Choosing a Creepy Crawler

Love Dog
In This Chapter
  • Deciding whether you’re really suited for an exotic pet
  • Choosing the right exotic pet
  • Finding exotic pets in need of new homes

When you visit an animal shelter, you’re likely to see dogs and cats, some small animals, and maybe a few birds. Dedicated rescue groups also tend to specialize in the furred and feathered, but what about animals with scales or shells, wet slimy skin, or eight hairy legs?

The shelter system doesn’t typically take in abandoned reptiles, amphibians, arachnids, and other creepy crawlies — although I have seen some turtles in animal shelters, but plenty of exotics still are in need of good homes. Tracking down these exotics is just a little bit trickier. If you’re willing to look, you can find a few rescue groups devoted to this subcategory of pets, and most of the groups that do rescue them are comprised of hobbyists who informally take in animals. You don’t have the organized system of foster homes and placement interviews you usually encounter with other, more traditional pets. Why you may ask?
Far fewer people want an exotic pet than a furry mammal. Yet, reptiles, amphibians, and arachnids are actually far easier to care for than their warm-blooded counterparts. If you find one that appeals to you, if you get the right supplies and proper housing, and if you meet the animal’s nutritional needs, you can find yourself in a relationship with an easygoing pet.

On the other hand, creepy-crawly pet ownership isn’t for everybody. In this chapter, I help you find out whether you’re suited for exotics, and if so, which exotic pet is right for you. This chapter is your primer on all things creepycrawly, and your guide to finding an eight-legged, four-legged, or no-legged pet in need of a new caretaker.

Determining Whether Exotic Herps and “Bugs” Are Right for You

Reptiles and amphibians, or exotic herps according to many hobbyists, and other “bugs” — an even more informal hobbyist term for exotic pets such as tarantulas, hissing cockroaches, and scorpions — have some particular pros and cons. Deciding if you really would make a good caretaker for this unusual pet category isn’t difficult, as long as you know exactly what you’re getting into. Are you willing to find out about and meet your pet’s specific care requirements? Or are you just hoping for a pet that takes no work? Are you hoping to use your pet to frighten your friends or shock your parents? Or are you truly fascinated by the world of herps, arachnids, and insects?
Although an abandoned dog or cat may have developed some behavior problems and needs training, you usually don’t have to worry about the same problems with reptiles. However, if a reptile is no longer a baby and hasn’t been handled regularly, that cool iguana may never be interested in riding around on your shoulder, and that nervous rat snake may be nippy for the rest of his life. Are you willing to care for a pet even if you can’t touch it? Adopted exotics also sometimes have health problems — such as mites and skin infections — caused by neglect or unclean living conditions, or even skeletal deformities caused by poor nutrition.
Ask yourself these questions to be sure you really want an exotic pet:

Why do I want a herp or bug? Enjoying the exotic pet’s shock value is fine as long as you’re also genuinely interested in finding out about and caring properly for your pet.

Am I prepared to make a long-term commitment? Many exotics such as most large snakes, medium-to-large lizards, tortoises, and female tarantulas can easily outlive a dog or a cat. For more on life spans of individual exotics, see Chapter Exploring the Pet Adoption Option.

Is anyone in my home going to be severely bothered by the presence of a creepy crawler? Some people truly are frightened by spiders, snakes, or other exotic pets, even if you don’t think such fears are rational. If people in your home are bothered so much by these pets that keeping one long term isn’t actually realistic, please don’t adopt an exotic pet.

Do I have other pets that may try to prey on my small exotics? Lizards, frogs, and other small pets that move fascinate cats and some dogs. On the flip side, a giant python can swallow a kitten or a puppy. Can you keep all your pets safe?

Do I really have time for an exotic pet? Exotics may be low-maintenance, but they certainly are not no-maintenance. Some take less time, but others actually take more time than other pets, and they all take some time for feeding, basic observation for health and other problems, and cage cleaning and maintenance. Most exotics need their enclosures cleaned about once a week.

Am I squeamish about feeding bugs and small rodents to reptiles? Most exotics require a diet of live food of some sort, whether crickets and mealworms or mice and rats. If you’re squeamish about touching those critters or don’t want to see them periodically devoured, consider a vegetarian exotic like a green iguana.

Do I have a good and affordable source for the food my exotic needs to eat? You need time, patience, space, noise tolerance, and the stomach to breed your own crickets or pinkie mice as a source of food for your exotic.

Do large reptiles intimidate me? Some reptiles, such as large iguanas or giant snakes, grow so big that you won’t easily be able to handle them. If a reptile that large intimidates you, consider an exotic that stays relatively small, such as a water dragon or a corn snake.

Deep down, do I want a fluffy pet? Few exotics provide the same hands-on fluffy-lovey feeling of a dog or cat. Are you sure scales, shells, or exoskeletons will fulfill your pet owning needs?

Are exotic pets legal in my area? Many cities and regions don’t allow certain exotic pets, so make sure your pet is legal before adopting and recognize that poor care and irresponsible management of exotics often contributes to legislation against them.

Am I willing to pay for veterinary care if my exotic gets sick or injured? Are you willing to pay and work to resolve health and nutrition issues your adopted pet may already have? Do you have access to a vet who is comfortable and experienced with exotic pets?

Picking Your Exotic Pet

If you think you want an exotic pet, but aren’t sure which one exotic is right for you, consider the time commitment required of different exotics. According to Reptiles & Amphibians For Dummies by Patricia Bartlett (Wiley), some of the lowest-effort exotics are corn snakes, king snakes, horned frogs, White’s tree frogs, and Tiger salamanders. Painted turtles, Greek tortoises, and Eastern newts fall in the middle of the spectrum, and green iguanas are among the most time-consuming.

If you consider cage cleaning a marker of high maintenance — in other words, how much daily time you have to spend to take care of your pet — then amphibians are high on the list, because their moist cage environments need more vigilance in cleaning and water changes to keep them bacteria free.
Most arachnids, such as tarantulas, are relatively low maintenance, and most lizards generally are somewhere in the middle- to high-maintenance range.
The following sections list the most popular exotic pets and what you must consider before adopting one.

Constrictors: Pythons, boas, and other huggable snakes

Snakes that squeeze are the most popular types of pet snakes. However many people give up their constrictors because they get too big, they get mites or some other unpleasant health problem, or they just get tired of feeding mice and rats to their pets. Consider the following before you decide whether to adopt a constrictor or similar type of snake:

Time commitment: Most snakes, including the popular ball python, are relatively low maintenance. Larger snakes such as pythons like Burmese pythons, reticulated pythons, red-tailed boa constrictors, or anacondas can grow to more than 15 feet in length and may require more than one person if you need to handle them. Giant snakes don’t require frequent care but when they need their large cages cleaned, it’s more of an effort. Some constrictors can live 20 to 30 years, or even longer.

Housing: Constrictors require spacious enclosures (see Chapter Preparing for Your Exotic Pet for recommended dimensions relative to the snake’s size). Your snake’s tank needs to include a source of heat, such as an under-tank heating pad, so the snake can regulate its own body temperature.

Special considerations: Constrictors eat whole rodents, from baby pinky mice to large rats, and some larger snakes need larger animals than rodents, such as rabbits or chickens. All these are best fed to the snake prekilled. For a large snake, feeding can be costly, depending on your source of food, and some people don’t like feeding these animals to reptiles. Pay attention to your constrictor’s health and watch for signs of mites, tiny flea-like parasitic creatures that feed on blood and can cause snakes severe skin irritation. Finally, keep in mind that frequent handling helps keep snakes tame, but they don’t require handling for their own well-being the way domesticated mammals do. For more on handling snakes, see Chapter Snake Charming and Herp Handling: How to Train Your Exotic Pet.

Small slitherers: Garter snakes, king snakes, corn snakes, and other Colubrids

Most small snakes fall under the family Colubridae. In other words, they’re called Colubrids. These snakes include the common garter snakes, king snakes, and rat snakes including rat-snake sub-types like corn snakes and milk snakes. Colubrids are — with the possible exception of the ball python — the most popular snakes kept as pets and the most common nonpoisonous snakes you’re likely to see while tromping around in the wilderness in the United States.
Because so many Colubrids are bred in captivity and sold in pet stores, many of them also are abandoned to pet stores, reptile societies, and hobbyists when their owners get tired of feeding them and cleaning their cages. See if adopting one of these small slitherers is right for you:

Time commitment: Small snakes are easier to care for than big snakes, but they still can live for 7 to 20 years or even longer. They need regular cage cleaning and feeding, and regular handling if you want them to be tame.

Housing: Although some rat snakes can grow to more than 8 feet long, most types are smaller and stay less than 5 or 6 feet. Garter snakes and some ball pythons may only reach 3 feet. Despite their smaller size, coldblooded Colubrids need spacious cages with a source of heat and an unheated side for cooling off.

Special considerations: A few Colubrids have venom, but not the more common ones. They also move faster and are good at escaping, so they need tightly fitting lids on their tanks and must be handled with care. These small snakes, when handled frequently, can behave in a tame and responsive manner. They make good pets for people who like hands-on interactions. For more on how to handle snakes, see Chapter Snake Charming and Herp Handling: How to Train Your Exotic Pet.

Green iguanas

Life with an iguana isn’t the maintenance-free existence that you might imagine comes with owning a reptile. In fact, it’s far from it. Actually, the green iguana is high maintenance, even though it’s among the most popular of the reptiles. Yet, tame, healthy iguanas can be incredibly rewarding pets if they’re lucky enough to find caretakers who understand how much and exactly what they need in the way of environment, nutrition, and training. Here’s what’s involved in living with an iguana:

Time commitment: Iguanas are vegetarians. They require freshly prepared raw vegetables every single day. Rotting food matter needs to be cleaned from their cages often. Iguanas also need daily handling if you expect them to be tame and daily interaction of some kind if you don’t want them to fear you or act aggressive. Iguanas also have a long life span, living up to 20 years or even longer when well cared-for.

Housing: The super-popular green iguana looks unassuming in a small cage in a pet store when it’s less than a foot long, but green iguanas live for a long time and grow big — some up to 6 feet long! So when buying an iguana cage, you can’t get one that is too big. Some people devote entire screened-in porches or rooms to their iguanas, or even let their iguanas roam free in their homes so they get plenty of exercise.

Special considerations: Iguanas have sharp claws and strong jaws, and if they aren’t tame — because of a lack of handling and training — they can be very skittish and even aggressive. Iguanas can claw and bite you, and these injuries can be severe if you aren’t careful.

Turtle time

Turtles are amusing, fun companions. The most common pet turtles — and the ones most likely to be in need of a new home — are red-eared sliders and box turtles, although in many states it is illegal to take these pets from the wild. Turtles have individual care needs depending on what kind of turtle you have. Find out whether turtles work for you by considering the following:

Time commitment: Turtles have incredibly long life spans. Some box turtles can live up to 100 years. Even the tiny aquatic red-eared sliders can live 40 years with proper care. They eat fruits and vegetables, which can be time consuming to prepare and must be offered fresh every day. Box turtles enjoy supervised time outside in temperate weather in a protected area where they’re safe from predators, including your own dogs and cats.

Housing: Both the small aquatic red-eared slider and the box turtle need spacious tanks with room for swimming and for resting out of the water. Their tanks must be kept clean.

Special considerations: Turtles need vitamin supplementation (available in the pet store) and aren’t usually very interested in interacting with humans. They do best with people who are interested in observing their turtles but who don’t crave constant interaction or feel the constant need to touch them.


Turtles can be a source of salmonella, so anyone handling a turtle needs to be particularly careful to wash his or her hands thoroughly afterward. Infants and people with low-functioning immune systems shouldn’t handle turtles at all.

If you want to know more about turtles as pets, check out Turtles & Tortoises For Dummies by Liz Palika (Wiley).

Other reptiles of the tropics and the deserts

Many different lizards find their way in and out of pet homes. Some of the more common include anoles, chameleons, leopard geckos, bearded dragons, water dragons, blue-tongued skinks, monitor lizards, Gila monsters, caimans, and alligators. Some of these reptiles are easy keepers. Anoles, chameleons, leopard geckos, bearded dragons, water dragons, and skinks can be fun and interesting pets as long as you keep their cages clean, give them enough space, and find out about their specific nutritional, temperature, lighting, and other care needs.

Time commitment: Lizards can live for just a few years or as long as 20 years or more. If you want your lizard to be tame, you need to handle it regularly, but many lizards don’t particularly enjoy being handled.

Housing: Different lizards have specific housing needs, but they all need plenty of space to move around, bask under a heat lamp, or cool off as necessary to regulate their own body temperature. Their tanks must be kept very clean.

Special considerations: Each species of lizard has its own unique care needs so you need to take the time to learn as much as possible about the lizard you adopt. Many pet lizards die in captivity because they were missing some nutrient or environmental condition their owners could easily have provided had they been aware of it, so please do your research.

These reptiles, in general, can be interactive, sometimes are tame enough to handle — depending on their past history — and are relatively easy to feed and keep healthy, as long as you know what you’re doing. If you’re interested in more information about leopard geckos — one of the most popular pet lizards — check out Leopard Geckos For Dummies by Liz Palika (Wiley).


Other reptiles, such as monitor lizards, Gila monsters, caimans, and alligators, can be quite dangerous. Gila monsters are venomous, and monitors, caimans, and alligators become large and aggressive, with jaws and bodies strong enough to seriously injure a human. Owning them often is illegal, so think three times and check the local laws before attempting to adopt one of these formidable fellows.

Whatever reptile you choose, do plenty of research before committing yourself to keeping and caring for that animal. For more information on specific care needs of different reptiles, see Chapters Preparing for Your Exotic Pet and Snake Charming and Herp Handling: How to Train Your Exotic Pet, and read Reptiles & Amphibians For Dummies by Patricia Bartlett (Wiley).

The slime factor: Frogs, salamanders, and newts

Amphibians, such as common frogs, tree frogs, exotic frogs, salamanders, and newts, are long-lived, mellow pets. Some have brilliant colors and amazing patterns.

Time commitment: Because bacteria, algae, mold, and other nasty things grow quickly and easily in moist environments, amphibians need to have their homes cleaned — including their water changed and plants rinsed down — about once a week, and may need a complete overhaul of their tank environments with new substrate and complete water change every few months.

Housing: Different amphibians need different types of environments. Some, such as certain tree frogs and salamanders, prefer drier environments and enjoy a terrarium with plants, moss, and a small shallow swimming area. Some, such as aquatic frogs and newts, do best in tanks that are half water and half rocks with areas to climb out of the water and bask. Some frogs, salamanders, and newts are aquatic and live in fish tanks, cohabitating with or without fish. Some arboreal species, like various tree frogs, prefer an environment with tall tree-like places to climb and hang out.

Special considerations: All amphibians need constant access to sufficient moisture, whether in the form of a swimming area or a misting system, which can be as simple as you spraying a plant sprayer into the cage. Amphibians have porous skin and they breathe through their skin, so this moisture is important to keep them healthy.


Don’t expect cuddles from your amphibian, but they’re beautiful and interesting pets to watch.

Shell chic: All about hermit crabs

Hermit crabs may seem like the world’s easiest pet after the pet rock. After all, they’re hermits, right? But hermit crabs need care, too.

Time commitment: Hermit crabs need fresh food and clean water every day, and they need a clean environment so you have to spend time cleaning their enclosures at least weekly. No, you don’t have to walk or train them, but they still require some time and attention, especially if you want them to be tame.

Housing: Hermit crabs do well in large aquariums on sand with a salt-water pond, stocked with a selection of clean, sterilized shells to choose from as they grow and molt.

Special considerations: Forget those shells decorated with potentially toxic paint. Hermit crabs need respect and attention to their health and safety, just like any other pet. Hermit crabs make good pets for kids as long as kids understand how to handle them carefully and responsibly.

If you’re interested in a hermit crab, check out Hermit Crabs For Dummies by Kelli A. Wilkins (Wiley).

Bugs: Tarantulas and beyond

Tarantulas can be docile companions and can even be hand-tamed. Other bugs people sometimes keep as pets include hissing cockroaches, scorpions, and giant centipedes. Most rescued tarantulas are the common Chilean Rose Hair, everybody’s favorite first spider.


The more common pet tarantulas are less likely to bite because their first line of defense is to flick or kick tiny barbed hairs at you, which can be very irritating to your skin and can even be dangerous to you if they come into contact with your throat or in your eyes or nose. They are preferable to getting chomped by a pair of arachnid fangs, but getting shot with those little hairs is no picnic, either.

Time commitment: Arachnid or insect caretaking isn’t for everyone, but if you love the six-to-eight-legged set and are willing to get to know them, they’re easy keepers. Just keep their cages clean and provide them with food and water. They don’t need attention, but you may want to spend time staring at them in admiration.

Housing: Arachnids and other bugs need clean cages and a place to hide. Their enclosures depend on their individual needs, so do your research, but most need higher temperatures than room temperature so they will need to have a heat source. They need close-fitting tops to prevent escape. Some have additional needs like branches for arboreal spiders to climb in and mulch for ground-dwelling spiders to burrow under.

Special considerations: Most spiders, centipedes, and scorpions eat bugs or pinkies — a term for baby mice before they get their fur — and may or may not need vitamin supplementation in the form of dusting or gut-loading crickets and pinkies. (For more about feeding these creatures, see Chapter Exotic Care and Feeding.) To keep them healthy, you must be willing to give them these necessary dietary items. Pet cockroaches mostly eat dry grains, fruit, vegetables, and even dry dog food. Scorpions and giant centipedes are venomous, and beginning hobbyists shouldn’t ever handle them. They are for advanced hobbyists only.


Some people think tarantula bites are deadly, but most are more akin to a bad bee sting. Unless you’re allergic, don’t worry; a bite won’t kill you. But it certainly won’t be an enjoyable experience either, so be careful! Spiders favored by more advanced hobbyists have more potent venom.

Seeking Out Secondhand Snakes, Lizards, and Spiders

If your local shelter doesn’t have any exotics, you aren’t necessarily out of luck. You can still look at the following places to find the exotic of your dreams:

Pet stores: Many people who decide they can no longer keep their exotic pets take them to pet stores, which often take them in and sell them, enclosure and all, on the cheap. These “recycled” exotics may have health problems caused by neglect and/or malnutrition, and they may be in inappropriate enclosures. Or, they may be healthy and well housed.

Local enthusiast groups: Another place to find exotics that need homes is through local enthusiast groups such as reptile clubs or societies. They may know of in-need herps or bugs and can probably offer you helpful care advice.

Veterinarians and breeders: Local vets may know of people who are looking for new homes for their exotic pets, and local herp and bug breeders may also be fostering pets they can’t keep long term as they look for good permanent homes.

– The Internet: The Net has some resources for national, regional, and local organizations that handle rescued herps and bugs, although don’t expect to find as many organizations for these exotics as you can for mammalian pets. Search these on the Internet by typing “Reptile rescue” or “Amphibian rescue” and the name of your state.

by Eve Adamson

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