Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Captive-Bred "Herps" Make Good Pets While Wild Cousins Monitor Health of Environment

Pet Column for the week of April 23, 2001

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
By Carrie Gustavson
Information Specialist

"Reptiles and amphibians make good pets, but they also raise awareness of the environment. In the wild, these animals are especially good indicators of environmental problems such as habitat loss and pollution," says Katie Heinz, fourth-year veterinary student at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana. Heinz keeps several reptiles and amphibians-"herps"-and is concentrating her studies in her final year of veterinary school on herpetology and conservation medicine.

"Reptiles are very rewarding to keep, and they are gorgeous to look at. But you really need to do some research before you buy," says Heinz.

Since most reptiles and amphibians are fairly inexpensive, they often become a spur-of-the-moment purchase. Make sure you know how big the animal will get, how to feed it, what size of cage it needs, and its UV light and temperature needs. "There is no one rule that covers how to care for reptiles. Care for each species depends on its natural habitat and natural diet, whether it originally comes from a desert or a rain forest," says Heinz.

Often people are won over by a cute little tortoise or iguana without realizing how big it will be and what kind of living space it will require. "An African spurred tortoise will grow to 150 pounds and live over 100 years. They are available as babies in pet stores and often end up in reptile rescue organizations when owners realize how much they need to eat and how big they get. This is not really a feasible pet," says Heinz. Other reptiles that may be inappropriate for most people include iguanas (which also can grow from 6 inches to 6 feet, are sometimes aggressive, and are prone to nutritional diseases in captivity) and certain chameleons.

But if owning a little dinosaur is on your wish list, included on Heinz's list of reptiles that make super pets are bearded dragons, leopard geckos, and corn snakes. "These are the species for which a lot of information is available about husbandry, nutrition, and UV light requirements. They are calm animals and make a good-sized pet," she says. In addition, these species are captive bred. Captive-bred animals are calmer and healthier. Besides, it's best to avoid the purchase of wild-born animals so they can stay where they belong: in the wild.

The No. 1 problem veterinarians see in reptiles is poor husbandry. Well-meaning people often don't understand the needs of their unique pets, which may require very specific temperature gradients, natural lighting, and special diets.

"You can't always trust that the people in a pet store are going to be experts in herpetology," says Heinz. "I encourage people to attend herpetology groups and read up. Make sure you know how to appropriately house and feed the animal before you buy it." Take your new pet to your local exotic animal veterinarian on your way home from the pet store to be assured is healthy -- and stays that way.

Reptiles and amphibians need a proper home environment as pets, just as their wild cousins in lakes, ponds, and even your own backyard need a healthy ecosystem to thrive. "Reptiles and amphibians are good indicators of polluted water and land because they live in both environments. They are so important to the balance of an ecosystem that if their populations are knocked out by pesticides, pollution, habitat loss, and over-collection, entire ecosystems suffer," she says. Insects may proliferate, fish populations may dwindle, and top predators such as birds and raccoons may suffer too.

In the end, if reptiles and amphibians can't thrive in a certain environment, it may not be a healthy place for humans to live either. By monitoring populations of reptiles and amphibians, scientists have a better idea of how certain pollutants, pesticides, and habitat loss may be affecting the environment -- and ultimately how it may affect you and me.

So whether it's in an aquarium in your living room or in the pond down the lane, a reptile or amphibian relies on its environment as the key to good health. Keep that in mind before you apply chemicals to your lawn or garden, capture a cute box turtle to keep as a pet, or support new developments that destroy wild places that frogs, turtles, lizards, newts, and snakes call home.