How to Care for Snakes, Lizards and Turtles

Snakes, lizards and turtles may not be the cuddliest of creatures. To some, they are downright scary. But for many across the country these and other reptiles make great pets, bringing just as much joy to households as any dog or cat would.

However, these exotic pets can also be dangerous and potentially deadly if not handled and treated with the utmost care. Before taking on a snake, lizard or turtle, it is important to be educated in all aspects of care. The information below will help you better understand whether a snake, lizard or turtle could be a good fit in your household, and how to keep yourself and your pet safe once you’ve welcomed one into your home.

Caring for the Health of Your Snake, Lizard or Turtle

One element of reptile ownership that often gets overlooked is the potential lifespan of these unique animals. This will vary depending on the exact species you are looking to bring into your home, but some snakes and lizards can live two to three decades when properly cared for. Some land tortoises can live 50 to 70 years or longer, which makes them a bad pet for companionship for seniors in apartment living spaces. As such, caring for these animals can easily become a lifelong commitment, a point that should be completely understood before ever adding one to your family.

As with most pets, it is recommended that you take your snake, lizard or turtle to see a qualified reptile veterinarian within 48 hours of purchase. Not all vets specialize in the treatment of reptiles, so be sure you call ahead of your appointment. Your vet will check the animal for irregularities and recommend regular antiparasitic treatment, as roundworms, hookworms and pinworms are not uncommon in reptiles and could have devastating effects if not properly addressed.

Microchipping snakes, lizards and turtles is possible, but not common, as most stay confined to their habitats throughout the day. Still, it is worth asking your vet for a professional opinion when he or she inspects the animal on its first visit.

Another thing to consider when caring for reptiles is the effort that must be made to keep yourself and your family safe. Snakes, lizards and turtles are known to carry salmonella, so proper handwashing is critical for anyone who might be handling these animals. Many vets will recommend that homes with young children avoid having reptiles around for this reason. Maintaining a safe environment for both the animal and your family is critical.

What to Feed Your Snake, Lizard or Turtle

When it comes to feeding your reptilian pets, diets vary greatly depending on the specific type of animal in question. Turtles, for example, are omnivores, and they subsist on a diet that includes both plants and protein. Crickets, mealworms and waxworms are among the many types of meats that turtles can eat.

Additionally, their diets should be supplemented with dark, leafy greens several times per week. Tortoises, however, live on a plant-based diet. Fresh vegetables comprise about 80 percent of their intake, while fruits like apples or grapes making up the rest.

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A snake’s diet — from both a quantity and substance standpoint — depends on the specific species that you are raising. Regardless of the species, all snakes are carnivores. Some consume warm-blooded animals like mice, while others prefer insects, frogs or other reptiles.

One thing to keep in mind is that snakes eat their prey whole, and while smaller or younger snakes can eat live pinkie mice, feeding live prey to snakes is not generally recommended. Instead, snakes should be fed freshly killed or recently thawed prey. Snakes also do not eat daily. Larger snakes eat as infrequently as once a week.

Like snakes, a lizard’s diet is entirely dependent on the species at hand. Lizards run the gamut from carnivores to herbivores, with others falling somewhere in the middle. Bearded dragons, for example, are omnivores and live on a diet of fresh produce and live insects. Alternatively, geckos and chameleons are both carnivores. Research your particular species of lizard to make sure it’s getting the proper nutrients and consuming an appropriate diet.

One thing to keep in mind with all reptiles is that they all drink water — even snakes. Make sure water is left in the terrarium daily to ensure proper hydration.

Top Five Pieces of Equipment for Snake, Lizard or Turtle Ownership

Since snakes, turtles and lizards spend most of their time confined to their terrarium. The most important pieces of equipment are the elements that make those living spaces most comfortable.

 

Snake, Lizard

or Turtle Item

Price Range Brands Description

1. Enclosure

$75 – $500 ●  Exo-Terra

●  Zilla

●  Zoo Med

The first step to building a proper terrarium is picking the enclosure itself. When buying a habitat, be sure to consider the adult size of the animal for which you are buying. Keep in mind which shape is most ideal for each species. According to Pet MD, land-dwelling reptiles typically prefer longer terrariums, which give the animals more space to roam. Climbing reptiles, however, work well with taller terrariums. In the case of turtles, a pool area is also appropriate, as these creatures enjoy a dip in the water from time to time.

2. Heat Lamp

$5 – $80 ●  Exo-Terra

●  Zilla

●  Zoo Med

Reptiles are unable to produce their own body heat, so it is critical that proper lighting and heating sources are included when building your pet’s terrarium. Primary and secondary heat sources – sometimes known as “basking areas” — will help regulate the animal’s temperature, ensuring that it stays happy and healthy.

3. Thermometer

$5 – $20 ●  Exo-Terra

●  Pangea

●  Zoo Med

In addition to purchasing lamps to keep your terrarium properly heated and lit, you will also need a thermometer placed inside the habitat, so you can accurately monitor the temperature (and your pet’s comfort). It is recommended that your enclosure include two thermometers — one under the heat lamp, where it is the warmest, and one on the opposite end of the tank.

4. Bedding

$2 – $15 ●  Exo-Terra

●  All Living Things

●  Zoo Med

Your terrarium will need a base layer of bedding or substrate, and the type you choose will depend on the animal you place in the habitat. These materials help control odor and humidity in the enclosure and range from coconut husk and moss to special reptile sands.

5. Decor

$2 – $200 ●  All Living Things

●  Exo-Terra

●  Zoo Med

Just like you keep furniture in your house, reptiles look for comfort in their homes as well. Décor plays a significant role in keeping these animals happy. From hideouts and rocks to plants and backdrops, the options are endless.

Pros and Cons of Owning a Snake, Lizard or Turtle

Snakes, lizards, turtles and other reptiles are unique creatures with unique requirements, so it is important to have a full understanding of what you are getting into before you make one a part of your family. For instance, when browsing apartment listing online, you may notice that certain animals are not permitted or have additional down-payment requirements.

From feeding and cleaning to handling, everything about these interesting creatures is unique. Proper care should be taken at all times. Here are some pros and cons to consider before you make that choice.

Pros:

  • They are typically confined to their habitats and require minimal space.
  • They are quiet.
  • Generally, they are odor-free, as well.
  • In comparison with other pets, they are relatively low-maintenance.
  • They are hypoallergenic — good news for those who are allergic to the dander of other furrier pets.
  • They tend to live for a long time — although some might consider the commitment a negative aspect of reptile ownership.
  • Snakes only require occasional feeding.
  • They are unique and intriguing creatures.

Cons:

  • They are not especially affectionate creatures.
  • Finding veterinarians with adequate experience with reptiles can be a challenge.
  • It may be difficult to find people to care for these animals when you are not around, due to fear or other concerns.
  • With snakes especially, some may find the feeding process uncomfortable.
  • Diseases can be spread easily through reptiles when proper hand-washing is not practiced.

Economic Factors That Come With Snake, Lizard or Turtle Ownership

When it comes to buying snakes specifically, the cost can vary greatly. Some snakes cost less than $100, while others go for $1,000 or more. Your aquarium or other enclosure will likely cost $100 as a ballpark figure, and between bulbs, stands, decor and other items for the habitat, you could spend another $100 to $200 in accessories up front.

Substrate will need to be changed every few weeks and mice will cost a couple bucks each as well. Multiply these figures by anywhere from 15 to 50 years and the costs will add up, although no more quickly than with any other household pet.

The cost associated with owning lizards and turtles is also fairly consistent with those of snakes. Each of these animals should be taken to a veterinarian for yearly checkups at minimum, so those costs should also be considered. Food is generally inexpensive, but some lizards, like iguanas, may require more a specialized diet.

When it comes to the cost of the animals themselves, turtles are typically not expensive. However, you should be careful not to purchase baby turtles less than four inches in length, as the sale of turtles that small has been outlawed since 1975. Similarly, lizards can also be purchased for anywhere from $10 to several hundred dollars depending on the particular species.

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