They don't purr like a cat or fetch like a dog. They have neither soft fur nor pleading eyes. But for a lot of people, reptiles and amphibians are perfect pets.
But which of these pets is best for a beginner? Iguanas are popular but are not suitable for any but the most dedicated of pet lovers. To get a list of reptilian recommendations, I turned to two veterinarians who specialize in reptiles (Dr. Douglas Mader and Dr. Linda Randall) and to two top authors and reptile-rescue volunteers (Melissa Kaplan and Liz Palika) to put together a list of relatively low-maintenance reptiles and amphibians for the first-time buyer. They are:
-- Bearded dragon. This lizard was the consensus best pick. "Baby beardies are very reactive -- fight or flight -- but if new owners are calm and gentle, the babies will settle down," says Liz Palika, author of "Turtles & Tortoises for Dummies" and "Leopard Geckos for Dummies." "Adult beardies, when calmly and gently handled, are equally calm, gentle pets that can live for 12 to 15 years."
Melissa Kaplan concurs. "They will get so relaxed," she says. "They grow to a reasonable size, 20 inches or so, and always have a semi-grumpy look on their face, which I find adorable."
-- Leopard gecko: A popular ad campaign for an insurance company has drawn attention to these lizards. Fortunately, they're good pets, according to the panel, and tolerate gentle handling well.
"They're smaller than the bearded dragons, about 6 inches long," says Kaplan. "They tend to look less scary because they're less prickly. They have a wonderful wide-eyed look about them, and they can live for a decade or so."
"These easy-to-care-for little lizards are great fun to watch in the evening -- they are nocturnal -- and fun to watch hunt for crickets or waxworms," says Palika. "They stalk their prey like a cat does."
-- Corn snake: "Captive breeding has produced wonderful colors and color variations," says Palika. "These are nice, calm snakes that rarely ever try to bite, and if they do, the bites are a warning you have done something wrong. Nice pets for busy people, as they require minimal care. Easy to care for, these snakes can live for 20 years."
-- Ball python: "These are also great snakes," says Kaplan. "They mature at about 4 feet in length. They are constrictors, though, and they love going up around your neck. You need to know the way to unwind a snake: Start at the tail and gently unwind."
--Pac-Man frogs and White's tree frogs: Two of the larger species of frogs available in the pet trade, both the Pac-Man and White's tree frogs had their fans among the expert panel.
"Pac-Man frogs got their name from the size of their mouth and their willingness to eat. The mouth is wide, across the entire front of the frog's head, and they will eat anything that fits into that mouth -- even other frogs," says Palika. "The White's are more active but don't get as big, either. They are a lovely shade of green and have folds of skin that are quite unusual."
"The Pac-Man frogs are vividly colored and marked, and very vocal," notes Kaplan. "My guy doesn't like the TV on at night and will bark at me. They can get to be 6 to 7 inches long."
Unlike the rest of the recommended pets, however, frogs shouldn't be handled. "Oils in our skin aren't good for their skins," says Kaplan.
Final advice from the experts: Deal with a reputable source for reptiles and buy a captive-bred pet only. And be sure you've done your research into housing, care and feeding before you buy.
Skip the iguana
One pet that experts agree is not for beginners is probably the most popular reptile of all: the green iguana.
"They are very complex lizards to care for, environmentally, psychosocially and nutritionally," says Melissa Kaplan, author of "Iguanas for Dummies" and owner of the Internet's best resource on reptiles and amphibians, anapsid.org. "Iguanas get extremely large, 6 feet in length within three to four years if cared for properly. And they are dangerous. They can break skin and sever tendons."
Kaplan says iguanas are also expensive and time-consuming to keep. "They have specific temperature and lighting requirements," she says. "I spend $150 a month to keep my iguana room at the proper temperature. There's also the food issue, with an hour or more of food preparation every week." Noting that what goes in must come out, Kaplan adds that the amount of mess to clean up with a full-grown iguana can be remarkable.
Liz Palika does reptile rescue in the San Diego area, and she knows the reality of what happens when those cute little iguanas start to grow or don't get the care they need.
"Our reptile rescue group gets at least four calls per day, every day, about people wishing to give up their iguana. The excuses are many, but most can be narrowed down to 'I didn't realize how big he would get' or 'He's sick and I can't afford the vet bills.'"
For the iguanas, the ending is rarely happy. Kaplan estimates that 90 percent of all baby iguanas sold as pets are dead in a year.
Dog walkers display uncivilized behavior
Q: I just read the letter from one of your readers on the subject of dog urine and dead spots on the lawn. The reader said she when her dog squats on the neighbor's yard it doesn't leave a spot.
All I can say is she has a lot of nerve allowing her dog to urinate on other people's lawns! What is the matter with people? Are they devoid of all manners these days?
I'm appalled at you for not even mentioning that the behavior is rude, and I'm disappointed you didn't offer a practical solution, such as directing the dog to go in a specified area like run covered with pea gravel. -- V.D., via e-mail
A: It never fails that whenever I fail to seize on every possible opportunity to bludgeon pet lovers about being responsible, someone will write to complain.
For the record: Pet lovers should keep their cats from roaming and their dogs from barking. They should walk their dogs on-leash and keep them off their neighbors' lawns. They should also carry baggies so they can pick up whatever a pet drops wherever he drops it. I've written about all of this time and time again, to the point where some pet lovers complain that I must not really love pets.
I do love pets, of course, which is why I think it's important to be considerate of those who don't. Such consideration helps to protect our ability to have pets in the future.
That said, let's remember that it is not always possible to be perfect. Dogs cannot be relied upon to relieve themselves completely before leaving the house and stay "empty" until returning home. In the same way that I decided to "grin and bear it" with a neighbor's rock band (up to a reasonable hour, that is), I believe one has to accept the occasional lawn pit stop as a reality of life -- especially if the dog's owner has cleanup supplies at hand.
Living as most of us do in relatively close quarters, it's a good idea to try to be considerate of each other, and be tolerant as well.
Help for pulling dog
Q: Our dog is 2-year-old shepherd mix we got from the shelter. There's no way the kids can walk her, and she's supposed to be their dog. My husband jerks her back to his side when he walks her, but it doesn't help at all.
When we took Sammy to the veterinarian, she recommended we try a head halter. I've seen them a couple of times, but I thought they were muzzles. Do you recommend them? -- R.P., via e-mail
A: I like head halters, but recently I'm liking front-clip harnesses better. Here's the rundown on both:
-- Head halter. These work on the idea that where the head goes, the body will follow, a premise that has helped control horses for centuries. The problem with head halters is that many dogs initially hate them. They must be slowly acclimated with treats and praise.
-- Front-clip harness. The front-clip harness uses a dog's own momentum to stop the pulling. When the dog pulls, pressure on the front of the harness impedes her forward motion. The dog quickly learns to stop pulling.
At least three manufacturers make these harnesses now, and you should be able to find one at most pet-supply outlets.
Because I'm guessing your exuberant young dog has other behavioral issues, I'd recommend finding a good trainer. A couple of private sessions will help you get both the right equipment on your dog and a plan for turning her into a well-behaved member of the family.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
License plates go to the dogs
Figuring out personalized license plates is one of my drive-time hobbies. It may be a waste of my time, but it's probably safer than talking on a cell phone.
Of course, I'm most delighted when I notice a pet-related personalized plate, especially one that I know few people would be able to figure out. Usually, I don't get to share my plate-deciphering skill with the owner of the car since we're both in traffic, but now and then I have a pleasant conversation over a license plate.
That was the case when I was sitting on a restaurant patio when a minivan with the plates "PGBV VAN" pulled up. I knew the plates referred to a breed of dog, the Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen, an adorable short-legged and fuzzy-faced French hound.
"I bet I'm the only person you'll meet all week who knows what your license plate means," I told the driver.
It's a little easier to figure out which license plates are pet-related when the vehicles are in the parking lot of a dog or cat show, and that's where this collection of plates is from.
California, where I live, has yet to offer a pet-themed plate to support spay-neuter efforts, but Arizona is firmly on the pet-lovers' list with its new license plate. Featuring a colorful illustration of a puppy and a kitten side-by-side, the plate's motto is "Pets enrich our lives." The plates cost $25, $17 of which goes into a fund to help with spay-neuter efforts. For more information, visit http://azpetplates.org.
(Do you have a pet-related license plate? Send a jpeg image and the story behind it to firstname.lastname@example.org for use on a future Pet Connection page.)
Sleek Abyssinian likes to keep busy
The Abyssinian is not a cat who curls up purring in your lap while you read a book. The Abyssinian is a cat who lands spread-eagled on your book after zooming around the house, scaling the drapes, racing over the back of the sofa and plummeting down from the top of the china cabinet. And then looks at you, expecting applause.
Even if your Abyssinian doesn't cuddle on your lap, you'll never have the slightest doubt that he wants to be with you. Abys are extremely friendly and enjoy being close to their people. In fact, you'll often find an Abyssinian perched on his owner's shoulder (when not perched on the highest level of the bookshelf, that is).
The Abyssinian cat probably doesn't come from Abyssinia (Ethiopia) at all but, like so many cat breeds, from Southeast Asia. Whatever the origin of the breed, they clearly resemble cats depicted in ancient Egyptian art. This sleek grace, combined with their exuberant personalities, has made them the third-most popular shorthaired cat breed in the United States.
Abys come in a number of colors, including shades of fawn and gray, but are best known in ruddy red. They have a coat pattern known as "ticked" or "agouti," which resembles faint pinpoint speckling. Their short coat requires only occasional brushing to remove dead hair, making these cats very easy to care for.
Active and intelligent, the Abyssinian is basically a healthy breed. However, they can suffer from a few genetic disorders, so be sure to obtain your Abyssinian directly from a knowledgeable, responsible breeder or a reputable rescue group. -- Christie Keith, cathobbyist.com
Daily cleaning for pet dishes
No matter how thoroughly your pet licks clean the food dish, it's not clean enough to use again without washing. That goes for water dishes. I've seen water dishes in some homes with the beginnings of algae colonies forming on the sides and the bottom -- who'd want to drink from that?
Pick up your pet's food dish after every meal, scrub and wash in hot water and soap. The water dish should get the same treatment, on a daily basis.
Better still, run them through the hottest cycle of the dishwasher to get them really clean and sterilized. Stainless steel or heavy plastic "crock-style" dishes are best for frequent cleaning: They last forever and stand up well to the abuse a pet can dish out. I have stainless steel pet dishes that still look good after two decades of use.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to email@example.com. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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