Preparing for Your Exotic Pet

Love Dog
In This Chapter
  • Preparing your home for your new pet
  • Figuring out what kind of home and environment your new pet needs
  • Helping your new herp adjust to his new home, family, and life

This chapter can help you get everything ready for your exotic before you come home. You also discover exactly what to expect during the first few days as your new creepy-crawly creature gets used to his new environment. Is he settling in, and does he have everything he needs? For exotics, environment is everything. This chapter is your guide to doing it correctly.

Herp-Proofing Your Home

You probably aren’t planning on giving your new ball python, green iguana, or tarantula the run of the house, but before you bring home your exotic pet, you nevertheless want to herp-proof your home. Small, flexible, creeping, and crawling exotics are good at escaping, and you may find yourself with a herp on the loose, despite your best efforts.
Your home can be a hotbed of hazards to an escaped or free-roaming reptile, amphibian, or tarantula. If your pet escapes, you may never find him again, and he probably won’t last long considering natural predators, fearful humans wielding shovels, and the probability that your climate doesn’t match his natural climate. Even if he doesn’t get outside, he can also be injured or killed in many ways. Some herps are extrasensitive to environmental toxins.
But even before you bring home your exotic pet, take the following precautions:

– Make sure that your doors or screens don’t have any cracks and that they close securely. Remind everyone to keep doors and windows shut to prevent escape.

– Keep curtains and miniblind cords out of reach. Lizards can snag and tear their toes in fabric or get entangled in cords.

– Pick up all potential choking hazards. A loose herp can choke on coins, buttons, pins, or small bits of fabric, causing intestinal impaction. Ingesting cat litter can also be deadly.

– Store all chemicals away from your herps. Furthermore, don’t use any chemicals around your herps, especially sensitive amphibians with their porous skin. That includes pesticides, flea spray or powder made for dogs and cats, scented candles or potpourri, air fresheners, tobacco smoke, paint or paint remover, perfume, nail polish remover, markers, glue, mothballs, bleach, ammonia, or any cleaning chemicals.

– Make sure you keep your herp out of the kitchen and bathrooms because of the risk of salmonella contamination to humans. Herps can also drown or get injured in many other ways in these hazard-rich rooms.

– Remove all houseplants your herp can conceivably access, to prevent possible poisoning.

– Keep all hygiene products and medications for humans or other pets well out of reach and inaccessible to any loose herp that can accidentally ingest them.

– Store foods considered toxic for herps, including salt, coffee or tea, cola or anything with caffeine including chocolate, and anything containing alcohol, out of reach. For more on what to feed — and not to feed — your exotic pet, see Chapter Exotic Care and Feeding.

– Be sure all family members understand how to handle your new herp correctly — or not to handle him at all. Children must understand that they should never take an exotic pet out of its enclosure without direct supervision from an adult. Never allow kids to handle reptiles unsupervised or pass reptiles around to their friends. If you aren’t sure whether your child will obey this rule, do not keep the reptile in his or her room. Supervision is the key to safety.


According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), no child younger than 5 should handle a reptile, and no household with a child younger than 1 year old should even own a reptile because of the risk of salmonella contamination. That also goes for households with people who have compromised immune systems. When children do handle reptiles, they must wash their hands thoroughly with soap afterward. Most reptiles carry salmonella in their systems.


If you believe your exotic has been injured or poisoned, rush him to your vet or emergency vet clinic. For possible poisoning, if you absolutely can’t get to the vet, call the National Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435, which charges $50 for a professional consultation over the telephone — well worth the price to save your pet’s life.

Tracking a herp-on-the-lam
If your exotic pet gets loose — whether on purpose or by mistake — and you can’t find him, these clues may help:
  • Most herps naturally hide to avoid predators, or to hide from potential prey. Look in dark places, such as cupboards, closets, under furniture, in piles of clothes or towels, or even inside shoes.
  • Most herps are from tropical or desert environments so they like heat. Look in warm places, such as potted plants in the sun, lamps with warm bulbs, laundry baskets filled with laundry

fresh from the dryer, heating vents, or sunny window ledges.
  • Herps like to squeeze into tight spaces so look inside nooks and crannies such as behind baseboards or moldings, under furniture cushions, or inside furniture. Watch for moving parts, such as with recliners. You don’t want to squish anybody!
  • Check the washing machine, dryer, oven, toaster, microwave, dishwasher, or any other appliance before turning it on . . . just in case!

Exotic Equipment and Supplies

Exotics need some supplies to stay safe, healthy, and clean. Before you bring home your exotic, make sure you stock up on these provisions. Most important, be sure your exotic’s new enclosure is all set up, secure, and ready to go so you have somewhere to put your new pet as soon as you bring him home.

Exotic enclosures

Because your herp can’t go wherever he pleases, the size, condition, and cleanliness of his enclosure is extremely important for his health and wellbeing. Herps and other exotic pets need enough room to move around, and no animal, including herps, wants to live in a bare cage in full view of predators.

Your exotic’s enclosure should mimic as closely as possible that animal’s natural environment, be it desert, swamp, forest, woodland stream, prairie, or ocean beach. The temperature, humidity, and access to water, sand, rock, moss, or whatever substrate is appropriate, can all dramatically impact your herp’s health and longevity.


Where you place your herp’s enclosure is equally important. Your herp can’t move to another room if he gets uncomfortably hot or cold, so keep your herp’s home out of direct sunlight, drafts from fans or vents, and extremes of hot or cold areas of the house. And as with any pet that lives inside a cage or tank, size really does matter, and in most cases, the bigger, the better. If your herp will live in an aquarium with a screened top, buy the biggest one you can comfortably afford. If your pet will live in a wooden box or a wire mesh cage, also go large, or build your own, if you can do a good job of building a safe and escape-proof enclosure. For arboreal herps like iguanas, tree frogs, and tree-dwelling snakes and spiders, cages need to be tall with things to climb on (see Figure 21-1). For land-dwellers like bearded dragons and geckos, floor space is more important than vertical space. For amphibians, depending on what type, plenty of room to stretch out and swim plus spaces to dry off a bit are important.

Figure 21-1: The active iguana needs plenty of room to move around, climb, and explore.
For each type of reptile, Table 21-1 shows you the minimum size of enclosure your herp needs, based on your animal’s length from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail. For turtles, measure the shell in its longest dimension. Add 50 percent to each amount for each additional animal kept in the enclosure.
Table 21-1
Minimum Cage Dimensions/Volume for Reptiles and Amphibians
Enclosure Length or Gallons
Enclosure Depth
Enclosure Height
Large snake
3⁄4 pet length
1⁄3 pet length
3⁄4 pet length
Small snake
1 pet length
1⁄2 pet length
3⁄4 pet length
Tree snake
3⁄4 pet length
1⁄3 pet length
1 pet length
Iguana, monitor lizard
4–5 pet lengths
2–3 pet lengths
2–3 pet lengths
Other lizard
2 pet lengths
1 pet length
1 pet length
Aquatic turtle
4 pet lengths
2 pet lengths
3 pet lengths
Land turtle
5 pet lengths
3 pet lengths
2 pet lengths
Small tree or dart frog
10-gallon tank for one animal, 5 additional gallons for each additional animal
Large frog, newt, or salamander
20-gallon tank for one animal, 10 additional gallons for each additional animal
Ground-dwelling arachnids and bugs
3 pet lengths
11⁄2 pet lengths
11⁄2 pet lengths
Arboreal (tree- dwelling) arachnids
11⁄2 pet lengths
11⁄2 pet lengths
2–3 pet lengths
Hermit crabs
1 to 3 hermit crabs in 15- to 20-gallon tank

Light, heat, bedding, and water

Every herp, arachnid, or insect has its own heating and light requirements, as well as some more complex considerations like humidity and water chemistry.

– Reptiles need heat to move, eat, and digest food properly. The best way to provide it is to provide a basking spot consisting of a heat source and a basking platform. Ceramic heat emitters, heat lamps, and heating pads that attach beneath the tank are good heat-source options, but avoid so-called “hot rocks,” because they can get too hot and burn your pet. Most vets don’t recommend them. A regular rock or even a brick under a heat lamp or heat emitter makes a good platform for basking, because the rock holds in the heat. However, in the wild, turtles such as red-eared sliders often choose a downed tree trunk or a grassy or dirt spot on the shore rather than a rock, so a flat piece of wood makes a better basking site for a turtle. It is harder to clean, but worth it for the turtle.

Having a temperature gradient in the tank — a hot side and a cool side — is extremely important for cold-blooded reptiles that have to self-regulate their body temperatures. A true gradient is difficult to achieve in smaller tanks, especially when you’re using a high-wattage bulb for a basking light. The whole tank gets hot, and many turtles and lizards end up getting dangerously overheated — a common cause of reptile death and just one more good reason to have as large a tank as possible.

– Many types of lizards need light not only to see but also for the ultraviolet rays that help their bodies manufacture vitamin D3, so they can utilize the calcium they get in their diets. You have to provide calcium, but you can read more about that in Chapter Exotic Care and Feeding. Look for a light for lizards that includes UVB (ultraviolet B) light. Most snakes and nocturnal reptiles and amphibians don’t require UVB light.

– Reptiles need a substrate, or bedding, in their cages that mimics their natural environment — sand for desert types, cypress or sphagnum moss for burrowers, wood shavings — but not pine or cedar, which emits phenols that can harm your snake — or plain old newspaper are possible choices.

– Amphibians aren’t quite so picky about heat and light because they thrive in cool moist climates and are happier and more active when the sun sets. Light your amphibian with a regular fluorescent light so you can admire his gorgeousness, but don’t worry about his lighting needs. In general, creatures that are nocturnal have evolved to manufacture their own vitamin D-3, so they don’t need to get it from light the way daytimeactive reptiles do. Amphibians require constant pervasive moisture in both substrate and the air of the enclosure, as well as cool temperatures. Sphagnum moss and cypress mulch make good substrates for amphibians. Amphibians also need dechlorinated water — chemicals easily enter their systems through their superpermeable skins.

– Frogs need terrariums designed to mimic their particular natural environment. Tree frogs thrive in woodland terrariums with branches to climb and cool green foliage. Tiny colorful dart frogs need superwet rainforest tanks with plenty of places to hide and lush tropical plants. Horned frogs like a woodland environment, but floor space is more important than vertical space, and they like to burrow into the substrate.

– Salamanders and newts also require either a woodland-type aquarium or an aquatic setup, depending on their natural environment. If you aren’t sure what you’ve got, ask your vet for advice on what your particular pet needs. For instance, an axolotl is entirely aquatic, an eastern newt is aquatic except for during its intermediate life stage as an eft in which it’s terrestrial, and fire salamanders are mostly terrestrial.

– Spiders, scorpions, cockroaches, and centipedes like moist humid environments similar to what amphibians favor, but without the lagoon. Give these creepy crawlers places to burrow and hide, and plenty of room to move around. Arboreal spiders need something to climb on and crouch upon. Mist spider enclosures with a spray bottle filled with dechlorinated water every day, and you don’t need to provide drinking water. Peat moss, vermiculite, or even potting soil makes a good substrate for spiders, scorpions, cockroaches, and centipedes.

– Hermit crabs move around, and they need a tank that gives them some horizontal space. They need clean shells to swap out for the ones they outgrow, and they do best in groups with other crabs, because these little guys are social. Always provide a shallow dish of saltwater — hermit crabs drink seawater in their natural environments and need to ingest some salt for good health — and clean, fresh dechlorinated drinking water with a wet clean sea sponge in the water dish. Don’t let any water stand too deep in your hermit crab’s cage, or he can drown. Sand makes a good substrate for hermit crabs. Hermit crabs enjoy warm tropical temperatures.

Exotic supply list

Before you bring home your herp or bug, be sure you have the appropriate supplies:

– An enclosure of appropriate size with a secure access. Some cages open from the front or sides, and often appropriately so, because a frightened arborial spider or a lizard making a break for it often dashes upward rather than trying to run in a straight line. A side-opening cage can therefore help foil any escape attempts.

– An appropriate substrate (litter or lining) for the bottom of the cage.

– Spray bottle to keep humid environments moist. Label your spray bottle so you don’t mix it up with the spray bottle of bleach-water solution you probably use for cage cleaning.

– Pump, filter, and water conditioner for aquatic areas.

– Food and water bowls of appropriate size and depth.

– A place to hide.

– For reptiles, an under-tank heating pad, incandescent bulb, or ceramic heat emitter as a source of heat.

– A full-spectrum fluorescent light and a light timer to ensure appropriate amount of exposure to light. For reptiles, include a UVB light. Write the date on the bulb — it’s common for pet owners to use bulbs past their prime, and although older bulbs emit plenty of visible light, the UVB emission is considerably reduced.

– A thermometer and humidity gauge, so you can monitor the conditions in your herp’s enclosure.

– Vitamin/mineral supplement, as appropriate (see Chapter Exotic Care and Feeding).

– The right food, such as crickets, fresh vegetables, mice, or a commercially prepared diet (see Chapter Exotic Care and Feeding).

Everything under the sun: Outdoor housing
Not every herp does well in an outdoor enclosure, but if your herp is a local, hailing from the environment where you live, you may be able to keep him in an appropriately large enclosure outdoors. The easiest pets to keep outdoors are large terrestrial turtles and iguanas, which need space and do well in outdoor enclosures during warm weather. Some iguanas live most of the year in screened-in porches, and some turtles have their own turtle pens where they spend most of their time. Places to hide and cool shady spots are important for animals living outside. The biggest outdoor concern of tortoises and box turtles isn’t where to get warm but rather where to go to keep from overheating.
You can build wood-and-mesh enclosures for iguanas, and large turtles can plod around a fenced-in pen as long as they have a big dish of water and a big dish of fresh salad and fruit. Just be sure to bring these pets inside, into a safe and clean, appropriate enclosure when the weather gets colder than tropical. How cold is too cold? That depends on the animal in question and where it lives. If the temperature and/or humidity changes a few degrees or points beyond what it would be in that animal’s natural environment, head inside. Beware of the box turtle’s amazing escape-artist abilities. They can scale some fairly steep inclines.

Exotic Homecoming: What to Expect

You may have purchased your new pet’s enclosure, but before you bring your new pet home, you need to take him to the vet. (See Chapter Exotic Care and Feeding for more information about finding a good exotic pet veterinarian and what to expect on the first visit.) Your vet can ensure your pet is healthy and ready for his new home.
This section focuses on ensuring that your pet’s homecoming is safe and secure, including transporting him home and welcoming him with open arms by allowing him to settle into his new digs.

Traveling with your exotic — bringing him home

Transporting your new pet safely home for the first time, to the vet, or anywhere else for that matter, is important in maintaining your creepy crawlers’ health and well-being.


For large exotics such as an adult iguana or a large snake, whose home enclosures are too big to shove into the back of the minivan, your pet needs a separate travel carrier like the kind you use for a cat or dog, with enclosed plastic sides and a wire door on the front. You need to be able to securely close the carrier, and make sure it doesn’t have any spaces through which your pet can escape.

For smaller animals, you may want a travel cage so you don’t have to move a heavy tank or mess up your exotic’s lovely decor. Most pet stores sell small, medium, and large plastic tanks with ventilated tops and handles, perfect for transporting a pet. Put a little of your pet’s bedding in the bottom and take him to the vet in this lightweight carrier. Keep it well ventilated, but cover it with a cloth if being moved stresses or startles your pet.

Welcoming your pet home — making him comfortable

When you first bring your new exotic pet home with you, place him in his new enclosure, and step back to have a look. Have you remembered to provide him with a good place to hide? The stress of moving into a new enclosure or being transported to a new location is hard on any pet, and without a place to hide and feel safe, your new lizard, snake, amphibian, or tarantula can suffer from severe stress.


How your animal adapts depends on what kind of animal you have, how old it is, and how it has been treated in the past. If your new pet skitters, scampers, or slithers off to hide, don’t worry. Some animals take some time to get used to new surroundings. However, some exotics show no sign of stress or fear when moved to a new home. They just continue to go about their business, building webs, scaling branches, or sitting on the warm side of the tank waiting for a tasty rodent.

Letting your exotic settle in

Because most exotics aren’t particularly interactive, all you have to do is stand back and watch. With exotics that you plan to handle, however, don’t be in a rush to reach in, grab them, and start hand-taming the minute you get home. Let your pet hang out and adjust to his new surroundings for a day or two, unless, of course, he seems to be adjusting just fine. In that case, try picking him up gently and handling him carefully. With a small or larger tamed iguana or other sociable lizard, or with a baby or larger mellow snake, you may be able to start training in the first few days. For more about training your reptile, see Chapter Snake Charming and Herp Handling: How to Train Your Exotic Pet.
Your other family members are likely to be interested in the new pet, but hold off on passing your new pet around to every family member on the first day. Respect your pet’s stress level and take it slowly. Be patient, let different family members come up to the tank or cage one at a time to say hello, and wait until your exotic pet seems ready and willing to be sociable.


Always supervise a child’s handling of the new pet, and have children hold exotics while sitting on the floor so the pet doesn’t get hurt if the child gets startled and drops him on the floor. And of course, put all other curious pets behind closed doors when handling your exotic pets.

Calling a vet

If your adopted pet hides constantly, refuses to come out or eat, or anything seems wrong to you, phone your vet. Don’t worry if your reptile doesn’t eat for a few weeks or even a month or so, if you know he had a recent large meal before you brought him home. Even tortoises may skip eating for a few days once in awhile. But if your animal looks like he is losing weight, changes his behavior, seems to be having trouble breathing, looks bloated or injured in any way, or acts listless and unresponsive as if unaware that you’re even there, a vet probably needs to get involved, so give him or her a call. Your pet may have a health problem that can be easily remedied, and until your pet is healthy, you can’t expect him to adjust well to his new home.

Exotics and other pets: Can they interact?

Some people think it’s hilarious when their cat plays with their iguana or the dog curls up with the Burmese python. However it isn’t so hilarious when the cat decides to eat the iguana, the iguana decides to bite the cat’s nose, or the Burmese python or the dog decide that one or the other looks like a good wrestling partner.


Exotics sometimes can interact under carefully supervised conditions with other pets, but for the safety of everyone involved, never leave an exotic unsupervised with another pet, never put a pet in an exotic’s cage, never put an exotic in a pet’s bed, and never throw them together in the middle of the yard just to see what happens. Too many pets have been severely injured or killed this way. Some species just aren’t made to mix, and if they get along, you’re lucky, but you don’t need to tempt fate.

by Eve Adamson

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