Reptile keeping is the fastest growing sector in the Australian pet industry due mainly to the change in living accommodation of people in urban areas. Reptiles are also a suitable alternative to other pets that require a lot more care and handling.
"I think more and more people are recognising the beauty of having a reptile,” says Dr Robert Johnson, veterinarian, President of the Unusual Pet and Avian Vets Group of the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) and advisor to the Pet Industry Association of Australia (PIAA) on reptile matters.
Over the past 20 years the typical reptile owner has evolved, with many people now regarding reptiles as companion animals. In fact, many reptile owners are pet owning families, rather than enthusiasts or herpetologists, says Dr Johnson, who has had reptiles as pets since he was a child.
"Australia has also seen a growth in the number of veterinarians willing and able to treat reptiles," he says.
Reptile keeping also has a number of benefits:
- Suitable for most ages, young and old
- They are a good link for children to have to wildlife
- They make little noise compared with other pets
- Low cost for ongoing care
Nowadays, the more popular pet reptiles are the central bearded dragon, blue tongue lizard, carpet python, long and short neck turtles and the Children's python group (Antaresia species, named after the scientist Dr John George Children) , which are known for their smaller size compared with the other python species.
Reptile Keeping Licence Mandatory
"It is very important to have the appropriate licence if you want to have a reptile as a pet or breed them," says Dr Johnson, who is also author of "A Guide to Health and Diseases in Reptiles and Amphibians" (to be released at a later date) as well as author of the health and disease chapters in "A Guide to Turtles", "A Guide to Frogs" and "A Guide to Australian Snakes".
For information on how and where to get a licence
, you need to check with your state/territory authority as the requirements are different in each area.
Reptiles are easy to care for but they do have nutritional and environmental needs that must be met on a daily basis. They need adequate exposure to heat (as they can't generate their own body heat) and ultraviolet light (ie sun), and need somewhere to hide.
"Reptiles need to have a comfortable environment with thermal gradients (where the enclosure provides an array of temperatures), so reptiles can choose to go to a cooler or warmer spot whenever they like," he says.
Reptiles also need a regular food source, depending on the type of reptile, but be careful not to overfeed as they can eat until they almost explode, like a puppy, he adds.
When it comes to stimulation, reptiles are generally fine with being handled regularly. However, reptiles can also suffer from over handling. For instance, a python eats every one to two weeks and once they swallow their food, they need to retire to a warm corner spot and digest their prey. They don't want to be handled during this time, otherwise they'll regurgitate their food, says Dr Johnson.
Over Handling Causes Health Problems
Over handling is also an important cause of health issues, such as metabolic bone disease in bearded dragons.
"I tend to ask my clients to resist handling their pet too often, in particular younger reptiles as they are being taken out of their heated environment and exposure to light. It's not so risky when they are older and stop growing, but they do need to be in that controlled environment," he says. "Reptiles have a choice of choosing a hot or cool spot (in their enclosure) but they don't have that choice when sitting on your shoulder in the lounge room while you watch TV all night."
Some owners bring their reptiles into a vet clinic perched on their shoulder. You need to bring your reptile to the vet in a secure box with a heat pack if possible, advises Dr Johnson.
Keeping reptiles is not costly, except for initial setup which may cost up to $500 as it involves the enclosure (tank), light source, thermostat, food bowl and other accessories for environmental enrichment. There will also be ongoing expenses for maintenance of the enclosure, plus food (for example, crickets that last a couple of weeks cost around $5).
"The beauty of pet shops is that they can sell you a whole unit - everything you need to care for your pet reptile," he says.
NSW Pet Stores Now Sell Reptiles
In March, the NSW Government overturned a ban on the sale of reptiles in pet stores in the state, which is a win for the welfare of the reptiles, says Dr Johnson, in that we can control the sale of reptiles more closely and ensure owners are better equipped with the correct information on how to care for their reptilian pet.
"In the past, lizards, snakes and turtles could only be legally obtained in NSW from other people with a reptile keepers licence. And the amount of after sale service was patchy," he says. "Some breeders were exceptional in that people received adequate information. But in some cases, once the sale had been done, you were on your own."
Now that pet shops are selling reptiles, people can be assured the after sale service and education at point of sale is at a certain standard.
"I think it's important we make the process of obtaining a reptile as a pet easier to regulate and to supervise. This is a turn for the better, for both the animal and the enthusiast," says Dr Johnson.