Many people are attracted to keeping snakes, lizards, turtles and tortoises — some of the most ancient species on earth. Offering interesting personalities and a range of fascinating behaviors, they are generally clean and quiet and don’t shed like our furry or feathered companions. If you decide to choose a scaly friend as a pet, do your homework first! Some are much easier to keep, while others will require very specialized care.
When considering a snake, be aware of the potential size and lifespan for the “baby” you adopt. A ball python can reach 3-5 feet long at maturity and live 25-30 years. They are low maintenance but remember, you will have to feed live prey — newborn mice, rats or even larger furry creatures. With a gentle disposition and reluctance to bite, they are thought of as the best pet snake.
Lizards are probably the best choice for children and first-time reptile owners. Leopard geckos are small with perky personalities, slow-moving and easy to handle. Easy to care for, they can live to 21-24 years of age. With more involved care requirements, bearded dragons are social, easy to tame and active during the day, which makes them fun and interesting. They will usually grow to 16-24 inches long and can live for about 10 years. Iguanas are popular too but can sometimes be aggressive and grow large in size — males can reach 6-7 feet and 20 pounds. They can live 13-29 years as pets.
As for turtles, the best choice would be a red eared slider. They have generally easy care requirements and grow slowly, though they can be 6-10 inches long when mature. Very cute and active, they live about 20 years, but be aware, they can also bite if handled roughly.
Tortoises are even easier than turtles, are often housed outdoors and make popular pets because they have pleasant temperaments and are generally docile.
Very important in the care of reptiles is proper, clean housing with species appropriate substrate (groundcover) and water dishes for basking and drinking; lighting (with both UVA and UVB wavelengths) and heating — being careful to provide both warm and cool areas for comfort. Critical for all reptiles are humidity and temperature control, so have a gauge with both measures attached to the inside of their enclosure. The most common problems I see in reptiles are wounds and infections but the most dangerous health concerns result from dietary issues including vitamin deficiencies and MBD (metabolic bone disease) that can be fatal! If not too advanced these can be helped by dietary improvement, but for many it is already too late when seen by a vet.
Know the proper diet for your special pet: some reptiles are plant eaters, but most are carnivores, feeding on crickets, worms, mice and rats. Calcium and other supplements should be provided as recommended for each species. For herbivores, some need high fiber low protein foods like grasses and hays supplemented with calcium and vitamin D powder, while others need dark green leafy vegetables, or other deep colored veggies, which are naturally higher in calcium.
Once you have decided on an exotic pet, have fun but remember you are now responsible for the health and welfare of another living thing and most reptiles require a long-term commitment.