How to Choose a Reptile Pet (Tips for Beginners)

So you plan to choose a reptile as your next pet. Whether this is your first reptile pet, or if you have had a ball python for years and you want something new and exciting, or you have an extensive collection and are looking at a new species.  There are a few things that you need to consider. 

Select One Reptile You Like

This may sound silly, but what I mean is be sure to select an animal you really want, to care for and provide a proper environment for, and commit to for its entire life. Far too often people buy reptiles pet on impulse because it’s something new, exotic, exciting.  It is a species of animal they’ve never seen before, etc.  They haven’t planned how to set up the enclosure, and meet the needs of the reptile pet. When this becomes too much work due to a lack of planning, the animal perishes or ends up on craigslist, which most of the time, is the same thing, unfortunately.


Research The Species

So you have a reptile species in mind. This is when you need to do a little research. What does it need to thrive? Can you get the things that it needs? Research care sheets online for that species. Read some online forums. There are dozens of popular reptile pet forums now, ones specific to almost every genus or species. Learn what you can from others experience, enclosure setups, and general husbandry. Make sure that you can afford everything required to set the animal up correctly, and that you will be able to provide any upkeep and replacement on necessary items, i.e., lighting, substrate, calcium/vitamins, etc.



While all individual animals are different, there are many common characteristics of most species. Are they flighty or scared? Do they tend to be defensive as babies? Are they nocturnal, and possibly have a different personality at night? Are they usually very active, and need a lot of space? Or more subdued and tend to hide if there is a lot of activity around them? These are all questions, and others like them, you should look into to see if this is the type of animal you want. You should consider what it is you want to get out of the animal, a pet to sit with you while you watch TV, an active animal to watch in its enclosure, and make sure the animal matches those expectations.


Size Of The Reptile Pet

It is another big question and can be a big problem. Everything looks cute as a baby. But how big will this animal get? And how quickly will it grow? You need to be able to provide food and enclosure for it as it grows. And you need to make sure you have a plan on meeting all of its needs once full grown when you purchase it. It is fine to keep a baby water monitor in a 20-gallon tank, but you need to be prepared for it to triple in size, and know what you are going to move it into when the time comes. This is not as big of a problem as it once was, with a lot of the new federal, state, and local regulations on most of the larger species, but it still applies and still needs to be considered. 


Required Type Of Habitat

You need to know what type of environment the animal needs to thrive, whether it be terrestrial, arboreal, aquatic, or some combination. Things to consider are temperature, and how you are going to regulate it, and the necessary thermal gradient. Also the significant differences in day and night temperatures. Proper lighting, and if the animal needs any specialized light, such as a UVB bulb/ Humidity, or lack thereof. Size requirements of the enclosure, both vertical & horizontal. Internal cage furnishings, branches/limbs/rocks for climbing, hides, the size of the water source if it is an animal that will soak or submerge itself. These are the most important things when maintaining a reptile, and most health problems are caused by a failure to do one of these things correctly. 


Required Type(s) Of Food

Obviously, every animal needs to eat, and cannot survive and grow without proper nutrition. What does the animal need to eat? And will it change as it grows? You should have a source, and preferably an alternate source, for the food. Make sure you can afford to feed the animal properly, and on a healthy schedule. You should also research their diet, so you know all the information, if it needs a variety of foods, and if there are specific foods that are harmful. And, this needs to be asked when feeding reptiles, can you handle the food and feeding? Do you know the advantages of frozen rodents over life, and can you feed a live animal if necessary, and can you kill or stun a rodent if the snake refuses frozen. Can you handle live insects? 


Possible Difficulties & Health Problems

Some reptile species are prone to specific health risks. Bearded dragons, especially babies, can be very prone to intestinal impaction for example. You should research possible problems associated with the species, and make sure you can care for the animal appropriately, and have an idea of the remedies if something should occur.

It is helpful to familiarize yourself with signs of stress, as this will be your first sign of a problem. It is also a good idea to look around your area for a qualified reptile/amphibian veterinarian. This is not as simple as it may sound. Almost any DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine), will agree to see a snake or lizard. And they have had some form of training. But, I have seen many animals perish because of lack of proper veterinary care. Make sure the veterinarian has experience in reptile medicine, and hands-on experience treating them. You can check the Association of reptile and amphibian veterinarians, (ARAV), and the American Veterinary Medical Association, (AVMA).

There are also a lot of online vet finder services, but you still need to make sure you check the veterinarians’ qualifications, as most of those sites are paid referral services. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask for their qualifications and experience. Other good sources of information are a local herpetological society, asking people and breeders at local reptile pet shows and expos, and asking around at a local reptile pet shop if there is one near you.


Where To Get The Reptile

This can be very important. Reptiles, in general, are more complicated than most mammalian pets, and their needs, nutritional requirements, and medical needs and diseases, are less understood by many, unfortunately including many pet stores. I can not count the number of people and animals I have helped that were purchased from a less than desirable source. It is going to be far easier for you if you buy a healthy animal.  There are some places you can acquire a new reptile.

     A Chain Pet Store. Most of the animals here are purchased in bulk, having gone through many stops before getting to the cage in your local store. Many are wild caught, and many of those are imported. All of these conditions result in stressed animals. Stressed reptiles can be hard to acclimate to a new environment, i.e. the new enclosure in your house, which could be the 4th or 5th place the animal has lived in the last month. It can be hard to get them feeding, comfortable, trusting, and handleable. Some species lend themselves better to this than others.

There are also occasional problems with parasites and diseases. If one of the bulk animals has coccidia, cryptosporidiosis, or inclusion body disease, then all of the animals being stored and shipped together have a very high chance of infection. This happens more than you may think. That is not to say that all animals purchased from a large chain will have problems, but you would be wise to pay close attention to the animal and inspect it thoroughly before bringing it home.

     Online Ads. This can be one of the best places to get a reptile pet. There are various online reptile classifieds sites, most reptile forums have their classifieds, and quite a few breeder’s websites have their available animals online.  There is an enormous selection, which enables you to be able to compare different animals easily, & natural competition among sellers, which can result in a better value. But, there are drawbacks as well. You typically have to take the shipping cost into account. And, the integrity and reputation of the seller. Most private and large breeders sell their animals online.

There are also wholesalers & importers. And then someone is just looking to sell an individual animal. You don’t want just to send “John Doe” money because he has a picture of a pretty snake online. Ask for references. There are plenty of reptile websites nowadays with classifieds where you can research a person’s or company’s credibility. Board Of Inquiry is a business review forum focused on the reptile industry. It is a great place to look people up before making an online purchase. Private breeders are a good option. You are getting the animal direct. And typically they have been well cared for. And if you use someone who has been around for a while, they usually want to keep a good reputation, as well as provide after sale care.  

     A reptile expo or a show. This is probably the best place to purchase an animal in my opinion. The only possible downside is if you are looking for an exact type, color or pattern of a specific species, you can only choose from what the vendors have brought. You have the best of all worlds here. There are tables with breeders, wholesalers, importers, and pet shops.  Depending on the size of the show, there is a large selection. You avoid the cost of shipping. You can talk to the seller/breeder, and most breeders will be helpful with information on how to care for the animal. And most of all, you can see and handle the animal you are purchasing, so you don’t have to worry about taking someone’s word on the condition of the animal.  

     Private pet shops. This is the hardest category to describe. There is everything from reptile specialty shops that are very educated with great quality animals that breed some of their own, to small generalized pet shops with a reptile section that someone needs to call the ASPCA to investigate. And everything in between. Here you have to use common sense. If the animals look unhealthy, dehydrated, in dirty cages, etc., don’t do it. Just leave. 

     Local classifieds/rehoming.There are always people selling animals they have. You could get a great deal on something. You could also end up taking a sick animal someone is trying to dump off and make money on. It requires personal judgment. Ask questions about the animal, where they got it, how long they have had it, why they are selling it, etc.


Selecting The Actual Reptile

This will vary species to species. But you want to look for a healthy animal that is alert. Eyes should be clear. It should feel “strong,” in most cases, not limp. The skin should feel supple, not, dry, even in most desert species.  You want an animal that appears to be of a healthy weight for the species at that age. If you have a specific appearance, morph, or bloodline that you want, make sure the animal is of that type,


The point of this article is not to make it seem daunting to select a reptile for a pet. It is just to help you become aware of the many things that should be considered.  And many of the mistakes people have made.  You should want a reptile pet you can take care of for its whole life, and that you will enjoy. Not to end up in a situation where you are going to create hardships on yourself or the reptile in the future because of a lack of preparation, or not having the ability to provide the pet reptile with what it needs.

Best of luck looking for your next reptile pet!!

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One thought on “How to Choose a Reptile Pet (Tips for Beginners)

  1. My son really wants to have a reptile for a pet. I have never had a reptile as a pet, and I have no idea how to take care of them. That is a great idea to do some research about the species that my son wants. I like your tip about making sure we can afford everything required to take care of them as well. Thank you for all the tips!

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