When we think about embarking on the journey of pet parenthood, we most likely entertain the thoughts of a furry companion like a cat or dog; but there is another side of the pet-coin, reptiles!
According to the dictionary, a reptile is a “cold-blooded vertebrate of a class that includes snakes, lizards, crocodiles, turtles, terrapins and tortoises. They are distinguished by having a dry scaly skin, and typically laying soft-shelled eggs on land.” It’s also defined as “a person regarded with loathing and contempt,” but that’s a different article…
You may immediately conjure up images of a slithery snake and wonder why anyone would care to own one of these creatures. But the fact is there are more species of reptiles than just snakes, AND some of them do make excellent pets.
Before we get to these awesome pets, let’s first discuss a few of the basic needs referenced in most of our bios below. Having a good foundation will allow you to understand the needs of these creatures as you read.
As you read through this article you will notice that each reptile needs “substrate”, or substance that is placed on the bottom of the tank or cage. Depending on the specific pet, this can range from newspaper, to fake grass, to specific wood chips or even dirt and sand. We recommend you research the specific substrate needed for your chosen reptile to get the best option for its health and wellbeing.
2. Heating/Lighting Sources
As with the substrate, each reptile needs a very specific heating/lighting source. These can come in the form of heat rocks, undertank heating pads, UVB or UV light bulbs and more. Again this will vary by breed, so read closely. Proper lighting is pertinent to your reptile’s health, as it is a cold-blooded creature (cannot produce its own body heat). External heat sources not only provide warmth, but will help your scaly friend to produce vitamin D, which is paramount for bone development.
Just like cats and dogs have a vast range of accessories, so do reptiles. These include artificial branches and plants, rocks and hiding containers. When keeping a reptile as a pet our ultimate goal it to mimic its natural habitat to the best of our ability, these accessories will help you achieve that goal.
Finally, on to the good stuff! Read on to discover our ultimate pet reptile guide that may just have you pondering the possibility of owning one of these exotic pets. We’ve even added a rating system to help you make a sound decision!
Group One: Turtles, Terrapins and Tortoises
All three of these reptiles fall under the taxonomic order of Testudines or Chelonia, which comes from the Greek word ‘kelone’, meaning interlocking shields or armor.
So what’s the difference in a turtle, terrapin and a tortoise? Turtles live in the water, tortoises live on land and the terrapin does both. Here are some common species of Testudines that are kept as pets:
1. Red-Eared Slider Turtle—Rated “B” for Beginners
This terrapin is very common in the pet trade, but originally hails from southern states of America, where it can be found in ponds and small bodies of water. TheRed Eared Slider is most recognized for the red stripe found on each side of its head and is good for beginner reptile keepers.
- Length: 5 to 12 inches (12.7 to 30.5 centimeters)—so that cute little Slider in the pet store will grow!
- Housing: Semi-aquatic. Needs an area to bask on out of the water. No plastic bowls for housing! It will need a full aquarium with filter and heat lamp to keep it healthy.
- Diet: Omnivores as babies (both meat and veggies), but as an adult the Slider is primarily vegetarian.
Special Consideration: Babies under 4 inches (10 centimeters) can carry Salmonella, a bacteria found in the intestines of animals and harmful to humans. Washing your hands after handling this turtle is necessary.
2. The Box Turtle—Rated “I” for Intermediate
This reptile is also known as the Box Tortoise, but is widely accepted as a Terrapin because of its love for a good swim. It is native to Mexico and North America, but is considered vulnerable due to these turtles being taken out of the wild for the pet trade, therefore when looking for one to purchase, please only deal with a reputable breeder (one that breeds their turtles, not taking them from the wild). Although it does make a good pet, we are rating it “I” for those intermediate pet owners with more experience.
- Length: Approximately 6 inches (15.2 centimeters) in length.
- Housing: Large rubber tote with heat lamp or an outdoor pond.
- Diet: Both protein and vegetable matter.
Special Considerations: This turtle normally hibernates (takes a season-long snooze) during the colder months.
3. The Painted Turtle—Rated “I” for Intermediate
The Painted Turtle has a beautiful red undercase to its shell and is widely found throughout the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and also from Canada to Mexico. It prefers to live in still-moving ponds or lakes, but is readily available within the pet industry. It does make a good pet for those with some experience in turtle care, but is not one that likes handling from its humans. This guy is rated “I.”
- Length: Rarely exceed 8 inches (20 centimeters) in length as an adult.
- Housing: Minimum of a 15 gallon tank (as a baby), with a basking place out of the water, heat lamp and places to safely hide under the water.
- Diet: Both protein and plant matter.
Special Considerations: A healthy Painted Turtle can live up to 50 years in captivity.
4. Northern Map Turtle—Rated “B” for Beginner
The Northern Map turtle received its name because of the markings on its skin and shell, which resembles the contours on a map. These markings come in shades of yellow, orange or tan with dark outlines. This turtle can be found throughout North America paddling around ponds, streams and lakes. It is rated “B” for beginners for those with large aquariums or outdoor ponds.
- Length: 4 to 6 inches in males (10 to 15 centimeters) and 7 to 10.75 inches in females (17.8 to 27.3 centimeters).
- Housing: Minimum for one male turtle is a 75 gallon tank; females need a minimum 125 gallon tank. Tanks also need a UVB lighting source and separate dry basking platform. Map turtles also do well in outdoor ponds at least 18 inches deep (46 centimeters) and containing a dry, basking area.
- Diet: Protein and vegetation.
Special Considerations: This turtle tends to be shy and doesn’t like to be handled. It can also live up to 30 years.
Further Reading: Northern Map Turtles via Austin’s Turtle Page.
5. Diamondback Terrapin—Rated “I” for Intermediate
One look at this terrapin and you will know why the Diamondback is sought after as a pet —it’s beautiful. Boasting a diamond-patterned shell and spotted skin, this turtle is a favorite among turtle-lovers. It is native to the eastern and southern areas of the United States and is thought to be the only turtle that lives exclusively in brackish water (partly salted). For this reason we have rated the Diamondback Terrapin as intermediate level.
- Length: Females grow to 8 inches long (20 centimeters) while males are only 5 inches long (12.7 centimeters).
- Housing: Minimum 20 gallon aquarium with a filtration system and plenty of aeration. (oxygen in water). It will need a basking area and a proper a UVB lighting source.
- Diet: Mostly pre-packaged protein, or fresh earthworms, frozen crayfish, shrimp.
Special Considerations: Water will need to be partially salted for optimum health of this species.
6. Mata Mata Turtle—Rated “E” for Expert
The Mata Mata is perhaps the coolest turtle of them all…it looks like a dead leaf! The shell is bumpy and contains brown, red and black colorations. It also has a pointed nose, a wide triangular head and textured neck that helps keep it camouflaged in the wild (hidden from predators). This turtle is rated “E” for those with serious turtle experience.
- Length: Up to 24 inches long (61 centimeters).
- Housing: Adult turtles require a tub at least 4 ft. by 4 ft. (1.2 by 1.2 meters), with water 8 –10 inches deep, as well as adequate filtration, plants and accessories to hide among.
- Diet: Live fish like platies, minnows, guppies, goldfish, etc.
Special Considerations: The Mata Mata can live upwards of 40 years, some have reached over 100 years-old! It also spends most of its time basking underwater.
7. Russian Tortoise—Rated “B” for Beginner
This adaptable little fella can be found naturally in the arid regions of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, Iran and Russia. In its natural habitat it lives in underground burrows and is only active during the warmer months, then will hibernate for the winter. We are rating the Russian Tortoise “B”, as most beginners should be successful keeping this reptile as long as its basic needs are being met.
- Length: 4 to 10 inches long (10 to 25.4 centimeters long).
- Housing: Does best in a large outdoor enclosure safe from predators (raccoons, fox, dogs, cats etc.). Indoors: minimum 50 gallon plastic tote with substrate (soil) of 60 percent topsoil and 40 percent clean sand.
- Diet: Mostly vegetable greens and flowers (dandelions, pansy, hibiscus etc.).
Special Considerations: Most of the tortoises in the pet trade are caught in the wild, so a visit to an experienced reptile veterinarian will be necessary when the pet is first obtained, to check for health issues.
8. African Sulcata Tortoise ~ Rated “E” for Expert
As its name suggests, the African Sulcata tortoise is native to Africa and the Sahara Desert. In their natural habitat these reptiles can dig burrows up to 10 feet deep (3 meters), to find adequate moisture for drinking and to escape the scorching heat of the day. It does require some specialized care so you should have experience with tortoises to keep this critter; rated “E.”
- Length: Around 33 inches long (83 centimeters) and can exceed weights of 70 pounds (31.8 kilograms)!
- Housing: Young tortoises can be kept in large aquariums (150 gallons and up) or large totes with substrate, lighting and a heat source. However, these guys grow quickly and will eventually need a large outdoor enclosure.
- Diet: High in fiber and calcium, low in protein and fat (vegetarian).
Special Considerations: Other than its massive adult size, this turtle can live from 50 to 150 years!
Group Two: Lizards
This group of reptiles falls under the heading of Squamata (‘scaled reptiles’), which has around 6,000 distinct species. However, we are only going to explore some of the more popular lizards kept as pets in this section.
1. Leopard Gecko—Rated “B” for Beginners
Even if you don’t think you’d like to have a lizard, the Leopard Gecko may just change your mind. This species comes in a variety of colors, patterns and sizes. It makes various vocalizations and can even lick its own eyeball with its tongue. How cool is that?! Plus, this little lizard is great for beginners.
- Length: Females up to 8 inches (20 centimeters); Males up to 10 inches (25.4 centimeters).
- Housing: 10 to 20 gallon tank with substrate, an undertank heating pad, plants and a hiding box.
- Diet: Live insects (mealworms, crickets).
Special Considerations: These lizards can be costly to purchase (can we give more info here? why are they costly, because of the live crickets they need) and can live to be around 20 years-old.
2. Bearded Dragon—Rated “B” for Beginners
Who wouldn’t want a pet with the scientific name, Pogona Vitticeps? Fun right? Besides having a cool title, this lizard also a has rows of “spikes” along its triangular-shaped head and other rows underneath its head which look like a beard when puffed up (they do this when they feel threatened). Since this reptile is not aggressive and seems to enjoy being handled once accustomed to it, we are rating it a “B”.
- Length: 12 to 24 inches long (30.5 to 61 centimeters) from head to end of tail.
- Housing: Minimum 55 to 60 gallon aquarium for adults, with substrate, UVB lighting and a heating pad for under the tank.
- Diet: Omnivores (meat and veggies).
Special Considerations: This lizard needs protein, so pinky mice (infant mice) and crickets will need to be used as food. Not surprisingly, this can get pricey.
3. Blue-tongued Skink—Rated “B” for Beginners
Not too many pets come with a blue tongue, but the Blue-tongued Skink does. This lizard has a lot of personality and a great disposition, which makes for easier handling. This species is normally found in the “land down under” (Australia), but has found its way to North America through breeding programs and the pet industry. This hefty fella is rated “B” for beginners.
- Length: Up to 24 inches long (61 centimeters).
- Housing: Adults should have a minimum 60 gallon tank with heating source, substrate and UVB lighting.
- Diet: Proteins, fruits, veggies and greens.
Special Considerations: Should be housed alone, as two males will fight and opposite sexes will breed.
4. Green Iguana—Rated “I” for Intermediate
This lizard is probably the most well-known and recognized of all pet reptiles. As an adult the Green Iguana has soft spines that run along its back, a fold of skin under its chin (a dewlap), a big scale below its ear and a really long tail. It is a relatively lazy pet that likes to bask and watch what’s going on in its surroundings. However, it can grow quite large so for this reason we are rating it “I” for intermediate reptile enthusiasts.
- Length: Up to 6 feet as an adult (1.8 meters).
- Housing: Minimum 8 feet long x 6 feet high x 3 feet wide cage (2.4m x 1.8m x 0.9 m), with ledges of different heights, a UVB lighting source and heat source.
- Diet: Greens, vegetables and fruits.
Special Considerations: This lizard gets huge, so be prepared to build a suitable enclosure or give this reptile its own room.
6. Green Anole—Rated “B” for Beginners
The Green Anole has been a popular pet since the 50s, most likely due to its small size, sticky toes that make it a great climber, and its affordable price tag. When the male of this species is trying to attract a female or defend its territory, it will display a beautiful flap of skin under its chin. This can also be “provoked” by putting a mirror in front of this lizard. We have rated this critter for beginners, but do not suggest it for young children.
- Length: 8 inches for males (20 centimeters) and up to 6 inches for females (15 centimeters).
- Housing: Tall aquarium with lots of greenery for hiding and climbing, full-spectrum UV lighting and substrate.
- Diet: Insects such as crickets and mealworms.
Special Considerations: A delicate lizard that cannot tolerate tight-gripped handling—no young children. Additionally, the tails of this species do break off very easily.
6. Chameleon—Rated “I” for Intermediate
Out of all the lizards kept as pets, the Chameleon is perhaps one of the most fascinating and most sought after. Some of the amazing qualities of this species is its ability to change color according to its surroundings. Plus, its eyes can move independently of each other, it has sticky toes for climbing, a long prehensile tail (that can grasp objects), and super-long tongue. Because this reptile does need some specialized care, we are rating it “I.”
- Length: Depending on the species they can range from 2–30 inches long (5 to 76.2 centimeters).
- Housing: Tall aquarium, wired cage or bird cage, a variety of branches for climbing, a UVB light source and a heat source.
- Diet: Insects, like mealworms.
Special Considerations: Water is consumed by licking it off of plant leaves, so make sure foliage is present in this little one’s cage.
7. Tokay Gecko—Rated “E” for Expert
The Tokay Gecko is toted for being one of the largest in the Gecko family today. It has velvety grey skin with brownish-red to bright red spots, and flecks that do have the ability to change color according to its surroundings. Due to its solitary nature and tendency to be aggressive, we are rating the Tokay for experts only.
- Length: Up to 12 inches long (30.5 centimeters).
- Housing: Minimum 20 gallon tank with substrate, branches for climbing, logs or caves for hiding and a proper heating source.
- Diet: Protein-based diet including crickets, mealworms and baby mice.
Special Considerations: Tends to bite and may never like being handled.
8. Nile Monitor—Rated “E” for Expert
This lizard is NOT for the inexperienced or the “faint of heart.” The Nile Monitor can be an aggressive lizard that will grow to be quite lengthy. This critter is known not only for its beauty, but for its love of swimming and its ability to climb trees. Due to its extreme size and temperament, this guy is definitely rated “E” for expert lizard-keepers.
- Length: Up to 8 feet long (2.4 meters).
- Housing: An enclosure at least twice their length, at least 8 feet high (2.4 meters), has branches to climb and a water source deep enough for swimming.
- Diet: Carnivorous, feed mostly on rodents.
Special Considerations: Due to its length, most Nile Monitor owners give this reptile its own room.
Group Three: Snakes
Snakes are also listed under the Squamata order with Serpentes as its suborder. These creatures are essentially considered legless lizards and are found on every continent except Antarctica. Let’s take a look at some of these exotic reptiles.
1. Corn Snake—Rated “B” for Beginners
The Corn Snake is a beautiful species to behold, featuring checkerboard patterned scales on its underside, and it’s orange or brownish-yellow top side with large, black-edged red blotches down the middle of its back. Aside from its beauty, the popularity of this snake is primarily due to its ease-of-care and handling, which makes it a great reptile for beginner snake-lovers.
- Length: Slender and from 24 to 72 inches long (61 to 182 centimeters).
- Housing: Aquarium should be at least half the length of the snake’s entire length, have a tight fitting lid, as well as a heat mat and substrate.
- Diet: Protein based diet.
Special Considerations: This snake eats mice primarily, so you can’t be squeamish.
2. Gopher Snake—Rated “B” for Beginner
In the wild the Gopher Snake prefers to spend its time on the ground and is oftentimes mistaken for a rattlesnake, due to their similarities in appearance. It is a bold and curious reptile that makes an excellent pet because of its hardiness and adaptability to new surroundings. Rated “B” for novice snake-lovers.
- Length: Heavy-bodied, reaches lengths up to 6 feet (1.8 meters).
- Housing: Large aquarium needed—30 gallon or more—for smaller adults, with substrate and a heating source.
- Diet: Mice and rats.
Special Considerations: This snake is a constrictor; it squeezes its prey before eating it.
3. California Kingsnake—Rated “B” for Beginner
The California Kingsnake is another popular choice amongst snake-enthusiasts everywhere. Its rich-colored, patterned scales make it an attractive reptile. Plus, its a relatively easy pet to care for. It is found in all of the 48 contiguous States, in many different habitats and conditions, and makes an excellent ‘beginner-snake’.
- Length: Up to 6 feet (1.8 meters)
- Housing: Minimum 20 gallon aquarium for adults with substrate, heating source and heating source.
- Diet: Primarily mice.
Special Considerations: Thawed dead mice are best, as live can inflict injuries on your snake.
4. Ball Python—Rated “B” for Beginners
The Ball Python got its name for its knack of curling itself into a tight ball (head tucked in coils) when it feels threatened. This reptile originates in Africa and is the smallest of its species. The Ball Python makes a good beginner snake as it is very docile and comes in a variety of colors and patterns.
- Length: 3 to 5 feet long (0.9 to 1.5 meters).
- Housing: 30-gallon aquarium for adults with substrate, sturdy branches for climbing, hiding places and ceramic heating stone.
- Diet: Mice or small to medium-size rats.
Special Considerations: This snake can live up to 30 years-of-age.
5. Rosy Boa – Rated “B” for Beginner
The Rosy Boa is a beautiful snake sporting three wide stripes in black, brown, orange or reddish-brown (depending on its exact species). It is covered in smooth scales and has a slightly larger neck than head. Interestingly, the Rosy Boa has to claw-like spurs on the base of its tail, thought to be vestigial legs retained from its lizard ancestors.
- Length: 24 to 36 inches long (61 to 91 centimeters).
- Housing: Minimum 10 to 15 gallon tank with tight-fitting lid, substrate, heating source and places to hide.
- Diet: Mice.
Special Considerations: When handling, try supporting rather than tightly grasping this species. This will make it less likely to want to escape your grasp, as it doesn’t like to feel restricted.
6. Milk Snake—Rated “B” for Beginner
With around 24 different subspecies of the Milk Snake, this species has become a popular choice among snake-keepers. It’s known for it’s colorful body and distinct black bands running down the length of the body, as well as its docile nature. Because of its ease-of-care we have rated this snake a “B” for beginners.
- Length: Up to 4 feet as adults (1.2 meters).
- Housing: Up to a 60 gallon tank for adults with tight-fitting lid, substrate and hiding places.
- Diet: Vitamin-dusted mice (a special vitamin supplement you can purchase that provides the added nutrients not found in live food alone).
Special Considerations: Best kept alone, as it can be aggressive during breeding season towards other snakes or even its human caretaker.
Group Four: Crocodiles
These mighty creatures fall under the subfamily of Crocodylinae or “true crocodiles.” They are found in their native lands of Asia, Africa, America and Australia. Only a very small number should ever be considered as a pet. We don’t suggest owning one as a pet but, for you you thrill-seekers out there, there may be two potential crocs in the market for adoption.
1. Cuvier’s Dwarf Caiman – Rated “EE” for Experienced Expert
The Cuvier’s Dwarf Caiman is one of the smaller species of crocs that are sometimes kept as pets. Albeit cute when they are babies, these reptiles will grow fast and are not as willing to be domesticated as other reptiles. In addition, this “pet” will also be very costly to house and will require special lighting, food and vitamins to keep it healthy. Strongly and emphatically rated “EE” for experienced experts.
- Length: Adult 4.9 feet (1.5 meters), and up to 15 pounds (6.8 kilograms).
- Housing: A 15 feet by 8 feet wide enclosure (4.6 by 2.4 meters), made up of half water and half dry land.
- Diet: Live fish, birds and rodents.
Special Considerations: These guys have a powerful bite (DUH), that can cause serious injury to both children and adults.
2. African Dwarf Caiman—Rated “EE” for Experienced Expert
This species is the smallest of all the <African Caimans and features heavy, dark body-armor and a yellowish underside. This species is also adorable as a baby, but as with other crocodiles, it grows quickly and needs a huge place to live. For these reasons the African Dwarf Caiman is rated “EE” for Experienced Experts.
- Length: Adults up to 5.9 feet (1.8 meters)
- Housing: Large enclosure with deep enough water for swimming and dry areas for basking.
- Diet: Protein-based, including things like fish, smaller reptiles and rodents.
Special Considerations: Can be aggressive and produce a nasty bite.
Wild Caught vs. Captive Bred
It is NEVER a wise idea to purchase a wild-caught reptile or attempt to capture one yourself. Wild-caught reptiles tend to be stressed and fearful, making them very difficult to handle and domesticate. In addition, animals from the wild may already be carrying parasites or possess other health issues that could lead to the death of other pets.
After you have made the decision to purchase a reptile, look for a reputable breeder or rescue organization in your area. Reptiles breed in captivity are accustomed to being handled and are usually healthier than those found in the wild. Additionally, the breeder or rescue organization can be a wealth of information for you down the road and are usually more than happy to answer any questions you have. Plus, they may even take the reptile back if you are having problems.
People love reptiles not only for their unique and interesting looks and personalities, but also because they’re fun to watch and to interact with. Whether you are a beginner, intermediate or expert, there are many reptiles to suit your level and interests. If we have peaked your interest in embarking on the adventures of reptile “parenting” we encourage you to do thourough research on the species that interests you most. Then be sure to purchase everything you need to keep your scaly pal happy and healthy for years to come. Happy reptile keeping!