Animal of the Issue: How to Choose a Reptile

This red-eared slider turtle was featured in the first ever "Animal of the Issue" in 2013. Photo Credit / Briana Magistro
This red-eared slider turtle was featured in the first ever "Animal of the Issue" in 2013. Photo Credit / Briana Magistro
This red-eared slider turtle was featured in the first ever “Animal of the Issue” in 2013.
Photo Credit / Briana Magistro

By Briana Magistro
SC Staff Writer

In 2013, about 3 percent of pets were reptiles. “Reptiles” consist of many different critters with vastly varying characteristics (check out this bearded dragon habitat to know what creatures live). Some have legs while some do not. Some live in water, some live on land. The amount of diversity within this group forms a long, long list.

It begs the question: how do you choose which kind of reptile to have as a pet?

When choosing a dog, most dog owners know which breed they want before going shopping. However, dogs are all from the same species and therefore do not differ as vastly as reptiles. Dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years, and each breed has been designed to exhibit specific features. A prospective owner can research what they will be getting themselves into when buying certain breeds.

This is much more difficult for reptiles. There are hardly any reptiles specifically bred for domestication. Reptiles, instead, may be hatched and raised in a domestic environment, and they can be handled regularly to assist in domestication and docility toward humans.

Reptiles are typically solitary or self-sufficient creatures, and they do not crave the kind of attention that dogs or cats do. However, they can still develop deep connections with their owners.

Reptiles are cold-blooded and rely on heat from their environment to stay warm. Some reptiles, especially snakes, will seek warmth from their owners when being handled. They may even try to burrow into your shirt to keep warm!

The senses of reptiles are different from those of humans. The ear-like organs of these scaly creatures are covered by thin flaps of skin, which cause them to have slightly muffed hearing. Because of this, reptiles rely on their sense of touch and sight.

Most reptiles, excluding some venomous snakes, have an acute sense of sight. Along with most fish and birds, they have four types of cones in their eyes. Cones are the organs that help to recognize colors and details. Humans and many mammals have only two kinds of cones.

Veterinary care is much more specialized for reptiles and requires a doctor who is certified in exotic animal care. Other professionals, such as herpetologists, can be consulted for medical care as well.

There are several reputable sources online about medical care for the more commonly owned reptiles, such as turtles. These sites can help identify if behavioral or physical changes are a medical issue, but you should always consult a professional as soon as possible if you believe your pet may be sick.

The dietary needs of reptiles differ greatly from other pets. Most reptiles are not fed daily. Snakes are typically fed once weekly, while some turtles can be fed every other day.

Foods differ among types of reptiles, too. Some, like snakes, are carnivorous and eat mice or rats, which are available frozen in pet stores. Others, like iguanas, are primarily herbivores and snack on lettuce and fruit. Certain turtles, like the redeared slider, are omnivores and eat anything from leafy greens to crickets, shrimp, and worms. Bigger sliders can even be fed some types of live freshwater fish!

When deciding what to feed your reptile, always consult a certified website or professional, like an exotic animal vet or herpetologist.

Habitat needs differ among reptiles as well. Some, like the bearded dragon, require dry, desert-like dwellings, while others, like the crested gecko, must live in a humid, tropical enclosure.

It is important to mimic your pet’s natural habitat in its tank, especially if you live in a climate very different from theirs. Even the amount of sunlight your home receives may be different from that of your pet’s natural habitat. There are many items available to help create a perfect environment for your pet. Specialized light bulbs and heating devices are critical in creating a great dwelling for your pet.

Each reptile requires an environment of a certain temperature, which can be controlled by heat bulbs or heaters. Some reptiles also require certain types of lighting to grow. Turtles and tortoises, for example, need bulbs that radiate both UVA and UVB rays to assist in proper shell growth. Naturally, UV light would come from the sun.

As a reptile owner myself, there are a few questions that I am generally asked. A common question is how I can interact with my pet as much as a dog. I have a red-eared slider turtle, so she lives in a semi-aquatic environment. I can’t really play with her in her tank because she is usually under the water. However, my family and I have interacted a lot with her.

She will come to the top of the tank and stick her head out when we come to the tank. We also choose to take her out of her tank regularly, letting her walk around a room or a small part of the yard when it’s warm out, though she must be constantly supervised. She has her own ways of telling us when she’s ready to go back to her tank or when she wants to be left alone.

It takes time to recognize subtle gestures from your pet. My turtle does not like to be picked up and held much, but my friend’s snake loves to cuddle. It really depends on the type of reptile and on each reptile’s personality. If you take the time to learn about your scaly friend, you will find ways to connect and interact.

Choosing a reptile really depends on your personality. Remember that each type of reptile requires certain diets, habitat needs, and handling techniques. If you are not comfortable handling crickets, then most lizards are not for you. If you cannot afford frozen or live mice, then a snake isn’t the best fit.

Setup for your new pet can also be very expensive, and you must be sure that you can afford to maintain the enclosure. You should consult a herpetologist or animal care specialist at your local pet store prior to choosing your reptile. Online research is also a good idea.

Reptiles can make really great, unique pets! They are extremely interesting to watch and interact with, and they can be great educational tools for children.

I would like to thank you for your attention throughout all of the “Animal of the Issue” articles that I’ve written! Enjoy your summer!

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