Choosing a Pet Reptile

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Reptiles are popular pets for many reasons, not all of which are appropriate. Some people like to have a unique pet. Some mistakenly believe that the cost of veterinary care is lower for reptiles than it is for dogs and cats. Many people who do not have the time to devote to a dog or cat think they may enjoy the comparatively “maintenance free” appeal of a snake, lizard, tortoise, or turtle. These reptiles are, of course, not maintenance-free.

Before acquiring a reptile, it is highly recommended to thoroughly research all aspects of reptile ownership, including appropriate reptiles for your lifestyle, appropriate diet, suitable housing, proper lighting, and healthy, stimulating reptile environments. Some carnivorous reptiles must be fed rodents, such as mice and rats, and some pet owners are not comfortable doing this, so reptiles are not the right pets for them.

Educate yourself before welcoming a reptile into your family. Before purchasing or adopting a reptile, ask yourself the following questions.

Do I want a pet just to look at, or do I want to handle and socialize it?

While many reptiles, especially those obtained as captive-born infants, allow humans to handle them, others do not. Many of the more unusual reptile species, such as chameleons, may neither allow nor like handling and will react aggressively or become severely stressed when touched.

As a rule, if you want a pet to snuggle with, a reptile is not for you. If, on the other hand, you want an animal you can display in a well-designed, natural habitat, marvel at its natural behaviors, and enjoy learning about, a reptile deserves your consideration.

How big will a reptile become as an adult?

  • Some snakes, particularly the larger constrictor snakes, can reach a length of 12-16 feet at 5-7 years of age. 
  • Sulcata and Aldabra tortoises can grow to more than 100 pounds at full maturity of 20-30 years. 
  • There are a variety of monitor lizards, many of which can grow to a length of 3-4 feet. 

Space and housing must be planned properly to care for the reptile you may be thinking of acquiring.

How much time should I devote to my pet?

All pets require daily attention. Whether it is handling it, taking it out of its enclosure to move around, or simply observing it, pets need attention every day from their owners. Owners who fail to pay daily attention to their pets will not likely detect early signs of disease and are really neglecting their responsibilities as pet owners. Owners who intend to put a reptile in a cage and observe it only occasionally should seriously reconsider their decision to adopt this type of pet.

Can I afford proper medical care?

All reptiles need to be examined by a reptile-savvy veterinarian within 72 hours of purchase or adoption, and at least annually after that.

A thorough examination may include diagnostic testing such as blood work, bacterial cultures, and/or X-rays, depending on the health of your new reptile. Since the vast majority of reptiles may be harboring some type of intestinal parasite, a fecal examination should be performed during every examination.

Routine wellness examinations for your reptile enable early detection of disease. Since many exotic animals are prey species that hide illness to avoid being captured by predators, these pets usually do not act sick or show any indication of illness until they are very sick and need immediate veterinary attention.

Regular veterinary care, plus an informed, knowledgeable pet owner, greatly reduces the likelihood of illness and death in these pets - and reduces the overall cost of medical care. Speak to a veterinarian familiar with reptiles to discuss the cost of routine veterinary care and suggested health schedules for the reptile you are considering before you acquire it.

Can I afford to make or purchase the correct habitat (enclosure) for my reptile?

For most reptiles, depending on their size, you can initially start with a 10-gallon glass aquarium, a proper/safe bedding material, a source of heat, and a source of UV-B light. Depending on the specific reptile you acquired, you will need to investigate what type of UV light is required for your pet.

"An improper temperature and humidity gradient is one of the most common contributing factors to health problems in captive reptiles."

The required size and contents of the cage vary depending on the size of the animal, its species, and its anticipated mature size. An improper temperature and humidity gradient is one of the most common contributing factors to health problems in captive reptiles. Different species have a different Preferred Optimum Temperature Zone (POTZ), so knowing the proper temperature is critical to the health of your reptile.

In addition to proper habitat, feeding a recommended/balanced diet - not just what your reptile enjoys eating - will ensure better nutritional health for your pet.

Why should I take my pet reptile to a veterinarian when there is nothing wrong?

Like people and other pets, reptiles get sick, and preventing illness is preferable to treatment. Reptiles instinctively hide signs of illness because, in the wild, if they showed signs of illness they would easily be attacked by predators or even other members of their own group. Therefore, these animals do not typically appear ill until the illness is quite advanced and they cannot hide it any longer.

If you see signs of illness in your reptile, you should have them examined by a veterinarian immediately. Waiting to see if things get better, or treating with over-the-counter medications, especially those sold at pet stores, only delays proper assessment, accurate diagnosis, and timely implementation of effective treatment. In addition, delayed treatment often results in increased costs for medical care and sometimes the needless death of a pet reptile. Veterinarians can do many things to help treat sick reptiles, but early intervention is critical.

While the principles of diagnosis and treatment of disease are the same regardless of the pet species, there are important differences between reptiles, birds, small mammals, dogs, and cats. Only a veterinarian with expertise in treating reptiles should be consulted for medical or surgical advice on these unique animals.

What is involved in the first veterinary visit for a reptile?

Within 72 hours of purchasing or adopting a reptile, you should have your pet examined by a reptile-savvy veterinarian. During the visit, your veterinarian will perform a physical examination, including a weight assessment, and look for abnormalities. The pet is examined for signs of dehydration or malnutrition. Its mouth will be checked for signs of infectious stomatitis (a mouth infection) and a fecal test will be done to check for intestinal parasites.

Unlike most other pets, reptiles do not always defecate regularly, and it is impossible to get a pet reptile to defecate on command (although many will give you an unwelcome sample if angered). Fecal analysis provides useful information only if the fecal sample is fresh. Occasionally, your veterinarian may perform a colonic wash, similar to an enema, to obtain a diagnostic sample to accurately check for internal parasites. Most often, your veterinarian will ask you to bring in a fecal sample after the pet’s first defection at home.

Most of the veterinary visit will probably be a question-and-answer session, as your veterinarian will want to educate you about proper housing, UV light set up, recommended diet, and home care. Vaccines are not typically required for reptiles.

Just like dogs and cats, pet reptiles should be examined at least annually, semi-annually when they are older, and as mentioned, they should have their stool tested for parasites on a regular basis.

To find a recommended reptile veterinarian in your area, visit the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians (ARAV) website and go to “Find A Vet”.

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