What’s It Like to Own a Pet Lizard?

A panther chameleon from Madagascar at the Heimtiermesse pet fair in Dresden, Germany, in 2010.

Arno Burgi/AFP/Getty Images

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Answer by Donna Fernstrom, reptile breeder and keeper:

A few basics:

Expect to spend considerably more on the enclosure and equipment than you do on the animal. Keeping reptiles is similar to keeping fish—most of your attention will go toward keeping the environment correct. The fish themselves may cost pennies, but the tank costs hundreds. It’s the same with reptiles. Don’t skimp.

Reptiles need vet care. Line up a knowledgeable vet who has a good reputation with your local herp societies before you bring home a reptile pet. A new pet health checkup should be done before you place your new reptile in its lovely planted enclosure—so you don’t then discover it has parasites, and you have to rip the entire thing apart and bleach it. Have a bare-bones quarantine enclosure set up and stable for a new reptile, if you are going to use a planted naturalistic vivarium as a permanent home. The size of the reptile doesn’t make any difference—green anoles and house geckos still need vet care, even more so, because most are wild-caught.

Read books on reptile care—recent ones. Read reputable online reptile care forums (not just random articles thrown up by Google). Read articles on breeder websites (breeders generally know what they’re talking about). Read all the things before you even choose which reptile species you want; learn all about lizards in general, and the species you are most interested in, in particular.

Understand that most reptiles are remarkably long-lived for their size. Even the diminutive green anole can live for up to eight years—three times longer than a domestic mouse, which outweighs it considerably. And the common pet leopard gecko can live for an eye-popping 20 to 30 years. Be prepared for this, and take it into consideration when you choose a reptile species. This is definitely not a short-term pet!

Never get any reptile that you are unable or unwilling to care for for its full lifespan. You cannot just rehome it when it grows too large. Reptile rescues are full to bursting with Burmese pythons, red-eared slider turtles, and giant green iguanas. Zoos don’t need any, either. Neither does anyone else—these species are mass-produced but grow too large for the average home. You need to be very well-prepared before you bring one home—and if you do, consider adopting from a rescue.

Always remember that interaction is for you—reptiles will tolerate it at best and hate it at worst. They aren’t affectionate. They do have individual personalities and may appreciate you (or at least your treats), but they don’t form emotional bonds and won’t enjoy being petted. If you want an animal that likes physical affection, get a social mammal or bird. Reptiles need to be left alone most of the time. Too much handling creates negative stress that can ruin their health, especially when they’re new to a household. (Leave all new reptiles alone apart from cage-cleaning for the first month.) I’m sure there are stories of the rare iguana or bearded dragon that appears to like scratches, but these individuals are outliers—very, very rare—and you should not expect such a thing.

Take your time. Do not rush this. You have a lot to learn, a lot to buy, and a lot of decisions to make before you ever set eyes on a live lizard.

When that time comes, check rescues first, breeders second, expos third, and pet stores dead last. The healthiest animals will come directly from breeders. Do research on them as well to find a good, reputable one. Yes, it’s OK to have a reptile shipped to you; 99.9 percent of the time it’s perfectly safe. Local is best, but shipping is fine.

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