Congratulations on getting your very first pet reptile! Whether you’re still in the research phase or you’ve already brought it home, keeping a reptile may seem daunting and even overwhelming at times. Being a new reptile keeper is very different from getting a dog or fish. But don’t worry — with dedication, patience, and study, you can give your new pet the best possible home.
Here are seven tips to help you get started on the right foot:
- Understand the value of temperature gradients
- Use long tube UVB lights
- Pay attention to humidity requirements
- Take care of your reptile’s feeders
- Taming takes effort
- Take your reptile to the veterinarian
- Always fact-check your reptile research
1. Understand the Value of Temperature Gradients
All reptiles rely on their environment to regulate their body temperature — this is known as being ectothermic. The term, “cold-blooded,” comes from the fact that ectotherms would technically be “cold,” (or match their surroundings) without an external heat source. They have no metabolic function to internally regulate their body temperature. Unlike warm-blooded mammals, reptiles must thermoconform instead, which means that they need to move closer to a heat source to warm up, and move away from one to cool down.
So, in order to let your reptile control their body heat, set up a temperature gradient within the tank. Place a basking lamp above the lid on either the left-most or right-most end of the tank. Depending on whether your reptile is terrestrial or arboreal, place a flat stone or sturdy branch directly under the heat source. Create shaded areas throughout the tank by adding hideouts, plants, and other décor. Be sure to place a digital thermometer probe on each side (the one on the warm side should be on the basking surface) to make sure that you have an appropriate temperature gradient. Different types of reptiles need different basking and cool zone temps.
2. Use Long Tube UVB lights (T8 and T5)
All life on Earth depends on the sun in one way or another. For most reptiles, a direct relationship must be maintained. A good reptile keeper can help preserve that relationship indoors is by replicating the visible light, infrared (heat), UVA, and UVB wavelengths produced by the sun with high-quality artificial lighting. Heat lamps provide infrared and visible light, while fluorescent UVB lamps supply UVA and UVB.
Many reptile retailers sell “coil” or “compact” UVB bulbs, but these are likely to be effectively useless for your pet reptile. Unless used for particularly small enclosures, they do not produce enough UVB, essentially leaving your reptile as though it didn’t have UVB at all.
Instead, use a T8 or T5 HO UVB bulb, as appropriate. T8 bulbs are older technology and are generally weaker. T5 HO bulbs are newer technology and are generally stronger and longer-lasting. Both must be used in a fixture with a mirror-finish reflector for optimal results. Arcadia and Zoo Med are both known to be trustworthy UVB brands in the United States.
3. Pay Attention to Humidity Requirements
Reptiles are found all over the world, and so they vary greatly depending on the environments or niches they evolved in. Therefore, it is important to find your reptile’s species-specific humidity percentages and replicate them. If they are semi-aquatic with high humidity needs, be sure to include an automatic system and soaking station or pool-like area in the tank. If they have adapted to more arid environments, you can leave out the daily misting, but do keep a water dish to help prevent dehydration.
Use a digital probe humidity gauge on the cool end of the enclosure to keep an eye on the humidity levels and act accordingly. If the enclosure gets too dry, use a spray bottle to mist it down, mix water into the substrate, or use a more humidity-friendly substrate. If it gets too humid, you may need to increase airflow or use a different substrate.
Do reptiles (like bearded dragons) need baths? Generally speaking, no. Contrary to popular belief, it rarely helps improve hydration and often is more stressful for the reptile than beneficial.
4. Take Care of Your Reptile’s Feeders
‘You are what you eat,’ may be a strange saying, but it applies to humans as well as reptiles. If their food is unhealthy, your reptile will be too.
If your reptile eats insects, then it’s likely that you will need to be able to keep insects in your home for weeks at a time, as it is not always practical to buy a fresh supply daily. Make sure to keep them well hydrated and feed them a high-quality insect diet. Note that some live insects need to be refrigerated to stay fresh.
If your reptile eats animals such as rats and mice, buy and feed live feeders on the same day, and keep frozen ones in the freezer until you need them. Also make sure that they come from a reputable breeder with high standards for hygiene and nutrition in their breeding facility.
Take care to observe your feeder insects or mammals, all are susceptible to illness such as endoparasites. If there are any signs that your feeder creatures are not doing well, do not feed any of them to your reptile. Many diseases, infections, and parasites easily transfer from feeders to the reptiles that eat them.
If your reptile is semi- or fully herbivorous, take special care to rinse all produce to remove pesticides. Also make sure it is fresh. If any greens or veggies are showing signs of spoilage, throw them out. Also, remember to replace the food daily, removing anything uneaten.
5. Taming Takes Effort
Interacting with your reptile from a young age, or from the time they’re brought home, is key to helping your reptile get used to humans and become tame. But only handle your reptile if it’s appropriate for the species, as certain reptiles should rarely be touched.
After the first few weeks of bringing your reptile home, you should start to handle your reptile regularly, in small intervals of time. They need consistent, safe interactions in order to become comfortable with you. Use flat hands to hold them, support their whole body, and try hand feeding them. Never grip an animal tightly. Be calm, quiet, and slow moving. Stay close to floor at first, in case they jump. If they escape your hands, do not worry, slowly re-approach and scoop them up gently.
Over time, as they feel more and more used to you, and as you gain confidence in them, you can allow them to walk along the ground of a reptile-safe area, or even take them outdoors if held properly.
6. Take Your Reptile to the Veterinarian
Reptiles can (and should) go to the vet too! Simply find an experienced local exotic veterinarian and go in for annual check-ups. Once you’ve found one, you have a place to take your pet to whenever you have a concern for their wellbeing. These exotic veterinary clinics perform wellness checks, blood tests, fecal examinations, and other procedures to check for signs of illness. Reptiles are very good at disguising when they’re not feeling well, so taking your reptile to the vet can help you get a headstart on treating illness.
7. Always Fact-Check Your Reptile Research
Both experienced and new reptile keepers must do plenty of research to become familiar with their reptile’s natural habitat, behaviors, and captive care requirements. However, whenever you seek advice on your reptile’s needs, be sure to check your sources.
The internet has a plethora of sites and online communities with reptile care information, but not all writers have a thorough background in reptiles or have sufficiently checked their facts. As a result, there’s usually a lot of low-quality or downright false information to filter out. Therefore, in order to not be confused by bad advice, cross reference several sources. If they are all in agreement, that advice is generally true.
However, even this method doesn’t always work when you need to determine outdated advice from newer, more scientifically-sound advice, as the older information is, the more widely distributed it tends to be. Comparing the given advice to observations and other data from the reptile’s natural habitat is usually a good way to get on the right track as to what advice is likely to be best to follow.
In the end, your reptile’s health and welfare is your top priority, whether you’re a new reptile keeper or you’ve been doing this for decades. Keep an open mind and never stop learning — there are always more ways to improve your reptile’s quality of life.
About the author:
Johnathan David is the author of EverythingReptiles.com and has been a reptile hobbyist since childhood. He has years of experience in herpetoculture and personally keeps gargoyle geckos, a blue tongue skink, and poison dart frogs.