Caring for your pet reptile

Reptiles are air-breathing, cold-blooded, egg-laying animals that generally have a covering layer of scales.

Having a reptile as a pet 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.

Legislation and licences for keeping reptiles

You must obtain a licence from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (136 186 Customer Service Centre) to keep most species of reptile in captivity.

The welfare of all animals, including amphibians, is protected by the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986.

It is illegal to capture reptiles from the wild to keep them as pets — all reptile pets in Australia must have been bred in captivity.

Reptiles make great pets but the different species have different temperature and environmental requirements. Before you purchase your reptile, talk to your vet or a person experienced in the care of reptiles for advice. Research the different species.

The Code of Practice for the Private Keeping of Reptiles has some recommended species to keep as pets, as well as  essential details on how to successfully  keep a reptile as a pet.

A reptile can live for many years or more. They require an owner dedicated to regular cleaning and maintenance of housing to ensure the reptile and their environment are kept healthy.

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.

Housing and environment for reptiles

The cage or enclosure to house your reptile will be specific to the size of the reptile and its environmental needs. Housing for large reptiles can be created 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 to match the natural environment of your reptile.

The shape and height of the cage must suit the needs of the pet that you will put in it:

  • a tall narrow cage with a climbing branch is needed for an animal that lives in a tree, such as a chameleon
  • a low, wide cage is needed for a roving animal that lives on the ground, such as a tortoise.

There are a variety of floor coverings that can be used for your pet. They all have their own benefits. One of the main reasons to choose floor coverings is for their cleanliness. Reptile carpets are available from pet shops. Household carpets cannot be used for reptiles as they are chemically treated and will cause abrasion. Reptile sand is sometimes used but it can cling to the reptile's feet. If it gets into their food, it can cause harm if it is eaten.

Cage decor is very important for your reptile. It provides their sense of security through shelters and camouflaging. It also includes maintenance items, like food and water dishes and heating devices. Some standard decor items are rocks, basking limbs and plants.

Make sure you wash everything that goes into your reptile's enclosure and be wary of harmful micro-organisms.

Speak to your local reptile expert to discuss the best environment for your new pet.

Temperature

Reptiles are cold blooded so heating in their enclosure is essential. The exact temperature needed in the enclosure will depend on the species of reptile and its  natural environment.

Heating your reptile's enclosure can be accomplished by using one or more methods. For many species it is best to provide heating in a manner that offers a thermal gradient to the enclosure — warmer at one end and cooler at the other.

Heating can be provided in several ways:

  • basking lamps
  • ceramic heating elements
  • under tank heat sources
  • central heating for the entire building
  • 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 — 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

Lighting can be provided in two ways:

  • through a full-spectrum incandescent in a basking lamp
  • through full-spectrum fluorescent lamps.

These specialty bulbs are available through pet stores that sell reptiles.

Feeding your reptile

The activity level of your reptile will help determine the frequency of feeding:

  • small active species need to be fed once a day
  • larger less active species only require feeding once a week.

Carnivore reptiles eat proteins such as:

  • rodents
  • insects
  • invertebrates.

Herbivore reptiles tend to need large amounts of food and a good variety. Commercially prepared diets are available from pet stores and should contain the correct vitamins and minerals.

Cleaning the enclosure

Enclosure maintenance is an important part of keeping reptiles healthy and ensuring they have a long life.

Your reptile's enclosure should be cleaned out weekly. Wash and disinfect everything in the enclosure before putting your reptile back in the cage, including:

  • dishes
  • floor covering
  • cage d├ęcor.

Health problems

Sometimes the first sign of health issues with a reptile is when it won't eat.

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.

Reptiles are affected by both internal and external parasites. An infestation of either parasite will cause your reptile to lose condition and stop feeding.

  • for internal parasites a vet can dose your pet with either Ivermectin or Drontal or Panacur
  • you can treat external parasites such as mites and ticks yourself by soaking the animal in an Orange-Medic, a lice treatment  available from 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 needed as well as a mouthwash (usually iodine based or dilute chlorhexidine) from your chemist.

Signs of respiratory infection include:

  • bubbles of saliva at the nose or mouth
  • excess mucous in the mouth
  • a popping sound at the exhale.

Signs of digestive sickness are mainly seen in the excrement. Both respiratory and digestive sickness should be treated by a vet. Antibiotics are generally required. The most commonly and effectively used antibiotics for reptiles are Baytril and Fortum. Oxytetracycline has been found to be less effective.

Find a vet with experience in reptile medicine — this can save you a lot of time and money.

Handling

There are varying levels of handling needed for specific species. If you want a pet reptile you can handle, a good pet store that specialises in reptiles will guide you to a safe choice.

Some reptiles should never be handled and you should always look after your safety  as well as the reptile's.

Page last updated: 13 Jul 2020