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Choosing the Right Reptile for You

Ball python

Reptiles, with their unique appearances and fascinating behaviors, can make fantastic pets. These furless friends include numerous species with their own personalities and specific care requirements. If you are considering adding a reptile to your family, think about which species would best fit your lifestyle. You’ll need to understand the temperament, physical characteristics and care each type of reptile requires to ensure that you can create a healthy living situation for your new family member.

The following are some key questions to ask yourself to help you determine which reptile might be the best match for you. (Bonus: We’ve also included some information about amphibians and crustaceans.)

Is a reptile right for me and my family?

There are many benefits to choosing a reptile as a pet. Since they don’t have fur, reptiles are ideal for animal lovers whose allergic reactions to dander may disqualify them from dog or cat parenthood. Additionally, although reptiles do need care and human interaction, very few require the more intensive daily attention—like outdoor potty breaks—that a dog requires. Reptiles are also relatively quiet, which can be an advantage for anyone living in an apartment or condo where walls are shared with neighbors.

Keep in mind, however, that setting up and maintaining an ideal reptile habitat can take time, money and patience to help ensure your pet can live a long, healthy life.

To better understand if you are ready for a reptile, ask yourself the following questions.

Reptiles are lower maintenance than many other pets, but they're certainly not maintenance-free. Most reptiles have specific light, heat and humidity requirements that must be closely monitored to help prevent them from becoming ill. Their enclosures also must be kept clean. For most reptile pet parents, this will mean a quick daily cleanups and a thorough deep clean once a week. Also, reptiles vary in their nutritional requirements, with some being herbivorous (eating only plant matter), some being carnivorous (consuming only animal matter, including rodents or insects) and some being omnivorous (eating both plant and animal matter). Be sure that before you bring home a pet reptile, you have adequate time to meet all their needs.

If you live alone or will be the primary caregiver for your reptile, be sure you’re comfortable taking on full care responsibilities. If you live with other family members, make sure you are all in favor of having a pet reptile, and decide before bringing the reptile home who is going to be responsible for what parts of the pet’s care. While reptiles make fascinating, educational pets for children, children should not be solely responsible for a reptile’s care but should always be supervised by a parent or other adult.

While young reptiles often start small, they don’t all stay that way. Research the habitat size requirements for an adult reptile of the species you’re considering to ensure you have adequate room in your home.

While you can move your reptile from a smaller habitat to a larger one as they grow, starting them out in the habitat they’ll need as an adult is advantageous in that you won’t need to rearrange your own living space later to make room for their larger home.

Many reptiles are stressed by frequent handling. Additionally, young children who handle reptiles roughly can accidentally harm them. Also, some people are afraid of certain reptiles. Think carefully about the ages and personalities of the family members in your household. Will they respect the needs of your reptile? Will they be comfortable living with this type of pet?

Depending on how you answer these questions, you may need to narrow down your research to reptiles known to be more docile and amenable to handling over those who prefer to be left alone.

Another question to ask is whether anyone in your family is elderly, pregnant, trying to become pregnant or is immunocompromised. As reptiles can carry infectious organisms such as salmonella bacteria, individuals who are more susceptible to infection should not handle or live with reptiles. Always wash your hands before and after handling your reptile, and never clean their habitat or accessories in areas where food is prepared.

Reptiles’ nutritional requirements and feeding frequencies vary widely. Some reptiles need to be fed only once a week, while others need to eat daily. Some reptiles are herbivores and need to eat fresh vegetables and fruit daily, while other reptiles are carnivores and require a diet of live insects (such as mealworms, roaches, waxworms or crickets) or frozen rodents. Some omnivorous reptiles require a very varied diet. Be sure you are comfortable feeding your pet the specific diet their species requires.

The costs of a long-lived reptile with specific needs goes far beyond their purchase price. While the cost of the pet may be modest, the costs of maintaining them can add up:

  • Habitats or enclosures vary from approximately $50 to several hundred dollars or more, depending on size, complexity and materials
  • Food and water containers may be relatively inexpensive. However, some species, such as chameleons, will not drink standing water and drink water only off plants after they have been misted, necessitating special automated misting machines or hand misting several times a day. Plus, annual food budgets for larger reptiles can climb into the thousands of dollars per year depending on the age, species and dietary requirements of the reptile  
  • Many reptiles have specific requirements for heat and ultraviolet (UV) light. The cost of lighting and heating is harder to measure and will vary by reptile species; many need UVA and UVB lights to make vitamin D in their skin to aid in calcium absorption from their food, while a few do not. Some need warmer habitats that require higher-wattage bulbs. Bulbs require fixtures to work, and UV bulbs need to be replaced every 6 months for them to work effectively. All these heating and lighting elements can add up over the lifetime of a pet reptile
  • Veterinary services are another consideration when it comes to having a pet reptile. The cost of veterinary care can vary greatly depending on where you live, the type of reptile you have and the reptile’s overall health. Many people who are considering pet reptiles forget about this hidden cost  

Depending on their species, reptiles can live 10 to 20 to 50 years or even longer. If your lifestyle involves frequent changes (such as relocation for a job or schooling), or you travel a great deal, you may want to reconsider, or at least ensure you have a solid plan for your reptile’s long-term care before you bring the pet home. 

Types of reptiles to consider

If you’ve decided that a reptile is a good fit for your home, your next step will be deciding which species of reptile to add to the family.

In making this decision, remember that all reptiles are poikilothermic (cold-blooded), meaning their body temperature fluctuates with changes in their environmental temperature. One factor that broadly distinguishes reptiles is their type of natural habitat. Reptiles’ habitats can be categorized as:

  • Desert (or arid)—hot and dry
  • Tropical—hot and humid 
  • Temperate—moderate temperature and humidity
  • Aquatic—in water

Once you know which type of habitat the reptile you’re considering lives in, you may be able to determine whether you are able to meet their needs.  

Tortoise

Tortoises can be a great pick for those who want to spend time socializing with their new pet and can make a long-term commitment to their care, as tortoises generally like to interact with pet parents and can live for decades when cared for properly.

Tortoises are known to be friendly and outgoing. They tend to be social and eager to interact with their human family members.

Depending on the species, a tortoise who is well cared for can live 50 years or more.

Russian tortoises can grow 6 to 8 inches long, while red-footed tortoises will grow from 11 to 14 inches long. Other species, including the sulcata tortoise, can grow to be several feet long and weigh hundreds of pounds.

A tortoise needs a living area with enough room to roam while remaining safe and secure. They need a habitat with a screened cover that allows in light and ventilation but also provides protection from predators and escape. Tortoises enjoy having a cave or box in which they can hide that, depending on their species, can be filled with moist sphagnum moss to help keep them hydrated or substrate, such as commercially available paper-based substrate, alfalfa pellets or ReptiBark, to allow them to burrow.

Some tortoises are herbivores and others are omnivores. Tortoises generally require a diet that is high in fiber and calcium and low in protein and fat. Depending on the tortoise species, vegetables, fruit, insects and species-specific commercial diets will be needed, along with vitamin and mineral supplements, to provide a balanced diet. Certain tortoise species, including red-footed tortoises, also enjoy an occasional frozen/thawed pinkie mouse.

Tortoises need 12 to 14 hours of UV light each day, either as direct sunlight that is not filtered by a window, or from a UVB lighting source. They also need constant access to clean water in a shallow container big enough for them to walk in and out of, soak in and drink from.

Turtle

Turtles can be a good choice for families that want to enjoy observing their new pet and can invest in the proper equipment to meet their turtle’s specific needs.

Generally gentle (with some exceptions) and cautious, turtles often learn to recognize their pet parent and know when it is feeding time.

Turtle size can vary greatly depending on species, so be sure to research how big the specific type of turtle you’re interested in could grow. For example, the red-ear slider—a common pet aquatic turtle—ranges from 5 to 12 inches long, while Western painted turtles usually grow to between 4 and 10 inches long.

Turtles are either aquatic, semiaquatic or semiterrestrial. Semiterrestrial turtles are sufficiently land-based to qualify as land turtles and can be kept in terrarium-style habitats. But all turtles need water to either swim or soak in, plus dry land to bask on.

The size of a turtle’s habitat in part depends on how big they grow. Semiterrestrial turtles need some substrate to burrow in, such as commercially available paper-based bedding, forest bedding or alfalfa pellets, as well as a place to hide. Aquatic turtles require an appropriately sized tank or pond with a filter. Aquatic turtles only eat in the water, so they must have water in their habitat. All turtles need UVA/UVB lighting (or direct natural sunlight that isn’t filtered by a window), a heat lamp, a basking rock or log, a submersible heater to heat the water, and an efficient filtration system to help keep the water clean as they swim, eat, drink and eliminate in it.

Most turtles are omnivores whose diet is predominantly dark, leafy greens and finely chopped vegetables, along with commercially available turtle food and freeze-dried krill. Turtles can also be offered small fish, such as guppies and occasional goldfish, plus worms and insects as treats. Commercially prepared pelleted and canned diets are formulated with turtle species’ specific nutritional needs in mind. If your turtle is aquatic, provide turtle food that is developed for water feeding, like floating pellets.

To properly regulate their body temperature, turtles require a heated or warm area and a cooler (but not cold) area in their habitats. Thermometers and heat lamps should be used to ensure an appropriate temperature range is maintained for the turtle. A filtration system (if you have an aquatic turtle who spends time in an aquarium) and regular water changes will help keep their water clean.

Bearded dragon

Bearded dragons are a great choice for those who want to engage with their new reptile and hold them every day.

In general, bearded dragons are calm, friendly and docile and enjoy being held. They have different personalities and often seek out the attention of pet parents.

On average, pet bearded dragons live 6 to 10 years.

Adult bearded dragons vary considerably in size, ranging from 12 to 24 inches long from the tip of their nose to the tip of their tail. A properly cared for bearded dragon can grow to 13 to 20 inches long in about 8 months.

Habitat sizes are determined by the bearded dragon’s size and life stage.

  • Baby dragons need an enclosure of at least 20 gallons. This gives them ample space to exercise and hunt for food
  • Young adult dragons who are 10 to 16 inches long need at least a 40-gallon tank. However, the larger the tank, the more space the dragon will have to explore and the happier your dragon likely will be
  • Dragons who are 16 to 20 inches long need at least a 50- to 75-gallon tank to thrive 
  • Dragons who are more than 20 inches long need at least a 75-gallon tank, but a 120-gallon tank is ideal

Bearded dragons are omnivores. As juveniles, they should consume a diet of 70% insects such as crickets, mealworms, roaches and superworms, with the remaining 30% comprised of mixed fruit and vegetables. Occasional waxworms and hornworms can be given as a treat. Adult bearded dragons should eat more vegetation and fewer insects. Bearded dragons can also be fed commercially available bearded dragon food. They also require calcium and vitamin supplements, which come in powdered form and can be sprinkled on their food.  

A bearded dragon’s habitat needs a heat lamp, UVA/UVB lighting source, two thermometers (one for monitoring the cool end of the enclosure and the other for the hot end), plus a humidity gauge. Bearded dragons need a hide box to help them feel secure and give them a place to get out of the basking area, when needed. They also need branches or flat rocks to perch on when basking.

Due to their solitary nature, often large size and territorial instincts as they mature, bearded dragons should not be kept together in the same habitat. They do well when housed individually.

Leopard gecko

Snake

A snake can be a great choice in homes that have ample space for an adequately sized habitat. With their flicking tongues and ability to shed their skin all in one piece, they are a great choice for pet parents who enjoy watching these fascinating behaviors.

There are a large variety of snake families, including pythons, boas and colubrids. Characteristics vary significantly depending on the type. Some are known to be less docile and are best for experienced keepers, while others are more amenable to handling, making them a better choice for first-time snake pet parents. Popular pet snakes for first-time snake parents include:

  • Ball pythons
  • California kingsnakes
  • Corn snakes 
  • Rosy boas

Pythons and boas can live up to 30 years with proper care. Corn snakes can live up to about 20 years, and other colubrids, such as kingsnakes, can live up to 15 years.

Size, which varies by snake type, should be a primary consideration when thinking about adding a snake to your household. Some popular snakes that are generally 5 feet long or shorter include:

  • Ball python
  • Corn snake
  • Rosy boa 
  • California kingsnake

The habitat size you’ll need will depend on the type of snake you choose. Most snakes do not need a very large habitat. A mature ball python, for example, can live in a 40-gallon tank. The general rule is that the habitat should not be any shorter than the snake’s body length so that the snake has room to stretch out fully.

Snakes are carnivores, and their specific diet varies depending on their species. Most eat rodents such as mice and rats. Frozen/thawed rodents should be offered rather than live ones, as live prey commonly bite snakes and may inflict life-threatening wounds. In some rare instances, snakes may only accept live rodents. However, over time, most snakes can be taught to accept thawed prey.

As cold-blooded animals, snakes need to bask in direct sunlight or under heat lamps to warm their bodies and regulate their metabolism. Depending on a snake’s natural habitat, each species will have specific heating needs. Research the type of snake you’re interested in to determine the correct range of habitat temperatures for them. Pet snakes benefit when provided with UV light, as it  helps improve immune system function and promotes normal behavior. Snakes like to have a hide box or cave to take refuge in for security. Some snakes are terrestrial, spending most or all their time on the ground, while others are arboreal, climbing on trees and shrubs. Substrate, basking branches, and hideaways are designed for each type.

A couple non-reptile pets to consider

Frog

Frogs can be great pets for those who want to observe but not handle their new family members and for pet parents who can invest in a more complex habitat to help keep their frog healthy and appropriately stimulated.

There are multiple frog species, each of them with unique appearances and behaviors. No matter which one you choose, however, they’re bound to be fascinating. Since frogs have delicate skin and typically secrete toxins from their skin to ward off predators, they should not be routinely handled.

Your frog’s life span will depend on the species, but many properly cared for frogs can live up to 15 years.

Since a wide variety of frog species can make good pets, the size of the frog you take home will differ depending on the species. Mantella frogs can be as tiny as 1 inch in diameter, while Pacman frogs can grow up to 8 inches in diameter.

A frog’s habitat requirements vary depending on the species. Some are primarily terrestrial and require more horizontal space to explore, while others are arboreal and need habitat height and branches on which to climb. Ample décor for hiding and climbing, plus a shallow dish of dechlorinated water for soaking, are also required. Most pet frogs are tropical and need adequate humidity to stay hydrated and shed skin properly. Most pet frogs also benefit from a UVA/UVB lighting source to help support their immune system function and normal behavior patterns.

Nearly all frogs are carnivores and eat animal protein only. Many small frogs eat insects, including fruit flies and small or pinhead crickets, while large frogs generally eat larger insects, including crickets and worms. Some large frogs, such as adult Pacman frogs, eat small rodents. A nutritionally balanced and complete frog diet can also include commercially available products that are formulated to meet frogs’ species-specific nutritional needs.

Different species of frogs have their own additional care requirements, such as extra lighting, heat, etc. Be sure to research the specific habitat needs of the species of frog you’re considering.

Frogs are fascinating pets and setting up their habitat can be a fun and creative endeavor. Frogs are pets to observe rather than hold. If you must hold your frog to clean their habitat, wear powder-free gloves moistened with distilled water to avoid injuring their delicate skin or transferring bacteria and oils to them from your hands. Gloves also help prevent the toxins that many frog species secrete from their skin glands to ward off predators from being transmitted to your skin.  

Hermit crab

Hermit crabs can be great pets for those who want low-maintenance but interesting pets to observe rather than handle. 

Hermit crabs can be fun to watch and are generally easy to care for. They live inside a hard outer skin called an exoskeleton. As they grow, they shed (molt) this outer skin and grow a soft outer skeleton that then hardens. They protect themselves by living in shells that are made by other animals (typically snails). When they get bigger and outgrow their current shell, they move into a larger one.

Depending on the species, some hermit crabs can live up to 10 years.

Depending on their species, hermit crabs typically grow to 2 to 6 inches long. 

Hermit crabs require a habitat that’s large enough for them to crawl around and climb in, usually at least 10 gallons. It must be outfitted with a shallow bowl of dechlorinated fresh water, a dish of dechlorinated saltwater, extra-large shells and décor (logs, driftwood, coral, plastic plants or branches) to climb on. Hermit crabs breathe through gills, so their environment must be kept moist and warm. They also burrow in substrate. Make sure the one you choose is specifically designed for hermit crabs—usually a mix of commercially available, clean, sterilized sand and coconut-fiber bedding or sphagnum moss.

Feed your hermit crab a well-balanced, commercially available hermit crab food daily with smaller amounts of non-citrus fruits and fresh vegetables (including carotene-rich vegetables, like carrots and untreated marigold flower petals, to help them achieve a normal, reddish-orange exoskeleton). Calcium supplements (such as crushed cuttlebone) should be offered to help harden their exoskeleton.

Depending on the ambient temperature, hermit crabs may require a heating element in their habitat, since they do best at temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees. Adequate humidity is necessary to ensure hermit crabs stay hydrated and molt properly. Inadequate humidity can cause respiratory problems and death. Misters can help keep the humidity level above the mandatory 70% within the crab habitat. The ability for your hermit crab to take regular “baths” in shallow water dishes will also help keep your hermit crab’s gills moist and increase their activity level.

Hermit crabs are very social animals and do best when housed in groups of two or more. As hermit crabs grow, they seek larger shells to “home” in. Be sure to have a few larger shells available in the habitat for your crabs to move into when they grow and molt.

With a little research, you’ll soon have the knowledge you need to choose the right reptile for your family. Check out our reptile care guide for more information about bringing home your new pet, and shop for all your reptile essentials at Petco.

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Reviewed by Petco’s Animal Care, Education and Compliance (ACE) Team

Petco’s ACE team is a passionate group of experienced pet care experts dedicated to supporting the overall health & wellness of pets. The ACE team works to develop animal care operations and standards across the organization and promote proper animal care and education for Pet Care Center partners and pet parents, while also ensuring regulatory compliance.