Good beginner Reptiles
By Margaret A. Wissman, DVM, DABVP
Bearded dragons make great pets. Purchase one that is six months to a year in age.
Photo by Gina Cioli/i5 Studio
I attended the Florida International Reptile Expo in Tampa over the weekend with the intent of purchasing my 9-year-old son a pet reptile. However, after speaking with many vendors, I became more and more confused and ended up not getting him anything, as we want to make the correct choice for him. He is mainly interested in snakes and lizards. Can you help us make a good choice of a first pet reptile for him?
I am so glad that you are doing your homework and not making an impulse purchase for your son.
I, too, was at the reptile expo, as I am the herp vet for the show, inspecting every animal offered for sale, ensuring that only healthy animals are offered for sale to both experienced and inexperienced shoppers.
While there is an appeal to the boas and pythons, for a beginner, I would recommend a kingsnake, milk snake or a member of the corn/rat snake group and not a boa or python, which grow much larger. Keep in mind that snakes usually eat live or killed prey, and the family must be OK with providing such prey items regularly for snakes. They should be taught to eat killed prey, and often they learn to accept frozen/defrosted prey items, which is much less unsavory. Some snakes can be trained to consume “snake sausage, ” which is a processed food source that is very convenient to feed, but can prove difficult to convert a snake over to.
Corn and rat snakes are available in a wide array of color patterns and are generally very docile, tame creatures that can tolerate a great deal of handling. Of course, with all snakes, the rule is that they should not be handled for a few days after feeding to prevent regurgitation.
For every species of herp, there is a published POTZ (preferred optimum temperature zone). This means that you must be willing to provide a habitat with a temperature gradient, so that the reptile can select the correct temperature. Within the habitat, one must provide an adequate ambient temperature, a localized warmer area for basking and a cooler area. Additionally, most herps are adapted to a drop in the ambient temperature at night. In order to provide the POTZ, one must purchase several thermometers/hygrometers that are very accurate, and these must be placed strategically around the cage to monitor the temperature ranges and humidity. The POTZ for most commonly kept species are readily available in many textbooks, care sheets found online and in REPTILES magazine.
Several lizards can also be a good choice for your son. Bearded dragons are readily available, inexpensive and very hardy. I wouldn’t recommend purchasing a tiny hatchling, but perhaps one that is 6 to 12 months of age. Larger ones are easier to handle and should be well established in good eating habits. Beardies require a focal hot spot for basking that reaches up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit and a warm cage overall. With basking lights, ultraviolet lights that provide UVB light and an appropriate heat source, providing the correct environment should be quite simple. Beardies are omnivores, meaning that they consume both plants (a variety of greens) and animals (usually waxworms, mealworms, crickets, superworms and the occasional pinky mouse). Also, for most lizard species, there are commercially prepared diets that can be used as a portion of the entire menu.
Water dragons are also a fun, good-natured choice of a lizard. Their habitat is a bit more complex, due to the fact that they spend a portion of each day swimming, but a good setup should provide an environment that is conducive to a long, healthy lifespan.