While reptiles can make rewarding pets they do require a high level of commitment and many people embarking on ownership without realising how expensive or difficult they can be to care for properly. Particularly when you are a beginner, the right choice of reptile can make a huge difference between success and enjoyment or frustration and heartache. Sadly, many of the reptile species offered in pet stores are actually completely unsuitable for the inexperienced reptile keeper and to make matters worse, new owners are often sent on their way with incomplete or even incorrect information, often resulting in great suffering and even death for the reptile.
Research is the key to any aspect of reptile ownership and husbandry and this applies also to the choice of species. Don’t just go on looks or the novelty factor. Many species have such specialised dietary or environmental requirements that they are too much of a challenge for beginners. There are enough species that make good pets for beginners to offer a wide variety of choice, without involving yourself in the more difficult species. Remember, though, that ALL reptiles require a significant commitment of effort and investment in proper equipment from the start, even if they are considered low maintenance.
The hardest part to keeping snakes is probably their feeding, with most requiring pre-killed whole prey. Obviously, many are venomous and some of the larger constrictors can be very dangerous but these should usually be avoided by beginners anyway. On the upside, snakes do not need to be fed frequently (once a week is average) so can be easily left for a few days if you need to go away and snakes also usually do not need a UV light source as many species are nocturnal.
Corn SnakesThese are beautiful, docile snakes with relatively easy-to-care-for needs. With a lifespan of about 10 years and an adult size of 3-5 feet, they make ideal pets for first-time reptile owners. They can be adept escape artists though so a secure enclosure is vital. King SnakesSimilarly docile and easy to tame, these are beautiful snakes with the one drawback being their large adult size (up to 7 feet in some species). King snakes are constrictors and can live to 20 years. Ball PythonsA constrictor that does not grow too big (3-5 feet), the ball python is generally docile and easy to care for. However, they have a reputation for being fussy eaters and it is advised to always choose a healthy, captive-bred specimen where the breeder gives you a feeding demonstration. These snakes can live to 30 years so are not a light commitment.
Despite their generally small size, most lizards actually have very complex heating, lighting and humidity requirements, as well as dietary needs and it can be quite tricky satisfying all these areas. In addition, some of the species commonly found in pet stores are actually terrible choices for beginners? In particular, the iguana which not only has very specialised dietary and environmental needs but also grows to an impractical size and has a tendency to become aggressive upon maturity. However, a few popular species of lizards do have more general needs that can be more easily satisfied by inexperienced reptile keepers.
Leopard GeckosProbably the most ideal choice for beginners, these lizards are relatively small and easy to care for. As they are nocturnal, they do not have any specialised UVA or UVB lighting either and being insectivores, can be easily fed on a variety of insects. Most of all, they are easy to tame and handle. Bearded DragonsThese are larger lizards so will need a good size tank and as they originate from the desert in Australia, they will need UV lighting as well as a relatively high thermal gradient. Thus, these lizards involve a larger initial cost for set-up. Furthermore, they feed on both insects and fresh fruit and vegetables so will require some thought and consideration in the preparation of their diet. However, owners will be rewarded with a lizard that is entertaining and easily tamed. Blue-tongued SkinksA wonderful pet for those who enjoy handling their reptiles, they are playful and agile as well as being docile and easy to tame. Being omnivores, they need to be fed on a range of foods but the key issue with these lizards is the large size they grow to as adults and their need to range over a wide territory, translating into the need for a very large enclosure if you are to keep these lizards happy and healthy.
Turtles and Tortoises
In actual fact, there are no species of turtles or tortoises really suitable for beginners or the casual reptile owner. In the past, there has been a trend of marketing these animals, particularly red-eared sliders as ideal pets for children but these are really animals for the keen hobbyist. They have very specific housing and environmental needs, which can be very challenging to meet and are certainly not low maintenance. Basically, most turtles and tortoises are messy, long-lived, can grow to impractical sizes and require controlled exposure to UV light. In addition, their tendency to harbour Salmonella makes them a particularly bad pet for children.