How To Care for Reptiles

Looking for an animal companion to keep you company without any daily walking? Why not consider an exotic reptile for a pet? Taking on and caring for a reptile is a big responsibility, as their needs are complex and meeting them can be expensive. While this may mean they aren’t for everyone, they’re a practical pick for anyone allergic to fur. Keep reading to find out more on caring for snakes, lizards and geckos.

How to care for reptiles

Things to consider before buying a reptile

Exotic reptile pets can be expensive in terms of heating, lighting and specialist food, so it makes sense to factor in the ongoing costs before committing. When considering snakes as pets, size is a big factor. While a hatchling can be smaller than two feet, you don’t want to unwittingly end up with a nine-foot snake and not enough space. It’s also important to buy or rescue a legal and ethically bred reptile from a reputable carer. For more detailed information on this, it’s worth consulting a reputable animal charity such as the RSPCA. Generally, reptiles aren’t cuddly creatures either – so are great if you enjoy just watching and caring for an animal, but perhaps less suitable if you prefer the idea of handling.

Things to consider before buying a reptile

How long will they live?

Reptiles require a substantial time commitment. Bearded dragons (or beardies) and corn snakes can live for 10 to 15 years in captivity, while pythons and some geckos can live for up to 20 years.

Reptile care and diet

Exotic reptile pets have complex feeding needs – it’s not as simple as popping a pouch of food into a bowl. Snakes, such as corn snakes or pythons, usually need a mixture of mice and rats, which are commonly purchased frozen and thoroughly defrosted before feeding. You usually need to feed pythons every 5–6 days when they’re younger and every 7–14 days as adults. Snakes also need a fresh water bowl that’s changed daily and big enough for them to bathe in, not just to drink from.

Lizards, geckos and bearded dragons most commonly eat a mixed diet of live insects and vegetables and often need their diets topping up with supplements. The insects you feed them could include crickets, waxworms and small locusts, and you’ll need to provide plenty of fresh water to keep your reptiles hydrated. Many lizards go through ‘brumation’ in the winter – it’s a bit like hibernation, but not as extreme. They slow down, eat less and sleep more – so don’t be alarmed if it seems like your gecko is more listless in the cold season. They shouldn’t lose weight or stop eating completely though.

Habitats and cages for exotic reptile pets
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Habitats and cages for exotic reptile pets

The most important factor in caring for reptiles is making sure their vivarium is the right temperature, as most of them aren’t well-adapted to the UK climate. Many exotic reptile pets need a thermogradient enclosure, with one hotter end where the heat lamp is fitted for basking and one cooler, more shaded end.

  • Bearded dragons need a hot, bright end of 38 to 42°C, and the cooler end to be 22 to 26°C.
  • Corn snakes need 28 to 30°C, and 20 to 24°C.
  • Pythons require 30 to 32°C, and 24 to 26°C.
  • Leopard geckos need 28 to 30°C and 24 to 26°C during the day and slightly cooler temperatures at night. Though it shouldn’t drop below 18°C, even at night.

Lighting is another major consideration for your reptile friend. Beardies need a 10 to 12% fluorescent UV tube at the hot end, leopard geckos need 2 to 5% UVB, while corn snakes need a 2 to 7% UV tube at the hot end. In almost all reptile vivariums, it’s essential to monitor the humidity with a hygrometer. While snakes need higher humidity to stay healthy (ranging from 40–60% depending on the breed), many lizards need a very dry environment. They’ll also need specific, reptile-safe sand, floor covering and plenty of natural habitat-enhancing features like rocks and branches. The tank should be easy to clean, as it will need to be cleaned and ventilated regularly. You should also consult an expert or vet about the appropriate size of tank.

Temperament and behaviours

Some reptiles should not be handled at all, while others, like geckos, can get used to it. It’s important, especially with snakes, to ensure you don’t handle them immediately after feeding them in case they bite. With larger snakes like pythons, it’s often recommended to avoid handling them during shedding, for 48 hours after they’ve eaten and after you’ve handled prey. You also can’t handle a snake for too long as their body temperatures can drop dangerously low outside the vivarium – usually, 10 to 15 minutes is the maximum time.

Health concerns

Health concerns

Shedding is a good indication of health in reptiles. While snakes and lizards don’t shed to a strict schedule, the skin should come off easily over one to three days. If it seems like dry skin is stuck on your reptile, it’s an indication of problems with health, environment or diet. You should never try to remove this skin yourself but should always consult a specialist reptile vet. Other common health issues include metabolic bone disease or MBD, which encompasses a range of issues usually resulting from insufficient UVB light. In lizards, the symptoms of MBD include twitching, leg swelling and weak bones.

Female adult geckos will need a nest box in case they produce eggs. This can happen even without a male present (though the eggs will be infertile), but without a nest box, she won’t feel safe laying the eggs and this can lead to health issues. Feeding, weight and poo are all good indicators of overall health and you can check these on a daily basis. Reptiles may also carry salmonella, so it’s best practice to wash your hands thoroughly after handling and possibly use hand sanitiser too.

Feeling curious about lizards, snakes and geckos? Search on Gumtree for reptiles and exotic pets needing a responsible home.

Green Lizard in child hand close-up

FAQs

What reptile does not need a heat lamp?

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If you don’t fancy a heat lamp, some reptiles can have a heat mat instead to provide warmth. If you’re looking for a more temperate-friendly companion altogether, there are several types of gecko, like crested and mourning types, as well as the Russian rat snake, that come from cooler climes.

What do bearded dragons need in their vivarium?

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In a bearded dragon vivarium, you should provide stones and branches for climbing, a hide at both ends of the vivarium and a box such as a plastic tub with an entrance cut in the top. You can fill it with a sand/soil mixture at the cool end for your dragons to enjoy digging in. You should check that the substrate floor material is safe and beardie-friendly, which means using ceramic, slate and linoleum rather than glass or metal.

What’s the optimum leopard gecko vivarium size?

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As a rule of thumb, your vivarium should be as large as possible, but for one adult gecko the minimum size recommended by the RSPCA is 60 cm long, 40 cm high and 30 cm deep.

How long do corn snakes live?

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They usually live for six to eight years, but they have been known to live for over 20 years in captivity.