Raving about Reptiles!

Reptiles are great!  But they’re not for everyone.

On the other hand, because of their seemingly laid back nature and often unusual habitats, lifestyles, and physical characteristics, they can make ideal pets for anyone interested in a different sort of animal.  Providing of course that an owner is willing to make the necessary arrangements to keep that pet healthy and happy.  Reptiles kept in captivity vary widely.  They include a wide range of sizes, from the anole that weighs a few grams to the 50-kilogram monitor lizard and from the 4-cm gecko to the 13-meter boa.  They vary from the skink that gives birth to one live offspring at a time to the turtle that lays more than a hundred eggs per clutch.  Longevity wise they range from the Parson’s chameleon who lives less than a year to the tortoise that will outlive a generation of owners.

As mentioned in the last blog on iguanas, we are severely limited in our ability to provide proper environments for our reptile friends in this northern climate, where reptile pets need to be cared for indoors.  Several types of reptiles are nonetheless growing in popularity, including bearded dragons, snakes, and water turtles.  Each of these species has different management requirements; the successful keeping of reptiles is dependent on mimicking the natural habitat as closely as possible.  In this blog we will take a look at snakes and turtles.

Even within the broad categories of both snake and turtle there are an amazing number of species, including water dwellers and landlubbers.  Most turtles I see in practice are water turtles (usually red-eared sliders) and most snakes are land snakes (usually boas, pythons, corn and king snakes).  The following comments refer to these species – remember, there are big differences in ecological habitat and dietary requirements among the species.  Before buying any reptile it is wise to research that particular species to see if its husbandry requirements (temperature, humidity, space, lighting, sanitation, etc.) can be met.

Ideal housing for both snakes and turtles maintains a heat gradient so they can seek out an area of preferred optimum temperature.  I often see such pets become ill as a result of being kept in too cold an environment.  For turtles the temperature should range from 25 to 30 degrees Celsius; with snakes aim for a range of 28 – 35 degrees.  Obviously, supplemental heat is required in both cases.  One of the best ways to increase temperature is to use a heat lamp (or more than one) separated from the enclosure by at least 5 centimeters.  Be sure there is sufficient air circulation to avoid overheating – use a thermometer in the animals’ living area and monitor it carefully.  Always have a source of clean water available for drinking or soaking – in winter, the humidity in Edmonton area houses is often too low for reptilian comfort!

Most pet snakes eat on dry land, and large ones usually fed only a few times per month.  Preferred food items include small mammals, birds, and (I hesitate to add) other reptiles too!  I recommend whole killed prey for diet, but it can be quite challenging to get pet snakes to eat.  Some are finicky eaters and require special food preparation or presentation.  I have dealt with a number of snakes that refused to eat for more than a year!

Meat eating turtles also should eat whole killed prey, and aquatic types often prefer fish and slugs, worms and sometimes insects.  Some tasty greens such as pond weeds or algae (some turtles will eat lettuce) can make up a small portion of the diet.  Turtles usually like to eat in the water, but they also pass stool and urine there!  When the living area contains only a small body of water, it can become dirty very quickly.  Contamination of feeding areas is a common problem that is preventable only by special management.  Generally, it is advisable to feed adult turtles in the water at least several times per week, and to do so in a feeding area separate from the living area.

As with any pet, it is a good idea to get a veterinary check-up prior to the purchase of a snake or turtle.  Be informed – people can catch disease from reptiles as well as from other pets, and it is always wise to perform routine disease prevention measures.  See your friendly veterinary staff at your Park Veterinary Centre in Sherwood Park for more advice – your reptilian pet may be thanking you for decades!