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

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

U of I logoCollege of Veterinary Medicine

Back to search page.

Consider Lifespan When Pondering a Pet Reptile

Pet Column for the week of May 18, 2009

Related information:

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

Source - Dr. Mark A. Mitchell
If fur and feathers aren't up your alley, but scales and long slithery tails strike your fancy, maybe a reptile is the pet for you. There are over 8,000 species of reptiles on the planet, and choosing the right one as a "starter" pet can be quite tricky if you don't know what to look for.

Dr. Mark Mitchell is not your average veterinarian. As an associate professor in the exotics and zoological medicine service at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, his patients swim, fly, and slither their way to his door. In selecting your first reptile, "the first thing you have to consider are the needs of the animal," he says. For example, many people don't realize that reptiles are very long-lived. Pet snakes may live 20-40 years and some of the chelonians (terrapins and tortoises) can live 50-100 years.

If their lifespan does not deter you, there are a few species that lend themselves well to newcomers. "The corn snake is an excellent pet," explains Dr. Mitchell. They are all bred in captivity and have been popular breeding species for several decades. Candycane, fluorescent orange, and lavender are just a few of the colors they come in.

Baby corn snakes are usually purchased when they are six inches in length. But don't try giving them a warm bottle of milk for dinner. Thawed pinky mice (baby mice) are the preferred meal. You can purchase pinky mice frozen, just allow them to thaw before serving them to your slithery new friend. Although corn snakes naturally have thin bodies, they can grow to 4-6 feet and live approximately 20 years.

Another great pet reptile for a novice is the bearded dragon. "I think of them as the dog of the reptile world," says Dr. Mitchell. These lizards are originally from Australia and grow to be 20-24 inches in length. In comparison to the strictly carnivorous corn snake, the bearded dragon is more of an omnivore. Crickets, meal worms, carrots, and a variety of greens provide the nutrition the lizard needs. As far as lifespan, you can expect a bearded dragon to live 10-15 years, and don't worry, these guys don't breathe fire.

The red footed tortoise is another animal that is recommended. But with a lifespan of 50-60 years, make sure you are committed to taking care of an animal that will still be around in the year 2050. As Dr. Mitchell, who is the proud owner of two Sulcata tortoises puts it, "they will probably be heirlooms to my children."

On a final note, you may commonly see iguanas for sale in local pet stores. Despite their popularity, these are not the best choice for someone who is starting out. For one, with an adult size of 6 feet, housing can become problematic. Male iguanas can also pick up on human pheromones and may attack females during their menstrual cycle.

If you are planning to become a new owner to a reptile, make sure you do your homework and are aware of their specific needs. They may be cold-blooded, but they do appreciate a warm-hearted counterpart that can take good care of them.