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

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Good Reptile Starter Pets


Pet Column for the week of November 29, 2010

Related information:

Related site - Exotics care at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital
Services - Human-Animal Bond

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

Reptiles are fascinating and, with proper care, make wonderful pets, with more personality than most people might think. Yet caring for a reptile may seem daunting for the first-time owner. Read on for a description of three species that make great pets, and you don't have to walk them or change the litter.

Dr. Matt Allender is an exotics veterinarian with a particular interest in reptiles at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana. The "starter" pets he recommends conveniently span the major types of reptiles: the bearded dragon, the corn snake, and the red-footed tortoise.

The bearded dragon is one of the most popular pet lizards in the United States. They can live happily in anything larger than a 20-gallon aquarium, the larger the better. Dragons can grow up to 2 feet long, with males generally being larger than females. They are omnivores that can be fed crickets, mealworms, pinkies (baby mice), and a variety of greens. Juvenile dragons need more insect supplementation, while adults tend to be more on the herbivorous side.

Unlike mammalian pets, reptiles are cold blooded--they need a heat source provided. Daytime temperatures for dragons should be between 80°F and 88°F; a basking spot in the 95°F to 100°F range should also be available. Nighttime temperatures can be in the 70s. A good thermal gradient in the tank is important, so the larger the tank the better. The tank can be lined with newspapers, large bark, or reptile carpet. These pets also enjoy rocks, branches, and shelter, which can be found at pet stores.

For someone interested in snakes, a good pet snake is the corn snake. Housing for corn snakes depends on the size of the snake. Ideally they should be able to move around safely and stretch out the length of the cage. The latter point may not be possible with larger snakes as they can reach 4 to 6 feet in length. Snakes are carnivores. Juvenile corn snakes can be fed mammals, fish, or invertebrates such as earthworms. Adults are usually fed mice and rats, which are typically purchased frozen and served thawed. Feeding live prey is not recommended because the prey can injure the snake.

Corn snake daytime temperatures should range from 80°F to 88°F, with a basking spot a few degrees warmer. Like the bearded dragon, nighttime temperatures can be in the 70s. Corn snake tanks must have a secure lid.

If you are looking for a tortoise/turtle type, the red-footed tortoise is a great pet. At lengths of 12 to 14 inches that may grow to 18 inches, the red-footed tortoise is relatively small. This pet should spend most its time outdoors. As juveniles they can be housed in a 20-gallon aquarium during the winter, but they can go outside on any day that is over 60°F. As adults they can spend time outdoors when it is over 55°F. An outdoor enclosure should have secure fencing because they will dig. Red-footed tortoises are omnivores and their diet should be a mix of natural prey, such as crickets and earthworms; greens; fruits; and commercial tortoise chow.

The best way to ensure the correct temperature range for reptiles is to use heat lamps. Heating rocks sold in stores should not be used as they can get too hot and are unsafe for your pet. Reptiles also need UVB supplementation for proper vitamin D synthesis, which can be provided in the form of another lamp with a different bulb. Pets should get around 12 hours of light and UVB a day to simulate natural outdoor light and dark cycles. This heating and lighting requirement also goes for the tortoises when kept indoors. Lamps can be set up on special timers to turn on and off at set intervals for this purpose. Lamps, bulbs and timers can be found in pet stores that carry reptile supplies.

Veterinary care requirements are much like what any pet needs. A young animal will need more frequent checks, as will an old animal. Check-ups will start with a physical examination, baseline blood work and a fecal examination. Much like any other pet these animals should receive routine check-ups (more frequent for young and old animals) by a veterinarian as well as a veterinary visit if there are any health issues.

Exotic pets are popular, and good information about their care is easy to find. So, if you are interested, why not choose a reptile for a pet? And remember, if you ever have questions or concerns, you can always ask your exotic animal veterinarian.