August 5, 2021

Exotic & Pocket Pets Wellness & Prevention

Do you want a pet reptile? Consider 3 Important Factors

by Aili V. Heintz, DVM

Have you ever considered a pet reptile? You have probably walked through your local pet store and looked at all the cool animals from birds, to guinea pigs, to adorable leopard geckos. At first glance, many of these pets seem like an “easy” addition to your family. They look like “low maintenance” pets.

With any exotic animals, though, it is incredibly important to do your research. These pets require more than you may expect to help keep them healthy and to set them up for a long life. This includes reptiles.

The most common reptiles that we see as pets include:

  • leopard geckos,
  • bearded dragons,
  • snakes (corn snakes and ball pythons); and
  • turtles/tortoises (red-eared sliders and Russian tortoises).


Temperature requirements

Reptiles are naturally found in many different places and their habitats around the world range from dessert, to marshes, to rainforests, to forests, and more. These habitats are vastly different in terms of temperature and humidity.

While our pet reptiles are not living in their natural habitats, we must keep their temperatures and humidity levels as close to their natural range as possible. Doing so will help keep them as healthy as possible.

Provide your reptile with warmer spot and a cooler spot (all within their temperature requirements) within their enclosure. You will need thermometers in both areas to ensure that the temperature stays in a safe range for your pet.

Please find a good reptile care book to determine if your reptile needs additional heating bulbs or mats. You’ll discover some pet reptiles need misters. Be sure to ask your vet what your species of reptile needs.

If your temperatures become too low, your reptile may develop health problems and may actually go into a hibernation-type state. Some reptiles are not stable enough to survive a hibernation time.


A majority of reptiles in the wild would spend at least part of their day basking in the sun. Many reptiles require Vitamin D that comes from the sun in order to help with calcium in their bodies. Without the proper calcium, reptiles can get a painful condition called metabolic bone disease.

With this disease, the body senses that calcium levels are low, so it begins to break down the calcium from the bones. This process leaves the reptile’s bones weak, almost like rubber bands instead of sturdy, strong tree trunks.

To help supply vitamin D at home (and thus help with calcium), many pet reptiles require full spectrum UVA/UVB lighting to mimic the sun. These special bulbs require changing every 6 months whether they still light up or not as they lose UV spectrum before the bulb actually burns out.

Humidity for pet reptiles

Keep in mind that, like we mentioned above, that some reptiles come from humid areas like the rainforest. One reptile, in particular, that requires a very specific humidity level is the chameleon. These reptiles require the use of constant misters in their enclosures and the use of hygrometers (a gauge to measure humidity levels). Lack of proper humidity in their enclosures can lead to significant health problems and illnesses.


If creepy, crawly insects gross you out, then you may want to reconsider owning a reptile. Many reptiles, but not all, have some component of insects in their diets. You may have to keep live crickets or grubs at home to feed your pet reptile!

Some reptiles, like a lot of the snakes, require animal prey as their diet. Animal prey may include mice, rats, or even baby chicks. For the safety of your reptile, and in kindness to the prey, we recommend keeping frozen (rather than live) prey to feed your pet. You will need to thaw the prey before feeding it to your reptile. If the thought of feeding prey or having frozen prey sitting next to your frozen pizza creeps you out, this reptile may not be for you.

A lot of reptiles require some form of vegetables or fresh fruit in their diet. You may also need to add calcium and vitamin supplements to their diets. Your veterinarian can advise you on the best dietary guidelines for your specific pet. There is a lot of variation among different reptile species, and starting off with good nutrition will help to keep your reptile healthy.


Most of us have pets because we want to hold, pet, and cuddle them. Not all reptiles enjoy the same level of cuddling that our dogs and cats do. Some reptiles, in fact, can become very stressed with handling, particularly if it is around their feeding times or shedding times.

Other species of reptiles really enjoy time out of their enclosure in order to be with their family. Some like to be held and cuddled too! Whether you are looking for a cuddler or you prefer a pet to observe from afar, do your research to ensure that you pick the reptile that is best for you and your family.

The key to most exotic animal care is to research and prepare. The most common health problems we see with pet reptiles are due to problems with their environment such as temperatures and diet. This blog post only touches on a few things to consider. If you are thinking of adding a reptile to your family, find some good books to help you understand what to expect.

Reptiles can be so fun to have pets and so interesting to watch and care for. A new addition to the family (whether 2 legged or 4; whether furred, feathered, or scaled; whether cuddly or just beautiful to watch) is an exciting adventure! Preparing and planning ahead can help to make that adventure with your pet even more rewarding and happy.

Dr. Heintz and her dog, MimiDr. Heintz is a small and exotic animal veterinarian at Countrycare Animal Complex in Green Bay, WI. She earned her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Illinois – Urbana/Champaign. Her passion is helping all animals, whether furry, scaly, or feathered, lead long and healthy lives.