Pet Connection: Lizards, turtles, snakes can move in, but give ’em space

They aren’t at the level of cats and dogs yet, but reptiles are scaling upward in popularity.

More than 5.6 million homes in the United States keep at least one of these cold-blooded creatures as pets, and their total numbers top 11.5 million, according to a 2013 survey by the American Pet Products Association.

Reptiles have a number of advantages as pets. They’re quiet, can have long life spans, require little to no exercise, usually don’t need to be fed daily, and their waste is easy to remove. They even have personalities, and form bonds with their people. Many are active and curious, making them interesting to watch as they explore their habitat.

Depending on the species, reptiles can be good choices for both children and adults.

What should you think about if you’re considering a reptile companion? They need more space than you might realize. Plan to provide a reptile with room to move around. Some are arboreal, meaning they like to be up high. Species that will grow to be six feet or more, such as iguanas and some snakes, need floor-to-ceiling enclosures. Others need aquatic habitats.

For instance, an adult red-eared slider turtle may need an aquarium that holds 55 to 120 gallons or more. All species need a place to hide and a heat source to keep them warm. Other reptile-care basics include spot-cleaning cages to remove waste and uneaten food. The cage must also be disinfected regularly so your reptile doesn’t develop bacterial infections of the skin or digestive tract. Some reptiles carry salmonella bacteria. It’s important to always wash your hands after handling them.

Reptile diet varies by species. Your reptile may eat daily fresh greens, crickets, mealworms or frozen mice that have been thawed. If you’re tenderhearted, the good news is that you don’t have to feed live prey. In fact, it’s best not to because your reptile could be injured by a live mouse or rat defending itself.

Whatever you choose, do your homework to make sure you understand and can meet the animal’s needs. Talk to an accredited expert before acquiring a reptile. That can be a veterinarian who specializes in exotics or a person who does reptile education for a rescue group or other organization.

“Every species has its own special requirements,” says certified veterinary technician Johanna Hanlon, practice manager and head nurse at Ani-Care Animal Hospital in Dallastown, Pennsylvania. “There is a lot of misinformation on the Internet, so use sources linked to veterinary professionals and herpetological societies.”

She also recommends finding a reptile-savvy veterinarian who can provide the specialized care the animal will need, as well as knowing whether the reptile you’re considering is regulated by local, state or federal laws. Also consider as well whether you can care for a reptile for its lifetime, which in some cases can be 30 years or more. Herpetologist Chad Griffin of CCSB Reptile Rescue and Rehab Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, says the most common reasons reptiles are surrendered to rescue groups are that a student is going to college and parents don’t want to care for the animal, the reptile became larger than expected, the expense of caring became too high, or the person is moving to a place that doesn’t permit exotic pets.

If you aren’t sure if a particular reptile is right for you, talk to a rescue group or shelter about fostering, Hanlon says. They may be able to provide you with the resources you need to care for the animal without a long-term commitment.

The buzz

Do you smoke around your pet? You could be threatening his health and even his life. Secondhand smoke can cause malignant lymphoma in cats, lung and nasal cancer in dogs, and respiratory problems and allergies in both species, according to studies conducted at Tufts University’s School of Veterinary Medicine and other colleges, reports Sue Manning for The Associated Press. A 2006 U.S. Surgeon General’s report also warns that animals are at risk from secondhand smoke. Other potential side effects include inflammation and cancers. E-cigarettes aren’t any safer. Pets can be poisoned if they eat the nicotine cartridges.