually react adversely to being picked up. They may show their displeasure in one or more of several ways. This includes kicking and scratching, attempting to bite, withdrawing fully into the shell, or voiding the contents of their cloaca and bladder when lifted. So, while turtles and tortoises are cute, most are not at all cuddly.
It is best to meet turtles and tortoises on their own terms. Let them be the ones to make the overtures. Physically restrain and lift them only when absolutely necessary.
Resources for Handling Reptiles
Want more useful advice on how to handle reptilian pets? Check out our featured articles: