Choosing a Pet Reptile

Reptiles are popular pets for many reasons, not all of which are appropriate. Some people like to have a unique pet such as a reptile. Some mistakenly believe that the cost of veterinary care is lower for reptiles than it is for dogs and cats. Many people who do not have the time to devote to a dog or cat enjoy the relatively or comparatively 'maintenance-free' appeal of a snake, lizard, or turtle. These reptiles are, of course, not maintenance-free.

"Reptiles are, of course, not maintenance-free."

Before acquiring a reptile, thoroughly research all aspects of reptile ownership including which reptile is appropriate for your lifestyle, the appropriate diet, suitable housing, and a healthy, stimulating environment. Some carnivorous reptiles must be fed rodents, such as mice and rats, and some pet owners are not comfortable doing this. Therefore, reptiles are not the right pets for them.

Educate yourself before welcoming a reptile into your family! Before purchasing or adopting a reptile, ask yourself the following questions:

Do I want a pet just to look at, or do I want to handle and socialize it?

While many reptiles, especially those obtained as captive-born infants, allow humans to handle them, others do not. Many of the more unusual reptile species, such as chameleons, may neither allow nor like handling and will react aggressively or become severely stressed when touched. As a rule, if you want a pet to snuggle with, a reptile is not for you! If, on the other hand, you want an animal you can display in a well-designed, natural habitat, marvel in its natural behaviors, and enjoy learning about it, a reptile deserves your consideration.


How much time can I devote to my pet?

All pets require daily attention. Whether it is handling it, taking it out of its enclosure to move around, or simply observing it, pets need attention every day from their owners. Owners who fail to pay daily attention to their pets will not likely detect early signs of disease and are really neglecting their responsibilities as pet owners. Owners who intend to put a reptile in a cage and observe it only occasionally should seriously reconsider their decision to adopt this type of pet.


Can I afford proper medical care?

ALL reptiles need to be examined by a reptile-savvy veterinarian immediately after purchase or adoption (within 48 hours), and then at least annually after that. A thorough examination will include diagnostic testing such as blood work, fecal testing, bacterial cultures, and X-rays. Routine wellness examinations for your reptile enable early detection of disease. Since many exotic animals are prey species that hide illness to avoid being captured by predators, with very rare exception, these pets usually do not act sick (or show any indication of illness) until they are VERY SICK and need immediate veterinary attention! Regular veterinary care, plus an informed, knowledgeable pet owner, greatly reduces the likelihood of illness and death in these pets (as well as the overall cost of medical care). Speak to a veterinarian familiar with reptiles to discuss cost of routine veterinary care and suggested health schedules for the reptile you are considering before you acquire it.


Can I afford to make or purchase the correct habitat (enclosure) for my reptile?

For most reptiles, depending on its size, you can initially start with in a 10-gallon glass aquarium, some newspaper or other paper-based bedding, a source of heat, and a source of UV-B light.

"An improper environment is one of the most common contributing factors to health problems encountered in captive reptiles."

The required size and contents of the cage vary depending on the size of the animal, its species, and its anticipated mature size. An improper environment is one of the most common contributing factors to health problems in captive reptiles, along with improper diet.


Why should I take my pet reptile to a veterinarian for an examination when there is nothing wrong with it?

Like people and other pets, reptiles do get sick, and preventing illness is definitely preferable to treatment. Reptiles hide signs of illness quite well Because in the wild, if they showed signs of illness, they would easily be attacked by predators or even other members of their own group. Therefore, these animals do not typically appear ill until the illness is quite advanced, and they cannot hide it any longer. Pet reptiles typically do the same thing. If you see signs of illness in your reptile, you should have it examined by a veterinarian right away. Waiting to see if things get better, or treating with over-the-counter medications, especially those sold at pet stores, only delays proper assessment, accurate diagnosis, and timely implementation of treatment. In addition, delayed treatment often results in expensive veterinary bills and perhaps the needless death of a pet reptile. Veterinarians can do many things to help treat sick reptiles, but early intervention is critical.

While the principles of diagnosis and treatment of disease are the same regardless of the species of pet, there are important differences between reptiles, birds, small mammals, dogs, and cats. Only a veterinarian with expertise in treating reptiles should be consulted for medical or surgical advice on these unique animals.


What is involved in the first veterinary visit for a reptile?

Within 48 hours of your purchase or adoption of a reptile, your pet should be examined by a reptile-savvy veterinarian. During the visit, your veterinarian will perform a physical examination, including a weight assessment, and to look for abnormalities. The pet is examined for signs of dehydration or malnutrition. Its mouth will be checked for signs of infectious stomatitis (a mouth infection), and a fecal test will be done to check for intestinal parasites. Unlike most other pets, reptiles do not always defecate regularly, and it is impossible to get a pet reptile to defecate on command (although many will give you an unwelcome sample if angered!). Unless the fecal sample is fresh, analyzing it will give little useful information. Occasionally, your veterinarian may perform a colonic wash, similar to an enema, to obtain a diagnostic sample to accurately check for internal parasites. Most often, your veterinarian will have you bring in a fecal sample after the pet’s first defection at home. Most of the veterinary visit will probably be a question and answer session, as your veterinarian will want to educate you about proper diet and care. Vaccines are not typically required for reptiles.

Just like dogs and cats, pet reptiles should be examined at least annually, if not semi-annually when they are older, and they should have their stool tested for parasites on a regular basis.

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