The Basics of Reptile Care
By: Chris Law
Reptiles are found across the globe, with variant morphological, biological, physiological and ethological adaptations that enable them to survive in a particular habitat. Reptiles, subsequently have a mysterious nature and often are inappropriately persecuted for such. Snakes in particular still carry a permeated bias, that often leads to their slaughter when encountered by a human. However, aside from those whom fear them unjustly, there are others whom fancy them for the very reason why others despise them.
Those individuals often end up keeping a reptile as a pet, in their dwelling for the purposes of study or to have an animal companion that is everything but ordinary. Reptiles can be found in many pet shops across the United States and across the world. There are private shows where professional breeders and enthusiasts get together to share their collection and sell offspring that they managed to produce from their breeding interests.
However, while there are many who thoroughly research the captive husbandry as well as the wild living conditions of their animal of interest, others are newer to reptile pet keeping and thus aren't always aware of the basics regarding reptile care. While there are far too many reptiles, with a variety of temperature, humidity, dietary, spatial and handling requirements, there are always the basics that need to be considered, in order to properly research the animal that you intend to keep.
Reptiles require particular caging, dependent upon whether you are keeping a lizard, snake, turtle/tortoise, or even so much as a crocodilian species. It is important to thoroughly research the animal's habitats in the wild. This will give you an idea as to the behaviors that you will have to prepare for your caging to allow. If you have an animal that naturally burrows, prohibiting it from doing so is borderline cruelty. In order to get the full enjoyment of the animal, you want to ensure that it can carry out naturalistic behaviors. If the animal is arboreal (tree dwelling), then having the animal in a cage where there are no branches or branch-like materials is preventing the animal from doing what comes natural and building stress levels, as the animal will feel vulnerable. In the end, make sure that you provide a spacious enough cage that the animal can get proper exercise, and ensure that you can at least provide the animal with it's primary necessities to live happy.
Again, depending upon your animal of preference, there will be a diet difference. Some reptiles are strictly herbivorous, such as the Green Iguana (Iguana iguana), while others are highly carnivorous, such as snakes. Snakes will largely be fed rodents, rabbits and various other appropriately sized prey items. However, they will need to be fed WHOLE prey items. Crocodilians require a very complex diet and failing to provide that can lead the animal into a series of deformities, illnesses and ailments. Turtles and tortoises are much the same way. Some species might have a particular diet as a hatchling and juvenile during which time their development is most critical, but then change gradually into adulthood into something different. This is common most with aquatic turtles. To reiterate, you must research the diet specifically for the animal that you are wanting to keep. This will give you time to plan, find where you can obtain such items, and be sure that you're willing to go through the trouble. In addition to that, multi-vitamins and calcium supplements are quite frequently needed. While in the wild, these animals have been designed to live quite well off of the variety of food sources around them, what we can provide them in captivity will have its nutritional variations which might not meet quite the same needs. Subsequently, you will have to ensure proper vitamin supplementation in order to ensure that the animal will not develop an illness or ailment from it's failed diet plan.
Temperature and Humidity
Another important part of reptile husbandry is ensuring proper temperature and humidity. Depending upon the species, will depend upon it's difficulty to provide this. Some species are sub-tropical to tropical and require warmer conditions with a humid environment. Failing to provide this can lead to respiratory ailments and if that is left untreated, can lead to the animal's death. Some animals are desert dwelling, with low humidity, but high heat. Some reptiles, even in climates where it is pretty hot, manage to survive best in shaded areas or areas where there is burrowing into the cooler dirt. You have to allow for this to make a better decision as to the proper temperature to keep the animal. When it comes to temperature, however, there is one very critical thing to keep in mind. Proper thermoregulation is an absolute necessity. The animal must have a spot to go to that offers it's optimal temperature preference, while also allowing a fair ambient temperature and a lower temperature where the animal can seek to cool down if necessary. Failing to do this and keeping the area too warm or too cold can have various health detriments including, but not limited to stress, lack of appropriate behavior and respiratory ailments.
This is the most debatable topic in regards to keeping reptiles. Some prefer to avoid unnecessary handling, for the exception of routine cage maintenance to keep stress low. Others, prefer to gradually build the animals tolerance of handling to prevent stress later in the future, but still allowing regular human/animal interaction. Others among them, prefer to frequently handle the animal and nearly almost never allow it to remain untouched so that it can enjoy it's habitat. Bottom line, too much handling is a bad thing. This leads to greater stress. It's been proven that leaning into the reduced handling practices suites them best. Reptiles in particular don't necessarily enjoy being handled (for the exception of a few rare cases) and tolerate it at best. While they are tolerant enough not to bite, it doesn't mean that they are thrilled with the experience and would appreciate being left well enough alone. At the same moment, brief periods of handling won't be a bad thing to keep the animal associated with you and comfortable with your presents.
Regular cleaning and sanitation is of absolute importance. Once an animal defecates in the cage, it must be cleaned immediately upon notice. Water quality in the cage must also be taken into consideration. Clean water should be available at all times. All animals would ideally have regular water access, even those which are desert dwelling, tend to get water. Therefore, water should be changed every day. Other reptiles might thrive living in the water. Ensuring proper water quality by scooping out excess foods and changing filtration material, as well as partial water changes every few days will keep beneficial bacteria balanced and ensure good water quality.
When fully cleaning cages, it is best to remove all of the old substrate, and replace with new. Spot cleaning is okay, from time to time, particularly if the animal isn't overly messy. However, this isn't quite the case the majority of the time. 5% bleach solution with water can be used to clean the cage. However, it must be rinsed thoroughly and then allowed to dry out before placing new substrate, cage furniture or animal back into the environment. A safer alternative would be the purchase of a gallon of Nolvasan, or chlorhexadine solution. This is a biodegradable solution that when mixed properly, can be used for disinfecting cages, or with a lesser solution, can also be used to clean out reptile wounds from battles with cage mates, or even occasional tangos with the cage furniture. However, it is always best to consult a reptile educated veterinarian for thorough treatment of the animal.
Playing it smart
There are many fascinating reptiles to choose from. Some make great and easy to care for animals, while others can be quite complex in their housing, behaviors, and general care. Some, in addition to that, can pose serious safety risks to you and those living with or around you. Such animals would be large constricting snakes (Burmese pythons, Reticulated pythons, Green Anacondas, etc), venomous reptiles (Cobra, rattlesnake, viper and rear fanged species, as well as the Gila Monster and Beaded Lizard), and crocodilians. Such animals often spark fear among neighbors due to their size, or simply their known abilities. Don't over-estimate your knowledge or abilities. Venomous reptiles in particular can kill you coming right from the egg in many cases. It only takes one mistake, and one bite. Such animals often have behaviors that are complex by nature and require training from an experienced handler in order to ensure your knowledge and safety during such interactions. Use your head and if you have any doubts about your ability to work with or keep such an animal, it is best left where it is and for you to consider another captive.
Large Constrictors as pets (Coming soon)
Iguanas as pets (Coming soon)
Large Monitor lizards as pets (Coming soon)
Captive Reptile Enrichment (coming soon)