Lizards and Turtles and Snakes – Oh My! Basic Care for Reptiles


Author: Karen L. McGlothlin, DVM, PhD

I have always thought reptiles were incredibly interesting animals. As a biology major in college, I enjoyed getting out in the mountains of East Tennessee and looking for a variety of snakes and turtles. I have never had a reptile as a pet myself, but my youngest brother, Andy, had a red-tail boa constrictor for about a year while we were growing up. He seemed to enjoy interacting with it, but my Mother was tested one too many times by the snake’s ability to escape his vivarium and eventually insisted that it be re-homed for her mental well-being (and Andy’s physical well-being…). While my family thought we were prepared for a pet reptile, the reality was that we had not done our homework and were not prepared for a snake to share our space comfortably.  The snake’s habitat was inadequate and it would escape in search of spaces needed to fulfill its activities.


The two most vital requirements for reptile care are: proper nutritional support provided through a balanced diet and proper environmental support provided through adequate housing. Unfortunately, these considerations are sometimes not researched thoroughly prior to acquiring a reptile or they are not given the attention they deserve after adoption of that pet. There are very particular dietary and environmental requirements for individual species of reptiles and those requirements need to be met in order for the individual to thrive. This is where reptile owners can run into trouble, as an estimated 90% of reptile medical cases are the result of either improper nutrition, inadequate environmental support, or a combination of both.

Important Environmental Considerations For Reptiles:

  1. The potential size of your reptile as an adult. Housing should be large enough to accommodate the potential size that your particular pet my reach as an adult. Keep in mind that the cute little 1.5 feet long juvenile red tail boa can reach an adult length of up to 10 feet and weigh up to 50 pounds. For comparison, a full-grown bearded dragon may only reach right under 2 feet in length. Have the foresight to plan accordingly.
  2. The need for appropriate living spaces. There needs to be enough space to enable your reptile to exhibit normal behaviors, such as eating, basking, and exercising. Your reptile habitat should include both horizontal as well as vertical spaces, if your pet is a species that is a climber.
  3. The need for appropriate substrate. This will depend on the type of reptile you have and can range from newspaper to sand to moist substrates such as peat. It is possible that your choice of pet may require multiple different substrates available for different activities.
  4. The importance of proper sources of heat and UV lighting. These two requirements are extremely important and wrong choices can lead to a variety of health problems. Insufficient UV lighting can result in interference in calcium absorption in some reptile species, potentially leading to bone deformities and fractures. Research your particular pet’s requirements carefully to avoid serious medical issues.
  5. The humidity and water requirements for your particular reptile. The proper level of moisture in the environment is important for a variety of reasons for reptiles, but it is especially important for shedding of the skin, or ecdysis. A partially dehydrated reptile may experience difficulty going through a shed and in some cases the skin may not come off at all in particular areas (this is especially problematic on the skin that covers the eyes), leading to permanent damage. There are a variety of methods to humidify your pet’s habitat and regular periods of soaking in lukewarm water will help keep your pet well-hydrated.



Important Nutritional Considerations for Reptiles:

When researching a reptile pet, it is extremely important that you consider nutritional needs and follow recommendations to the letter. Poor nutrition or lack of vitamin and mineral supplements in those species that require them can lead to serious health problems. Reptiles can be placed into one of three categories, based on their dietary habits:

  1. Herbivores – these are reptiles that eat vegetation, such as tortoises and the green iguana. Their diets can be variable and include things such as dark leafy greens, corn, carrots, mixed vegetables and commercially available pellet foods that have been formulated to meet their dietary needs. While fruits and berries are an acceptable part of an herbivorous diet, the bulk of the diet should be provided by vegetation.
  2. Carnivores – reptiles that consume meat/prey items, such as mice, rats, rabbits, and feeder fish. This group includes snakes as well as many lizards and some turtles. A subset of this group are the insectivores (mainly geckos and chameleons) which feed on mealworms, crickets, earthworms, and other invertebrate prey.
  3. Omnivores – reptiles that consume food items from both of the previous categories, including box turtles, bearded dragons and blue-tongued skinks.


If you are considering adding a reptile pet to your family, Lawndale Veterinary Hospital can help. Dr. Kenny Crawford has years of experience treating reptiles and is affiliated with ARAV, the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians. There are many other factors to consider, in addition to those mentioned in this brief blog entry. If you are thinking about a reptile pet, it is imperative that you do your research and understand the requirements of the particular reptile that you are planning to acquire.


Basic Reptile Husbandry

Reptile Basics

Buyer’s Guide to Pet Reptiles

Selecting A Pet Reptile

Amphibians, Reptiles and Salmonella