Added 20 November 2000
There has always been some debate about the suitability of reptiles and amphibians as pets, and even what constitutes a "pet". This short article is intended to discuss both issues and in particular to help people decide whether they really want to purchase a herp, or whether perhaps they would be better off with a bird or mammalian pet.
Mention the word "pet" to most people and the chances are that they will probably think of an interactive animal companion such as a dog or cat that they can play with, romp around on the floor with or at least stroke. Smaller animals such as rats (who are indeed very companionable) or rabbits (less so, in fact, in many cases) would probably also fall into this category. However, once you add a word like "fish" into the equation, the meaning is a bit broader. Obviously nobody can pick up a fish and cuddle it, play with it or in most cases even stroke it (the fish will either flee or bite you, depending on the species). Yet the fact remains that (so I am told) fish are worldwide the most widely-kept companion animals.
So why do so many people keep fish? Is it for their often colourful beauty? Their grace of movement in the water? The "alien" factor of having creatures within one's house that can live in an environment we would drown in? The answer I suggest may be different in each case: some will enjoy the easy familiarity and antics of the common goldfish, others the luminescent colours of tropical fish, and yet others the strangeness or even reputation of such fish as gars or piranhas. Again, some people are happy to maintain a tank of relative hardy and trouble-free coldwater fish, while others delve into the subject, keep many different species and go on to tackle the far more difficult marine species or have large ponds dug in the garden for expensive koy carp.
Keeping reptiles and amphibians is in many ways akin to fish keeping. Although some species can be held and will develop an pet-owner relationship with their keeper, most are happy to be left alone: indeed, most are happy without the company of any of their own species, let alone human handling. Most herps are kept for their colour, their strangeness or in some cases their antics, which can actually be quite entertaining.
Perhaps a word is in order about the "strangeness" or "alien" factor. It is true that some people are always attracted by novelty, or the suggestion of something weird or exotic. It is also true that many of these people rarely settle down (at least when young) with one thing, but are always on the lookout for the next fad. But this does not lessen the legitimacy of the attractiveness of reptiles and amphibians precisely because they are cold-blooded. The brains of reptiles and amphibians are different in structure to those of mammals and to a lesser degree birds, and most if not all do think differently and therefore behave differently from mammalian pets. That is not to underestimate their intelligence: they just are different. Add to that the implications of their "cold-blooded" body system (basking, etc) and you have what is to most people, particularly in Western cities, a group of creatures whose way of life is fascinating to us.
The following is a brief guide, grouped in ascending order of difficulty. Please note that it is intended to be general and that there will always be exceptions to the rule: for that reason I refer the reader to more specific pages elsewhere on this site.
Snakes are in many ways the easiest herp pet to keep. They don't normally need a vast amount of heat, but nor do they need to be kept cool like most amphibians. Most have no need of special ultra-violet (UV) lighting and most only eat once a week. The majority are not overly active creatures and are quite happy with a modest amount of space, curled up in a hidebox or else coiled around a branch. They will also for the most part coil quite contentedly around their owner, although this should be avoided with large snakes even if tame. By and large they are not interactive in the sense that they "do a lot", but for most people who want to keep snakes this is merely an added bonus. See our Snake pages.
By non-aquatic amphibians I mean those that do not need a body of water to live in for some of all of the year. Many frogs and toads fall into this category, as do some terrestrial salamanders such as the Tiger or Fire Salamanders. If anything most amphibians need to be kept cool rather than warm. Some do eat voraciously, others are content with two or three meals a week. If you want a pet to hold, however, amphibians are not for you: their skin reacts badly to our dry, warm-blooded touch, and similarly they often secrete toxins that if accidentally ingested can be extremely uncomfortable or even dangerous. See our Amphibian pages.
Lizards are not quite as easy to keep as snakes: most require ultra-violet lighting to stay healthy, and virtually all require more room to move about. Some species also require quite a hot environment, usually those that spend their days out in the desert. Many also need live insects as food (which are nevertheless quite easily obtainable). Having said that, there are some lizards which are very easy to keep, some which don't take up a huge amount of space, and some which will allow themselves to be handled and will even respond in a pet-like manner. See our Lizard pages.
By aquatic amphibians I mean those that do require a body of water to live in for some of all of the year. Some frogs and toads fall into this category, as do most newts. Even some species that normally live on land may take to the water for a few months in each year as part of their breeding cycle. The same requirements go as for non-aquatic amphibians, but obviously water quality is very important, plus a proper aquarium that won't leak. Some newts or semi-aquatic frogs and toads can be kept outside, either in ordinary ponds or adapted greenhouses. If you are interested in the visual aspects of herps and have kept fish before, this could be the right choice for you. See our Amphibian pages.
It may surprise some people, but shelled reptiles are actually quite demanding to keep in captivity. Even European tortoises require certain conditions and equipment (heated and covered shelter) if they are to be kept outdoors, while most tortoise species will probably fare better indoors if kept in northern Europe or the colder parts of North America. Box Turtles, which are semi-aquatic, are also tricky to keep in captivity. Aquatic chelonians such as Red-Eared Sliders (known as "terrapins" in the UK) or Painted Turtles are easier in some ways but obviously need a proper (and often large) aquarium setup with filters and/or regular cleaning. Note also that some aquatic turtles, such as Map Turtles, are also very sensitive to water quality. The fact is that baby tortoises or small terrapins look cute, but they do need a lot of reading and planning before you buy one. See our Chelonian pages.
Just for completeness, a note on the remaining herps. Crocodilians are far too dangerous, too restricted or too demanding for all but zoos or experts. The tuatara is in danger of extinction and may only be kept, if at all, by accredited zoos. Amphisbaenians and caecilians are (mostly) limbless and burrowing herps (one reptilian, one amphibian) that are highly secretive and about whom there is little hard information, and as such are unlikely to appeal to most people. I would not recommend them until more is learnt about them.
If any of the above sounds somewhat tough, that is because I want to outline any drawbacks or difficulties to keeping herps as pets. I love these animals and do believe that many can be kept in captivity without harm, but equally I have seen and heard of too many cases where people have rushed in to buy something that was not suitable for them or where they were badly advised by the retailer/seller. Also please remember that, like a dog at Christmas, any sort of pet is for life. If you find that you have taken on something unwisely, or your circumstances have changed, then you have a responsibility to your pet to find a new home for it with someone who can look after it, or at least find an animal shelter that can take it. Whatever you do, you should not allow it to die or dump it in the wild (either of which are incidentally highly illegal now).
If on the hand you are still interested in herps and would like to find out more about them, either with a view to keeping one or just for the fascination of what is a fascinating group of animals, then please look around this site. There are also plenty of good books on reptiles and amphibians, available either from your pet shop or your local library, and I would encourage you to read a coupe: it's often easier to curl up with a book than to sit staring at a screen.
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