Throughout North America, it has become quite common to find people that keep different reptile species as pets. It wasn’t that long ago that reptiles were so rare in the community that to purchase one from a pet store cost you an arm and a leg and the chances of it being wild caught was quite good, but the hobby has grown so immensely over the past few decades that people of all ages and sexes are now keeping these wonderful animals as pets. Although reptiles for the most part has not received the same negative stigma as snakes, the biggest question that is asked to people that keep reptiles as pets is “why?”. Of course the purpose of this article is to answer that very question, but the short and painless answer, or Coles notes version, is that there is such a huge diversity of reptiles now available to the public and on top of being completely unique in the pet industry, they are utterly fascinating.
But if they are so unique and fascinating, why is it that their popularity is now just becoming mainstream? The answer is that there has always been, and perhaps always will be, an unknown or mysterious stigma associated with reptiles that a majority of people just aren’t interested in anything but the mainstream cats and dogs. But the main reason there is such an influx of reptiles right now is because there are so many breeders producing a variety of reptiles that have never been available without being caught in the wild. And for those who have strong allergies to pets, reptiles are considered hypoallergenic because they have no hair or dander that most people suffer allergic attacks too. The fact is that reptiles make fantastic pets, and once you have one, you will definitely be hooked in the hobby for the rest of your life.
What is a reptile?
Reptiles are animals in the (Linnaean) class Reptilia. They are characterized by breathing air, laying tough-shelled amniotic eggs, and having skin covered in scales and/or scutes. Reptiles are classically viewed as having a "cold-blooded" metabolism. They are tetrapods (either having four limbs or being descended from four-limbed ancestors). Modern reptiles inhabit every continent with the exception of Antarctica, and four living orders are currently recognized:
• Crocodilia (crocodiles, gavials, caimans, and alligators): 23 species
• Sphenodontia (tuataras from New Zealand): 2 species
• Squamata (lizards, snakes, and worm lizards): approximately 7,900 species
• Testudines (turtles and tortoises): approximately 300 species
Types of Reptiles
Of the over eight thousand reptiles in the world, I have found it best to break down the reptiles into three main categories based on their natural habitats and climate. The three types of climates that reptiles are found in are desert, tropical, and subtropical. Perhaps the hardest part about being part of this fascinating hobby is replicating the natural habitats of specific reptiles. Thankfully after decades of research, it is now possible to purchase nearly anything you could think of for nearly all reptile species from your home town pet store. Can’t find what you need at your pet store? Everything else that is too specific, or for things you pet store simply doesn’t carry, a quick search through the internet will get you anything you could think of for your pet. The best part about purchasing from the internet is that it is typically reptile hobbyists that are selling the products so that you can get help from people inside the hobby at any given time.
Desert reptiles like it as hot as you can make it for them. Since desert reptile species come for one of the toughest environments around, they are typically a lot hardier that other species. One advancement they have gained over thousands of years is thick scaly skin that helps prevent injuries and protects them from their harsh surroundings. One of the most fascinating aspects of desert reptiles is that they have evolved in such a way that they no longer need to drink water. Because water is so scarce in the desert, these reptiles have evolved to absorb water from the items they eat. This also leads into a varied diet of vegetables/fruits as well as a variety of insect/small rodents. The idea of not putting water in with any animal in general is a great cause of debate in most places, but with desert reptile species, the temperature is often so hot that any water will evaporate instantly causing high humidity. Since these species need to stay dry, increased humidity could lead to respiratory problems. Common reptiles in this group would be Bearded Dragons, Uromastyx, and a variety of geckos.
Tropical reptiles like their enclosures to be toasty warm and nice and as humid as you can make it for them. These are some of the most unusual reptile species around, and this group is perhaps the largest of them all. In the wild, tropical rainforests are the home to crocodiles, amphibians, and lizards like geckos, Chameleons, monitors, and much much more. Unlike the desert reptiles that need no water, these tropical reptiles need as much as they can get. A majority of this group feeds mainly on insects, small rodents, or other lizards, and for those smaller lizards that like the heights, the bright green and blue Day Gecko for example, love the occasional nectar feast. The problem with some species in this group, like geckos primarily, is that their skin has to absorb so much water that the skin becomes paper thin and can tear easily. These lizards are generally for looking at only, not handling.
The third group of reptiles generally covers the rest of the reptiles, and these are reptiles considered to be Sub-tropical. These are reptiles that require heat similar to Tropical reptiles, due to their cold blooded nature they need the heat to speed up their metabolism, but they do not require the nigh levels of humidity that are needed by Tropical reptiles. In a lot of ways, these reptiles are a combination of desert and tropical reptiles because they are hardy animals that can survive in most areas of the world, but their habitat requires significantly less than a tropical reptile. Examples of reptiles in this category would by Short Horned Lizards, Chuckwallas, a variety of geckos, and frilled lizards. A lot of reptiles that are part of this group are found throughout North America, and if you look hard enough, you may luck out and find some of these fascinating creatures.
Although I did say there were only three categories, I have to add that there kind of is a fourth in which we can call “Everything Else”. Just like everything, where there are rules, there are exceptions to those rules. The first rule about cold blooded animals is that they require external heat sources for their metabolism to work, but there are reptiles out there that actually have to be kept cool. For reptiles like Crested Geckos, Satanic Leaf geckos, and some pygmy species of Chameleons, their metabolism only requires low amounts of heat that are often considered far too low for other lizards to survive. There are also a large variety of reptiles that are simply fantastic examples of evolution from the Legless lizard, yes, it has a lizard’s head but a snake’s body, to flying lizards, glide like flying squirrel, to the thorny devil, sort of like a bearded dragon crossed with a cactus. Thanks to evolution, these are some of the most fascinating animals in the wild right now. In recent years, scientists have discovered numerous new species, and in time, many more will be found.
Unlike snakes that boast a large number of venomous species, there are actually only two types of reptiles that are actually venomous. And firstly, no, it is not the Komodo Dragon. Sure they are the largest reptiles in the world, aggressive towards humans, and a bite will act as if there is venom present, the truthful answer is that their mouths are full of harmful bacteria that acts like a venom if bitten. The only two reptiles that are venomous are actually cousins; The Gilas Monster and Beaded Lizard. Both have venom that can easily kill a human, but they are excessively violent and act more like a cross between a snake and a monitor lizard.
Purchasing Your First Reptile
The first rule about purchasing your first reptile is to buy a species that is interesting to you. Never be persuaded to purchase a reptile that you don’t want because you are told it is an easier reptile meant for a beginner. If it is a reptile that you don’t really want, then it is a reptile that you will grow tired of in the future. Regardless of what type it is that you want, you have to ensure you do all the research about it prior to purchasing it so that you take proper care of the reptile from day one. There is simply no sense in getting a reptile that will grow to be 12 feet long that requires a room to live in if you are living in an apartment. The idea that a reptile will grow to the size of its enclosure is a myth, and the fact is that if they live in an enclosure too small their growth will be stunted and they will suffer from health issues.
One of the most debated issues in all of herpetology is whether to purchase from a private breeder or from a pet store. Here is an argument that is based on a few too many bad apples spoiling it for the bunch. Without pet stores, there simply would not be reptiles, snake, and amphibians in captivity as pets because it was various pet stores that sparked the interest in reptiles in the first place. But over the past twenty years, there have been numerous cases of reptiles being sold by people thinking only of profit as their reptiles suffered from neglect. Thankfully, there has been numerous reptile enthusiasts stepping forward to challenge pet stores to live up to the standards that reptile require, and there have also been numerous pet stores in North America that have been promoting proper reptile care. The downside to purchasing from a pet store is that you will be paying higher prices because the pet store purchases from breeders and then mark up the prices to make a profit. Sometimes you will find unique snakes in pet stores, but for the most time, they are usually the run of the mill whereas, if you purchase from a breeder, you may be able to get a more unique morph that most people have never seen before.
As a general rule of thumb, always try to purchase the healthiest reptile available. This is easily done by purchasing the largest reptile in a group that has bright eyes and is active. Larger animals typically mean that they are being well fed and cared for. If a reptile is skinny and not active, then it is best to leave it be. One of the most common reasons for buying a small sickly animal from either a breeder or pet store is because you want to save it and nurse it back to health. Although noble your intentions might be, a life time of health issues will not make you love your new pet any more, and health issues in reptiles are incredibly difficult to treat especially if it is young and has yet to build up a resistance to illnesses. A healthy animal can live many years, and if you put in the time that is necessary, you will be rewarded in the long run.
All reptiles regardless of species require three main things to ensure that they not only survive, but thrive in their new home. The first thing that all reptiles require is an enclosure that is big enough for them to easily move about in, but also large enough to mimic a part of their natural ecosystem. If a reptile primarily stays on the ground, or is terrestrial, then it needs a lot of ground space, but if it spends most of its time in trees above the ground in the wild then it should have a tall cage with little ground space. Depending on the type of reptile, there are numerous types of substrate available for your specific pet ranging from different types of sand for desert reptiles to various types wood mulches for subtropical, and even different types of mosses for tropical pets. You just have to remember to always avoid oak and cedar because they have oils that are toxic to most snake species. Most important of all, especially if you want to keep you new reptile in the cage, you have to have a tight fitting lid that they can’t push up or squeeze through. The fact of the matter is, if they can escape, they will, and just because you can’t see them trying, they are trying as hard as they can to escape.
The second thing to remember about reptiles is that they are cold blooded, so they require an external heat source to keep their bodies warm. A heat range of 75 to 80 Fahrenheit will suffice for a majority of reptiles, but certain desert species will require significantly higher temperatures in the 120’s and there are also some reptiles that require almost no heat whatsoever. This heat can be from an external reptile heat bulb to heat the cage from above, or you can choose to use a heat mat to heat the cage from below. It is also important to heat only one half of the cage give the reptile a chance to regulate its body temperature by being able to move from one side of the cage to another. Most reptiles love a basking spot light that they can lay under for hours on end. Think of it as sun tanning for reptiles, but a perfect example is the Bearded Dragon that loves the heat so much that it will lay under its lamp and keep its mouth open to regulate his own body temperature.
The last thing you have to remember is that reptiles like to have a safe and secure place to retreat to should they desire. They do this by curling up underneath things that they can push up against and feel safe. The easiest way to do this is to purchase reptile hides from a pet store that look like big hollow rocks that your snake can climb under. These are the easiest to use, most effective, and the safest. Some people choose to use real rocks, which are alright, but you have to ensure they cannot be pushed over because they can and will crush a small snake. And again, snakes like to regulate their temperatures, so it is important to have one hiding spot on the cool side of the cage, and a hiding spot on the hot side of the cage.
Although they are one of the most misunderstood pet on the market today, the reptile is one of the most unusual pets you can purchase on the market today. They are simply unlike any other pet you could ever think of, and there is such a large variety of them, that there is something for everyone. The moment a reptile is in your house, the hobby envelops you in a way you would never expect. Half the battle is recreating a natural habitat for your pet whether it be desert, tropical, or sub-tropical. I can probably state as a fact that all private breeders at one time or another were just like you or me, and picked up their first pet reptile just because of their uniqueness, but the interest quickly turns into a passion. The simple fact that they make fantastic pets for people of all ages and both sexes. Just when you think they have no personality, they will find a way to surprise you and make you rethink the way you look at these animals forever. And there is no time like the present to get into the hobby because due to the large number of breeders throughout North America, the general price of reptiles has gone down significantly over the past twenty years because there is no longer a need to import wild caught animals. Now you can easily find beautiful reptiles of all sorts of colors, patterns, and sizes to suit your personality, and the best part is that a majority of them are captive bred. You just always have to do your research to ensure that you pet is getting the perfect habitat, perfect diet, and perfect lighting/heating.