Reptiles are often considered to be low-maintenance pets. This is true in some respects—you’re not exactly taking your lizard for a walk or teaching your snake to sit, stay, and lie down. And you’re definitely not getting up in the middle of the night to take your not-yet-potty-trained box turtle outside.
In reality, though, reptiles require different—not less—care.
It can be hard to learn about this specialized animal care in a kitty-and-puppy-obsessed world. But it’s important to educate yourself on all things herpetological (reptile-related) to provide your pet the proper care and individualized husbandry they require.
Keep reading as we walk—or crawl, or slither—through the fundamentals of reptile care.
Every reptile has a different ideal diet, primarily based on their original natural habitat and the available prey. There are four main types of eating styles, which can give you an idea of where to start with your reptile’s regular meals:
- Carnivores – Most reptiles are carnivores, meaning they eat other animals such as mice and rats. Feed your pets commercially-sourced critters to avoid the potential parasites and diseases associated with wild rodents. Most domesticated reptiles will quickly adjust to pre-killed, rather than live, prey; it’s safer for your pet and more humane for the prey.
- Insectivores – This category technically falls under the umbrella of carnivore considering insects are animals, but it refers more specifically to diets of crickets, beetles, flies, worms, and the like. To ensure your pet is receiving a nutrient-rich meal, you may want to “gut load” the insects with nourishing, healthy additives or buy pre-loaded insects.
- Herbivores – Some reptiles will happily subsist on a diet of fruits, vegetables, and dry food. Many turtles become herbivores as they age, as well as certain lizard species. For a holistic diet, serve a variety of fresh greens (and all the other colors of the rainbow).
- Omnivores – This refers to animals that eat both vegetables and meat, but this doesn’t mean that your reptilian omnivore will eat everything. Many omnivores align more closely with either herbivore or carnivore, so you have to find your pet’s ideal balance. Your herp vet should be able to help with this.
No matter which category they fall in, it’s essential that you’re feeding your pet enough nutrients and vitamins, such as calcium and vitamin D3. You can always toss a banana or head of lettuce in their enclosure for added nutritional value—and the added joy of watching your tortoise chomp away at their leafy greens.
Suitable Environmental Conditions
Ideally, your reptile’s enclosure should mirror their natural habitat. This includes the correct humidity, the temperature variations between basking in the sun and hiding out in the shade, and the familiar terrain of plants, tree branches, water sources, and so on.
Temperature and Humidity
Finding the perfect condition depends on your reptile’s species and natural habitat. This overall ecosystem is based on three primary controllable factors:
- Heat – In addition to finding the right base temperature, you should simulate a temperature gradient by attaching a basking lamp to one side of the enclosure. This will create a warm and cool side, allowing the reptile to mimic their natural self-regulation practices of moving into and out of the sun.
- Humidity – A moist environment is especially crucial for tropical reptiles. You can increase the enclosure’s humidity by limiting airflow, using a large water dish in a relatively warm area of the cage, adhering to a regular misting schedule, and purchasing proper substrate (orchid bark rather than dry shavings or sand).
- UVB light – Many, though not all, reptiles need some form of ultraviolet B light to maintain a healthy immune system, produce hormones, and synthesize vitamin D3, a vital compound for building strong bones. There are several denominations of UVB lights used to re-create typical reptilian environments.
Again, every reptile species is vastly different. They all require a different combination of these three things. There’s no one-size-fits-all magic number, but there are three broad categories that many reptiles fall under:
- Arid desert – These reptiles are used to a dry climate. They’ll need consistent heat and enough water for drinking or bathing, but not so much that it creates a moist atmosphere. They typically enjoy basking in the sun, no matter the time of day. You can use a 10.0 UVB “desert” bulb to supply additional UVB light.
- Tropical forest – These reptiles roam the jungle floor, enjoying the muggy rainforests and hot, humid climate. They don’t typically receive as much direct sunlight as a desert dweller, so using a “tropical” 5.0 UVB bulb is more appropriate. Consistent humidity is a must-have to make these creatures feel at home.
- Temperate climate – These reptiles follow the Goldilocks philosophy when it comes to the perfect home environment: not too hot and not too cold. They enjoy a slightly cooler climate than both tropical and desert reptiles. Their ideal humidity level falls somewhere between the sweaty sauna of the tropics and the torrid air of the desert.
These examples provide a useful starting point, and you can further tailor your reptile’s cage from there.
When it comes to heat lamps, you can find them in denominations of 50W, 75W, or 100W or opt for an under-tank heater. Again, this depends entirely on reptile species and its needs, but their native climate should point you in the right direction.
Once you’ve created the perfect environment, it’s important to keep it stable and consistent. Move their cage away from any direct sunlight streaming through your window so that their temperature-controlled oasis stays consistent and isn’t overheated.
Finally, ensure that you purchase an escape-proof reptile cage. Those little creatures are always looking for ways out of their enclosures—it’s your job to make that as difficult as possible. You can also add a locking screen clip for added security and peace of mind.
Reptiles are not playthings that you should take out of their cage and cuddle like your dog or cat. As much fun as it might be to let them out of their enclosure for a little afternoon fun, it can ultimately harm your scaly pal if you don’t adhere to appropriate handling practices:
- Adult supervision – You should never leave a pet reptile alone outside of its cage, as it can escape or sustain an injury. Any children tending to the animal should be monitored closely by a responsible adult, for the health of both the reptile and the child.
- Only handle when necessary – This would include transferring them to a temporary enclosure for regular cage cleaning, bathing them, and checking for any physical irregularities that may impact their health. Avoid handling them at all while they’re in the process of shedding. This can lead to improper or irregular shedding patterns, known as Dysecdysis.
- Wash your hands (before and after) – When you are handling your reptilian pet, your hands should be clean, to avoid passing any sicknesses to them, and wet, to protect their skin. And again, wash your hands after putting the animal away, as they may have trace amounts of feces or other contaminants on their skin.
- Avoid heights – Hold them low to the ground in case they writhe away or jump from your hands—unlike cats, they don’t always land on their feet (and they don’t have nine lives either, unfortunately).
You might be asking yourself, how exactly would a reptile hurt themself if they’re almost always in their enclosures?
This is a valid question, but reptiles can sustain severe burns from their basking lamps. They might also endure superficial cuts and scrapes, skin and scale conditions, or low-impact trauma.
On the off-chance that you do encounter one of these issues, you’ll save significant time and stress by having a basic pet reptile first aid kit on hand:
- Wound dressings, such as gauze and waterproof bandaids
- Nail clippers and tweezers
- Magnifying glass for inspecting scales and finding mites, and a tongue depressor for checking the inside of their mouth
- Antimicrobial disinfectant spray for lamp burns, Dysecdysis, scale rot, and other injuries
- Lice treatment in the event of parasites or mites, and as prevention for newly acquired reptile pets
Cleaning & Sanitation Regimen
Reptiles may be less injury-prone than, say, your cat who picks fights with the neighborhood raccoons or your pup that loves to adventure through the thick underbrush, but their enclosed living spaces make them more susceptible to certain conditions and infections.
Let’s face it. They eat, sleep, and bathe in the same damp, dirty place that they eliminate waste, including feces and molted skin.
This is why proper cleaning practices are of the utmost importance when it comes to reptile care. Cleaning your pet’s enclosure is like changing a child’s diaper—it’s unsanitary and uncomfortable for them to sit in their own mess, and only you have the power to help them.
Proper cleaning happens in two distinct stages:
- Daily cleaning – This is the reptile equivalent of putting away the dishes after dinner. It’s a quick tidy-up, including wiping up spills and throwing away waste, such as shed skin and feces (in the snake’s enclosure, hopefully not your kitchen).
- Weekly or bi-weekly cleaning – Every week or two, you should perform a deep clean of your reptile’s cage, the same way you’d scrub and vacuum your kitchen more thoroughly. Transfer the animal to a temporary location and remove all accessories, such as dishes, decorations, and climbing surfaces. Wash the accessories and the cage itself with hot soapy water, rinse everything off, then scrub with a disinfectant and let soak for about ten minutes. Rinse again and wait for it to dry before reassembling the enclosure.
Care For Your Creature
From geckos to tortoises to boa constrictors, reptiles are a wide-ranging, far-reaching classification of animals. This guide covers basic reptile care for beginners, but your herp vet will be able to give you more specific instruction based on your pet’s species.
Enjoy the uniqueness of your reptile pet. They may not be able to shake a paw or perform other fun tricks, but they can catch an entire batch of live crickets in record time—and who can say the same for their furry friend?
- ZillaRules. Top Ten Reptile and Amphibian Care Tips. https://www.zillarules.com/articles/top-ten-reptile-amphibian-care-tips
- Hartz. A Reptile’s Daily Diet. https://www.hartz.com/a-reptiles-daily-diet/
- LLLReptile. Increasing Cage Humidity. https://www.lllreptile.com/articles/99-increasing-cage-humidity/
- PetSmart. How Much Heat and Light Do Reptiles & Amphibians Need? https://www.petsmart.com/learning-center/reptile-care/how-much-heat-and-light-do-reptiles-and-amphibians-need/A0239.html?fdid=reptile
- PetSmart. What Climate Does My Reptile Need? https://www.petsmart.com/learning-center/reptile-care/what-climate-does-my-reptile-need/A0248.html?fdid=reptile