Responsible Reptile Ownership for Kids

Whether the critters creep, crawl, slither, or slide, our children – curious as they are – have all “oohhed” and “ahhhed” over the cool creatures of the cold-blooded class. The Wild Kratts aren’t the only ones who love reptiles, as these exotic animals appeal to many of our kids. Reptiles come in many different shapes and sizes, with neat rotating eyes, long curling tails, and all the bold, bright colors of the rainbow.

Today, many “big box” pet shops sell a variety of these exotic species to even the most novice pet-owner, including children, or parents for their children. While many of these creatures can make great pets for kids, there is a whole different set of rules that apply when deciding to become a RESPONSIBLE reptile owner.

Unfortunately, too often a family purchases a reptile, and doesn’t know how to care for the creature, becomes fearful of it, and then, with very few reptile rescues available, releases it into the wild. Not only does this obviously result in the deaths of many of these creatures, it also destroys the natural habitat in many places.

For example, there was an epidemic in Florida where people who had purchased Burmese Pythons were releasing this invasive species into the Everglades when the snakes got too large and the owners were either fearful or simply could not care for them. This not only threw off the entire eco-system in the glades, but also required the state to open up and allow hunting of these creatures because it was creating a systemic imbalance in the area. Similarly there have been many cases in Florida where the overpopulation of wild iguanas has had to be eradicated by the state and pest control companies because of the havoc this non-native species reeks on the environment.

Just like dogs and cats, reptiles and amphibians require a certain type of care, and although truthfully they are probably less demanding than “Fluffy” or “Fido”, their daily needs are not as well-known and not as easily met. The grocery store doesn’t sell live mice, nor will your child necessarily be comfortable with feeding a rabbit to his pet snake. These are just some of the very serious considerations you must look into BEFORE purchasing a reptile.

So if you and your child are contemplating welcoming a cold-blooded creature into your home, here are some important things to consider:

Lifespan


Many reptiles live for a very long time in captivity. Oftentimes new reptile owners do not realize the commitment that actually comes along with one of these cold-blooded critters because they are accustomed to the lifespan of typical house pets such as cats, dogs, rabbits, or hamsters. The average lifespan of most species of pet snakes (pythons, boa constrictors, corn snakes) is approximately 20-30 years. While certain breeds such as the ball python or the red tail boa can be very docile and thus amenable pets for kids, the commitment to one of these slithery friends is likely to outlive even your kid’s college days.

Taking lifespan into consideration can be even more important when you consider purchasing a pet tortoise for your child. Sulcatas, or African Spurred Tortoises, are incredibly friendly, docile, and even social pets. They are great with kids and easy to care for with the right amount of space, HOWEVER these slow-moving torts can live anywhere from 50-150 years with proper care and nutrition. Now that’s a commitment! So before saying yes to that cute tiny tortoise or scaly snake, research the breed and ensure you can commit to the time necessary to care for this pet.

Although pets and their care are a great way to teach your child responsibility, plan now for the future and what you will do when your child is living in a college dorm and cannot have a tortoise roaming the halls.

Diet & Live Feeding


There are so many reptile and amphibian species to choose from that if you really do your research you can find one right for your child and your family. But before deciding to spring for that awesome, blue gecko your son or daughter is begging for, make sure you know what it eats. Although there are many commercial pet foods out there for reptiles, most do not adequately meet their nutritional needs. Many reptiles still require a protein source, by which we mean live food… crickets, worms, roaches, mice, or rabbits.

Now, if just the thought of this grosses you out, you should probably tell your child they have to wait until they’re older for that Savannah Monitor or Carpet Python, but if not, look into your options and availability. Discuss the required diet of many reptiles with your kids and make sure they are prepared for feeding a live critter to their pet.

Feeding crickets and worms to a lizard does not usually bother kids as much as feeding a mouse to a snake. Also, most pet shops sell crickets, worms, mice, and rats, but feeder rabbits are harder to come by, so know how big your pet is going to get. You can usually decide between live or frozen food too (if you’re cool with storing mice in your freezer), but many reptiles are picky and it will take them awhile to warm up to the idea of eating dead critters, as their senses are designed for and accustomed to eating live food.

If you and your child do not want the responsibility of feeding something live food, there are still many reptiles out there for you to choose from. Uromastyx Lizards, iguanas, and tortoises are all easy to care for vegetarians who love greens with the occasional fruit treat.

Feeding these critters is as simple as providing a salad of greens, carrots, squashes, and even edible flowers like hibiscus to keep them happy. They are also all very docile and friendly pets who are great with kids when handled frequently and properly trained.

Habitat


Different species and breeds of reptiles require different habitats. Many of these creatures come from literally two completely different environments, namely the desert OR the rainforest. That said, you need to know your habitat and either have it set up or be prepared to set it up quickly before purchasing your pet. A great idea is to allow your older child who is begging for a lizard to research the type of habitat required for your new pet.

Many reptiles can be placed in either a glass tank, screened enclosure, or wooden box, at least when they are babies, but be prepared for them to grow quickly and purchase a larger setup from the beginning to cut costs later on. Commercial substrates are also available and always recommended based on the specific needs of your pet. Desert sand may be appropriate for your lizard, while a frog (really amphibians) and some lizards may need a dual tank with a water and a moss-like substrate that stays damp.

Never use dirt, sand, or mulch from outdoors as these can contain bacteria and toxins harmful to your non-native species of reptile or amphibian.

Lighting is an essential component for most of these animals as they will require heat lamps, UVA/UVB lamps, and sometimes even night lights depending on the species. All of these bulbs and lamps can usually be purchased at a pet shop or online, but they can be costly, so be prepared.

If you live in a warmer climate you may also consider a cage or enclosure that allows your pet some time outdoors in the actual sunlight, however always ensure their safety first from other animals or escape.

Finally, know the water requirements of your reptile or amphibian. Most desert lizards don’t drink water, but like to have a pool to soak in. That said, some of those same species should not have a water bowl in their tank because it creates humidity and the humid enclosure can cause bacteria to rot their skin.

With all the options available you are sure to find the habitat care for your pet is simple once you are in the know. Then simply ensure your pet’s cage is kept clean and neat with regular care such as removing feces and changing substrates and making sure they get some time in the light and the dark.

Size and Temperament


When allowing your child to chose a pet reptile, a crucial consideration is not what size it is now, but what size it will become. Just like puppies are cute and little so are tiny tortoises that end up weighing 200 pounds and snakes that grow to 20 feet long. Many reptiles reach their full-size rather quickly, so although they may seem small at the time of purchase that won’t last long.

Several breeds of pet lizards reach their full-size within 18 months, while others can take up to 10 years. Considering what size they will become at the time of purchase allows you to be prepared as they grow, but also to plan ahead and purchase or build a larger enclosure so they have room to grow. If you require your child to delve into research on the species they would prefer, there are specific space requirements available online for a majority of reptiles commonly kept as pets.

Oftentimes size and temperament go hand in hand because the larger the reptile gets, with insufficient handling and training, the more afraid people become of the pet. Lizards, snakes, and tortoises can all be friendly and docile pets, however they are not the same as a cat or dog. They will scratch and bite out of fear or accidentally, and it will be a common occurrence that you as a reptile owner must be prepared for.

Most reptiles are trained with regular handling and human contact. Bearded dragons, chameleons, uromastyx, and iguanas are a few of the lizards that can be very calm and sweet-natured if handled VERY frequently.

They must get used to being held and petted in order to become comfortable… they are not like dogs or cats that will approach you to get this loving; rather you must approach them carefully and respectfully from the time they are babies, as instinctually they avoid humans. Unfortunately, even the friendliest lizard is likely to scratch occasionally as they have very sharp claws and will “grab on” when you try and pick them up.


Reptiles can be great pets for kids because they are exotic, fun to observe, and teach us lessons about uncommon or non-native species and their habitats. The carnivorous breeds also teach a very good lesson about the circle of life if you think your child is old enough to understand and accept that reality. However, responsibility is a key component to the ownership of one of these incredible creatures because they live for a long time, require regular care, and aren’t as easy to love as other pet species.

Understanding that reptiles are not the same as common house pets is a necessity because although they can be tame and friendly, they still have a limited ability to reason and are more conditioned to their environment than other house pets. Meaning a snake whose cage is only opened when he is fed will not recognize the difference between a rat and your arm if he is hungry.

Your child needs to be invested in the life of his reptile if he thinks he is old enough to own one. And with a little bit of research and a few simple rules your reptile pet can become an exciting and entertaining part of your family.

If you decide to add a cold-blooded critter to your family, check out these 6 Tips for Keeping your Pet happy, healthy, and safe in the New Year to ensure you’re addressing all your pet’s needs.

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Kristin Depaula

Kristin is a native Floridian who loves warm weather and sunshine but owns too many scarves and boots. She lives at the World's Most Famous Beach with her husband, 3 boys and enough animals both warm and cold blooded to make up a zoo. She is a practicing attorney who spends her days working with at-risk and delinquent youth and her nights being a Montessori Mama to her independent, strong willed little humans. On the weekends you can find her at soccer games, chasing her boys at the Beach or cooking for her husband who suffers from Crohn's disease but is healing with a healthy diet. In her free time, Kristin loves reading and laying by the pool.

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