Choosing Your New Reptile
Looking into the personality and needs of each of these reptiles and seeing which might be the most suitable for you is a really important first step.
Choosing your new reptile
Reptiles encompass a range of species, including favourites such as bearded dragons, leopard geckos, tortoises, terrapins and corn snakes. While these may have some similarities, such as being cold-blooded, they are a very diverse group.
Looking into the personality and needs of each of these reptiles and seeing which might be the most suitable for you is a really important first step. From there, it’s time to think about where you might get your new family member or members from – don’t forget, even reptiles can sadly end up available for adoption!
- Bearded dragons: Bearded dragons are a common ‘starter lizard’ but this doesn’t mean they are easy to keep well. Living for up to ten years, ‘beardies’ are often seen as good pets as they are curious, awake in the day and generally don’t mind regular handling.
- Tortoises: Ranging from the 6cm long speckled tortoise to the 1.5m giant Galapagos tortoise these placid grazers are well known for their exceptionally long lifespans, and many are owned by more than one generation of a family. These aren’t a pet to get unless you are in for the long haul!
- Leapard Gekhos: Beautiful leopard geckos come in a range of colours, or ‘morphs’, and are great fun to watch and handle – which is good as these little guys can live for twenty years! Leopard geckos have a fairly simple diet and are most active around dawn and dusk. They are fast though, and might not be suitable for younger children.
- Corn Snakes: Generally calm and able to be handled, corn snakes are common UK pets and are generally friendlier than some other snake species. If you don’t fancy feeding defrosted mice though, a snake might not be for you!
- Terrapins: While not as long lived as many tortoises, terrapins (also known as pond sliders) can still live for thirty years, and some have been documented at over forty! With complex needs, and a fast growth rate, it is important to research these water-based pets carefully before you commit.
Lifespan is also important when looking at getting a new pet – the life expectancy of reptiles varies hugely, and knowing approximately how long you are committing to is important. A baby tortoise is a huge investment of time, often not just of yours but of the next generation, and even relatively short-lived reptiles such as chameleons can live for five to ten years old with the right species and conditions. Whoever you choose, you need to be sure you can look after your reptile for as long as they need.
While choosing between young reptiles and an adult will very much depend on you and your family’s preference and circumstances, it is always worth considering adopting. Pre-owned pets may be calmer and already used to handling, and you get the joy of knowing you have given an older pet a second chance at a loving home.
- Young reptiles - Young reptiles, just like most young pets, have to learn how to socialise. While for more placid species, such as tortoises, this isn’t a difficult learning curve, jumpy species such as geckos or predators such as snakes may find this more difficult. Mind you, most reptiles of any size or age can move at speed if they want to and they are warm enough!
- Older reptiles - Older pets are often already socialised although, like any pet in a new environment, they will take a little time to settle in. This can speed up integrating into a new family, and may reduce the risk of accidents or loss. Any pet coming from an environment where they are regularly handled will have an advantage over an unhandled pet in terms of socialising and handling. Don’t forget though, all reptiles are individuals, and have their own unique personalities.
Reptiles are very complicated pets, and their needs are often underestimated. While, with the right set-up, they can be less daily work than some other pets, they do have very specific requirements and can struggle hugely if these are not met. These needs, and sometimes the costs associated with them, are big drivers for reptiles ending up available for adoption.
While rescue is a great way to help pets in need, getting the right reptile for your family is the most important consideration, and good pet shops such as Pets At Home can be a great place to look for your new additions, depending on species! The main consideration when looking at purchasing from a pet shop is to use a reputable store. Make sure that the animals are in the very best health, and the people working in the store know their needs, individually and as a species. This means having staff who are specially trained, and prepared to give you advice and support tailored to your pet and circumstances. This should include knowledge about where they come from, how much handling they have had and how best to care for them. Did you know that Pets At Home are licenced to sell reptiles? That means that they have to be inspected by the council every year to make sure that they are meeting all the required standards. You can read more about the high standards you should expect from your pet shop below.
Importantly, try and source UK captive-bred reptiles. These are likely to be healthier, and also supports responsible breeding, discourages wild capture, and reduces the stress of transport. It is also currently illegal to trade in or import wild-caught tortoises.
- Re-homing centre - Rehoming centres are often not considered when potential owners are deciding where to get their new pet from, and this can also lead to a build-up of unwanted pets. This means that there are a wealth of reptiles available who are looking for a loving home! These reptiles are often well handled, may be calmer than juveniles, and you get the satisfaction of giving an unwanted pet a second chance at being part of a family.
Luckily there are many private adoption agencies or rescue groups, some of which work out of centres and some which use foster homes. Support Adoption for Pets is a good place to look for rescue centres.
- Tortoises - An exception to this is tortoises. Some tortoise breeds are highly regulated and if you would like to purchase a tortoise it is advised that you deal directly with a recommended UK breeder. This will also involve paperwork, which is explained in more detail further in this article.
There is a thriving breeding community for many of the common reptiles, especially more prolific breeders such as bearded dragons. This can be home breeding or stores that have expanded to include a breeding collection. Often, this breeding focuses on developing genetic lines, especially those related to colour.
Breeders, much like pet shops, have a wide range of skills, equipment and knowledge. This means it is important to have confidence that you are dealing with someone who has the experience to breed the healthiest reptiles, and give you the support you need to keep them happy and well going forward
Whatever species you are looking for, try and source UK captive-bred reptiles rather than wild-caught or imported pets. These are likely to be healthier, discourages wild capture, and reduces the stress of transport.
- Online - Online rehoming is also a common source of reptiles. This may be due to a change in circumstance for the current owner, or a realisation that their pet is too much of a commitment. While online rehoming offers a reptile a second change it is important to check that they are not being sold due to health issues, that they are appropriately socialised, and that they will suit you and your family. Online rehoming usually comes with no guarantees that the pet can be returned if you discover a problem once you get home, so it is important to be sure before you commit. Again, if you are rehoming a tortoise, make sure that the trade is legal under CITES and you have any paperwork you need.
- Tortoises - For tortoises, several common species cannot be sold without a licence, as they are on the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) annex A. Before you purchase a tortoise, always check if the breed needs to be sold with accompanying paperwork and that everything you are receiving is legally correct. This includes a microchip for large enough tortoises – photographs are not considered enough for legal identification.
- Good breeders - Good breeders can be found by asking a local reptile vet for referrals, via various reptile clubs which usually have an online presence, via forums and word of mouth. If you have any doubts about a seller of any kind, always stop the purchasing process. You can always go back if your change your mind!
While we would always suggest trying adopting before buying, if you can’t find the right reptile for you, you may want to look at pet shops. Importantly, pet shops are not all the same, and getting your new reptile from a reputable pet shop is critical – a happy, healthy start in life will set you both up for success.
So, how do you identify a ‘good’ pet shop?
- Information Provided - There is plenty of information available. A good pet shop will want make sure you know everything you need to about caring for your reptile. This means that there should be plenty of information available – both from the people working with them, and available as leaflets or information sheets to take away.
- Questions - They ask questions. Just like with breeders, the long-term health and welfare should be the number one consideration for a pet shop. This means if you don’t ‘fit the bill’ as an owner for a specific species, you should expect to be refused a pet, or redirected towards a more suitable pet type. If selling you pets seems more important than checking the pet is right for you, this should be a red flag.
- Enrichment - Enrichment means giving the right environment to keep pets stimulated. For reptiles this will depend on their needs, but can include pools, trees for climbing and logs to hide underneath.
- Space - The amount of space needed will depend on the pet, but you should expect to see pets showing natural behaviours. Interestingly, some reptile species do better in smaller enclosures than larger ones, so it is important that you know the requirements of the species you are interested in.
- Regular handling - Especially for prey species, who are naturally very wary, regular handling from being babies is important for socialisation. Reptiles in pet shops need this too, and should be handled regularly if handling is appropriate. Pets who are calm when handled properly are a good indication that this has been happening.
- Training - If you have to wait for a specific member of staff to help you with picking your pet, this is a good sign. Training for employees is a great way to identify that the pet shop prioritises the needs of the pets, and while you might have to wait longer to speak to the right person, you’ll know they have the knowledge and expertise you need to help you make the right decisions.
- Clean - Reptiles should be clean, including around the back end.
- Regular health checks - The reptiles receive regular health checks. Reptiles should be checked every day, and isolated and taken to the vet if they are showing any signs of being unwell.
- Food & water - All reptiles need access to water, at all times, and provided food should be good quality. Old or soiled food should be removed, as well as uneaten live food.
Although a vet check is recommended for all new pets, you should also have a check over of your potential new family member before you bring them home to make sure you can’t spot any warning signs of them being unhealthy or poorly handled. It is also worth checking with wherever you get your pet(s) from to see if they have had any screening vet checks, as well as any health concerns, in the past.
- Eyes - Eyes should be clean and free from any build-ups. Check there is no obvious swelling or lack of symmetry around the head. This is a common area for parasites.
- Shell - For reptiles with a shell, check the shell is firm and free from defects.
- Handling - Handle them yourself if appropriate. Pets who have been regularly handled since birth should be already quite tame. Reptiles should seem aware of their surroundings.
- Mouth - Ideally, check inside the mouth which should be a light pink.
- Skin - Skin should be smooth and supple, with no bite marks, burns, scratches or dulling. Note that in species which shed there may be times where skin changes can be seen – the seller should be able to advise on skin condition in these cases.
As exciting and a time as getting a new reptile is, it is important to remember that getting a new pet is a transaction, and you need to make sure everything is above board. This means exchanging paperwork which, while not very glamorous, is the best way to protect you and the pet shop, breeder or rescue centre if there are any problems.
Here are some of the paperwork items you might want for your new reptile:
- An agreement - Anything you agree verbally with the breeder, rescue centre, previous owner or pet shop should be documented and signed. This includes if they have agreed to take the pet back if there are any problems, and any other commitments either of you have made.
- Receipt - Just like any monetary exchange, it is best to have documentation of the money you have paid, signed by both you and the seller. If you get a pet from a rescue centre or pet shop, you should receive a receipt for any fees paid just as you normally would.
- Legal documentation - For any reptiles purchased that are on the CITES list Appendix A, you will need valid certification. This includes several common tortoise species. Some chameleons, boas, pythons, poison-arrow frogs and crocodiles are also listed under CITES, and may need documentation. Please note that legal requirements are always subject to change, so we would recommend always checking the most up-to-date legal information with DEFRA before purchasing a reptile.
- Vet check certification - Your pet may have had a vet check before you bring them home. If they have, the breeder or pet shop should have a printout of the notes or be able to tell you where they are registered to make sure you can continue their care.
Wherever you get your new pet from, it should be an enjoyable experience. Bringing a new family member home is a fantastic moment and something to treasure.
For more information on setting up for your new pet, check out our bringing home your new reptile page.
And don’t forget to speak to your local Vets4Pets for advice on getting the best care for your reptile!