As you consider buying a snake, lizard, amphibian, or other herp (reptiles and amphibians), there are a number of things you have to know. And you must consider these well in advance of going out to the pet store and falling in love with an animal that may prove to be ultimately unsuitable.
Your first step is a trip to the library, to your local bookstore, or to quality sites on the Internet to obtain information on the different species that you are likely to come across in your quest for the perfect pet. There are over 10,000 species of amphibians and reptiles, but only a small number are really suitable for vivariums (an indoor/enclosed living environment for terrestial (land) animals). And you should be aware that your local pet store is not your only option. You can buy the precise kind of animal that you want through mail order from a REPUTABLE supplier, or by getting in touch with other hobbyists.
Pet stores, reputable mail order suppliers, hobbyists, and herp shows are possible sources of your new pet. The newspaper and rescue organizations are good sources, provided that you can verify that the herp was properly treated and remains healthy.
But remember, the initial purchase price of an animal is just a fraction of the cost of care. You will need to make allowances in your budget for housing, heating, feeding, veterinary care, etc. It all depends on the animal, so understanding the equipment that you will need is part of the process of deciding whether a particular animal is right for you.
As you read about the various species available, be especially aware of the following:
Some states, counties, and cities have strict regulations on the keeping of certain kinds of reptiles and other animals. Before you make a purchase of this kind, check with your local Fish and Wildlife Department to see which regulations will apply to you.
How big will the animal grow, and what will you do when it reaches that size? That beautiful 20-inch baby Burmese python may fit well in a 5 or 10-gallon aquarium style tank when you first bring it home from the pet store, but within 5 months it is likely to reach 5 feet, and it has the potential to grow to 18 feet at maturity. Keeping an 18-foot snake is obviously a very different proposition than you bargained for when you left the store cheerfully toting your aquarium and thinking that was all that you were ever going to need. Buying that snake only to have to find a new home for it before it reaches maturity is unfair both to you and to the animal.
Accommodation needs (habitat/husbandry)
In addition to the initial or ultimate size of your pet's home, you need to consider how the home needs to be set up. Cages or vivariums need to be escape-proof. This is necessary not just for your own safety, but for the physical and emotional well-being of your pet. Herp homes have to provide enough space for mobility within an environment similar to the one that the animal might inhabit in the wild, without dangers introduced by chemicals or other household hazards. You also need to consider factors like cleaning, sanitizing, and routine maintenance. With certain types of reptiles, handling is not an option so you may wish to have two containers or environments.
Feeding and nutrition needs
There are commercially available diets for some herbivorous herps, but almost all will need fresh fruits and vegetables to make up the majority of their diet. Before you purchase any herp, be certain that you can afford not only to feed it, but that you will continue to do so happily. Some carnivorous herps must be fed live food, and this is an important consideration when you are thinking about buying such an animal. Even purchasing live worms, brine shrimp, water fleas, or crickets is far from inexpensive. Raising your own can save you money, but you will still incur expense in dusts or gut-loader products to ensure that they provide the proper nutrition for your pet. Most herps will also need or benefit from supplements.
Being cold-blooded, a captive reptile does not have the luxury of maintaining its body temperature within the range that it needs. It has to rely on you to provide an environment that allows it to stay healthy. Most snakes, for example, will not eat if the temperature falls more than a few degrees below optimum since they assume that it is time to hibernate.
Most snakes need temperatures between 80 and 88ºF, but depending on the animal, the optimum range may well lie within only two to four degrees. A temperature gradient should be provided to allow the herp to move from place to place as it needs to warm up by basking, and cool down. Also, in the wild, some herps are used to having the temperature drop from 5 to 20 degrees at night. Millions of years of evolution can not be wiped out in the course of a year or two of breeding, so this is still a requirement. Some reptiles kept at a constant temperature, may eventually develop heat stress and may die. For many species, a time-controlled programmable thermostat that changes from day to night will help to ensure that your pet stays healthy.
Depending on the animal that you select, you will need to have the money required to purchase and maintain equipment to adequately control the temperature. And you will need to pay the additional monthly electric or gas bills involved in running them. At minimum, you need a good thermometer and proper lighting. Then, depending on the pet and its sensitivity, you may need specialized heating equipment like nocturnal heat lamps, basking lights, under-tank-heaters, or radiant terrarium heaters, etc.
Light, like temperature, is something that is programmed into your herp through millennia of evolution.
Light provides your pets with specific vitamins for mineral metabolism, but it also creates an environment that caters to the animal's very nature; some herps are nocturnal, while others are diurnal. Within that general definition, tropical species will often need constant 12-hour cycles of day and night, while species from more temperate regions are accustomed to more fluctuation in the day/night cycle, ranging from 16 hours of darkness in winter to 8 hours of darkness in summer.
For many herps, a light source can be used both for light and heating. A full spectrum fluorescent bulb or high UV-B light can be fitted to the top of the vivarium, or onto an overhead fixture to provide the necessary wavelengths for the synthesis of vitamin D. An incandescent bulb can be added for light and heat; usually the higher the wattage, the higher the temperature. Ceramic heat emitters can be installed in the same fixture as incandescent bulbs, but require a ceramic socket because of the temperature at the base of the emitter. However, for species that require darkness with higher ambient temperatures than your room temperature, combined heating and lighting solutions will not work. For these species, you will need to separate the two, and making a careful choice from the beginning will ensure that your pet and your pocketbook both stay healthy.
As with temperature and lighting, reptiles in the wild are accustomed to locations with fairly stable humidity. They control that humidity by burrowing, or moving to a microclimate that meets their needs within their environment. Captive animals can not do that.
A snake or lizard kept in too dry an environment will develop health problems. On the less serious side, it may shed poorly; more seriously, it can develop kidney failure and die. Conversely, too much humidity can lead to problems with fungus, bacteria, and blister disease.
Depending on the animal's needs, you will need to provide a means to regulate the humidity in your pet's home. In some cases, this will mean providing a full vivarium set-up complete with aquatic water filtration in part of the tank, and a dry "terrarium" set-up in the other portion. You may need to install misting equipment, drippers, or foggers. Or your needs may be as simple as providing a standard humidifier in a large enclosure, a humidity "retreat" filled with damp moss, or a large, shallow dish of water. In a pinch, spraying the environment from a bottle when the humidity occasionally drops too low may also be an option. And, of course, if your pet is sensitive to humidity, a good humidity alert device is an absolute requirement.
Amount of care
Just as the equipment involved in keeping a herp can range from minimal to monumental depending upon the herp, so can the amount of time and attention that is required. If you select a herp that requires careful monitoring, you must be prepared not only to commit the time and energy to provide that monitoring, but also to be prepared for emergencies such as equipment failure, illness, stress, malnutrition, and general difficulty in keeping and handling. You will need to make arrangements for someone knowledgeable to take care of your herp if you are away.
If your herp gets sick, you want to be sure there is someone nearby with the knowledge to take care of your particular species. Determine, before you purchase your herp, that there is a veterinarian in your locale familiar with herps or at least the species of your choice. This way, you will know who to call for regular health checks as well as if an emergency arises so you will not waste valuable time searching.
Properly cared-for, reptiles can make excellent pets. But lack of proper attention and inappropriate equipment can result in conditions that foster disease and general ill health.
If you are looking for a pet which you can handle a lot, you probably do not want a herp. But among herps, there is obviously a wide range in the amount of handling that is necessary, possible, or desirable. How you will, or can, approach the handling of your pet is something you must factor into the decision about which species to purchase. Many small species are delicate and should be handled by nudging them into small containers. Those that are suitable for holding should be held firmly, but not squeezed or pressed. Small to medium snakes are best lifted by the mid-body and neck, and should never be allowed to wrap around a wrist or neck. Large snakes must obviously be handled very carefully. Both for the sake of the herp and the person involved, children, or indeed adults, not capable of handling herps the right way should be presented with a different alternative as a pet. Children under five should not handle a herp due to the health risks, and children under twelve should not be allowed to handle them without careful supervision.
After handling any reptile, hands must be washed with antibacterial soap and hot water for at least 30 seconds, or treated with an antibacterial hand cleaner.
Reptiles carry Salmonella, a bacteria which can be transmitted to humans through direct contact with feces, or through contact with something that has been contaminated with feces. Infection from Salmonella can result in symptoms ranging from severe diarrhea, dehydration, stomach cramps, and high fever, to even death in extreme cases. The disease is most commonly transmitted through oral ingestion after handling a herp or equipment that has been contaminated, through open cuts or sores during handling, and through contact with contaminated soil or environmental items.
Because of the health risks, reptiles are not considered appropriate pets for:
Pregnant women or anyone with children five years old or under.
Anyone with HIV/AIDS or other immunodeficiency disorders, for people with low immune system functions or who are receiving medications including chemotherapy, radiation, biological response modifiers, and steroids.
Recent surgical patients, elderly persons, or those with poor nutritional status.
Reptiles should be entirely banned from kitchens and eating and food storage areas. Anyone who owns a reptile must adhere to strict standards of cleanliness, not only for handling but also in properly disinfecting cages, tools, and equipment. And utility sinks in which these reptiles or equipment are washed should be thoroughly disinfected afterwards.