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Reptiles are a broad category of animal that can make excellent and interesting pets. People interested in keeping exotic animals can afford to keep reptiles and care for them if they put some effort into education. Reptiles include snakes, turtles, lizards, frogs and toads. These animals live in varied environments which makes it difficult to generalize the care of the group. However, advance planning, equipment purchase and lots of continuing education are required for the reptile you want to purchase. This needs to be done well in advance and never should the animal be purchased on a whim. Educate yourself on what a healthy appearing specimen would look like before you go shopping. Do not purchase from anywhere that does not offer a guarantee. When you do purchase a reptile, take it to a veterinarian for a full exam as soon as possible to treat any problems before they become major problems and to be sure to take advantage of any guarantee offered by the store. It is best to purchase captive-bred animals instead of wild-caught because of increase stress, disease, and parasites in the wild-caught animals. It is never recommended to buy threatened or endangered species of any animal since this encourages gathering these animals from the wild and further endangering the species.|
The only website that is currently available with accurate information for reptile owners is www.anapsid.org. The information is kept up-to-date and veterinarians are involved in keeping the site as accurate as possible. This site is highly recommended and has specific information about commonly kept pet reptiles with care sheets. Some are very lengthy, such as the one for iguanas.
Reptiles as a group are carriers of the bacteria Salmonella which can infect humans. This fact needs to be kept in mind when considering any reptile as a pet. It can cause severe disease in infants, small children, the elderly and people with immune-system problems. Reptiles can not be certified or tested to be free of this bacteria. People with normal immune systems and adequate sanitary procedures caring for their animals will be at minimal risk. Thorough hand washing after handling reptiles is very important. Never allow reptiles in bathtubs or sinks. They should have their own dedicated containers that are never used for any human activities.
Almost all reptiles have parasites. Most carry viruses. A quarantine period needs to be enforced for any new reptile you bring into your home. Be sure a veterinary visit is done immediately upon purchase and again before the quarantine is over. Depending on the reptile, some types of testing may be recommended to be sent to an outside lab. It is never a good idea to house an young reptile with a older reptile since parasites are commonly spread this way, even after a quarantine period. Also, in some reptile species, they can be eaten or attacked. When their sizes are similar, they can usually be placed together.
Almost all reptiles will need a heat gradient. This requires a cooler part of the enclosure, a warmer part of the enclosure and often a basking area where the animal can get close to a direct source of heat, but not hot enough to burn. The heat gradient allows the animal to find a part of the enclosure where it can become comfortable at a particular time of day. Most animals want to be the warmest in the middle of the day and seek out a cooler area at night, just like in nature. Our goal in providing an artificial enclosure is to mimic the natural environment as closely as possible in a smaller space. The basking area is usually accessed by climbing up to a heat lamp. Usually the warmer area of the cage is provided by an under-the-cage reptile heating pad. Be sure the heating pad does not get the area too hot. Be sure the heating pad and cage are on a fireproof surface in the event the heating pad short-circuits or malfunctions. The cooler area is simply the absence of any artificial heated area. Hot rocks are not recommended.
Most reptiles depend on a specialized lighting source. It is important that the source be appropriate for the size of cage, placed at the appropriate height above the enclosure and not be filtered through plastic or glass. The brand of lighting is very important and the best is from www.reptileuv.com. All bulbs eventually lose their spectrum even though the lights are still working. The bulbs will need to be replaced every 6-12 months. The lighting required by reptiles is essential for their growth and health. The reptile immune system is heavily dependent on the proper lighting. Lack of lighting results in death, especially for some reptiles such as iguanas. However, there are some reptiles that are primarily nocturnal and lighting has not been shown to be important as of yet. The lighting should be positioned to allow an area of shade, preferably in the cooler area of the enclosure, so the reptile can decide how much light it wants on any particular day. In general, the light should be on about 12 hours a day, but will vary depending on whether your reptile lived near the equator or not. Pay attention to the distance recommendation on the bulb and do not allow the bulb to have plastic or glass between it and the reptile since this would filter some of the important ultraviolet light before it reaches your pet.
Humidity is an issue for many reptiles. Since some are kept in environments with swimming opportunities available, such as red-eared slider turtles and some are desert species such as bearded dragons, it is important to know the humidity needs for your species and meet them. Water cleanliness must be maintained for turtles and this can be helped by feeding in a different container. Some reptiles benefit from a drip system which can be as simple as a plastic cup with a small hole dripping down a plastic log into a container. Spritzing the cage with water once or twice a day can maintain humidity and it cheap and easy. If you would like the decorative, high-tech approach there are also choices such as the lighted, erupting volcano available at www.cagesbydesign.com. Some reptiles need hide boxes. By using moist moss inside the hide boxes, humidity levels can be localized. Most reptiles benefit from a good soaking in warm water several times a week. Use a dedicated container that is never used for any human activities. This helps them shed normally, helps keep them clean and gives you an opportunity to observe them closely for any problems. Once the water starts to cool down, take them out. The water should be only deep enough to cover them but allow their head to easily be out of the water.
Any cage furniture and decoration should be easily disinfected, disposable or able to be baked in the oven to be sterilized. Consider this when you are decorating your cage. Many reptiles need a hide box to feel safe and protected. Be sure the box can be easily cleaned and disinfected. The substrate on the bottom of the cage should be washable and removable. Bark and sand may look nice but does not meet this standard. Also pieces can be ingested and lead to the death of your pet. Astroturf-type products seem to be acceptable for most species and can be washed in soap and water, bleached and dried effectively. If you have two pieces, your enclosure will always be clean. And they come in stylish colors!
Animals GROW! Remember that the cute little red-eared slider turtle that you are keeping in an aquarium will grow to the size of a dinner plate, so be prepared to build it a pond pretty quickly. That two-foot boa that you are carrying around will not fit in that 10-gallon aquarium next year. And when it is 10-foot long, where did you plan on keeping it? Please have a plan for your animal as it grows. There are beautiful habitats that can be purchased that look like pieces of furniture, but start saving your money now. See www.cagesbydesign.com. Ten and twenty gallon aquariums are not appropriate places to keep even the smallest of these pets for more than a few months. And reptiles can get quite old! Reported ages of some reptiles are ;ball python-47 years, boa constrictor 40 years, burmese python 28 years, leopared gecko-28 years, green iguana-28 years, bearded dragon-10 years, Greek tortoise-57 years, Aldabra tortoise-63 years. Of course, these are animals that have had proper care.
Supplying the proper food to your reptile is really impossible. In the wild, the food source varies by time of year and the detailed diet is not known for most species. Even if the diet is known, replicating it in captivity is impossible. For instance, if we know a snake eats primarily field mice, we cannot supply native field mice that are fed the native diet that provides the micronutrients the snake needs. Pet-store raised mice are fed a formulated grain-based diet. Our pet reptiles should never be fed live prey. The prey should at least be stunned, but frozen and re-warmed is best. Frozen mice and rats are commonly sold both at pet stores and over the internet. Many snakes have been severely injured by their live prey, blinded and even killed. Some larger reptile keepers raise their own food. This allows the ability to raise more nutritious prey by altering the diet of the mice to include more natural foods including fresh vegetables. This is not very practical for the keeper of an individual specimen. It also becomes difficult emotionally since you or members of your family may see some of these prey items as pets as well.
It is also important to feed whole prey. For instance, if the natural prey is birds, do not feed chicken thighs. The entire animal must be consumed to ensure a balanced diet. The proper method would be to feed whole quail or chick so that the internal organs, entire digestive tract and contents, skin, bones, etc are all consumed.
For reptiles that eat fish, such as garter snakes, it is best to fed live or freshly killed fish. Frozen fish lose their thiamine content the longer they are stored and many fish have a naturally occurring chemical called thiaminase that further breaks down the thiamine. This can lead to a thiamine deficiency in your reptile which causes severe neurological problems. If you must feed frozen fish, always feed the small fish so the whole fish can be fed and then add thiamine to the fish to compensate for the thiamine loss.
For pets that eat insects, it is important to try to offer a variety. Generally, younger insects are more nutritious than older insects. Not all insects have the same nutritional content for your reptile. See this website for some guidelines http://www.chameleonnews.com/year2002/sept2002/nutrition/nutrition_sept_02.html Always make your insect order in plenty of time so you are able to "gut-load", or feed nutritious, vitamin-laden food to the insects for several days before feeding the insects to your reptile. You can order "gut-load" insect food from Marion Zoological, Plymouth, MN 55441, 800-327-7974; Mazuri-Purina Mills, St. Louis ,MO 63116, 314-766-4592;Zeigler Bros., Gardners, PA 17324, 800-841-6822. In addition to gut-loading the insects, immediately before feeding, use a calcium dust to coat the insects. This method involves adding the dust and insects to a zip-lock bag and shaking to coat them well. The nutrients on and in the insects are important to the health of the reptile as well. You can buy reptile supplements and calcium dust from here www.rocksolidherpetoculture.com. Please do not buy reptile supplements at your local pet store. Often these are very unbalanced in phosphorus and calcium and can result in rickets and kidney disease. There are so many brands with so many claims it is impossible to try to sort them all out. You can make your own cricket farm and cricket food by using the following website www.anapsid.com.crickets.html. You can not use "gut-load" food to raise insects because the calcium content is too high. Always remove uneaten insects, especially crickets, since they can start nibbling away at your reptile and for reasons unknown, reptiles will not defend themselves. For some more timid reptiles, crickets may need to be disabled-large back legs may need to be removed and or partially beheaded.
For more information about the food your reptiles eat see http://www.anapsid.org/mainprey.html
Reptile species that are vegetarians need a variety of nutritious vegetation. If possible, all the foods fed should be organic. Organic foods are more nutritious and are not contaminated with insecticide and fertilizers. Iceberg or head lettuce is not recommended since it is mostly water. In general, the more color a vegetable has, the more nutrients it has. Fruit is generally not as important and can cause problems because of the high sugar content. Some vegetables should be fed sparingly since they can bind calcium or have naturally occurring oxalates which can cause problems. These include cabbage, brussels sprouts, kale and spinach. In general, foods that are high in vitamin A are high in many other vitamins. For a list of nutrients contained in foods see www.ars.usda.gov.htm.
Brumation (similar to hibernation) is required to prevent some reproductive-related disorders from plaguing your reptile. It is thought that lack of brumation may contribute to decreased longevity, possibly ovarian tumors is iguanas, possibly kidney disease and lack of breeding success if that is your goal. Tropical reptiles such as some boas and pythons do not brumate, but may have a slowdown in eating and activity (called estivation) during times of the year when sunlight is less intense and temperature may be a little lower. In captivity, this can be copied by decreasing the lighted part of the day by several hours dropping the temperature by 10 degrees for a period of 10 weeks and not feeding. Wait to do this until after the reptile has passed feces from the last feeding. Water must be made available continuously during this time.
For reptiles from temperate zones where the climate change is more dramatic, brumation is done more dramatically with a 4-week period of declining light and heat and no food followed by storage in a cooled environment where the temperatures are maintained from 35 to 55 degrees for a period of 3 to 5 months. Proper humidity must be maintained during this time. This is followed by a warming period over a period of days and a resumption of normal environmental temperature, lighting, and feeding.
Subtropical reptiles are somewhere in between.
For turtles and tortoises see the following guidelines http://www.chelonia.org/articles/hibernationpaula.htm No reptile should be brumated if it is ill, underweight, has been fed recently, or has not passed feces from its last meal.