Hands Off? How to Handle a Reptilian Pet

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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.

Handling Lizards

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.


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