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For those wanting an excellent and unusual family pet, the bearded dragon has to be the top choice every time. Although these spiky looking creatures may look rather ferocious, bearded dragons – often referred to by their pet name ‘beardies’ – make charming pets for families with children thanks to their super docile, inquisitive and often comical personalities.
Bearded dragons originate from Australia and grow to an average size of 12-16 inches from the snout to the tip of their tail. Males are generally bigger and bulkier in appearance than females, and will often display by bobbing their heads up and down whilst puffing out their ‘beards’ – a flap of skin that can be erected beneath the chin and turned black to create a distinctive territorial display. Females typically have more delicate facial features and communicate primarily through slow circular waves of their forearms to signal submissiveness. Both sexes are full of personality, and so they are the most popular choice for a beginner reptile keeper looking to acquire their first pet lizard.
As a diurnal (daytime active) species, bearded dragons require careful management to provide the essential full spectrum UVB lighting and heating to keep them in good health. They are best kept singularly, although females may co-habit peacefully in pairs provided there is plenty of space and food available for both to avoid one bullying the other. Males must be kept separately or else they will fight ferociously, and mature males and females should not be houses together or else the male will try to mate constantly with the female which can result in her being injured. They are quite active lizards, and the minimum size enclosure for a single adult should be no less than 4 foot long x 18 inches wide x 18 inches deep. The vivarium itself can be furnished with appropriate basking and enrichment areas such as sturdy rocks and branches to replicate the arid terrain of their native habitat.
Bearded dragons are well known for having big appetites, enjoying a range of live insect foods such as crickets, locusts, mealworms and silkworms as well as salads of chopped vegetables, leafy greens and small portions of fruits. All of these should be dusted with broad spectrum vitamin and mineral supplements with emphasis placed on providing a high level of calcium in the diet to ensure proper skeletal and muscle development. Bearded dragons are now available to purchase from breeders in an attractive range of colour ‘morphs’ including the vibrant yellow citrus, rich blood red, and silvery hypomelanistics, and if well cared for will live for up to 12 years in captivity.
One of the first small lizard species to become widely available as captive bred specimens in the pet trade back in the 1980’s, leopard geckos are an excellent choice as a first reptile pet and are particularly well suited to responsible older children. With their yellow, orange and black patterning, these soft-skinned geckos are attractive and interesting little creatures that are easily tamed and handled, and are easy to care for. Growing to an overall adult size between 5 and 8 inches from snout to tail tip, leopard geckos are a good size to allow them to be handled comfortably, although great care must be taken to avoid injury to the tail, which may be broken off or ‘dropped’ if accidently pulled. This is a defence mechanism known as autotomy that several lizard species have evolved in order to distract attacking predators for a few moments while allowing the reptile to escape. The lost portion of tail may then be slowly regenerated over a period of several months and is often a slightly different colour or texture to the original. Leopard geckos belong to the lizard family Eublepharidae, a unique group that differs from other geckos due to the presence of their moveable eyelids.
As they are primarily active during the dusk and night-time, leopard geckos do not need strong UVB lighting, although they should be provided with a diet that is rich in calcium to ensure they do not develop metabolic bone disease (MBD). They are entirely insectivorous and will enjoy a diet of gut-loaded crickets, waxworms, crickets and locusts all dusted before feeding with a reptile nutritional powder supplement. Leopard geckos can be kept either singularly or in small groups containing no more than one male to avoid fighting. A suitable vivarium for a pair of adults should be no smaller than 24 inches long x 18 inches deep x 18 inches high, and will require a number of secure dark caves, hides or sleeping boxes in which they can rest undisturbed during the day. One of the hides should be positioned in a cool area of the vivarium and kept filled with a deep layer of damp sphagnum moss – this will provide a moist and humid area that the geckos can use to help facilitate the removal of its old skin during shedding. There are several options available with regards to the electrical equipment used to maintain their preferred environmental temperatures for thermoregulation, including basking heat bulbs such or heat mats which are controlled via a thermostat. Leopard geckos are now bred in hundreds of different colour morph and pattern combinations including everything from pure white to fluorescent orange and black, and visitors to national breeders clubs and exhibitions are often spoilt for choice in selecting their new pets.
The crested gecko or ‘crestie’ has quickly gained popularity as a good starter’s species largely due to its straightforward husbandry requirements and attractive appearance. They are so named because they have a row of characteristic soft crests present along the upper flanks and top of the head above the eyes. They have soft, velvety skin and are able to walk up walls and even upside down thanks to the physiology of their toe pads which are furnished with special folds of skin called setae that are able to grip even smooth surfaces like glass. Being primarily nocturnal, they have eyes with vertical slits that dilate in the dark to maximise vision and allow them to hunt efficiently at night.
Crested geckos are best housed singularly or in female pairs, and should be accommodated in vertically orientated glass terrariums to allow for their highly active arboreal lifestyle. A single adult will require a vivarium no smaller than 18 inches wide x 18 inches deep x 24 inches tall, and should be decorated with a wide variety of branches, vines, flowers and plants in which the gecko can hide itself away to sleep during the daytime. Crested geckos are particularly interesting in that they can change colour to some degree, depending on their mood and temperature. At night when they become active for hunting and when seeking a mate, they can ‘fire up’ their colours to show vibrant shades of orange and red.
One of the most appealing aspects of keeping crested geckos as pets is that they can be maintained exclusively on one of the commercially formulated diets which can be bought online or in specialist reptile supply shops, which makes them a popular choice for people wanting to avoid having to feed live insects. These fruit flavoured powders are mixed with water to form a thick soupy paste which is changed daily, and contain all the nutrition needed in the correct proportions to use as a complete diet if required. However, many keepers also choose to vary their geckos daily food with the addition of live insects such as crickets, waxworms and silkworms, and treats of mashed fruits such as papaya, mango or strawberry several times a week. A good quality reptile multivitamin and mineral supplement should always be used to prevent nutritional imbalances or deficiencies from developing. Crested geckos will rarely drink from still water, and although a water bowl should be provided to promote appropriate humidity levels, their terrarium will need to be gently misted with water using a spray bottle each day to replicate rainfall – the geckos will then drink droplets of water from the leaves of their terrarium plants with their tongues, replicating their natural behaviours expressed in their native rainforest habitats.
Although young crested geckos can be quite flighty, being fast runners and inclined to jump unexpectedly, they do become very tame with regular gentle handling and will often happily sit and lick gecko fruit jams fed to them from their owner’s fingers. Crested geckos are best suited as pets for older responsible children or adults due to their delicate skins which can tear and result in injuries if they are not handled with care. Also, unlike most other types of gecko, crested geckos are not able to regenerate their tails should they be accidentally pulled off or dropped through rough handling, so it is particularly important that owners are able to hold their geckos calmly and confidently to avoid this permanent disfiguration. Crested geckos are also bred in a variety of colour and pattern morphs including flame, tiger, pinstripe, buckskin, moonglow and dalmation-spotted.
For beginner reptile keepers wanting to select a small but easy to keep member of the monitor family, the dwarf spiny tailed monitors which are often referred to as ‘ackies’ as an abbreviation of their latin name, have to be one of the best choices available. These highly attractive small monitors have huge appeal thanks to their curious and intelligent personalities, and will easily become tame with regular handling. They are also particularly rewarding as vivarium subjects and will provide endless interest to their owners simply through observing their antics as they explore and hunt in their vivarium surroundings.
Since Australia introduced its strict laws regarding the export and sale of its native animals, all spiny tailed dwarf monitors found for sale in the European reptile hobby are captive bred, with two distinct subspecies now being regularly hatched and sold through private keepers and shop breeding programs. Red spiny tailed dwarf monitors – also known as red ackies (Varanus acanthurus acanthurus) are the larger of the two species, growing to lengths of up to around 18 inches including tail, with deep red, brown and copper coloured circular markings on the back and flanks. They are generally more expensive and difficult to obtain than their smaller and more commonly kept cousin the yellow ackie (Varanus acanthurus brachyurus) which is similar in appearance but generally more slender in body shape, and only growing to around 12-15 inches in length. Yellow ackies typically have a pale yellow, cream or orange pattern although some individuals from selectively produced lines have more red pigmentation As a result, buyers must be careful when purchasing their pets that they obtain a true red ackie (acanthurus) and not a red-coloured brachyurus.
Caring for red ackies is relatively straightforward, although being such busy little lizards they do need a large and well equipped enclosure to provide plenty of space, furnishings and opportunities to fulfil their behavioural need to climb, explore and dig through the substrate, the cost of which may be a limiting factor in beginner keepers who may not have the funds or space to accommodate them properly. While both subspecies enjoy tunneling and hiding in rock piles, yellow ackies tend to be more aboreal than their red relatives and so a large tall habitat is important, with a single adult requiring a minimum vivarium size of 36 inches tall x 24 inches deep x 24 inches wide. They need a hot basking spot directed onto a suitable basking site such as a piece of flat slate rock, although care should be taken to ensure they are well hydrated by providing a deep water bowl for them to swim, splash and soak in. They are ravenous hunters and will eagerly hunt a range of live foods such as crickets, locusts and waxworms as well as enjoying the occasional pinkie mouse as a treat. While newly hatched baby red ackies can be quite skittish at first, if handled carefully several times a week they will grow into very friendly and tame adults that may be easily handled, and so make a good choice as a reptile pet for older children and adults.
Although traditionally chameleons were considered difficult to maintain well in captivity, advances in husbandry knowledge and the recent availability of specialist designed equipment and housing now means that Yemen chameleons (also sometimes called veiled or casqued chameleons) can be enjoyed as a species with relatively straightforward care requirements. They are now widely regarded as a good choice for a reptile keeper that has some experience in looking after lizards such as leopard geckos and bearded dragons, and is looking to progress onto a slightly more challenging species. Originating from the humid forest areas of Yemen and Saudi Arabia, Yemen chameleons were one of the first chameleon species to be kept and bred successfully in captivity, and make rewarding and interesting additions to any keeper’s collection provided their specific environmental needs are met. Babies are very small and delicate, often being only 1-2 inches in size when hatched, although they feed well on small livefoods such as 1st instar crickets and extra small locust hoppers, and will grow quickly to a mature size of up to 22 inches for males and around 15 inches for females. They are sexually dimorphic as adults, meaning that males and females can be identified just from their appearances; - males are stockier and more vibrantly coloured in shades of bright green with a distinctive casque – a tall boney structure rising 2-3 inches from the back of the skull - while females are smaller in body size and generally show paler pastel shades of green and tan. As the most distinguishing feature of the chameleon family, Yemens have the ability to change their skin colour according to their mood and in response to environmental stimuli – a male displaying his breeding colours will be vibrant shades of green with turquoise and yellow highlights, while those experiencing stress or attempting to intimidate a rival will turn an angry shade of dark brown or black with green flashes.
Yemens are one of the easiest chameleon species to keep as pets although they do require careful management of their captive habitat in order to do well. Chameleons in general are more prone to respiratory conditions than other lizards and so good ventilation is crucial to prevent a build -up of stagnant air in their enclosures which may predispose them to developing bacterial or fungal infections in the delicate membranes of their airways and lungs. Because of this, purpose built arboreal mesh enclosures are recommended, with a good size for an adult male being no less than 48 inches tall x 24 inches deep x 24 inches wide and well furnished with a variety of branches, vines and plants to provide a range of basking sites and cover to hide away in. Study, non-toxic live plants can be added to create a more naturalistic environment and aid in retaining humidity, with ficus and umbrella plants being especially resistant to being climbed about on. Like most chameleons, Yemens will rarely learn to drink from sources of standing water such as bowls or trays and so the enclosure must be fitted with a means of adding additional moving water several times a day to make sure the occupants are properly hydrated – spray and drip systems in particular may be costly but I feel they are certainly worthwhile investments as they can be refilled and set to an automatic timer to run at regular intervals during the day. Naturalistic looking resin waterfalls complete with inbuilt submersible mini-pumps can also be used but these must be thoroughly scrubbed clean and refilled each day without fail or else they quickly become a breeding ground for bacteria which may cause your chameleons to become ill.
Chameleons are generally not the most interactive of lizards, being quite sensitive and prone to stress related illnesses, and so handling should really be limited to only once or twice a week wherever possible. They have uniquely evolved zygodactylous feet with their toes fused on either side of a vertical palm which allows them tightly grip branches and plant stems in their arboreal habitats, and so are most comfortable being held in a way that allows them to firmly grip onto the sides of fingers and hands while coiling their muscular tails around your arm for security.
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