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Back around... I think 2014, maybe 2013, I first became a reptile owner. It's come with some hard lessons, as can probably be gathered as I elaborate.

So far, I've had two snakes (a corn snake and a ball python) and presently have a Chinese water dragon who's who's about... middle-age, maybe leaning a little into elderly? (CWDs life expectancy is around 10-15 years, mine is around 7 years old.) I've gone through a number of enclosure changes trying to improve things as I'm able, including some work converting things not originally intended to be reptile habitats. I've had visits with multiple vets who specialize in "exotic" pets and followed a number of reptile groups (and looked into some questionable claims I'd see in them) with a few different specializations. My CWD, Scamp, has been kept in a bioactive enclosure for a long time now. For a lot of this time, I've also been living with a friend who owns a tortoise and have picked a little up from that, as well.

So... ask me anything. :) (Yes, that can include hard questions about sad things. And if you ask for advice about getting a critter, I'll state right now that I discourage getting an "exotic" pet at all for a number of reasons, but will also still answer your question to the best of my ability.)
Claine Moderator

Oh wow! I had no idea you had reptiles! I really like snakes and lizards, and a few years ago I wandered into a petshop and they were selling really nice blue tongue lizards. I actually went home and started researching what was required to keep one happy and well. In the end, I decided against getting one because the minimum tank size should be about 1m sq and for a small apartment that's a pretty hefty investment.

But onto the questions
- What considerations do you need to make when setting up a tank? Things a beginner may overlook!
- Why do you discourage getting an exotic pet?
Zelphyr Topic Starter

I'm guessing you're referring to blue-tongued skinks? Pretty but ornery-looking buggers. XD I've only seen them a bit here and there, but I've heard they can be a lot nicer than they look. And they get pretty big! Woman I talked to at a plant shop said she has one (I need to get back there once I've gotten actually safe plants better sorted, she was looking forward to knowing that better herself), and she just gave him his own entire room!
Claine wrote:
- What considerations do you need to make when setting up a tank? Things a beginner may overlook!
Trying to focus on the tank setup part of a new critter...
  • Don't buy/set up the enclosure the same day you'd be putting a critter in it, whether it's a new pet or a replacement enclosure for one you already have. It's important to take some time to make sure you can maintain the desired environmental conditions - that a basking area will be warm enough without burning your poor critter, that there will be a cooler area if they get too hot, that humidity can be kept in the right range for the species (and for desert species, that you can provide a limited humid space to help with shedding only when needed), that they'll get the right amount of specifically UVB (which will require buying the expensive reptile lights; even plant lights don't go far enough into the B spectrum, and reptiles develop severe bone problems without it), etc. Some species, like chameleons, will do really poorly if they don't also have a breeze or air flow - which is extra tricky when you need to keep the temperature and humidity up. Additionally, if you're providing a more sterile environment, it's good to give things time to air out just in case; and if you're going bioactive, you should let your plants, good bacteria, and beneficial bugs have time to get established before there's a critter in there tearing the place up.
  • Research the critter's actual needs. Don't trust the seller info. Sellers tend to claim various reptiles are fine in much smaller spaces than are healthy for them (not necessarily to deceive; many are just misinformed), may suggest species-inappropriate diets, may give the wrong temperatures, etc. Small dealers/breeders may have a bias toward believing info that keeps their setup "easier" to manage or may outright be untrustworthy. Large companies may provide brochures or info packets, but they may not have info for a given species (even while selling it) and I've discovered the info they do have is often highly inaccurate. They all also tend to be marketed as easier than they really are. For example, the brochure I was given for Chinese water dragons listed them as a beginner to intermediate reptile (nope), recommended lower humidity than is actually appropriate and decontextualized the temperature suggestions in a confusing way, and said adults should have a 40-gallon tank (despite seeming small enough to be okay with that, what's actually considered the minimum for a CWD to be physically and mentally healthy is a minimum of 4 feet in all dimensions).
  • Quarantine any new animal. It's important to bring the critter (and some of their poop, fresh as you can reasonably get) to a vet ASAP anyway to better understand things and find out its actual condition (if nothing else, there's a high chance a new reptile is carrying parasites they need to be eliminated or brought under control). Even if you only have the one, if you put the critter in its new home too soon, you might have to take everything apart and sterilize it to prevent re-infection with something. Keeping it in a quarantine space while you wait for test result, observe it for abnormalities, etc, can save you that trouble. And if you'll be cohabing multiple critters (very discouraged in most cases), skipping quarantine can lead to healthy animals being infected, too. It's also good to check any critters you already have periodically and before introducing a new one as a precaution against things sneaking in.
  • Provide hiding places. Most reptiles need a place where they can feel safely hidden away, and this very much means you won't always be able to see them. For many, you usually won't be able to see them, or any least not much of them. They need spaces that are big enough to fit in, but small enough to provide that sense of security. Some reptiles also need to be able to dig to satisfy their instincts, some of which build full-on burrows - a product called "excavator clay" can help with this.
  • Ensure the enclosure is truly secure. Snakes in particular are skilled escape artists, small critters can generally get through (or stuck in) even smaller spaces, and large reptiles have more muscle and brains than people tend to realize. If there's an opening or a weak spot, it will be found.
  • Red "night" bulbs may be acceptable to use during the active period of nocturnal species, but should not actually be used during the rest period. Those bulbs basically just prioritize the interest of human viewers over the comfort of the critter. If an under-tank heater (UTH) doesn't provide enough warmth while the lights are out, additional overhead heat can be provided by ceramic heat bulbs instead.
  • Heat rocks are dangerous. Most of the reptiles sold as pets are unlikely to chew on the cord (though it is still a risk), but there have been numerous cases of reptiles suffering severe burns from heat rocks getting too hot. A similar issue exists with heat tape and UTHs that don't have monitoring and emergency turn-offs built in. And while I haven't yet heard of someone trying to use an aquarium heater instead: aquarium heaters are designed to be in water, and are almost guaranteed to overheat if not submerged.
  • Don't ever hang a light, heater, or any other device by its cord. It may seem sturdy, but it's a serious hazard. Additionally, some form of caging should be used if there is any chance the critter can reach a light or heater; that's another thing that's resulted in a lot of burns. DIY caging is usually inadvisable, though, as many owners find out the hard way how many things lead to toes being lost.
  • UV lamps often claim to be good for a year. Everywhere I've looked outside of their packaging, however, states that their UVB output diminishes to the point of uselessness within 6 months. Plan to change your UV lights twice a year, figure out proper disposal (most available use mercury, which requires special processing), and know that the lights should still be fine for use with plants if you want to get that other 6 months use in. (I should also mention that while UVB is needed for vitamin D production so they can process calcium, UVA is also important to their vision; and also that UVB is the type of UV most associated with skin cancer in us.)
  • For the most part, chemicals are bad. Most cleaners are a huge risk to your critter, and even the safer options usually require a lot of dilution. If you use tap water, you need to know how your water is treated; usually you'll at least need to dechlorinate it somehow. Anything sold for gardening usually has fertilizers and/or pesticides that will harm your critter (yes, including many "organic" options). If you're doing more DIY with it, be aware that the vast majority of adhesives, sealants, paints, etc contain chemicals that will harm your critter, and even most wood comes chemically pre-treated. One of the things to keep in mind is the idea of "it's the dose that makes the poison," and that your critter has a much smaller body than you do and so cannot handle the same exposure (and you're gonna "hotbox" them with whatever you put in their enclosure).
  • If you're going bioactive, do your research well. There are plenty of plants and woods that are toxic to reptiles even if not ingested, and many plants are designated "safe" when they're only safe for climbing on, not safe for ingestion. Obviously, there's lots of bugs that can pose a risk to your critter, too, or that can mess up a delicate ecosystem. Some bioactive groups can get really intense about the "right" way to do things, too, particularly in objecting to any form of sterilizing anything. Sterilizing things before adding them does have to be done with caution, but it can be done, and in at least the majority of cases, I fully believe it should be done. It's honestly not that hard to buy beneficial bugs, fungi, etc, so the risk of bringing in problematic ones doesn't seem worth it.
  • If you're keeping things more conventional, make sure you buy the right types of things (for example, some substrates used for small mammals are toxic to reptiles; different types of reptiles will do best with certain substrate types; and critters who have a high risk of ingesting loose substrate may need turf mats or something else they aren't as likely to get in their mouth), pay attention to the materials your decorations and structures are made from (for example, heat and UV are major degraders of plastics, which can lead to toxic off-gassing and/or structural breakdown & dangerous plastic shards in most plastics), and know how often various things need to be changed out.

That's at least most of the more general things I can think of right now. ^^;

Claine wrote:
- Why do you discourage getting an exotic pet?

This got long too
Too many people get an exotic mostly because it's just so cool and don't really know what they're in for. All these years and I'm still figuring out more in how to properly take care of just one individual of one species (and yeah, that very much means the first line applies to me, too). Exotic pets tend to be marketed in ways that focus on how interesting it is, how pretty it looks, and in a way that (especially with reptiles, amphibians, bugs, and still also fish) presents them as, in many ways, "easier" to care for than more conventional pets. They aren't marketed as companions, but as centerpieces. A lot of people just accept that, and for one reason or another, never quite fully understand that these are living creatures who have needs, experience pain, and express themselves in ways that are very unfamiliar to us (for example, things like head-bobbing and waving in reptiles is usually an expression of warning and aggression, and hiding pain has been an important survival instinct to avoid being targeted by predators). Others who want to build more of a bond tend to end up still misunderstanding what their critter is actually expressing (prior example still applies; another is that "stargazing" in snakes can look like curiosity or interest, but is usually a sign of neurological damage), and/or have to deal with a frustrating lack of info or understanding and an excess of conflicting claims simply because they do, indeed, have an unusual pet.

It can be extra heartbreaking for those who find out too late that they were missing signs of problems or had even been causing their pet harm without ever meaning to. For example, a common practice to better hold heat and humidity in the typical screen-top terrariums is to put a layer of aluminum foil over the screen, but aluminum isn't really healthy for... most animals, really. And for those who get won over by a really pretty snake morph (morph = the colors and patterns expressed by the genes), they may have to realize later on that fancy snake morphs come with a lot of inbreeding-based health problems just like shows up frequently in purebred dogs. The "bumblebee" morph in ball pythons, for example, is notorious for neurological problems; the worst case I've seen was a sweet little guy who "stargazed" pretty much perpetually, needed help eating and took exceptionally long to swallow, and couldn't "grip" things for climbing or anything. Another is that CWD groups will chew people out for even allowing a CWD to be on its back if it put itself in that position to begin with because of their supposed inability to breathe like that, but commonly think tail-dropping is an unfortunate but normal thing (CWDs are not supposed to drop their tails, not even to escape something).

Misinformation is abundant; clear information with solid sources is not. Shady practices are common enough that a friend found out at a later point that the tortoise he purchased at a reptile show was not legally large enough (and therefore not old enough) yet to have been sold to him, and I've heard far worse. It's still very common for many "exotics" (especially the ones that aren't mammals) to be wild-caught and then sold. It can be difficult to find a vet that will accept them, let alone be reasonably knowledgeable about a specific species. It's harder to find products made for their needs (even many sold for them can be bad for them). Getting food that won't end up harming them can prove both difficult and expensive, and individuals of more predatory species may refuse to eat anything that doesn't at least appear to be alive. It had be really hard to tell when something is wrong. Vet bills can get pretty high, and it's harder to get insurance for "exotic" pets; between Scamp's last two appointments, for example, I paid over $1800 (to be fair, the bigger chunk of that was for a surgical procedure). Housing for anything larger than, like, a gecko also shoots up really fast; I honestly might have spent more just on getting Scamp's new (and very much needed) enclosure to a habitable state (even reusing older things I was able to and having access to other alternative sourcing for some things, and it still needs a lot of work) than I've spent on feeding myself in the past year or so.

I don't think people are incapable of taking proper care of these sorts of critters or anything. I just think the time, effort, and money it takes tends to be vastly underestimated, and learning the hard way really, really sucks for all involved. Honestly, I still don't take as good care of Scamp as I should (sometimes forget her meds, sometimes forget to feed her often as I should, still haven't quite solved the issue of nitrate buildup in her pool, etc), and I've considered finding her a better home many times - but the terrifying truth is that I have every reason to believe she'd only end up in a worse place, if I could find anyone who even could take her.
Claine Moderator

Oh wow, that's a lot to consider! Thank you so much for your thorough answers!

And I actually had to check online that we were talking about the same creature. Absolutely nobody here calls them blue-tongued skinks XD But yes, that's the guy I'm talking about.
Zelphyr Topic Starter

Huh. I went ahead and bothered to check Google too, and yeah, it very much suggested "lizard" before "skink" to complete the search. With multiple extensions.

I'm gonna just blame that on being an American USA... citizen... person...? ^^; (Why does this country have such a dumb and useless name? Ugh.)

I know there's some alternate names for Chinese water dragons, too, but is seems like most of them can also refer to other species sometimes, and that one is the one I usually see everywhere. (I mean... other than when someone mistakes one for an iguana.)
I actually considered getting a small lizard at one point, until I started to do some research about keeping one. It's true that information about reptiles is conflicted and sparse, and it hardly seemed worth it to put an animal through whatever learning mistakes I would've inevitably made.

It sounds like your lizard-friends have the best person for them that they'd be able to get, though as someone who's struggled to raise a cactus for a few years now, I know that can sound a little bitter-sweet.

Do your animals express affection at all? I've heard reptiles don't really process or feel 'affection' as mammals understand it, but I'm curious about what would constitute affection or expressed contentment for a reptile?
Zelphyr Topic Starter

Aardbei wrote:
It sounds like your lizard-friends have the best person for them that they'd be able to get, though as someone who's struggled to raise a cactus for a few years now, I know that can sound a little bitter-sweet.
Yeah, I often actually find it kinda distressing when people start telling me how well they think I'm doing or something. I have some problematic perfectionist tendencies anyway (whole other topic, though), but when it involves something alive, particularly things in the animal kingdom that it's easier to empathize with or relate to, there can be a strong sense of "the chance that I'm doing better than others might doesn't make my effort good enough, it just makes everything else more worrying." >.<
Aardbei wrote:
Do your animals express affection at all? I've heard reptiles don't really process or feel 'affection' as mammals understand it, but I'm curious about what would constitute affection or expressed contentment for a reptile?
Most reptiles remain very solitary creatures and have not evolved urges, behaviors, etc that promote socializing and bonding in the way that we have. Even much of the brain structuring and chemicals that we've identified to play a part in bonding are pretty different or absent in them - though this does not mean we should ignore the possibility that they still have the ability to experience things like affection in some other way we don't understand yet. At the very least, plenty have behaviors that are easily mistaken for affection!

Among the critters I've had, I feel like it's always been clearest limited to tolerance at best. My first snake actually died pretty young, and never seemed to make it past fearing this strange giant with limbs who hung around. It was probably the effects of stress that killed her, actually.

The second, my ball python, very readily coiled and clung to me and was often perfectly content to hang out around my neck or in my shirt. This was more just a mix of warmth-seeking and security-seeking, though. Ball pythons tend to be nervous little boogers, and they get their name from their tenancy to coil into a lump of snake as a defense mechanism, similar to how we might hug ourselves to feel more secure. While that's often to simulate the sensation of actually being hugged (and therefore loved and accepted) in us, though, for them it's pretty much exclusively focused on feeling less exposed. It probably also helps with regulating their body temperature.

For Scamp, she's socialized enough that humans aren't too scary if they're leaving her alone, and usually aren't worth fighting if we do pick her up, but it is absolutely just a tentative tolerance (even less right now since she's temporarily on a medication that has to be injected, and I keep getting too nervous to stick her effectively; so she's been hiding from me more). Chinese water dragons can definitely be gotten a lot more comfortable with humans, but it takes a lot of time and consistent effort, and I'm... very bad with being consistent about anything. ^^;

Then there's my housemate's tortoise who's just... an ornery little butthole. Natural vegetarian diet, but he will try to bite your fingers for daring to enter his domain, to the point that he'll eat the food you're offering just to try to get at them fingers. (And he usually won't recognize or eat food if you aren't holding it for him.) He'll come running to "greet" you, but only because he wants his food and is also trying to let you know who's boss. All this fury of his is also just... pretty standard and normal for male tortoises, seemingly russians in particular. Super territorial.

While any actual feeling of affection remain debatable, reptiles can definitely still learn who feeds them and react with excitement, and recognize different people who they can develop preferences on (for example, a vet told me it's pretty common for iguanas to be fine when brought in until they see him, the human who pokes and prods them so much, at which point they try to seek safety with their owners). It's especially common among some of the larger species. One of the most noted ones are tegus, especially one variety (I always forget which is which, though) that gets commonly compared to dogs in intelligence and apparent friendliness. They're very much trainable, can definitely differentiate between humans, exhibit play-hunting behavior at times, and have been known to basically demand cuddles. I've even heard one claim of a tegu with a favorite toy he often carries around and cuddles (though giving reptiles any sort of toys requires extreme caution, especially if it looks at all edible to them).

Overall, the closest we know of to count as affection in reptiles is simply trust (more specifically, a lack of fear), and perhaps willingly (maybe even excitedly) approaching a known provider or seeking safety with a known trusted person. It's figured to be the fulfillment of non-social needs that prompts these behaviors - like getting excited seeing the human who feeds them is excitement about food rather than about the human - but it at least ends up looking much the same.

Hello fellow reptile parent! I am a proud momma of a very amazing ball python named zephyr and well before I got him I actually did a bunch of research and live with someone who has owned snakes his whole life. And I must say I agree the more exotic pets are not easier to take care of due to there different nature's. But I will say I have never owned a pet I love more my zephyr is such a loving and social boy, our bond is one my roommate-who has owned snakes his entire life has never seen before.

Most snakes do not mind if you don't hang out with them often, not my boy he adores me, knows my voice and prefers my company over being in his tank. He loves certain decor items even more than others and has a very unique personality. I couldn't imagine my life without a snake now and I respect these magastic and fasincating creatures for the wonderful miricals of nature they are. It pleases me to know there is someone else out there who knows how easily the reptiles of our world can get the wrong care, a simple mishap in husbandry can be fatal. I commend you and hope if ever anyone has questions there will be more people like you there to ensure these lovley critters get happy healthy and proper homes.
Zelphyr Topic Starter

That's awesome to hear, Akali_Fang, and it sounds like you probably make to to take excellent care of Zephyr. :) Ha, I kinda miss my goof Patrick shoving his snoot in my eye and stuff.

that sounds like my zeph lol he loves to nuzzle and makes my head his perch XD such a silly snake I love him so very much and he's a happy guy.
Zelphyr Topic Starter

I ended up being responsible for the feeding of my housemate's tortoise the other night, and since how that played out was both amusing and actually very typical, I'm just going to share it for folks.

First, the tortoise in question is a male Russian tortoise who lives in a low, custom-built, 4x4ft box. He's a little bigger and more brightly colored than is typical, but otherwise all evidence says he's a very typical, healthy, male Russian tortoise. Like pretty much any creature, tortoises exhibit differing personalities; at the same time, they're also among the many creatures where females of the species tend to be more chill and males tend to be more aggressive.

Skipping the details of how tortoise diets are honestly kinda weird (except to mention that fresh veggies are very important!), this particular attempt to feed this tortoise involved probably about an hour or so of...
  • Trying to get rage tortoise to acknowledge the food (we have to hold the food the whole time) instead of just furiously running all around his enclosure as fast as his little legs will go. (Honestly, his speed is pretty impressive and a far cry from the cartoonish representations.)
  • Trying to get rage tortoise to bite the food instead of trying to either climb onto it or duck under it in his efforts to bite the hand that dare invade his territory.
  • Trying to convince rage tortoise that his bite-y efforts are better spent on the food than on his arch enemy, the dread shadow tort. (Yeah, literally his own shadow on a wall in his enclosure.)
  • Waiting for him to finish yet again (ahem) displaying his dominance over a large, vaguely-tortoise-shaped bit of dry fungus in his enclosure. (Luckily, it has indeed been only a dominance display for years now.)

In the end, I think I only managed to get him to eat, like, half a leaf of romaine lettuce. ^^; He's not always that level of uncooperative, but it's not really unusual, either. Most often, it's just a game of keeping the food between him and your fingers, so he'll try to bite his way through to the invading hand and decide "hey, this tastes like food" in the process. And periodically having to shift around to get his attention again.

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