Wild Kingdom

By Chandra Orr

January 16, 2009 5 min read

WILD KINGDOM

Reptiles make a statement, but not all belong in the home

Chandra Orr

Creators News Service

Iguanas are impressive, super-sized snakes make a statement and tenacious little turtles are truly a sight to behold, but be forewarned. Unlike dogs and cats, reptiles are not domesticated.

They are wild animals, and as such they require a ton of work, endless patience and a lot of money to stay healthy and happy in captivity.

"Reptiles are often sold as low maintenance pets, but the truth is they need special care and room to grow," said Beth Preiss, director of The Humane Society of the United States' exotic pets campaign. "They need the right lighting, temperature and, for aquatic species, water filtration systems."

Despite the demands, these prehistoric-looking pets are booming in popularity. About one in 25 American households now have a reptile as a pet, according to The Humane Society.

"If the right species is chosen and the right amount of research goes into it, reptiles can be very interesting and rewarding pets," said zoologist Frank Indiviglio, exotic pet expert for thatpetplace.com and author of numerous books on exotic pet care.

PLAN AHEAD

As with any pet adoption, the decision to care for an exotic reptile should not be taken lightly. Do your research, have the animal's enclosure set up before you hit the pet store, make sure you're committed for the long haul -- and bring your checkbook.

Each species has its own unique requirements when it comes to heat, light, humidity and diet, but all reptiles are ectothermic, which means they rely on outside sources to maintain a proper body temperature.

In the wild, they spend hours each day basking in the sun. In captivity, ceramic heat lamps, spotlights and ultraviolet, or UVB, lights are a must -- and those things don't come cheap.

In addition to the expense of an enclosure, which can cost several hundred dollars for the top-of-the-line models, expect to spend $60 to $100 on lights and fixtures. Add to that the cost of food, vitamins and the animal itself, and you're looking at a significant investment. And don't forget the veterinarian -- and, yes, you will need one. Routine parasite tests, annual checkups and emergency care are as essential to cold-blooded critters as they are to dogs and cats.

"It can be hard to find a reptile vet, but if you do everything right and your pet lives long enough, you will need one eventually," Indiviglio said. "Keep in mind that most reptiles have a long lifespan. Even the smaller lizards live well into their teens. You have to plan for that."

If maintained properly, most reptiles can live for decades. Green iguanas, monitor lizards and pythons can live 20 to 30 years in captivity. Sulcata tortoises routinely live to be 80, and some are still kicking at 100.

PLAY IT SAFE

Smaller, less demanding reptiles and amphibians are the best bets for beginners. Leopard geckos, bearded dragons, corn snakes, king snakes, musk turtles and Russian tortoises are all good choices for the novice reptile enthusiast, Indiviglio said.

Leave the powerful constrictors, aggressive monitor lizards and crocodilians to more experienced hobbyists. Not only do they require large enclosures and plenty of live food, their size, strength and temperaments can make them quite dangerous.

Iguanas, too, are best left to the experts. Their sheer size -- they can grow to 6 feet in length and weigh close to 20 pounds -- should be enough to deter beginners, but male iguanas, in particular, can be quite challenging. Many become highly aggressive when they reach sexual maturity and can lash out by scratching, biting and lashing with their tails.

Aside from potential physical dangers, all reptiles -- even the smallest, tamest lizards and turtles -- bring the risk of salmonella. Reptiles are natural carriers of the bacteria, which causes diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps in humans. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 6 percent of all salmonella cases in the U.S. -- some 74,000 cases annually -- can be attributed to reptiles and amphibians.

Anyone can contract salmonella from reptiles, but the risk is the greatest in children under 5 years of age and people with weakened immune systems.

Play it safe and always practice proper hygiene after handling reptiles or cleaning reptile enclosures. Check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Healthy Pets guidelines at www.cdc.gov for a complete list of ways you can prevent the transmission of salmonella from reptiles.

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