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What You Should Know About Keeping Reptiles & Amphibians as Pets

Any reptile or amphibian owner will tell you how amazing these animals are. However, a lot goes into keeping them happy and healthy under human care. Here are some things to know before you bring your new pet home!

Picture of a bearded dragon.

Bearded dragons make great pets, even for beginners!

Things to consider:

Housing: One of the great things about keeping reptiles and amphibians is how little space they take up in your home. Unlike a dog or a cat that needs the whole house to run around, a frog or a snake only needs its tank. However, since your pet is going to be spending a majority of their life in a tank it’s important to make sure it’s a place where they can thrive. This means finding your species’ minimum tank size as well as providing them with the correct substrate, hides, a water dish, plants, and more.

Climate Requirements: Reptiles & amphibians can be found on every continent except Antarctica. With such a wide range of climates, it goes without saying that what one species needs to survive may not be what another species needs. In human care, we can emulate these different climates using heating elements such as heat lamps or heat mats to increase the temperature as well as using spray bottles or automatic misters to increase humidity. When considering which type of pet you want, do your research to find what temperature and humidity requirements they have and make sure you can maintain those conditions appropriately.

Diet: Reptiles & amphibians eat a wide range of foods including fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, live insects, or frozen/thawed rodents depending on species. Most will also require the supplementation of vitamins and minerals in their diet as well. If your animal eats insects or rodents this means that you must be comfortable with the fact that you will be keeping live insects inside your house or dead rodents in your freezer before feeding.

Lifespan: Many species can live a surprisingly long time. Some pets such as tortoises & turtles live 50-100+ years. Even a small dart frog can live up to 15 years! Choose a pet that you are willing to support for the entirety of their lifetime.

Species temperament/handleability: Some pets are more tolerant of being handled than others; some can even get sick from being handled improperly. For example, it’s recommended to handle amphibians as little as possible and only do so with gloved hands. However, bearded dragons are known for being laid-back, docile, and easy to hold, while chameleons are known for being moody, extremely sensitive to their surroundings, and prefer to be left alone. Keep this in mind when choosing your pet and consider whether you want an animal that you can interact with regularly or just an interesting friend to admire from a distance.

Veterinary Care: Unlike dogs and cats, reptiles and amphibians do not require monthly or yearly preventative care such as vaccinations or spaying/neutering. However, just like every other animal, they should see a vet for regular wellness exams and when they get sick. You will need to find a vet that can treat exotic animals. Exotic pet vets can be harder to find depending on where you live and can be more expensive than regular veterinarians due to the unique nature of the animals they care for.

Legality: Always check state laws to determine if a species is legal to keep as a pet or if special permits are required. Many native species or ones that are considered dangerous, potentially invasive, or protected under state or federal laws are not legal to possess. You should also consider whether you will be moving from state to state, as interstate transport laws can also apply. 

Costs: When considering any new pet, think about your budget for the initial and long-term costs of keeping them. Some of the initial costs may include a tank, food, heating elements, food/water bowls, hides, substrate, UVB lighting, supplements, water conditioner, plants, thermometer/hygrometer, and anything else you may need the day you bring your pet home. Some of the long-term costs include food, replacement UVB or heat bulbs, new substrate for when it inevitably gets dirty, vet care, and any upgrades you may want.

Picture of a Ball Python

Snakes like ball pythons are common in the pet trade.

Where should I get a reptile or amphibian to keep as a pet?

Adopting animals from a rescue is an excellent way to give an unwanted pet a forever home! There are even rescue organizations that specialize in finding homes for reptiles and amphibians. Some of the wonderful reptile rescues in Virginia include Reptile Education of Virginia, VIPER Inc, and Blue Ridge Reptile Rescue. One advantage of adopting from a rescue is that you’ll have the opportunity to speak to rehabilitators that are knowledgeable on reptile care and can give advice. Going to a rescue is also generally the least expensive option. However, rescues may not have a large selection available since their stock is dependent on what surrenders they receive. An animal from a rescue may also have been surrendered due to health or temperament issues. A reputable rescue will tell you upfront if an animal you’re considering has any problems but be sure to ask whether the animal requires any special care before you bring them home.

Another option for finding a new pet is going to a breeder. Private breeders have in-depth knowledge on how to care for the species they produce and are a great resource for any questions you may have. Since, most of the time, they are selling animals that they’ve personally produced, they’ll know the specific characteristics of each one. This includes details like their favorite foods, what enrichment they like, or even just their general personality. Going to a breeder will also allow you to find a particular color, or morph, that may not be naturally occuring. Breeders often use their knowledge of genetics and cross-breeding to produce exciting colors and patterns that don’t appear in the wild! For this reason, sometimes animals from breeders can be more expensive. Finding a breeder can sometimes be difficult. A great place to look for breeders is at a local reptile expo, listings on reptile Facebook groups, or listings on morph market.

The most familiar option, especially for first-time pet owners, is to go to a pet store. In recent years many chain and independently owned pet stores have started carrying reptiles and amphibians and their respective supplies. This has made keeping them much more accessible because you can buy your pet and their supplies in one trip from a store that’s already in your area! However, if you choose to go this route it’s recommended that you do your research beforehand. Salespeople may not have expertise on the species you’re looking to get and shouldn’t be your primary source of information. Another drawback to buying from a pet store is you don’t know specifically where your animal came from or what conditions it lived in prior to being in the store. Some independently owned pet stores do breed animals in-house or purchase from local breeders but they can also get their stock from mill breeders or get wild-caught suppliers. These are not recommended because they can often be sickly or aggressive. Be sure to ask a manager where they purchase their animals from and to provide paperwork if it’s available.

Picture of two frogs on a hanging coconut.

Frogs can be charismatic and entertaining, but have species requirements due to their sensitivity to their environment.

A Note About Ethically Sourced Pets:

When shopping for a reptile or amphibian you may see the abbreviation “WC” or “CB”; this stands for Wild-Caught or Captive-Bred. These are two of the most common practices that are used to obtain herps for captive care.

“Wild-caught” means the animals have been taken from their natural habitat and sold into the pet trade. Due to the increasing popularity of keeping reptiles and amphibians as pets, poachers have decimated wild populations of animals for the pursuit of profit. These animals are often shipped directly from their home to other countries in boxes or bags without being provided food, water, or heat. Many herps die on this journey. Since these animals are essentially still wild and have only had negative experiences with humans they are often aggressive and difficult to tame. It’s also very common for these animals to have illnesses or parasites since they have not received proper care. These animals are often much less likely to thrive. The reason this practice is still widely used is that the animals are much cheaper and inexperienced herp keepers who don’t know of this practice don’t think to ask where their pet came from.

A great way to combat this is to only buy captive-bred animals. “Captive-bred” means they have never lived in the wild and have been under human care since birth. As a result, the breeders often know much more about the species, their care, and the temperament and history of the individual animal. These animals tend to be easier to tame, healthier, and less likely to have parasites. Many herps that are common in the pet trade such as bearded dragons, leopard geckos, or ball pythons are readily available as captive-bred specimens. Though these animals can initially be more expensive than their wild-caught counterparts, subsequent vet bills and the ecological impact of a WC animal makes it well worth the price.

Picture of a turtle swimming in water.

Turtles are very cute as babies, but require large amounts of space and frequent cleaning as they get older, and most species live a very long time.

Now that you know the basics of keeping a reptile or amphibian, you can decide whether having one is the right choice for your lifestyle. There are many different species available as the pet trade expands and some are more complex than others in terms of their needs. Be sure to do some research and find one that you are willing to devote the necessary time and resources to. Keeping a reptile or amphibian as a pet is a fun and rewarding hobby and opens a door to a new community of dedicated people and fascinating animals! 

Picture of a blue-tongued skink.

Providing a balanced, varied diet of fresh and/or live foods will help keep your pet healthy and happy!

— Written by VLM herpetology keeper, Carter. Contact our Herpetology staff or visit Reptile And Amphibian Weekend (Mar. 26 & 27, 2022) if you have questions about keeping reptiles or amphibians as pets.  

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