I used to think that having a reptile as a pet was a somewhat strange idea. They are interesting looking and exotic, but how much interaction do you really have with a lizard? Fluffy the boa constrictor isn’t exactly going to play fetch with you in the back yard. They seemed more like high maintenance decorations than pets. Then I met Alexis the iguana. She had come to my exotics rotation at CSU because her abdomen was so full of egg follicles that she looked like a sack full of shooter marbles. Her body couldn’t seem to choose whether to reabsorb them or let them mature into eggs so she could lay them, so she was stuck in limbo so stuffed with follicles that she was wasting away because she couldn’t eat. We spayed her, one of my first and most memorable surgeries, and she was quickly on the road to recovery.

During her stay with us Alexis was surly. Any time we came to pick her up she would lash her whiplike tail at us and turn and glare over her shoulder. Clearly she didn’t feel good and she knew that being handled by the doctors was going to involve something she wasn’t going to like. The moment that I really realized that not only does this individual iguana have a personality, but she knew the difference between the people around her and had very specific likes and dislikes, came when her owner arrived to pick her up. We had put her on the floor because she was big and difficult to handle while she was lashing at us from the top of an exam table. The moment the door opened and she saw him she sprinted across the room to leap into his arms like the slow-motion reunion of long lost lovers in a soft-focus wildflower covered field. As clear as it was that she did not like us, it was equally clear that she absolutely adored her owner.

That episode really underscored the fact that when we take a living being into our homes and make that tacit promise to properly provide for it for the rest of its life we are making a serious commitment. With reptiles that commitment often involves more effort that it does for our more common mammalian pets. It can appear that a turtle or a small lizard or snake would be a good choice as a low maintenance pet for a child since they live in an enclosed area and on first glance seem to have few needs. Unfortunately many reptiles also fall victim to the attitude that if they die as a result of neglect it is not a big deal since it was only a turtle or a snake or a lizard after all. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In Colorado we have more of a challenge providing appropriate conditions for many of the common reptiles that are available as pets. Many lizards and snakes come from tropical regions that have very high humidity, constant warm temperatures, and fairly unchanging levels of daylight and darkness throughout the year--essentially a place that could be called the anti-Colorado. Reptiles are often much less flexible about their environmental conditions, and do not possess much ability to thrive in anything less than an exact replication of what they are specifically adapted to. For tropical species, pains must be taken to provide appropriate humidity, heat, daylight exposure , and diet at all times without fail. Spending 30 minutes with a body temperature below 70 degrees is enough time for a python’s immune system to break down to the point that it can develop fatal pneumonia.

Reptiles that come from temperate areas like ours are sometimes hardier in the conditions we have here naturally, but they still require more care than your average cat or dog. Red eared slider water turtles are often presented as easy, low-maintenance, (and sometimes disposable) pets, but in reality they are one of the highest maintenance kinds of reptiles because they require so much cleaning and water quality control. Temperate reptiles often hibernate in the winter and an understanding of that process and proper preparations to either facilitate or prevent hibernation must be made.

If you want a reptile as a pet, not only do you need to completely understand its requirements, but you need to understand your risk of contracting salmonella from the reptile and have procedures in place that will keep your family’s health intact as well. This means doing more than spending 15 minutes talking to the guy at the pet store when you decide to pick up a Uromastyx lizard because it looks cool. There is a wealth of both good and bad information on the internet. Breeders are often good sources for information about what works and what doesn’t. “Reptile Magazine” is a publication that consistently provides good information for the general public for a variety of reptile species. Veterinarians can be helpful as well, but you need to do some work to find one that has reptile specific education and experience with reptiles. If your veterinarian doesn’t know much she may very well be able to point you in a direction to get more information. You owe it to the life you are pledging to care for that you take the time to do it right.