Having a reptile as a pet - usually snakes and lizards - is more of a hobby as these are not companion animals. In most cases, it can be dangerous to both the reptile and the owner to handle the animal too often. Reptiles are low maintenance pets but you must ensure that their enclosures are clean, they are fed regularly and that the water is free from toxins in order for your pet to live a long life. Different species also have different temperature and environmental requirements.
Before you purchase your reptile, talk to your veterinary practitioner or a person experience in the care of reptiles for advice. Research the species specifics. It is illegal to capture reptiles from the wild in order to keep them as pets – all reptile pets in Australia have been bred in captivity.
Housing and Environment
The cage or enclosure to house your reptile will be determined by the size of the reptile and its environmental needs. Housing for large reptiles can be accomplished with various types of cages or even room sized habitats. For smaller pets, there are many different types of terrariums that can be set up but they need to match the natural environment of your reptile. The shape of the cage must suit the needs of the reptile. For example, a tall narrow cage with a climbing branch is needed for a tree dwelling animal, such as a chameleon. Whereas a low, wide cage is needed for a roving ground dwelling animal, such as a tortoise.
Rocks, basking limbs and plants are important for shelter and camouflaging, and special reptile carpets are available from pet shops. Household carpets are not suitable for reptiles as they are chemically treated and designed to cause abrasion. Reptile sand is sometimes used but it can cling to the reptile's feet and get into the food where it can cause harm if ingested.
Make sure you wash everything that goes into your reptiles enclosure: Be wary of harmful micro-organisms. Speak to your local reptile breeder to discuss the best environment for your new pet.
Enclosure maintenance is an important part of keeping reptiles healthy and they should be cleaned out weekly with everything in the enclosure being washed and disinfected before being returned to the cage.
Reptiles are cold blooded so heating their enclosure is essential. The exact temperatures needed in the enclosure will depend on the species of reptile you are planning to keep and the type of environment it lives in naturally. For many species it is often best to provide heating in a manner that offers a thermal gradient to the enclosure, warmer on one end and cooler on the other.
Heating can be provided in several ways: basking lamps, ceramic heating elements, under tank heat sources, or space heaters used only in the reptile's room. Heating devices kept outside the enclosure will prevent accidental burns. Hot rocks should be avoided or used very carefully and only as a secondary or supplementary heat source. It is important to have a wide range thermometer in the enclosure so you can closely monitor the temperature and ensure it is correct for your reptile.
Lighting can be provided in two ways, through a full-spectrum incandescent in a basking lamp and/or through full-spectrum fluorescent lamps. These specialty bulbs are available through pet stores that sell reptiles.
The activity level of your reptile will help determine the frequency of feeding. Small active species will need to be fed once a day while larger, less active species will only require feeding once a week. Some reptiles eat rodents, insects and invertebrates. Commercially prepared food is available from pet stores and should contain the necessary vitamins and minerals.
Sometimes the first sign of trouble with a reptile is its unwillingness to eat. Reptiles are affected by both internal and external parasites and an infestation of either will cause your reptile to lose condition and stop feeding. A vet can dose your pet with either Ivermectin or Drontal or Panacur for internal parasites but you can treat external parasites such as mites and ticks yourself by soaking the animal in an Orange-Medic, a lice treatment solution available from most chemists. Ticks can simply be pulled off if grasped by the head with fine tweezers.
Stomatitis is an infection that stops a reptile from eating (the first clinical sign). Injectable antibiotics from a vet are usually required in conjunction with a mouth wash, usually iodine based or dilute chlorhexidine. Again these are stocked at most chemists.
Signs of respiratory infection include bubbles of saliva at the nose or mouth, excess mucous in the mouth and a popping sound at the exhale. Signs of digestive sickness are mainly seen in the excrement, and both should be treated by a vet should it occur in your pet. Antibiotics are generally required. The most commonly, and effectively, used antibiotics for reptiles are Baytril or Fortum or both. Oxytetracycline has been found to be less effective. Try to find a vet with experience in reptile medicine, this may save a lot of time and money.
A snake will become stressed if it can't find a private retreat area in its cage. A hide box or hollow log is perfect for most pythons and leaf litter allows elapids to rest without being on display.
There are varying levels of handling needed for specific species. Find out how much, or how little, yours needs. A good pet store, such as one which specialises in reptiles, will guide you to a safe choice if you want a pet reptile you can handle. Keep in mind, some reptiles should never be handled and your safety — and his — should always be safeguarded.
Legislation and Licences
It is necessary to obtain a licence from the Department of Sustainability and Environment (136 186 Customer Service Centre) to keep most species of reptile in captivity. The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986 protects the welfare of all animals, including reptiles.
If you no longer want to keep your reptile make sure you find an alternative home or have it humanely euthanased. DO NOT release live reptiles into the wild as they can carry diseases that can affect our native species and may establish populations that compete with our native populations.
See the Code of Practice for the Private Keeping of Reptiles which has some recommended species to keep as pets as well as good details on the necessary elements needed to successfully keep an reptile as a pet.