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How to Keep Reptiles as Pets
Pet Reptiles and Amphibians
Reptiles vary enormously in shape, size and form. They include snakes, lizards, turtles and crocodiles. All reptiles do have the following in common:
• They have a skeleton
• They breathe air
• They have dry skins covered with some type of scales.
The dry scaly skin allows the reptile to hold its body water so that, unlike amphibians, they require no water other than what they drink.
The salamander or axolotl looks similar to a lizard, but in fact is an amphibian. Frogs and toads belong to the same group. Amphibians unlike reptiles, have thin moist skin which looses body water. For this reason, most amphibians have to dunk themselves in ponds or rivers to restore their body water.
Amphibians and most reptiles, lay eggs -although some lizards and snakes give birth to their young live. Amphibian eggs are soft and jelly like, and must be laid in moist or wet places so that they do not dry out and die. Most young amphibians hatch in water and breathe with gills like fish. Reptiles on the other hand, lay eggs that have tough shells that protect them from drying out. Even reptiles which live in the sea, like the turtle, return to land to lay their eggs.
Before acquiring a reptile or amphibian as a pet, it is essential that you familiarise yourself with the specific requirements and potential problems attached to the creature you wish to keep. Reptiles and amphibians, more than any other group of pets, require particular attention to their environment and feeding if they are to be kept in captivity. You may also need a licence to keep these animals and these will often have specific requirements and breaches can incur significant fines.
Keep in mind that some reptiles (especially snakes) can be venomous. There is no easy way for the inexperienced person to distinguish between venomous and non venomous snakes, as all snakes can bite. It is recommended that you do not attempt to keep venomous snakes at all. Experienced herpetologists recommend that venomous snakes only be kept by zoos.
What is Legal?
Regulations for keeping reptiles or amphibians can vary from place to place. In Australia, these regulations can vary from state to state, and the government department which is responsible may change from time to time. Many of these animals are more commonly wild, and some species may be protected or endangered. Generally, if you wish to keep any native wildlife in Australia you must have a Wildlife Keepers’ Permit. If you are looking to import an exotic species the legal issues will be more complex again.
Amphibians should not be handled regularly as their skin is very porous and readily absorbs any chemicals on the handler’s skin. Some amphibians such as toads can release toxins through the glands on their skin. It is suggested that if you do have to handle your amphibian or clean the enclosure that wear disposable gloves that have been rinsed of any powder.
In general, reptiles are happiest and healthiest when they are in an environment that closely mimics their natural habitat. Most reptiles cannot cope with excessive handling. Reptiles can also require specialised diets including live prey, fresh vegetation, vitamin and mineral supplements. They are generally best suited to adults and older children who would rather observe the pet’s behaviour than play with it.
Good husbandry and sanitation are extremely important when keeping reptiles.
The main problems with keeping reptiles, include:
• Maintaining the correct supply of food
• External and internal parasites
• Blisters, Scale Rot, Mouth Rot or Canker
• Septicemia – disease caused by bacteria in the blood
• Digestive Disorders - Constipation and diarrhoea
• Incomplete sloughing or shedding of the skin
• Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies
Some snakes prefer live food caught and killed by themselves, although many species will accept freshly killed and even thawed food. Food ranges from mammals and birds to insects, other reptiles, frogs and fish. Prey is eaten alive or killed by the injection of venom, or by constriction.
Food for the other reptiles is varied and includes insects, small vertebrates, crustaceans, flowers and fruits, soft herbage, carrion and eggs.
Reptile diseases such as Salmonella and Spirometra can be transferred from reptile to human. Ways to reduce likelihood of disease spread include:
• Cleaning hands with an disinfecting soap after handling a reptile or any parts of the enclosure. This is extremely important after cleaning out animal droppings
• Routinely clean and disinfect the enclosure
• Clean the enclosure and contents away from any food preparation areas
• Wear disposable gloves
• Disinfect all surfaces that come into contact with enclosure components after cleaning
• Supervise children around reptiles
• Ensure that any wounds caused by the reptile are cleaned and disinfected appropriately
• Have your reptile tested for any potentially harmful organisms
• Do not eat or drink while handling reptile or cleaning enclosure.
Where to Keep them
The type of housing which you provide for a reptile or amphibian will depend, naturally, on the species you wish to keep. There are however, some important common features and considerations.
Housing for reptiles must provide a healthy environment, enough space and ventilation for the type and number of specimens, and it must be escape proof. The enclosure should provide privacy, and yet be easily accessible for cleaning. Provision should need to be made for heating and adequate lighting. A water supply is vital and it is often best to supply a system that does not require constant access for refilling (drip system or similar).
Both amphibians and reptiles are kept in special enclosures called terrariums or aquariums (in the case of amphibians). Most terrariums have a rectangular or square base and may be made from glass, wood, plastic and/or metal. All glass tanks are better for aquatic animals. There should be large air holes along the side walls, covered with wire netting painted with an anti corrosive coating, and held in a wooden frame. To provide access to the animals in the terrarium, there should be either a glazed door or sliding glass sheets that move in grooves in the front wall. Any gap in these moveable parts should always be as small as possible, because reptiles, particularly snakes, are able to pass through very small spaces. If you wish to keep a pair, or a group of animals, for breeding, you will need several enclosures.
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