What to know before getting a snake, lizard, turtle or tortoise
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
Reptiles have found a home in 6 million households, according to the 2023-2024 national pet owners survey by the American Pet Product Association.
Snakes, lizards and chelonians (turtles and tortoises) are appealing for a number of reasons: They’re much less likely to be allergenic than dogs, cats, bunnies and birds; in a suitable enclosure, they require less intensive management than mammals; and they’re interesting biologically, says veterinarian Stephen Divers, a professor of small animal medicine and surgery at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine. If you’re considering adding one of these fascinating creatures to your family, here’s what to know about choosing one and setting up a habitat.
Consider your time commitment. “If you’re someone who’s very busy, then maybe a snake you need to feed and clean once a week may be easier than a small lizard or chelonian that needs more intensive care,” Divers says. Popular snake species are ball pythons, small constrictors that grow to 4 or 5 feet; corn snakes; and king snakes.
If lizards are more your style, consider leopard geckos and bearded dragons. Bearded dragons are more popular, but leopard geckos are less demanding when it comes to broad-spectrum lighting. They benefit from it, but for bearded dragons, radiant UV broad-spectrum lighting is an essential -- and more expensive -- requirement, which typically must be replaced annually.
Chelonians are more challenging because they tend to be active. Terrestrial tortoises in particular do best if they are kept outdoors or have easy access to the outdoors. “As long as the temperature gets into the 80s during the day, they will do well outside,” Divers says. “During winter, they need an indoor enclosure because you can’t hibernate most of these animals.”
Bigger is better when it comes to habitat. When you are budgeting for a reptile, at least half the cost should be for the enclosure, lighting, heating, a thermostat and other environmental must-haves. A 20-gallon glass aquarium is not only too small but also provides little privacy. The animal is exposed on all sides, which is stressful. Divers recommends a wood, fiberglass or plastic enclosure with some opacity on more than one side. “That provides the animal more opportunity to seek refuge if it chooses to do so.”
Set up your reptile with plenty of room to move around and with lots of different microhabitats.
“People tend to think that just because a reptile looks like it’s sedentary that they can be kept in very small enclosures,” Divers says. “We should provide them with sufficient enclosures that they can completely stretch out and exercise because obesity is a big problem with captive reptiles.”
He likes to see bearded dragons in a 6-foot by 2-foot by 2-foot enclosure. A fiberglass enclosure of that size can cost $600 to $800 to purchase, but is easy to make at home, using plans found on the internet and $100 to $200 worth of materials from a builder supply store.
Sulcata tortoises, which can grow as large as 60 pounds, benefit from a protected outdoor area, safe from predators, where they can bask in the sun and forage in the yard, as well as a small heated enclosure for cold weather. Aquatic turtles need at least a 6-foot by 2-foot aquarium with water as well as a land basking area with a heat source.
Choose captive-bred over wild-caught animals. They are less likely to carry parasites and diseases and less stressed by living in a home environment.
Build a bond. “I see a lot of clients where their reptiles have been trained, they’ll interact with them, the animals like to have contact with them,” Divers says. One of his Ph.D. students is even examining the human-reptile bond. “I think increasingly as we look at these things, we can find that there is that kind of human-animal bond that could exist with reptiles just as it does with mammals and birds.”
for puppy raising
Q: Why should I crate-train my new puppy?
A: Crate-training has benefits for people and dogs. It helps ensure that puppies don’t destroy expensive items, it’s an important part of housetraining, it prevents puppies from accessing hazardous objects and it gives dogs a relaxing haven away from boisterous kids or other animals in the home. Here’s how to be successful.
For housetraining, choose a crate just big enough to allow your pup to comfortably stretch out, stand up and turn around. This helps to prevent accidents in the crate. If possible, get a crate with a built-in divider so you can increase the size as your puppy grows. Get a larger crate once your dog is fully grown and reliably housetrained.
Place the crate in a high-traffic area of your home; dogs like to keep an eye on what’s happening, even if they’re resting. Make it attractive by tossing treats or favorite toys in it for your dog to find and placing meals in front of the crate. Gradually move the food dish farther into the crate until your dog is eating in it regularly. Offer treats or praise any time you notice your dog entering the crate or lying calmly inside it.
When your dog is comfortable entering the crate and relaxed inside it, practice shutting the door, handing a treat through it and reopening it. Gradually, close the door for longer periods, leaving a stuffed Kong or other long-lasting chew to give your dog something to do. Never crate an adult dog for more than three to four hours, except overnight.
Spraying the interior of the crate with a canine pheromone spray (not while your dog is inside it!) can also help your dog feel comfortable in the crate. Find more information at fearfreehappyhomes.com/teach-your-dog-that-crates-are-great and at fearfreehappyhomes.com/how-to-house-train-your-puppy-the-fear-free-way. -- Mikkel Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
-- Do your cats love to scratch -- on your favorite piece of furniture? You may be annoyed that they don’t use the expensive scratching post or cat tree you bought, but consider that some cats have different scratching preferences than simply vertical. Try one of the many horizontal options available, or a scratching “tunnel” that allows cats to kick at the top with their hind paws, bunny-style. Another trick is to rub catnip into the post where you want your cat to scratch, or spray it with Feliscratch by Feliway, which contains a copy of a natural feline pheromone, as well as catnip, to attract cats. Whether it’s vertical or horizontal, a scratching object should be tall or long enough so your cat can stretch out full length -- at least 36 inches.
-- There are hundreds of species of fleas around the world, but the ones that trouble our pets most frequently are called “cat fleas,” even though they are equal-opportunity parasites. They got their name because the person who first identified them had pulled one off of a cat. Fortunately for us and our pets, flea treatments have come a long way from the bad old days of frequent baths, dips and sprays. But thanks to milder winters in some areas, fleas are around for longer periods, so don’t assume that the risk of flea infestations disappears after October. Year-round parasite prevention is now recommended.
-- Sweet-singing bright yellow canaries originated in the Canary Islands off of the northwest coast of Africa. They are members of the finch family and were introduced into Europe in the late 15th century, where they were prized for their singing ability. Today they come in a wide variety of colors, including red, cinnamon, blue, green, silver and white, as well as fancy feather patterns. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker.
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts. Veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker is founder of the Fear Free organization, co-founder of VetScoop.com and author of many best-selling pet care books. Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning journalist and author who has been writing about animals since 1985. Mikkel Becker is a behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/Kim.CampbellThornton and on Bluesky at kimthornton.bsky.social. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.