Bringing home baby, reptile edition: a guide to owning your first reptile

February 13 | Guest post by Steff Pinch
Estefan in the bath.
Estefan in the bath.
Buying an exotic reptilian isn't an endeavour for the faint of heart. The idea of owning and loving a lizard from the other side of the planet hadn't dawned on me until my partner did just that.

He's been taking care of leopard geckos, veiled chameleons, and corn snakes since childhood. When we first met, I was almost immediately introduced to Estefan, the grumpiest blue-tongued skink in existence. Naturally, I was in love.

And you can be too. Aside from the cool factor (I see your cat and raise you a boa constrictor), owning exotics gives you an outlet for your obsessive need to control small environments and ye, even feel the warmth of a cold-blooded creature.

(DISCLAIMER: To properly care for any exotic you need to go far beyond this post. Research like mad before taking on the care of any living thing and be prepared for a potential decades-long commitment.)

Choosing a species

Questions to ask yourself first:

  • Can you handle a baby animal?
  • What are the space requirements of a fully-grown adult of the species you want?
  • How much time are you willing to spend taking care of them?
  • What are the health risks involved with that species?
  • How much do you want to handle your pet?

Now RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH. Depending on how much money you want to spend, you can start small (anoles are around $5), or go big (tortoises start at $500). Also, some reptiles almost seem to enjoy handling but others are display only (do not give your child a tree boa).

Buying an exotic

Figure out where you're going to buy your little sweetie. Avoid big box pet stores and find a local breeder who knows their stuff. In larger cities there are specific breeding clubs — these folks love them some exotics and will walk you through how to take care of your pet.

Look for a reptile that has already proved it can eat well, has bright eyes, unmarked skin and looks generally happy. Sometimes even with an experienced breeder, things can go wrong. We had a baby snake pass away under our care from a genetic neurological condition. Again, not faint heartedness here. If you can't deal with this prospect, get a heartier juvenile.

Setting up a Terrarium

Also known as a vivarium (Latin for "place of life") this tank will be where your creature spends 95%-100% of its time. There are a lot of factors to consider when you're first getting set-up and all these will vary depending on what species you get. Almost all the work involved with keeping an exotic is setting it up properly.

Basic terrarium setup (adjusted to the needs of your species):

  • A tank big enough for your exotic at its adult size. If you get a baby, you will have to upgrade your starter tank. Think about the ventilation needs of your pet.
  • Your tank needs to be large enough to have a temperature gradient — so one side is warm, one side is cool and the middle is in between. Overhead heat lamps or heating pads for the bottom of the tank are commonly used to get this effect. Find what works for you.
  • Almost all reptiles need UV lighting for their psychological/physical well-being. There are different spectrums of UV so make sure you get the right kind of light. All animals benefit from a day/night cycle, so turn all your lights off when you go to bed and on when you get up.
  • There are a few types of bedding, from newspaper to sand. Your burrowing-type reptile will thank you for a couple inches of wood shavings to hide in. (Be careful about the kind you buy — cedar is toxic to reptiles. Aspen is a safe bet.)
  • A water bowl is usually a good idea. It gives off humidity and your exotic can guzzle it down at will. Some species require more humidity, so misting them with a spray bottle or dampening their bedding will be necessary. Humidity also helps when it comes time for your lovely pet to shed its skin (it's not gross, I swear).
  • Places to hide like little caves or miniature huts will satisfy your exotic's need for privacy.
  • A flat surface to bask on gives your little one a chance to enjoy the UV/heat from the comfort of a warm rock.

Hacks!

Terrarium hacks abound:

  • When you're hunting for the perfect tank, try looking on kijiji or Craigslist for deals.
  • Need a basking rock? Get a dark stone tile from a hardware store.
  • Outdoor flood lights cost half as much as pet store heat lights and work just as well.
  • Tube style UV lighting is cheap at aquarium stores. Just be sure to double-check the wattage and light spectrum requirements of your exotic.
  • Try searching garden stores for humidifiers that will fit in your tank.

You are now on your way to a vague knowledge about exotics. I seriously can't stress enough how much you need to research before jumping into reptile-ownership. However, it can be super rewarding.

Personally, I can't imagine not having Estefan. He's got a personality as big as any cat I've known. And hey, after all the initial costs, you might only have to feed your pet once a month. Then it's just dealing with a freezer full of dead mice. Let's just leave that one for another day.

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  1. A few caveats I might add. Always keep heating elements on a rheostat/thermostat AND power strip (my poor girl suffered a burn due to a power surge). NEVER use a heat rock for a ball python!! Have at least two hides (flower pots and coolwhip bins are cheap) in both ends of your heat gradient. While not stylish, rubbermaid tubs make great vivariums due to the ability to hold in humidity (fish tanks are not great for snakes…too cold and drafty). I recommend feeding snakes in a separate container in order to reduce accidental bites and invest in a good set of feeding tongs. Frozen thawed is far safer for the snake, but if they will only feed live then you must find a way to immobilize the prey. When using a full spectrum UV(if your species needs it), change it about every 6-8 months depending on type, just because it is still producing light does not mean it is full spectrum.

    For first time reptile parents I recommend: Ball Pythons, Corn snakes, Leopard Geckos, and Bearded Dragons

    Not advised for Newbies: Burmese Python (generally anything over 8' can kill), Retics, Rock pythons, Anoles (very easily stressed) , Tokay Geckos (very nippy),Box turtles (very difficult to care for and illegal in some places), Green iguanas (Grow very large and can be very aggressive) and Chameleons (very,very difficult to keep healthy).

    Sorry this is so long. Reptiles make wonderful and rewarding pets when properly cared for, but are considerably more challenging than a cat or dog. Most illnesses arise from poor husbandry and these kids are very talented at hiding symptoms until it is nearly too late. Just like a cat or dog, they need yearly check-ups.

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  2. This might be obvious, but if you are renting, or live in a condo, make sure to check your lease and association rules about animals first. For example, my association does not allow any reptiles.

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  3. Many reptiles and amphibians carry salmonella (like, on their bodies, in their waste and just generally… around) and their bites are pretty bacteria-y. This falls under the health risk category, but it's something that some people just don't know. With very young children, it's best not to let them handle these creatures (the CDC recommends against children under 5 handling reptiles at all.) It's important to implement some really good hygiene practices when dealing with reptiles. Still, I don't think parents should immediately count reptiles out as possible pets. I loved having a green iguana!

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    • Our rule for reptile handling in the house is this:
      Don't kiss the snake (yes, when you get attached this will be a thing you might be tempted to do. Resist)
      Wash hands with soap after cleaning/handling
      Don't change water/clean stuff in the kitchen sink where you handle food. Our reptile cleaning/watering is restricted to the bathroom.
      Keep the aquarium clean; pick up poop right away if possible, disinfect water dish if the snake poops in it.
      So far so good and we've had our snakes for several years now with not problems, including letting our friends' kids handle the snakes.

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  4. I second the Bearded dragons, corn snakes and leopard geckos. I have a beardie (Leonard) and a corn snake (Cedric) and they are amazing. Leonard is huge in personality and super easy to care for, he'll sit on my shoulder for hours like a pirate parrot, plus his larger size gives a wow factor that anoles just never had. I've had leopard gecko (Dakides), Anoles, breeding sets of giant day geckos (think geico), tree frogs, marsupial frogs, and bull frogs (don't recommend. . . they get LOUD). Reptiles can be awesome pets, and a great way to keep parents from visiting. . . or maybe that's just mine

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    • My boyfriend had a couple bull frogs and yeah, they can be loud, lol. I've heard that Bearded dragons are awesome! My friend had one for 13 years and he was like a puppy, following her around and super friendly.

      We have a couple newts right now and 3 toads. The toads are so funny. The male makes a "peep"-ing noise when the females step on him. So naturally, his name is Peep Peep. The toads like to eat live pinkie mice, but unfortunately all the pet stores around stopped carrying pinkie mice about 6 months ago for some reason. You can only get dead ones (which they won't eat). I was thinking it was an animal cruelty issue, but I wasn't sure. They can live off of crickets, we were just wondering why that happened.

      • I was not a fan of the toad. . .My ex worked at a pet store and brought it home. I was sleeping when he came in a awoke to a big black toad jumping off his hands and onto my pillow. It was not the start of a harmonious friendship.

        Keeping live pinkies is not easy if you don't sell a lot. . . they grow up very quickly! I think most pet stores are trying to get away from carrying live at, least around here, because frozen are easier to store. We've only ever fed frozen though so I know I'm not much help on that. We essentially make "mouse tea" and when it cools down we jangle it in the tank with a set of tongs. When our snake "hears" the tongs, its like a dinner bell and he rushes out.

        • hahaha, that sounds horrifying! I wouldn't be a fan either.

          Yeah, I can understand that from a business point of view. The small store that carried them went out of business, so obviously they didn't sell enough either. That's a good idea to use tongs! He tried poking it with a stick, but they weren't buying it. haha. More wriggling could help. Thanks!

  5. I love having a bearded dragon, she is awesome. A bit of advice though, check if they can live in pairs, if you want more that is. I had too female beardies chuck norris and fredrickson and unfortunately freddie die of pneumonia probably due to a fighting injury. Chuck loves being alone now and if I was ever to give advise would be to just have one, or two but in seperate Vivariums.
    Also husband is allergic to every furry animal so lizards are good compromises if you want pets, and they do have personalities

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  6. Thanks for the helpful additions y'all! This post is totally not exhaustive (agreed HEAT ROCKS ARE TERRIBLE) its so cool to hear from other repile enthusiasts.

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  7. This post came at the perfect time. I have been researching getting a bearded dragon for my classroom (and home on breaks) for several weeks. Maybe this is a sign 🙂

  8. Thank you for posting this! I actually work for a company that breeds and sells reptiles and believe me it is no easy task to care for them but they can be so rewarding and full of personality. I've had herps all my life and I haven't found a species that I haven't liked.

  9. My leopard gecko, Loki, is so lovely and has been a real learning curve in caring for reptiles. We rescued him from an old neighbour and he was stuck in a shed cycle for a week until we took him home and got him a bigger tank and a moisture pit. I really love reptiles 🙂 and I can't stress a good thermometer and humidity level enough for a stress-free happy lizard

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  10. I love reptiles too! Especially Blue Tongues 🙂 I'm from Australia so they're not exotic for me, and I've never really owned one. They just show up in the backyard! I think they'd make a great pet though, especially for people like myself who usually have allergies to the more furry friends! Thanks for the post!!

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  11. a few things i'd add and have a question about.

    WHERE DO YOU LIVE THAT A TORTISE STARTS AT $500? most good pet breeds of tortoise should start at $100 for a baby. $250 for an adult tops. at least in ohio.

    reptile shows are everywhere!! do a google search. find and see tons of breeds and morphs and price shop all in one trip. some are every month. and you can win free stuff.

    avoid heat rocks! they burn your pet.

    • It really depends. I've priced young captive bred Russian tortoises (what seems to be the most manageable species in my small apartment) at around $500 through local breeders here in Toronto. I'm not saying all tortoises are a million dollahs a pop, but again your mileage may vary. I assure you, they out there.

      Also awes0me point about reptile shows!! 🙂

  12. Your partner is just so wild. Taking care of reptiles and any other wild animals is so awesome! If ok I want to say photos of your pets! Thanks!

  13. I would like to emphasize the point about researching the ADULT size of your intended pet. I work at a zoo and we get several calls a year from owners wanting to "donate" (aka get rid of) large pythons, sulcata tortoises, and green iguanas. These guys get HUGE, and you need to know that when you purchase the babies and be prepared to keep them for life. Zoos and reptile rescues most often don't have the room to take your rejected pet, and the excuse "I didn't know it would get that big!" is tired. There's very little excuse for that in this age of the Google search.

    Note, I'm not against people having these animals as pets, as long as you are ready for the commitment. As soon as we have more land, you better believe I'm getting myself a tortoise!

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  14. I love my leopard gecko, Dandelion, and he is super hardy and easy to care for. Even my ex-boyfriend is able to keep his alive, and he once left it in a closet for six months (this is not recommended). Dandelion is very clean, doesn't need a crazy amount of space, and cheap to feed. Just vitamin dusted crickets or mealworms a couple of times a week. He's also pretty amenable to being handled, and a rather lovely shade of yellow.

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