Information about reptiles for potential pet reptile owners

Information about reptiles for potential pet reptile owners

The term “reptile” is a grouping that is used to encompass a range of many thousands of species of animals of various different types that originate from all four corners of the world! Reptiles are distinctly different from other animals such as birds, mammals and fish, but what all reptiles have in common is that they are cold-blooded vertebrates that have scaly bodies and reproduce by laying eggs. Many species of reptiles, such as dinosaurs, are now extinct, but a multitude of other species are still alive and well, and live happily in perpetuity in various countries of the world; including the UK!

Reptiles of many different types have become popular as pets within the UK in the last 20 years, and various different types of snakes and lizards can be kept as pets within the home in a specially equipped vivarium. This guide should be considered as a basic introduction to keeping vivarium reptiles for the first-time owner, and is not specific to any one type or species of reptiles. If you are considering keeping reptiles, you will need to undertake a lot more research than simply reading this article before making a purchase!

Nevertheless, if you are looking for a basic introduction to keeping reptiles and wish to find out what is involved in their care and how to buy them, then this article will help.

Is a reptile the right pet for you?

Compared to furry animals and many other pets, reptiles are a relatively low maintenance pet in terms of their everyday care requirements, and can make a good pet for people who are allergic to most other pets, work long hours or do not have a lot of spare time. That being said, it is important to remember that a reptile is still a living creature, and that by seeking to keep them in captivity, we take on a duty of care to them, and it is our responsibility to ensure that a reptile, like any other pet, is appropriately fed, adequately cared for, and treated well.

Keeping a pet reptile is not a decision to be undertaken lightly, and reptiles have various unique care and feeding requirements that can make their management quite different to other types of pets. If you are considering keeping a reptile as a pet, ask yourself a few questions before you go any further:

  • Are there any rules about keeping pets in your accommodation, particularly if you rent or live in a leasehold property? Would you find it harder to find a new home if you needed to in the future if you had to account for a pet reptile as well?
  • Can you afford to take care of a pet reptile, including providing its equipment, food and veterinary care for the duration of its life?
  • Do you have enough time to commit to taking care of a reptile, and are you comfortable with handling it if needs be and cleaning out its vivarium?
  • Are all of your family or anyone else you live with ok with the idea of having a pet reptile in the home?
  • Do you actually like reptiles and find them interesting to watch, and are you ok with the idea of feeding them the correct diet for their needs, which can include live insects and dead mice?
  • Finally, are you sure that if your situation changed in the future, for instance if you had to move home or your family grew or changed, that you would still be able to take care of your pet and not need to try to rehome it? Reptiles can live for a long time, over 20 years in some cases, and so they are not a good choice as a short-term or interim pet!

How much does it cost to buy and keep reptiles?

The cost of buying a reptile of any type can vary greatly, according to the species, size, age and area that you live in. Good beginner reptiles such as corn snakes and leopard gecko’s can be bought for under £50, while larger and more unusual reptiles may cost several hundred pounds to buy.

The cost of setting up a vivarium and everything that you need to house and keep a pet reptile is again very variable, with smaller set-ups available from under £200, rising to considerably higher for larger, bespoke or specialist accommodations.

Day to day, you will need to be able to pay for the cost of feeding your reptile, the cost of ongoing maintenance and any veterinary care that might be needed too.

What kind of time commitment is needed to buy and care for a reptile?

Reptiles are generally considered to be a low maintenance pet, and they do not require a significant amount of daily maintenance and handling in order to stay happy and healthy. Many pet owners enjoy handling and playing with their pet reptiles, although this is not necessary in order to keep a pet reptile happy and healthy. You should budget some time for acquiring food for your reptile, as the type of things that pet reptiles eat cannot be found in your average supermarket, and you may have to buy from a specialist pet shop or order your pet’s food online!

Finally, you will also need to spend some time each week caring for and maintaining your reptile’s vivarium, and keeping an eye on their health and condition. Although reptiles require only minimal maintenance on a daily basis, you should never leave your pet unattended for days on end.

What do reptiles eat?

Different types of reptiles eat different foodstuffs, although it is fair to say that feeding reptiles is very different to feeding other animals! With the exception of the crested gecko, which thrives on a specially formulated dry food that is mixed with water along with supplemental insect feeding, most beginner-suitable pet reptiles need to be fed fresh or live food such as specially bred insects, or specially prepared food such as defrosted baby mice. You cannot buy neatly bagged and packaged complete foods for reptiles, and you will need to get rather more up close and personal with their food than you would for most other animals! Some reptiles eat whole insects like locusts and crickets, which in turn need to be fed a mineral-rich supplement to ensure that they fulfil all of your pet’s dietary needs. You may find that keeping reptiles means you will need to keep live insects to feed to them as well! Some reptiles such as bearded dragons also eat vegetables, while snakes (such as the popular corn snake) need to be fed defrosted baby mice, which understandably is not to every owner’s taste!

Many reptiles require supplemental feeding of vitamin concentrates, calcium or protein, and so it is important to make sure that you read up about your potential pet’s nutritional requirements in depth and are sure that you understand fully what they need to thrive before buying them. The feeding and nutritional requirements of all reptiles are different, and some pets will require supplementary feeding or a special diet; this is covered in more depth in this article.

The health and wellness of reptiles

The main popular and readily available to buy beginner reptiles are all considered to be robust, healthy and low maintenance, and when correctly cared for will generally remain healthy and well throughout the duration of their lives.

All reptiles will shed their skin; some, like snakes, all in one piece, and others, such as lizards, in smaller individual pieces. When a reptile is preparing to shed or in the process of shedding, they can look rather dull and unkempt, but rest assured that this is a normal process and not a sign of ill health. Once your pet reptile has fully shed their old skin, they will appear much brighter and more vibrant than before!

All reptiles should have bright, alert eyes and smooth healthy scales. While snakes may often appear to be rather sedentary, lizards should appear active and spend time moving around and searching for food at some point over the course of the day, although when this will occur depends on the species, as some reptiles are nocturnal whereas others are more active during the day.

Lizards should have strong legs that look smooth and healthy, and all reptiles should have a well-rounded appearance that is proportional to their size and age. Some further pointers to look out for in terms of snake health can be found here, plus an in-depth article on metabolic bone disease in reptiles can be found here.

Veterinary care and insurance for reptiles

Just as with any other animal, reptiles can become sick and injured, and may, at some point in their lives, require veterinary treatment. Finding a vet that is qualified and experienced in the care of exotic animals such as reptiles is not as simple as finding a vet to treat mammals and more common pets, so it is important to find a vet that is able to treat reptiles locally before you go ahead and buy one. This article offers further advice on finding a vet that can treat exotic pets such as reptiles.

You can also insure reptiles against the cost of unexpected veterinary treatments in the same way that you can with dogs and cats, although you may have to contact a specialist exotics insurance provider to do this. More information on getting insurance for exotic pets can be found here.

Your own health and wellbeing around reptiles

Reptiles are not like mammals and birds in that they do not normally bond with and show affection for their owners in the way that we usually understand and recognise it. Some reptiles can deliver a nasty nip or bite if angry or scared, and so it is important to handle your new pet with care and spend plenty of time getting them used to you when handling them, to avoid any injuries or accidents.

Reptiles can also carry salmonella, and so you should always bear this in mind when handling your pet or any of the equipment that comes into contact with them. Keep your reptile’s things separate from everything else in your house, and be aware of good hygiene practice around your pet at all times, disinfecting equipment regularly and thoroughly and washing your hands with hot water and soap carefully every time you have handled your pet.

What kind of equipment do you need to keep reptiles?

Snakes and lizards and every different breed within these species sub-headings each require slightly different types of provision to be made for their accommodation and equipment, and so you should of course spend some time researching the specific type of reptile that you are considering keeping before you finally go shopping!

However, this list should provide you with a basic outline of some of the equipment you may need to buy to keep your first reptile as a pet within the home.

  • A vivarium tank and, if needed, a stand for it
  • A lid or canopy for your tank
  • Sufficient light fittings and the appropriate bulbs for the type of reptile you wish to keep
  • A heat lamp and reflector, depending on the species
  • A way of providing basking heat, such as a heat mat or a heat rock
  • A thermometer
  • A suitable substrate for the bottom of the vivarium
  • Furniture for the vivarium, including hides to allow your pet to take cover and sleep
  • A food dish and water bowl
  • Any species-specific supplements that may be needed, such as calcium or vitamins
  • A suitable disinfectant for cleaning the vivarium, plus other cleaning equipment
  • The appropriate food for your pet, which may consist of pinkie mice, insects, vegetables, a pre-mixed food or a combination of things, dependent on species
  • A good species-specific guide book for your potential pet, which includes a section on troubleshooting and signs of ill health

Not all of these things will be required for all types of pet reptiles, and it is important to research in-depth the specific species of reptile that you wish to keep and what exactly they require in order to thrive.

Good reptiles for beginners

Some reptiles are considered to be rather easier to care for than others, as well as being hardier, more amenable to handling and usually, at the lower end of the price scale. While beautiful and exotic reptiles such as large, colourful lizards or large constricting snakes may appear highly impressive and naturally appealing to the new owner, these animals are not considered to be a good pick for the novice keeper, and you should start off rather smaller before making the move into caring for more exotic species of reptiles!

Some of the most popular reptile breeds for the novice keeper include

  • Leopard geckos
  • Crested geckos
  • Bearded dragons
  • Corn snakes
  • Milk snakes

Where will your new pet be coming from?

The origins of reptiles kept as pets are usually divided into four different subsections; captive bred, captive farmed, long term captive and wild-caught.

  • Captive bred reptiles are those bred on a small scale in captivity, such as by hobbyist breeders and private owners. These reptiles are usually well handled and used to people.
  • Captive farmed reptiles are bred in captivity but on a commercial scale, and may not be as well handled at the juvenile stage as those bred on a smaller scale.
  • Long-term captive reptiles are those that were originally caught in the wild to be offered for sale to the commercial pet market, but that have been kept in captivity for a significant amount of time. Despite being wild-caught originally, these reptiles are usually fairly well tamed and acclimatised to life in a vivarium.
  • Wild-caught reptiles are taken from the wild on a commercial scale and sold into the pet reptile market. As well as of course not being tamed or acclimatised to domestic living in the same way that reptiles from the previous three sections are, recently wild-caught reptiles are also significantly more likely to be carrying parasites and infections than animals raised in a vivarium will be.

The first-time reptile buyer is strongly recommended to buy a captive bred pet if possible, and to avoid wild-caught reptiles at all costs.

The seller or breeder of any pet reptile that you are considering buying should be able to tell you straight away without hesitation what the origins of their animals were, and have a good understanding of any import restrictions, conservation issues or other factors that may affect the provision of reptiles to the pet market. If your seller does not seem to be aware of these factors, buy from a more knowledgeable and responsible seller instead.

Where and how to buy reptiles

There is a wide variety of different options for where you can buy your first pet reptile.

  • Some larger pet shops may keep a small range of beginner-suitable reptiles in store.
  • Specialist pet shops and reptile and exotic pet stores will often stock a wider range and employ very knowledgeable reptile enthusiasts as staff.
  • Private sellers and small-scale breeders often advertise juvenile reptiles for sale that they have raised at home from conception to adulthood, which can be preferable to buying an unknown pet from a store.
  • Larger breeding operations and specialist importers also often have a wide range of species and animals for sale.
  • Many charities and rescue organisations such as the RSPCA and reptile-specific welfare groups such as Reptilia Rescue and small local charities may offer reptiles for rehoming and adoption to caring owners.
  • Check out some of the reptiles for sale and reptiles for adoption all over the UK from third party sellers here on Pets4Homes.

When browsing reptiles offered for sale and considering whom to buy from, always view the animal yourself in person and take your time over making a decision. Ensure that you have a firm idea of the type of pet you want to come home with and what to look for, as well as spending some time talking to the seller or owner about the specific pets on sale and how they are cared for.

The seller of the pet in question should be knowledgeable about the specific reptiles that they have for sale as well as the species in general, and this should be evident in both their responses to your questions and in the way that they care for and maintain the reptiles and vivariums themselves.

If you have any concerns or doubts about the person you are considering buying from or the animals that they have available for sale, move on and look for an alternative seller.

Always remember to get a receipt for any monies paid to your seller, and find out if you have any comeback or if the seller would be prepared to take the reptile back and refund your money if the pet was found to be unwell or not as described shortly after the sale.

How to transport reptiles home and settle them in

Once you have chosen your perfect reptile and are all ready to make your purchase, it is important to ensure that you have everything ready for them and are prepared for the journey home and their first few days with you! When moving reptiles from one home to another, it is vital to make the transition as smooth as possible, and that you try to spend the minimum amount of time in transit. Maintaining your reptile’s temperature is one of the main challenges of transporting them, and is one of many good reasons for why you should try to buy your pet from a seller who is as close to home as possible.

  • Make sure that you have everything you need to care for your reptile all ready for use before you buy- including suitable food.
  • Ensure that your vivarium has been set up and running for at least a few days, giving you the chance to sort out any problems, monitor the temperature and lighting levels and generally become familiar with your equipment.
  • You will need to acquire a suitable carrier to house your new pet on the journey home. This should be large enough for your pet to turn around in, but not so large that they would become thrown around unduly in the case of any sharp braking or an accident. Small but sturdy plastic boxes such as Tupperware with adequate ventilation holes added are fine, as are of course specialist reptile carrying cases.
  • Regardless of what you use to transport your pet in, ensure that it is adequately ventilated, has a secure lid, and is safe for your pet to travel in with no sharp surfaces or jagged edges.
  • Maintaining your pet’s temperature during the journey home is important, and can prove a challenge. If your journey home will be longer than a few minutes, you will need to take steps to conserve the temperature of your reptile’s environment while on the move. This may mean placing their carrying container into an insulated box, or even adding heat packs or cool packs for longer trips in extreme weather.
  • Make sure that you have a thermometer available to check on the ambient temperature of the container during your journey.
  • Do not open your reptile’s carrying box when on the road unless this is absolutely necessary, and be very careful that they do not escape if you do need to do this!
  • Turn the lights off in the vivarium before introducing your new pet, particularly for nocturnal reptiles, unless the lighting is a source of heat for the tank.
  • When you first get your new pet home, place their travelling container into the vivarium, remove the lid or open the door, and allow your pet to come out and explore in their own time. Make sure that the temperature is consistent and does not provide a big shock to your pet’s system when they are first introduced.
  • Make sure that fresh water is readily available at all times, but do not offer food soon after introducing your pet to their vivarium.
  • Wait until your pet has settled in properly before feeding; at least a week for snakes and a couple of days for lizards.
  • Do not play with or handle your new pet in the first few days after you have brought them home. It is important to watch them and monitor them for signs of stress or ill health, but you should ensure that they have plenty of time to acclimatise to their new environment and settle in before you put your hands into the tank or pick them up.
  • Do not be tempted to overfeed your new pet when you first get them; ensure that you understand the appropriate amount of food and feeding frequency for the pet you have bought, and that you feed the appropriate food and amount of food.
  • Ensure that any prey fed to your pet is not too large for them to manage; a good rule is not to feed live food that is larger than the distance between your reptile’s eyes.
  • It can be helpful to establish a support network of other knowledgeable reptile enthusiasts before you bring your first pet home, so that you have someone to turn to if you are having any problems or need to ask any questions. This might consist of other reptile owners, online reptile forums, or your specialist veterinary surgeon.

Further reading

This article alone will not provide you with enough information to adequately care for your first pet reptile, and you should also undertake a significant amount of species-specific research and learn about the day to day realities of caring for your pet, such as how and when to feed them, how to clean out the vivarium, and much more. Here are some additional articles about various different types of reptiles and their care that can help to give you a head start!

Why keep a reptile?

Buying your first snake

Introduction to leopard geckos

Popular snake breeds for beginners

A beginner’s guide to bearded dragons



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