What to Know Before You Get a Reptile
Reptiles make fantastic pets. If you are interested in adding one to your family, it is important to determine the type of reptile that will best fit your lifestyle. You will want to understand the temperament, characteristics and care needs before diving into reptile pet parenthood. For example, habitat size, environmental requirements and diet should be considered, because different reptiles have different care needs; some will be more interactive and sociable than others. If you’re looking to make a reptile the newest member of your family, use this guide to help pick the right one for you (bonus – we also included some information about amphibians and crustaceans to consider).
It is important to know that reptiles can carry infectious zoonotic diseases such as salmonella. These diseases can be transmitted to humans, so it’s essential to always wash your hands before and after handling both the animal and their habitat. People with weakened immune systems, the elderly, children younger than 5 and pregnant women should consider avoiding them for this reason.
Types of reptiles to consider for a pet
There are a variety of reptiles from which to choose. All reptiles are poikilothermic (cold-blooded), which means their body temperature fluctuates related to its external environment. They broadly fall into the following categories; desert (or arid), tropical, temperate or aquatic. These designations generally refer to their natural habitat and result in temperature and humidity needs to accommodate in their habitats in your home. There are great options in each category, and they all make great pets for different reasons.
There is a wide variety of tortoises to consider, and the environmental and dietary requirements are different by type. Tortoises are represented in desert (arid), tropical and temperate varieties. Red-footed tortoises are a popular tropical species due to their beautiful appearance and temperament.
Despite differences between tortoise species and individuals, the following generalizations or tendencies can be considered:
Personality: Friendly and outgoing. Tortoises tend to be social and will eagerly interact with their human family members.
Life span: Depending on the species, a tortoise that is well cared for can live 50 years or more.
Size: Russian tortoises can grow 6 to 8 inches, Red-footed tortoises will grow from 11 to 14 inches long. Other tortoises can grow to be hundreds of pounds.
Habitat needs: A tortoise needs a living area with enough room to roam while remaining safe and secure, with a screened cover to allow light but also provide protection. Tortoises also enjoy a cave or box for hiding, which can be filled with digestible substrate such as alfalfa, or a substrate such as forest bedding or Repti Bark that allows for burrowing.
Diet: Some tortoises are herbivores and others are omnivores. Tortoises require a diet high in fiber and calcium and low in protein and fat. Select vegetables, fruits and specialized commercial diets can also be supplemented for a balanced diet. Twenty percent of an omnivorous tortoise’s diet should be made up of insects such as earthworms, waxworms, etc. Red-footed tortoises benefit from an occasional frozen/thawed pinkie.
Additional care needs: Tortoises need 12 to 14 hours of light each day, which must be provided by natural sunlight or a UVB lighting source. They will also need a constant and clean source of water provided in a shallow container that’s big enough for them to walk in and out of, soak in and drink from.
Personality: Generally gentle (with some exceptions) and cautious, turtles will also learn to recognize their pet parent and know when it is feeding time.
Size: Turtle size can vary greatly depending on the species, so be sure to research how big the specific type of turtle you’re interested in could grow to be. For example, the red-ear slider — a common pet aquatic turtle — ranges from 5 to 12 inches, and Western painted turtles usually grow to between 4 and 10 inches.
Habitat needs: Turtles are either aquatic, semi-aquatic or semi-terrestrial. The semi-terrestrials 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, and the ability to “bask” on dry land, depending on species.
The size of your turtle’s habitat should be determined by how big they will grow. Semi-terrestrial turtles need some comfy substrate to burrow in, such as forest bedding, as well as a place to hide. Aquatic turtles will require an appropriately sized tank or pond with a filter. Aquatic turtles will only eat when in the water so that needs to be accounted for when building their habitat. All turtles need UVA/UVB lighting (or natural sunlight), heat lamp, basking rock or log, submersible heater and efficient filtration system to help keep the water clean as they swim, eat, drink and eliminate.
Diet: Turtles are omnivores that enjoy dark, leafy green veggies and finely chopped vegetables as 40 to 60% of their diet. Commercial turtle food should make up the balance of their diet, such as freeze-dried krill, comet goldfish, and worms and insects as treats. Commercially prepared pelleted and canned diets are formulated with their specific nutritional needs in mind. If your turtle is aquatic, provide turtle food that is developed for water feeding, like floating pellets.
Additional care needs: To keep their body temperature properly regulated, turtles require a heated or warm area and a cooler (but not cold) area in their habitats. Thermometers and heat lamps can help provide a proper environment for your turtle. A filtration system (if you have an aquatic turtle that spends time in an aquarium) and regular water changes will help keep their water clean.
3. Bearded Dragons
Personality: Each bearded dragon has their own unique personality and behavior traits. However, in general, bearded dragons are calm, friendly and have a docile personality. Your bearded dragon may very well seek out your attention, which is a great compliment. They are full of personality and enjoy being held.
Life span: On average, bearded dragons can live from age 6 to more than 10 years old.
Size: Adult bearded dragons can vary considerably in size, ranging from 12 to 24 inches from tip of their nose to tip of their tail. A properly cared for bearded dragon can reach 13 to 20 inches in about 8 months.
Habitat needs: Habitats size is determined based on their size (life stage).
- Baby dragons need a 20-gallon enclosure. This gives them ample space and makes it easier for them to catch their food
- 10- to 16-inch young adult dragons need at least a 40-gallon tank. However, the larger the tank, the happier your dragon will be and the larger they will grow
- 16- to 20-inch dragons will need larger tanks, and it's recommended to have at least a 50- to 75-gallon tank for dragons of this size
- Dragons that are more than 20 inches will need a minimum of a 75-gallon tank, but a 120-gallon tank would be ideal
Diet: Bearded dragons are omnivores. Their diet should consist of 70% insects such as crickets, mealworms, roaches and superworms with 30% made up of mixed fruit and vegetables. Additional offerings of highly nutritious waxworms and hornworms can be given as a treat (less than 20% of the diet). Bearded dragons can also benefit from being fed a commercial bearded dragon food. Calcium and vitamin supplementation is necessary, either in the form of a food additive or by feeding vitamin-enriched worms and crickets, and a vitamin- and mineral-fortified commercial diet.
Additional care needs: Your bearded dragon habitat will need to include a heat lamp, UVA/UVB lighting source, thermometer and humidity gauge. Bearded dragons need a “hide” to perch on and to get out of the basking area when needed.
Miscellaneous things to consider: Due to their solitary nature, size and their territorial instincts as they mature, bearded dragons should not be kept together in the same habitat.
4. Leopard Geckos
Personality: Leopard geckos are gentle lizards, and, with proper socialization and handling, enjoy being held. They come in various colors and have striking features, making them a compelling pet choice.
Life span: The average life span of these awesome family pets is 7 to 10 years. However, some have been known to live up to 20 years with excellent care.
Size: Male leopard geckos can reach 8 to10 inches in length, and females are typically 7 to 8 inches when fully grown.
Habitat needs: Leopard geckos are typically solitary lizards. Multiple female leopard geckos can be housed together if they get along, are of similar size and have adequate space. Males should not be kept together, because they can become territorial with each other. A 10-gallon tank can be used for one gecko, 20-gallon for two and 30-gallon for three to four geckos.
Diet: Leopard geckos are carnivores and will eat a variety of insects and worms, including mealworms, crickets, roaches, waxworms (as a treat) and superworms. Additionally, there are specialized leopard gecko food formulas enriched with the vitamins they need.
Additional care needs: Leopard geckos require a basking spot in their habitat with the proper heat to regulate their body temperature. While not considered mandatory for this nocturnal species, UVA/UVB is recommended, as this has been shown to improve health and maintain immune system function. They also shed regularly, so supplies such as moist moss or vermiculite to raise humidity levels allow for proper shedding. Because leopard geckos catch food with their tongues, an appropriate substrate designed specifically for leopard geckos should be used.
Miscellaneous things to consider: Leopard geckos are nocturnal, so they are most active during the evening and don’t mind being left alone during the day.
Personality: There are a large variety of snake families, including pythons, boas and colubrid. Characteristics vary significantly depending on type. Some have a less-friendly personality and would be best for experienced keepers, but others are docile and can be easily socialized, making excellent first-time pets. Examples of popular pet snakes include:
- Ball python
- Red-tailed boa
- Corn snake
Life span: Pythons and boas can live up to 30 years with excellent care, though this would not be considered average. Corn snakes live up to about 10 years and other colubrid such as king snakes can live up to 20 years. On average, snakes have a relatively long life when properly cared for.
Size: Size should be a primary consideration when thinking about adding a snake to your home. Size will vary depending on the type of snake. Some popular snakes that are generally 5 feet long or less include:
- Ball python
- Corn snake
- Rosy boa
- California king snake
Habitat needs: The size of habitat necessary for your snake will greatly depend on the type of snake you choose. Snakes do not typically need an overly large habitat. For example, a mature ball python could live in a 40-gallon tank. The general rule is that the habitat should not be any shorter than half the snake’s body length.
Diet: Snakes are carnivores, and their specific diet will vary depending on their species. Most eat rodents. Frozen rodents are a more convenient alternative to live ones.
Additional care needs: As cold-blooded animals, snakes need to bask in the sun or under heat lamps to warm their body and regulate their metabolism. 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. Some snakes are terrestrial, which means they spend most or all their time on the ground, and others are arboreal, meaning they climb and prefer to be elevated. Substrate, basking branches and hideaways are designed for each type.
Miscellaneous things to consider: The personality and care of your snake will vary greatly depending on the species, so be sure to check with a veterinarian to determine which species will be best for you based on your personal situation. Frozen/thawed rodents are the recommended diet, but in some rare instances, some snakes will accept only live rodents.
A few additional pets to consider
6. Frogs (these are amphibians, but we did not want to leave them out)
Personality: There are multiple varieties of frog species, each of them unique. But no matter which one you choose, you’re bound to get a fun and fascinating pet when you bring home a frog. However, they should not be routinely handled, and precautions are needed when handling is necessary.
Life span: Your frog’s life span will depend on the species, but well cared for frogs can live up to 15 years.
Size: Since a wide variety of frog species can make for good pets, the exact size of the pet you choose will differ. Mantella frogs can be as tiny as 1 inch, and Pacman frogs can grow up to 8 inches.
Habitat needs: The habitat requirements for your frog will vary depending on the species. Some are primarily terrestrial, and others are arboreal and need places to climb. Ample décor to provide hiding places and dechlorinated water provided in a soaking dish all contribute to a happy frog. All pet frogs are tropical and need high humidity. A UVA/UVB lighting source is not strictly required, although it is recommended. Even a small amount of UVB light can be beneficial, especially as it relates to vitamin D3 production.
Diet: Frogs are carnivores and eat “meat” only. Smaller frogs eat insects including fruit flies and small or pinhead crickets, and larger frogs eat larger insects including crickets and worms. Some large frogs such as adult Pacman frogs eat small rodents. A well-rounded frog diet will also include a food that’s formulated to meet your frog species’ specific nutritional needs.
Additional care needs: Different varieties of frogs will need different additional care needs, like extra lighting, water to bask in, heating, etc. Be sure to check what the specific habitat needs are for the type of frog you’re getting.
Miscellaneous things to consider: Frogs make interesting pets and setting up a terrarium (habitat) can be fun and creative. Frogs are ideal as an observation pet rather than an interactive companion, and gloves should be worn if handling is necessary to avoid toxin transmission (only certain species) and to prevent oils from your skin being absorbed by the frog.
7. Hermit Crab (these are crustaceans, but we did not want to leave them out either)
Personality: The hermit crab can be fun to observe and is generally easy to care for.
Life span: Depending on the species, some hermit crabs can live up to 10 years of age.
Size: Typically, 2 to 6 inches depending on the species.
Habitat needs: Hermit crabs require a habitat that’s large enough to crawl around and climb, usually at least 10 gallons. Their habitat should also contain a bowl of dechlorinated freshwater, a dish of de-chlorinated saltwater, extra larger shells and plenty of things to climb on. Hermit crabs breathe through gills, so it’s important to keep their environment moist and warm. Hermit crabs also burrow in their substrate, and they need one designed specifically for hermit crabs — generally a mix of sand and forest bedding.
Diet: Feed your hermit crab well-balanced commercial hermit crab food and offer fresh vegetables and non-citrus fruits as a snack.
Additional care needs: Depending on the temperature, hermit crabs may require a heating element, since they do best when the temperature in their home remains between 70 and 80 degrees. Accessories can also be purchased to keep the humidity level above the mandatory 70% within the crab habitat. Regular “baths” will also help keep your hermit crab’s gills moist and increase their activity level.
Miscellaneous things to consider: Hermit crabs are actually very social animals, and they do better when housed in groups or three or more. As hermit crabs grow, they seek larger shells to “home” in. Be sure to have a few available in the habitat at all times.
With a little research, bringing home the right reptile can be a great addition to the family. Check out this reptile care guide for more helpful resources on how to prep for bringing home your new pet and shop all your reptile essentials at Petco.