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Caring for Reptiles

The lot of a reptile captured or bred for the pet-store trade is grim. The trip from the breeder or dealer is typically cramped and unsanitary, and many reptiles do not survive it. Those who do will probably have health problems that don’t show up until months later. Unfortunately, reptiles are perceived as requiring minimal care rather than specialized care, so they’re big business—nearly 4 million U.S. households owned a reptile in 2000. Pet-store employees are rarely trained to effectively tend to the sensitive needs of reptiles and therefore cannot educate prospective reptile caretakers.


Depending on the variety, snakes can live for decades and grow to lengths in excess of 5 feet. They require at least a 30-gallon tank, frequent checkups, and care by a veterinarian who specializes in reptiles. Fresh water and a spotless environment must be provided at all times. Most are carnivorous. They are susceptible to a variety of parasites as well as blister disease, respiratory and digestive disorders, and mouth rot. Strictly controlled daytime and nighttime temperatures and the careful application of pesticides are required in order to guard against mite infestations.


Green iguanas are some of the most frequently abandoned companion animals, likely because people find out too late what is required to care for them. A properly cared-for iguana can live for more than 20 years and grow to be more than 6 feet long. The enclosure for a full-grown iguana should be at least 18 feet long, humidified, and maintained at a particular temperature with specific timetables for darkness and ultraviolet light. Common problems for captive iguanas are metabolic bone disease from calcium deficiency, mouth rot, respiratory disease, abscesses, and ulcers. Wild iguanas do not suffer from any of these illnesses. They’re also strict vegans, limited to a very specific range of greens and fruits. Costs for food, an enclosure, lighting, and vet bills can total hundreds of dollars per year. It takes about a year of daily interaction to socialize an iguana, and even then, sexually mature males will be very aggressive six months out of the year if they see their own reflections or if confronted with other iguanas.


People who would never take on the commitment of a 6-foot iguana might be interested in geckos. Sadly, these are very popular reptiles in pet stores. These small, frail-looking lizards can often live up to 30 years and require a very particular environment without the slightest variance in temperature. They feed on insects and baby mice. Although wild geckos are found throughout temperate and tropical regions of the world, most of the ones offered for sale are captive-bred.


In contrast, most of the North American species of turtles available in pet stores have been taken from their natural habitats. All other species are probably captive bred—most likely in Louisiana, which has nearly 60 “farms” that exported 11 million turtles in 2000. Most states have laws either banning or restricting the sale of turtles, so it is likely that any you see at a pet store have suffered illegal capture or were raised in less-than-humane conditions. Since parasites, bacteria, and fungi prey on weak or stressed turtles, the health of a store-bought turtle is questionable. Just like any other reptile, a turtle’s needs are very specific: thermostatically controlled temperatures, enough water to swim in, a large housing area, and a varied diet. The average lifespan of an aquatic turtle is 25 years, while a land tortoise could outlive you.


There is a health risk associated with owning any reptile. Seventy thousand people in the U.S. contract salmonellosis from direct or indirect contact with reptiles and amphibians every year. Children, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems are particularly at risk of serious illness or death. If you or anyone close to you is in one of these categories, rethink bringing a reptile into your home—even healthy-looking animals may be carrying the disease. Many reptiles are brought into the country with little or no inspection or quarantine.


Welcoming a reptile into your home means a commitment of time, space, and money. You’ll need to provide the right temperature and humidity and specific light/dark cycles that may not coincide with your own or be convenient to you. Backup power is necessary to keep a constant temperature in the event of a power failure. It is a harsh fact that most reptiles are carnivores—do you really want your freezer full of dead animals? In all, costs for food, an enclosure, lighting, and vet bills can total hundreds of dollars per year.

Purchasing a reptile caught in his or her natural habitat encourages the removal of wildlife from delicate ecosystems. Buying captive-bred animals only encourages breeders to replenish their stock. If you must have a reptile as a companion animal, please consider adopting one from a local shelter or rescue group.

Commenting is closed.
  • TheMakrophage says:

    I recently adopted a two year old Macklots python from an individual when I saw pictures of it on craigslist. The snake was so skinny all of his ribs and his spine were visible (His previous owner had adopted him as a hatchling and was told to feed him a pinky mouse once a week, so he did that…. for two years)He was also infested with mites.
    I’m happy to say that eight months later he has gone from 22inches long and 100 grams to 55inches long and Is weighing in at just under one pound.

    Long story short, I couldn’t care less that my freezer is full of dead animals (right next to my boca burgers) if it means that this snake will have a long and healthy life. Yes, he may require special lighting but he has also gone with me to numerous shows and public events that educate people about reptiles and their right to exist within the ecosystem.

  • justacaver says:

    Reptiles make wonderful pets.You should educate yourself well on the animal that you are purchasing but with proper care many reptiles are far easier than a dog or cat.Pet stores may not be the best place to get a reptile but with a little research there are plenty of passionate breeders that love their animals that can provide you with a great pet and a great source of information.So do your reaserch and ignore the propaganda.Reptiles rock!!!!!!!

  • paladin says:

    Most reptile ‘owners’ are very well educated. They love their reptiles just as much as a dog/cat. Some snakes do not need a 30g enclosures which in itself is not that big. Not all geckos eat insects and very few eat mice. I would suggest doing research and actually using your brain. I hope to see this article rewritten as it is no where near the truth. They all do not require such specialized care..some do. But for example Crested Geckos can be kept at room temperature with out the need of heating.

  • DanB says:

    I agree on a few points. For instance, most pet stores in the US that sell reptiles such as tortoises do not even know they are endangered species listed on the CITES index. There are many “pets” that are sold that are endangered and the country of export is given a quota based on which level of CITES they fall under. It is made easier for those with traveling shows and such to bring along restricted or endangered animals with them. They do not always have to follow regulations such as enclosure requirements.

    It also does not always say at a pet store if the animals were captive bred or taken from their natural habitat and relatives, caregivers or other animals dependent upon them. Many states do not have regulations on keeping “wild” animals or endangered animals. Many species like Sulcata torts are sold in stores as adorable little babies to people that do not even have yards for them when they get to be much, much bigger. Just like it mentions iguanas, which really are not ideal pets. They can get large, dangerous and territorial. Some people understand that and can provide an adequate enclosure, but most cannot. I worked at a vet and saw many types of animals and situations that basically could be prevented by more laws and limitations; because many people get pets without knowing what is involved or they get misled by others.

  • Parseltongue says:

    I understand they’re trying to get people to rethink adopting a reptile, which many people SHOULD step back and think really hard about it. I myself have two snakes and a Chinese Water Dragon, all of whom are happy, healthy, and living enriching lives. We reptile owners are generally a very well educated bunch. All that matters is their happiness and care 🙂 If I had it my way, NO reptile would ever be “owned”. However, unfortunately, that is reality. There are millions of wild and captive bred animals being sold as pets. All we can do as owners is ensure that the public is being well educated about their care and give them the best care possible ourselves.

  • Will says:

    ALL snakes are carnivores not most. Not all snakes require 30 gallon tanks and you don’t need to apply pesticides to it’s tank to maintain cleanliness and prevent disease. It’s pennies a day to maintain adequate temperatures for most creatures and for the most part they are cheaper to feed than a dog.

  • nope says:

    Well… this isn’t right at all.
    Why have you lumped entire suborders (like snakes) into one way of caring, then specified “Iguanas” (which are known to be bad pets) then broadened again to an entire family of geckos (which some DO make good pets) and then broadened even more to an entire order!
    Please note that you have neglected to mention any good pet reptiles, such as bearded dragons, blue tongued skinks, crested or leopard geckos, kingsnakes, cornsnakes or anything else!
    This is just stupid propaganda. There are good pet reptiles out there, and there are EVEN SOME GOOD KEEPERS. I do believe that someone should have a license to keep a dangerous animal, but not something that is as harmless as a gecko! Also, salmonella is generally not contracted through reptiles, you’re more likely to get it from peanut butter!!

  • tre says:

    stop doing this!