Raising Reptiles Responsibly

Pets come in all shapes and sizes, but cold-blooded animals require a lot more maintenance than you might expect.

Reptiles are fascinating creatures that live a lot longer than their furry counterparts. The Saturday Early Show's resident veterinarian Debbye Turner says that with proper care, they can be great pets for many years.

Snakes and other reptiles have specialized needs that are different from other animals' needs. So, says Turner, it is important that the owner knows exactly how to care for a reptile.

However, Turner warns that the cold-blooded creatures are not the best pet choice for young children. Reptiles simply should not be left to the care of a child without adult supervision.

Turner says the following are reasons not to have a pet reptile:

  • Reptiles require more care and attention than dogs or cats.
  • Reptiles can transmit a variety of parasites, bacteria and disease to you or other pets.
  • Snakes such as boas and pythons can become quite large and dangerous.
  • Venemous snakes are poisonous and should never be pets - purchasing them for pets is reckless and dangerous.
  • Reptiles are not suitable pets for children who will lose interest after the "wonder' of a new pet wears off.

If you do decide to purchase a pet reptile, here are some tips from Turner on caring for the cold-blooded creatures:


Turner says the most popular lizard among pet owners is the green iguana, native to Central and South America. They can grow as large as three to five feet. Turner says her iguana-care tips can also be applied to geckos and chameleons.

  • Heat: These animals are tropical, so they need to be kept warm. The air temperature should be kept between 85 to 90 degrees F during the day and 75 to 80 degrees F at night. Have a thermometer in the aquarium for accurate temperature regulation. Make sure there is a "hot" area and "cool" area in the house so the snake can regulate its own temperature. Never place a glass aquarium in direct sunlight. These pets also need a "hot rock" or heat pad to help their digestion. But watch them, so they will not get thermal burns.
  • Light: Iguanas need ultraviolet rays to produce vitamin D, so Turner says you will need to provide them with fluorescent lighting.
  • Recreation: Iguanas love to climb. Turner says to include some large tree branches in your pet's captivity area for climbing. Also provide a place for them to hide, such as a box or igloo.
  • Substrate: You need to put a "substrate" (or surface) on the floor of the iguana's housing. Turner says indoor/outdoor carpet, rabbit pellets, or tree bark will work.
  • Food: Turner says lizards should be fed 90 percent vegetables and 10 percent fruit. Good veggies for a lizard are greens, kale, cabbage, broccoli, watercress, beet greens, endive and chard. These are all good sources of calcium. Feed spinach and rhubarb sparingly. (They have high levels of oxalic acid). Foods to feed in moderation: celery, eggplant, squash, green beans, cantaloupe, pears, apples, sweet potatoes. Foods to feed rarely: cucumber, strawberries, cauliflower, beets, plums, honeydew, peas, bananas, iceberg lettuce and peaches.

    Turner says you should provide a calcium supplement three to four times a week.

  • Water: Iguanas will drink from a bowl. Turner recommends misting the lizard a couple of times each day, preferably in the morning. And be sure to give them a nice warm bath once or twice a week.


Turner says the common snake pets are boa constrictors: red-tail, rosy, rubber, sand, and Rainbow boas. Most grow to about 7 to 11 feet. Boas and pythons can live for more than 20 years. The lifespan of kingsnakes and ratsnakes, other popular snake pets, is more than 15 years.

Before buying a pet snake, Turner says, you need to check the following:

  • Make sure the snake was born in captivity. Turner says it is not a good idea to catch a snake locally and keep it as a pet.
  • Check the snake's general health. Is the snake thin looking? Are the scales wrinkled or dull? Are there any open sores or wounds visible? Are the eyes dull? Is there any discharge from the nose or mouth?
  • Purchase and assemble all necessary equipment before bringing the snake home. Snakes can develop something called "maladaptation syndrome," which compromises their immune system and can lead to infection, disease and even pneumonia.
  • Find a veterinarian in your area who is experienced in treating reptiles.

Turner says a common mistake when housing snakes is buying an enclosure that is too small because it does not allow for growth. Cramped quarters can cause stress that leads to illness and behavioral problems.

She also says enclosures should be securely closed. Aquariums, or ABS plastic (Neodesha) cages work well. You can also use a wooden cage. But it should be painted or coated for easy cleaning.

  • Heat: Most reptiles are "ectothermic" meaning they derive their heat from the environment. Tropical boas should be kept at 85 degree F during the day and 80 degrees F at night. Rosy and rubber boas can be kept slightly cooler. Turner suggests having a thermometer in the aquarium for accurate temperature regulation. You can use "hot rocks," heat pads, or lights on a timer to regulate temperature. But be careful that the snake doesn't get thermal burns.
  • Light: The light should be left on for 10 to 12 hours a day. Make sure there is a "hot" area and "cool" area in the housing so the snake can regulate its own temperature.
  • Substrate: The substrate should be either an indoor/outdoor carpet, sand, peat or dry leaves. Avoid pine, cedar and aspen shavings as they can become lodged in the snake's mouth while it eats, causing respiratory or other problems. "Hide boxes" or igloos should be provided to give the snake privacy.
  • Food: Boas need a diet of live rats, mice and small rabbits. Typically, they eat once a week. Be careful not to feed a prey that is too large for the snake. A rule of thumb is the prey should be no rounder than the largest part of the snake. (They will regurgitate it a couple of days later if it is too big)
  • Water: Turner says the snake should always have a bowl of fresh water for drinking and aiding in shedding its skin. The snake will drink, soak and maybe eliminate in it.

Turner says to remember that, when bringing a new snake home, you shouldn't handle it or try to feed it for the first few days. Give the snake time to adjust to its new environment. Don't handle a snake right after it has eaten or if you still have a mouse/rat scent on your hands. Also don't handle a snake while it is shedding.

Keep in mind that snakes are master escape artists. So don't get too overconfident when handling one.

If the snake wraps around your neck, arm or leg, gently unwind it, starting with the tail. If you start with the head, the snake might be stronger or more persistent than you.

Turner says that it is critical to read all available literature about the reptile that you own. It's also a good idea to ask other reliable snake keepers plenty of questions.