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Ask An Expert: 5 Tips For Owning Your First Reptile

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Choosing the right pet, enclosures, environment, feeding and care are all important things to consider when buying a new pet. There is so much to learn about purchasing a reptile and an experienced owner like George Diaz can help with advice and suggestions.

George Diaz, Owner
Off The Hook Exotic Pets
926 Fifth Ave.
Coraopolis, PA 15108
(412) 262-4665

In the early stages of his career, George Diaz, owner of Off The Hook Exotic Pets, worked for many major pet stores. His background forged a dedication and expertise that developed into the loyalty of friends and customers who share an interest in exotic pets. At the start of the business, he began selling reptiles and presenting at educational programs. He said, "We go by the motto, think tropical, not typical." He mentioned, "We continue to offer exotic reptiles, birds and fish and all the supplies and advice to keep the hobby for both human and animal."

Natural Environment

This needs to be the very first consideration when owning an exotic pet. What climate does it come from and what are the temperature extremes so that you can provide an ambient temperature in an enclosed environment? Is it from a desert or rainforest and are there thick, tall trees or low scrub bush? Find out how large the animal will be as an adult and how costly it will be to the health of the animal, and you. For example, an adult green iguana can grow to 6 feet in length and putting a baby in a 10 gallon tank and not knowing how big it will be can cause serious problems.

Another Environmental Consideration

Along with temperature and humidity, the average amounts of natural sunlight that your pet would be exposed to needs to be replicated as closely as possible. A bearded dragon comes from the Australian desert, where there is little to hide under to get away from the sun, therefore an intense UVB bulb should be provided. If not, calcium absorption rates drop significantly, causing metabolic bone disease among other things. For animals requiring high humidity, there are fog and mist machines available that are specially designed for smaller environments.


This may seem like a lot of work, but it can be a fun project to try to put mother nature in a box! There are many natural and artificial components that can be safely used to recreate your reptile's enclosure. There are substrates that are widely available meant to mimic things like the rainforest floor, and even moldable clay that your animals can burrow in. Flexible water resistant vines are wonderful additions to any arboreal environment, and will stand up to humid or even constantly wet enclosures. Tree limbs and rocks that are now imported in from the tropics and are safe for reptile use and are readily available at most pet stores. There are many tutorials online you can use to create elaborate backgrounds, even including waterfalls, and you'll have fun learning about and replicating your reptile's natural habitat the best you can.

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Captive Breeding

Captive breeding has proved quite profitable to breeders all over the world, and even now the most popular reptiles are mostly available as captive bred individuals.  These are hardy, parasite and disease free, and even come with brighter colors and patterns not seen in the wild. It is now being noted that ball pythons and bearded dragons are now replacing puppies and hamsters as a child's first pet. More and more veterinarians are offering reptile care at affordable prices, making many breeders and specialty shops like us happy to help with advice and supplies.

Suggestions For A Beginner Reptile Enthusiast

Try to always purchase quality captive bred animals that are easy to care for. A leopard gecko is easier care than a panther chameleon and will cause less frustration as one grows into the hobby. Never be afraid to surrender an animal that isn't working out for you, as this gives the both of you a chance for a happy life. In my opinion, here are the top five reptiles for beginners based on care, lack of health issues, size and expense:

  1. Ball Python -- Easy to care for and only need to be fed once every 5 to 7 days and fresh water daily. They prefer small, tight quarters, so a 10 gallon tank for a baby and a 20 gallon tank should be provided from adolescence to adulthood.
  2. Bearded Dragon -- Amazing lizards are wonderfully docile pets. They require a mix of vegetables and insects, and lots of UVB lighting. Adults should be housed in an enclosure no smaller than a 40 gallon breeder tank. Hatchlings can be a difficult, so make sure to ask how often they are eating.
  3. Leopard Gecko -- A desert species animal likes high temperatures and a UVB. They max out to about 8 inches and a 10 gallon tank is perfect. They store fat in their tail, so look for a big, rounded tail. They are hardy and have very few health issues, and add a night time black light for viewing.
  4. Red Tail Boa -- These are semi-arboreal snakes and active. They grow to be quite large to about 10 feet and a large enclosure is required. They need high humidity around 70 percent is ideal, but variances are easily acceptable. Feed babies every 7 days and adults every two weeks. Look for a square shaped body when buying.
  5. Red Foot Tortoise -- Great pets and these guys don't get very large. A simple wooden box can be constructed until full grown. UVB lighting and basking bulb are required. They love leafy greens and vegetables. They have a great personality and will interact with you. They have a long lifespan.

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Gerry Cernicky is a retired health and physical education teacher with 36 years of experience. He is a former teacher of the year and a sports writer for the Vandergrift News. He delivers podcasts, and maintains a website and blog. He currently resides in Pittsburgh. His work can be found at

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