Five Reptiles for First-Time Owners

Image result for leopard gecko

by Brandon Eckerd

Reptiles make for fascinating and endearing pets that do not require the same amount of attention as cats, dogs, and birds. They are safe for people with severe allergies or asthma. Many species can be handled safely by children over the age of five. However, choosing your own or your child’s first pet reptile can be a daunting task. Hundreds of different species are offered throughout the country through pet stores, reptile shows and private breeders. A large number of these species require specific diets or husbandry to keep healthy and are unsuitable for inexperienced keepers. This list includes some of the more common animals available. These animals are well-suited for first time keepers, due to temperament, availability and ease of care.

Crested Gecko (Correlophus ciliatus)

This common gecko is from the island of New Caledonia, but wild-caught individuals are virtually non-existent due to its protected status in its native range. This species breeds readily in captivity and is available at many chain pet stores. This species can grow to six to eight inches, including the tail, although the tail can be lost. Unlike other lizards, crested geckos cannot regenerate their tail. Babies tend to be intolerant of handling, but adults are often much calmer. These geckos are excellent jumpers and climbers, so plenty of vertical space is a must for their enclosure. Offer hiding places in fake or real plants or upright logs for this nocturnal animal to rest during the daytime. These personable lizards are suitable for people who are squeamish about live insects, since they can be fed a powdered diet. This powder is mixed with water and fed in a dish for the gecko to lick up. Crested geckos will eat crickets, roaches and other insects if offered. This species lives comfortably at room temperature and about 50-70% humidity. Crested geckos come in a wide range of colors and patterns, but these individuals are only common at reptile shows or from private breeders.

Corn Snake (Pantherophis guttatus)

Possibly the most common pet snake in the United States, the corn snake’s ease of care and gentle temperament make it the ideal first snake for children and adults alike. This species can easily reach five feet, but are docile enough to be handled despite their size. These long snakes need a lot of space (a 20-gallon tank is the minimum for a five-foot animal) and a large hiding place. All snakes require some kind of shelter to reduce their stress. These snakes like a temperature gradient, with the warm end of their enclosure being 85 degrees Fahrenheit and the cooler end in the low 70s. This can be achieved with a lamp or under-tank heater. A rheostat is recommended for under-tank heaters, as some brands may get hot enough to burn your pet without proper ventilation. Corn snakes can be kept on newspaper, but prefer a burrowing substrate like shredded aspen. Never use pine or cedar with reptiles; respiratory and toxicity issues arise with pine and cedar beddings. Corn snakes eat rodents, but most snakes will take pre-killed frozen rodents that are thawed to room temperature. These widely available snakes come in many affordable colorations. Baby corn snakes are fast and flighty, so handling should be limited to only a few minutes. As the snake grows, it can be handled for longer periods of time.

Leopard Gecko (Eublepharis macularius)

While the leopard gecko lacks the sticky feet and climbing ability of other geckos, it still makes for a fascinating pet. These lizards can live comfortably in a ten-gallon tank. Most geckos will max out at about 7 inches in length, including the tail, but some individuals can reach an astonishing 10 inches. Leopard geckos are exclusive insectivores; crickets make an excellent staple for their diet. Mealworms, roaches and waxworms can be offered as occasional treats. All insects needed to be dusted with vitamin and/or calcium supplement, readily available at most large pet stores, to provide the gecko with essential calcium. A under-tank heat pad with a rheostat is ideal for these geckos. Leopard geckos require a humid hide for shedding and another hide for shelter. Leopard geckos are less tolerable of handling compared to other commonly kept lizards, so any attempt to handle your gecko should be limited to a few minutes. These geckos come in greater color variety than possibly any other pet reptile, and most are under $100 as babies.

Tricolored Milksnakes (Lampropeltis triangulum hondurensis, L. t. campbelli, L. t. nelsoni)

“Tricolor” refers to any species that has a pattern of red, black and yellow bands going down its body, but the three subspecies listed are the most common in pet stores. Milksnakes cannot be kept together; they are natural snake-eaters and cannibalism is possible outside the breeding season. Their care is almost identical to that of the corn snake, although most milksnakes will not exceed four feet in length. Heat is the most important aspect of a snake’s environment, as without it they cannot digest their food. These snakes thrive at room humidity, but misting may help snakes with shedding. You can tell if a snake is about to shed because it will become less active and have a blue tint over its eyes. Avoid handling snakes about to shed, as they are easily stressed. Milksnakes accept rodents and can be fed thawed mice once a week. Younger snakes should be fed younger mice, with babies taking “pinkie” mice.  Milksnakes can be squirmy when they are under two feet in length, but larger snakes can tolerate extended periods of handling. The beautiful natural coloring of these snakes makes them among the prettiest of pet snakes, but albino milksnakes and other colorations are still available.

Painted Turtle (Chrysemys species)

Turtles and tortoises present a number of issues as pets, but the most easily kept are probably the painted turtles. Some species may be unavailable in certain states, but generally painted turtles show up periodically at pet stores and reptile shows. All turtles require a basking light to maintain their body temperature. Their light (or lights) must give off both UVA and UVB wavelengths. Without these special lights, turtles cannot produce Vitamin D and fail to properly develop their shells. Their basking spot should reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Painted turtles may eat fish, worms or turtle pellets. Aquatic turtle pellets are the most nutritious of all their feeding options, although occasional feedings of live fish and romaine lettuce will simulate the animal’s natural diet. A filter is a must for these messy turtles to ensure good water quality. At least a fourth, and no more than half, of their water should be changed every week. A full water change is required once a month to also clean the tank. These turtles can easily reach 10 inches and adults may require 40 or more gallons. Painted turtles have a lot of personality, but handling is not recommended. These pets are better observed.

These may be some of the best reptiles for beginners, but always consult other care guides and manuals available online and in books before purchasing your pet. I cannot provide all the information required to properly care for these animals in this blog, but hopefully I was able to make your choice about your next pet a little easier.

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