The most basic and important detail when choosing a reptile as a pet is knowledge. Understanding a reptile’s wants and needs throughout its entire life from hatching to developing into adulthood is very important. These needs can vary depending on which reptile you select and include: housing, heat and light, substrate, food, watering and humidity, handling and taming, and lasting vitamins and/or supplements. Without a basic understanding of a reptile’s needs, the animal could struggle and in some cases perish.
Many times, a proper habitat for some reptiles will cost considerably more than the cost of the reptile itself. All reptiles should be provided with enough room to exercise, eat, live and develop naturally. All habitats should be equipped with a lock especially if younger children live in a home with the habitat. All enclosures need to be escape proof, so carefully check for gaps before introducing the reptile to its new home. It is instinctual for any kind of reptile to escape, even through seemingly impossibly small openings.
Unlike dogs and cats, reptiles can not adapt to frequently changing environments. Only a hand full of reptiles can live in multiple environments. It is important when choosing a reptile, that you get the proper substrate for its habitat. A desert reptile, much like the bearded dragon would struggle in wetlands, where newts and salamanders would thrive. The enclosure should consist of proper substrate, of proper quantity and easily cleaned.
Captive reptiles also need a sense of security. This can be easily obtained and provided by rocks, shrubs, limbs, branches and artificial trees. These do many things for your reptile’s well being, such as provide a retreat or resting area and provide the reptile with a more natural and secluded environment. Decorations not only provide secure locations for your reptile, but also a more ornamental and visually appealing enclosure.
Control and accuracy of heating and lighting is possibly the most important detail of maintaining a reptile in captivity. Once again consider the exact needs of your reptile before considering which light or lighting system to use.
Most enclosures can be heated by a single incandescent bulb and dome, or a series of lights, heat rocks or pads, spot lights and dark or infrared lights. All lights and lamp sizes should match the size of the proper wattage in comparison to the reptile and its enclosure. You would not want the heat a bearded dragon’s 55 gallon enclosure with a single 50 watt bulb. This would not provide enough heat or light the reptile needs to survive. Instead a 100 watt basking or “focused” bulb with a separate UV lighting system would be needed. Improper lighting could cause illness, indigestion, loss of appetite, paralyses and most cases death. So it is extremely important that proper lights and lighting systems be used!
The lighting system or dome should be arranged in or on your enclosure to provide maximum efficiency and comfort your reptile. A standard enclosure for most reptiles will contain a spot or basking light. This is a light used to obtain a “hot spot” within your enclosure, aim it atop of a flat rock or heat rock. This will ease the reptile into one specific spot of its enclosure in which it can bask. Basking is the term used to describe when a reptile lays under or on a heat source to raise its bodily temperature to an optimum level in which to mate, defecate or hunt for prey. By creating a hot spot within your enclosure, you also create a cooler area at the other side for which it can retreat to cool its body down.
Some reptiles need a daily misting, always direct any spraying away from lights, which could cause them to malfunction, crack, or even shatter. It’s also best to keep your reptile’s water bowl away from these lights as well. If water bowls are left under the direct lighting for prolonged periods of time, the evaporation can cause steadying cracking and ware on the bulbs.
A water dish should be present at all times. Water must be easily recognizable and should be kept clean and fresh. All snakes, turtles, some tortoise and most lizards rely on a water dish to drink and even soak. Soaking is most common when your reptile is shedding or close to its shedding cycle. Water bowls also play an intricate role in raising and lowering the humidity within any enclosure. If your humidity is too high, place a small bowl of water at the coolest part of your cage. If you wish to raise the humidity, place a larger bowl of water at the hottest or hotter part of the enclosure. NOTE: Do not place any water dish directly under basking light!
In some cases it’s simple to throw a hand full of crickets into an enclosure and call it a meal, but that’s never true in most aspects, you must feed correctly. The food must be appropriate and contain proper nutrients including calcium and vitamin D3. A poorly fed or sickly insect offers little or no nutritional value when fed to your reptile. Same goes for rodents, live or frozen, to species of reptiles that eat them. Frozen is always recommended, where live prey can cause injury to your reptile predator. You typically want to feed or “gut load” your insects before feeding them to your reptile, this insures a high nutritional value and mineral enriched diet. Many commercial cricket diets or meals are now available in most pet’s stores and can be used as a supplement to insects just before feeding. An apple, honey or carrots can be used as a select alternative to these commercial diets.
There are many vitamins available to stabilize your reptile’s intake. Such as Reptivite, Reptocal, which contains vitamin D3 vitamin A and C, Calcium and low quantities of phosphorus. All reptiles need to be supplemented with calcium and vitamin D3. Lack of vitamins and calcium can result in deprivation and cause paralyses in the tail and back legs. Any powdered supplement can be sprinkled in any live prey and fed to your reptile.
Often a new pet reptile is skittish and nervous the first few days in its new enclosure. It’s this period of time which is most important for your reptile to adapt to its new environment. During this period you should not handle your reptile in any way! Handling within the first 24 hours is a mistake often made by beginning owners. After the first few days, owners should take gradual steps in handling your new pet.
Always make your pet feel comfortable and never restrained. When the feeling of restraint is put upon a reptile, many react as if they are being dominated or even eaten and could lash out violently or offensively. Always approach a reptile from the side and grasp it gently but firm enough it can’t jump and injure itself. Being approached from above can insinuate a predator and cause your pet to run or act defensively. Always wash your hands carefully after handling or feeding to prevent spread of the salmonella virus. As a reminder, Amphibians are wild animals and should be treated as so.