More Australians than ever are choosing reptiles as their pet of choice with numbers of the scaly sidekicks more than doubling from 194,000 to more than 426,000 between 2019 to 21, according to the Pets and the Pandemic report from Animal Medicines Australia (AMA).

As flexible working arrangements have become the new norm post-pandemic, pet ownership has accelerated with the Pets and the Pandemic report from AMA revealing almost 70 per cent of households now own at least one pet.

Contrary to some media reports of pandemic loneliness driving pet acquisition, the report found it was opportunity rather than desperation driving sales. Most households reported it was the ability to work from home that finally allowed them to acquire a longed-for new animal.

Jumping from two to four per cent of all pet ownership between 2019-21, reptiles are increasingly popular because they are generally small, easy to maintain, non-allergenic and apartment friendly.

“Reptiles have wide appeal due to their compact size, relative ease of maintenance, and not least because they are incredibly fascinating to watch,” says Ben Dessen, Retail Manager at Kellyville Pets.

“Making no noise, nasty odours or messy fur to worry about, people with allergies to pet dander are particularly well suited to a scaly companion,” he says.

Tim Mensforth, Managing Director of iPetz, a reptile enthusiast and breeder with almost 30 years of experience agrees, adding: “With a lot of people moving into townhouses or units where you’re not allowed to keep a dog or a cat, people are heading towards native animals like reptiles.

“They’re very low maintenance, you can feed them every couple of weeks and go away on holidays without having someone come in to look after them,” he says. “They’re fantastic animals.”

Although relatively easy to care for, there’s still a range of dos and don’ts relevant to caring for reptiles that everyone considering buying one should consider, says Dessen.

“While reptiles have less maintenance requirements than more traditional pets – there’s no grooming or brushing required for a bluetongue lizard,” he jokes. “They do have a very specific set of requirements that need to be met for them to live a happy, healthy, and enriched life.”

Count the cost

“Reptile keeping comes with a lot of responsibility, like with all pets,” says Dr David Vella, Director of Sydney Exotics and Rabbit Vets. 

As a vet who loves treating reptiles, Dr Vella says counting the cost from a financial, spatial and time management perspective before investing is imperative. 

“Researching the specific requirements for a particular species is vital for successful keeping,” he says. 

“Different species require different husbandry and feeding. There are some reptiles that are easier to keep than others, while some species require a lot of experience to keep successfully.”

Dessen agrees, saying it’s crucial to weigh the responsibilities carefully as reptiles are long-lived with specific requirements, so caring for them is a long-term commitment. 

“All reptiles will require a specialised enclosure, heating, lighting and thermostat as well as natural furnishings and a varied diet,” he says. 

“If cared for correctly, some reptile species can live for a very long time, with pythons living for 20 years or longer and turtles living for an amazing 50 to 60 years. So, it’s critical to get things right from the start.”

The big thing with reptiles is proper heating and lighting, according to Mensforth, who says it’s all about simulating the reptiles’ native tropical environment. 

“Most of your reptiles are tropical animals, not all of them, but most of them are, so you have to make sure their caging requirements are correct. 

“The initial outlay is going to cost you a few dollars, but if you do it properly the first time the animal is going to live for a long time,” making the investment well worth it, he says.

According to Mensforth, the ideal temperature for most reptiles ranges between 28 to 32 degrees Celsius. Setting up the cage with a cool and warm end allows them to thermoregulate their body temperature throughout the day. 

Start small

“The best entry-level reptiles for children and families include the central bearded dragon, blue tongue lizard as well as children’s and spotted pythons due to their small size and docile nature,” says Dessen.

“Reptiles such as geckos are fascinating to keep but are very delicate and do not tolerate handling, so are not as well suited to younger children,” he says.

“Turtles are by far the highest maintenance pet reptiles, requiring large tanks and regular water changes.”

Dr Vella adds that it’s wise to keep your expectations realistic when starting. “Enclosures can be adapted and increased in size with the growth of the reptile,” he says.

“Young turtles, for example, can be kept in a 1.2m tank and small lizards and snakes can start off in a 60cm long enclosure.”

If you’re a reptile novice, it makes sense to start with “what we call the pet shop animals,” says Mensforth.

“These are introductory species to a lot of people when they start keeping reptiles, it’s usually your central bearded dragon, children’s pythons, spotted python, eastern bluetongue.”

Although, Mensforth warns prospective reptile owners to proceed with caution. In his experience, once people have one reptile, it’s usually the case that “they can’t stop until the house is full and they’ve got to move”.

Enlist the experts

The Pets and the Pandemic report cited at the outset, that participants said pets of all sorts had positively impacted their lives throughout the pandemic, primarily as they provided joy and comfort and were good for mental health.

“Sharing the home with a reptile connects people with nature by bringing a small slice of that animal’s natural habitat into the living room,” says Dessen

With so much to be gained from keeping a reptile, it follows that investing in specialist care is well with the time, effort, and money necessary. 

“There are more and more vets getting up to speed with native animals, including reptiles,” says Mensforth. For new reptile owners, he recommends finding the best vet through your local herpetological society. 

“For someone who is starting off, they are an ideal place to go and talk to people and find out who are the best vets,” he says. “You can even get on Facebook and join a few groups” to ask for recommendations, says Mensforth. 

Dr Vella says: “Specific specialisation in reptile medicine and surgery is a very difficult accreditation to acquire. Most reptile vets that see reptiles in Australia have a special interest in reptiles but are not specialists in this field.”

Still, that doesn’t mean seeing a vet without official specialisation is a waste of time. “I encourage any vet that is evenly remotely interested in seeing reptiles to do so,” says Dr Vella. “They are fascinating creatures, and we have a lot to learn from them.”

This article was originally published in the Nov-Jan issue of Pet Industry News.

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