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

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Care and Keeping of Giant Spiders


Pet Column for the week of October 25, 2011

Related information:

Related site - Exotic Animal Services at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital
Species - Exotics

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

Creepy-crawly spiders of any size frighten some people, but a few species of tarantulas are commonly kept as pets and can be quite friendly.

According to Dr. Mark Mitchell, an exotics veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, the most common pet species—the red knee tarantula, the Chilean rose spider, and the Goliath bird-eater—are technically "giant spiders" and not tarantulas. The first two make friendly pets, while the Goliath bird-eater, which is one of the largest spiders in the world, can be quite aggressive.

Giant spiders are typically kept in tanks. Most owners prefer a realistic, natural-looking vivarium. It is recommended that the tank be at least three times the length of the spider's leg span. For the red knee and Chilean rose spider, adult leg span is around five inches, and the Goliath bird-eater can reach 12 inches!

The keys to a good habitat are shelter, substrate (material used for flooring), humidity, and temperature. You can find all the necessary supplies—and the spiders, too—at pet stores.

"Be sure to provide shelter where your tarantula can hide," says Dr. Mitchell. "Shelter can be anything from a piece of bark to one of the decorative resin shelters sold in pet stores.

"The right substrate depends on the species," he advises. "For example, sand is good for the Chilean rose spider, which lives in the desert, and orchid bark is appropriate for the red knee tarantula, which lives in tropical forests. Artificial turf found in pet stores can also work well. Make sure that the substrate does not get too moist, because this can lead to dermatitis for the tarantula."

Humidity and temperature should also fit the species. Desert species require lower humidity than tropical species require. To monitor humidity, you will need a hygrometer. Maintain proper humidity by misting the environment, being careful not to mist the substrate and make it damp. Proper temperature should be provided by a radiant heat source, such as a heat lamp. Do not use heat rocks, which can burn the pet. (This goes for reptiles as well as spiders.)

Of course, your pet will also need water and food. "Provide water in a very shallow dish or on a sponge or cotton ball," says Dr. Mitchell. "If you us a large open bowl of water, your tarantula may accidentally drown."

The food provided depends on the size of the spider: smaller insects for young, small spiders and larger insects for larger spiders. Tarantulas do quite well with live insects. Unlike reptiles, spiders have no bones, so there is no need to dust the insects you feed spiders with calcium or other supplement dust as you may do for reptiles.

Goliath bird-eaters can grow large enough that you can feed them baby mice, known as pinkies or fuzzies. Dr. Mitchell advises against feeding live mice in order to reduce the danger to your tarantula.

To interact with your tarantula, let it crawl onto your hand. Never grab your spider, which will cause stress to your pet and could also result in damaged legs or worse. Damaged legs do regenerate with the next molt, but it is certainly preferable not to hurt them.

"Giant spiders have a mild venom comparable to that of a bee sting," says Dr. Mitchell. Tarantulas have urticating hairs on their bodies, which they flick off as a primary defense. These hairs have barbs and can be highly irritating, sometimes causing a hypersensitivity inflammation of affected skin.

You should learn to recognize your pet's behavioral cues. A threatened spider will rear up and expose its fangs. A spider with a bald patch on its abdomen is stressed. If this is the case, you need to eliminate the cause of the stress to keep your spider healthy.

Like any pet, tarantulas can require veterinary care. Most tarantula owners call a veterinarian experienced in spider care for consults rather than bring their pet to a clinic. The most common health problems involve molting, mites, and damaged legs and abdomen.

When tarantulas molt, they flip onto their backs and crawl out a cut they make in the abdomen. It is an emergency situation for the spider if it gets stuck. This problem is usually associated with humidity, so raising the humidity may help. If necessary, you can help by very carefully peeling the exoskeleton off.

"If your tarantula has mites, do not use any sort of anti-parasite medication," warns Dr. Mitchell, "because these can affect your spider too. Instead, dip cotton swabs in mineral oil and carefully wipe the mites off your spider."

Damaged exoskeleton of the leg or abdomen will heal with the spider's next molt. In the meantime, a touch of liquid bandage glue can help seal off the holes.

If you are ever uncertain about the condition, don't hesitate to bring your tarantula to an experienced veterinarian. Dr. Mitchell also suggests finding a good support group of experienced tarantula owners or a pet store with knowledgeable staff to help you get started with your interesting and unconventional pet.