10 min read

Reptile Care: A Primer for New Pet Parents


By Aurus Sy

Published: 03/31/2023, edited: 04/06/2023

Reviewed by a licensed veterinary professional: Dr. Linda Simon, MVB MRCVS

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There are more than 10,000 species of reptiles, but only a few dozen are regularly kept as pets. Even so, their requirements vary greatly, so it’s important to gather information about the type of reptile you’ll be welcoming into your home. Just like any other pet, taking the time to learn about your new scaly family member will enable you to care for them properly. 

Get started with our primer for new pet parents to the wonderful world of reptiles before you dig deeper into your reptile’s specific species. Let’s begin!

chameleon sitting on a human hand - Reptile Care A Primer for New Pet Parents


Unfortunately, reptiles are very good at hiding illness, often until they are severely compromised. While it’s not always easy to spot signs that a reptile is sick, it’s not impossible. The first step to catching a medical problem early is to know what’s normal for your pet. Once you know what’s normal, you’ll be able to recognize what’s abnormal. 

Monitor your reptile's health

Observe and weigh your pet regularly and keep track of their behavior even when they’re healthy. Have a notepad near your reptile’s enclosure so you can record their habits and behaviors, including when they eat, how much they eat, when they use the bathroom, when they shed, and the like. It’s a good idea to educate yourself about your pet’s species as well by reading books and magazines, watching nature programs, and speaking to experienced herpers. 

Signs of illness

When you have a clear picture of your reptile’s normal behavior, even subtle changes become noticeable. Common signs of illness in reptiles include: 

  • A change in activity level
  • A change in posture or muscle tone
  • A change in responsiveness
  • A change in eating or drinking habits
  • A change in bathroom habits
  • Lameness in one or more limbs 
  • Areas of discoloration on the skin
  • Swelling in the body
  • Changes in stool color and consistency
  • A soiled vent
  • Discharge or bubbles from the eyes, nose, or mouth
  • Sudden weight loss or gain
  • Spending more time in hiding

Green iguana molting


Reptiles are known for their ability to shed their skin. Ecdysis is a lifelong process where old skin is phased out to make room for new tissue. It is more frequently seen in young growing reptiles, but continues periodically throughout life. In addition to allowing growth, ecdysis occurs to maintain healthy scales, accommodate weight change, get rid of external parasites, and facilitate wound healing.

During ecdysis, some reptiles shed in sections, while others molt the entire skin as a single piece. At the beginning of the process, the skin becomes dull and the eyes turn cloudy. The skin and eyes then clear up 3 to 4 days before a reptile molts their skin, which should be completely shed in 1 to 2 weeks. It is important to avoid handling your pet while they are shedding, as doing so can result in skin damage, scarring, or improper shedding. 

To help your reptile shed properly, you can provide them with rocks or other rough surfaces to rub on, as well as ensure their environment’s humidity levels are correct. After shedding is over, check your pet for any retained shed. Shed that is stuck on an extremity such as a tail or a toe can cut off blood flow to that area. 

How often does molting occur?

  • Snakes shed their skin 4 to 12 times a year. The shed begins around the mouth and the old skin usually comes off in one piece. During shedding, snakes become irritable and may strike if handled.
  • Lizards shed their skin in pieces and some species like geckos eat their shed skin to recoup lost nutrients. In rapidly growing lizards, shedding may occur every 2 weeks. 

  • Turtles periodically shed in pieces, particularly the skin on their head, neck, and legs. Aquatic turtles may also shed scutes on their top and bottom shell one at a time.


Pet reptiles can also sustain injuries despite living in controlled environments. The most common ones are burns caused by improper heat sources and fractured bones due to poor nutrition or trauma, such as an iguana lashing their tail against the wall of their enclosure.

Annual checkups

Although there are no vaccinations required for reptiles, your pet will greatly benefit from an annual health check by a veterinarian who is knowledgeable about their unique needs. This yearly visit can help make sure your reptile is well-nourished and free from diseases and parasites. Moreover, the information recorded from the initial visit will prove valuable should any health problems develop in the future. 

Got more questions about your reptile’s health? Chat with a veterinary professional today to get answers about raising a healthy herp!

two pet turtles eating leafy greens


When it comes to diet, reptiles can be categorized into the following four main groups. No matter which category your reptile falls in, it’s important to ensure they’re getting enough nutrients to avoid deficiencies and imbalances. 


Herbivorous pet reptiles such as green iguanas consume fresh vegetables, fruit, and commercial kibble. They also enjoy flowers as treats. Make sure your vegetarian buddy is eating a healthy, balanced diet by serving a variety of food, keeping everything fresh (including liquids), and removing any uneaten food right away. To avoid calcium imbalance, which is common in all reptiles regardless of diet, offer your plant eater cabbage, bok choy, okra, sprouts, and other calcium-rich foods. Give them a calcium supplement for reptiles as well.


Reptiles in this group, which include many turtles, eat vegetables, fruit, bugs, small animals, and fish. However, your scaly friend probably won’t eat everything and may lean towards one direction more than others. Consult your herp vet to find the right mix for your reptile's particular needs.


Carnivorous reptiles like snakes and monitor lizards live off other animals. Be sure to feed your carnivore only commercially produced meals to reduce the risk of parasites and disease. Choose whole animals, not just muscle meat, to prevent vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Feeding pre-killed prey is also recommended for your reptile’s safety. It is not uncommon for live prey to fight back and cause injuries, and there have been numerous cases of uninterested predators being chewed on (and worse) by hungry prey animals who have nothing else to eat. Furthermore, it is illegal to feed live prey in many countries.


While technically carnivores, insectivores such as geckos, anoles, and skinks more specifically consume crickets, worms, flies, and the like. Because feeder insects lack nutrients, it is common practice to “gut load” them by giving them a nutritious mix of vegetables and cereals prior to being fed to reptiles. If you don’t want to do the gut loading yourself, you can just buy commercially produced, pre-loaded insects.

young boy looking into a glass terrarium with two lizards


Unlike cats and dogs that can live in pretty much the same environment as we do, reptiles have stricter housing requirements due to their special needs and inability to regulate their body temperature. Make sure your reptile’s habitat is completely ready before you bring them home.


There are several types of reptile enclosures available, with the most common ones being:

  • Tubs. Tubs are plastic storage containers repurposed as reptile enclosures. While they are inexpensive and easy to clean, they offer limited space and ventilation. It can also be difficult to create an enriching environment in a tub, so this type of enclosure is best used as temporary housing. 

  • Aquariums. Aquariums are glass tanks commonly used to keep pet fish but can also be used to house small aquatic turtles. Aquariums are only accessible from the top, and those that are converted for reptile use often come with screen lids. 

  • Terrariums. Terrariums are enclosures built specifically for reptiles. Available in a variety of shapes and sizes, they are typically made of glass, wood, or PVC, with front-opening acrylic or glass doors for easy access. 

  • Screen cages. Screen cages are vertical enclosures with mesh walls. They are best suited for chameleons and other arboreal (tree-dwelling) species that require plenty of climbing space and ventilation. 

The best reptile enclosure is the one that can meet the needs of its occupant. It should be large enough, well-constructed, and escape-proof. It should also be able to accommodate the equipment and decor needed to create an environment that simulates a reptile’s natural habitat, encourages species-appropriate behaviors, and provides security and comfort. 

Substrates are an essential component of any reptile enclosure. These ground coverings, which serve as drainage systems, should mimic a reptile’s natural environment, so the type you choose will depend on your pet’s species. Sand, leaf litters, and potting soil are appropriate for many species of lizards, turtles, and tortoises. Alfalfa pellets (aka rabbit pellets) may also be used for turtles and tortoises. For snakes, various substrates can be used, including newspaper, peat moss, sand, wood shavings, potting soil, cypress mulch, and walnut bedding.

Keeping your reptile’s enclosure clean will help keep them healthy. Uneaten food should be disposed of daily, droppings should be removed promptly, and tools used for scooping waste should be disinfected after every use. Water dishes should be cleaned at least once a week and substrates should be replaced at least once a month. Some setups like aquatic and terrestrial environments need to be disassembled and disinfected every three months.


Most reptiles are ectotherms, meaning they are unable to regulate their body temperature internally. To do so, they move to different places in their environments, seeking out warm or cool areas. 

Each reptile species has their own preferred optimal temperature zone, which is the temperature range that keeps their immune systems healthy and their bodies working. Beyond this range, normal functions such as feeding, digestion, fighting off infections, and reproduction may slow down or stop completely. Some species will become inactive and hibernate at lower temperatures. 

Establish a temperature gradient with a warm end and a cool end in your reptile’s enclosure to keep the temperature within their preferred range at all times. Your pet’s exact requirements will depend on their species, but generally, the ideal temperature ranges are:

  • 80-100°F (27-38°C) for tropical species such as boa constrictors, leaf chameleons, green iguanas, mud snakes, and anoles
  • 68-95°F (20-35°C) for temperate species such as common garter snakes, geckos, box turtles, and pythons
  • Slightly lower for semi-aquatic turtles such as sliders, river cooters, pond turtles, mud turtles, and painted turtles

The best heat sources are those that do not come into direct contact with your scaly pal. These include incandescent bulbs, mercury vapor lamps, infrared panels, and undertank heaters. Heat rocks are not recommended as they can cause severe burns. 

Be sure to place a digital thermometer in both warm and cool ends of the enclosure so you can monitor the temperature. You may also want to use a thermostat or rheostat for better control. For some species, temperatures that exceed the upper limits by only 10°F can be lethal. 

two lizards inside an enclosure with a bright light shining from above


Lighting is a crucial yet oft-overlooked aspect of reptile care. In the wild, many reptiles spend a good amount of time soaking up the sun. The UVB rays from the sun help their bodies produce vitamin D3, which in turn leads to effective calcium absorption. Without proper calcium absorption, a reptile can suffer from weak or broken bones and other problems. 

Pet reptiles who spend most of their time indoors can reap the benefits of sunlight with full-spectrum UV lighting. Fluorescent bulbs that produce UVB wavelengths between 290 and 320 nanometers are appropriate for reptile enclosures. Mercury vapor lamps, which produce both heat and ultraviolet light, can be used as well. Do not place your pet’s terrarium by a window or out in the sun as this can result in overheating. Moreover, UVB does not penetrate glass. 

In addition to enabling your herp to make vitamin D3 in their body, full-spectrum light helps maintain healthy skin and improves feeding behavior, activity, and reproduction. UVB lights should be kept on during the day and turned off at night. Experts recommend leaving them on for 10 hours in the winter and 14 hours in the summer for subtropical and tropical species, and 8 hours in the winter and 16 hours in the summer for temperate species.


Cage humidity varies by species and should mimic your reptile’s natural environment. Very low humidity (below 35%) can cause dry skin and abnormal shedding, especially in species that are not used to a dry environment. On the other hand, very high humidity (above 70%) can lead to skin infections in some reptiles.

If you have a tropical reptile, they will require a moist environment. You can increase humidity by placing a large water dish in a warm area of the enclosure, misting the cage once or twice a day, covering half of the top of the cage to decrease ventilation, and using the right type of substrate (e.g., orchid bark instead of paper or sand).

woman holding large snake


Reptiles are not dogs or cats that can be cuddled with, nor are they playthings that can be taken in and out of their enclosure. Most of them cannot tolerate frequent handling and would rather be left alone, so reptiles should only be handled when necessary, such as when giving them a health check or moving them to a temporary enclosure for cage cleaning. 

Cleanliness is of utmost importance when coming into contact with your reptile and anything from their environment. Because reptiles can pass some disease-causing bacterial organisms to humans, you should always wash your hands after handling your scaly friend. Even if they’re not sick, they can still transfer these organisms to you, with the most common ones being Salmonella, Edwardsiella, Spirometra, and pentastomes (also known as tongue worms).

Kissing your reptile is not recommended, and neither is eating or drinking while handling them. In addition, avoid cleaning your reptile’s cage or its contents in your kitchen or wherever food is prepared.

gecko peaking out of a small hidey enclosure


It was previously believed that reptiles did not care about their housing and were thus kept in bare-bones enclosures comprising a light source, a heat gradient, and a place to hide. However, such environments deprived reptiles of their ability to perform natural behaviors, leading to stress, immunocompromisation, and ultimately their early demise.

Enrichment minimizes stress and provides mental stimulation, resulting in a longer and happier life. You can give your reptile the enrichment they need by creating an environment that encourages natural behaviors and gives them opportunities to think and make choices. Rather than sitting and waiting for something to happen, they should have the ability to make things happen. 

For example, instead of simply tossing food into the enclosure, place it in hides, branches, or underground. This promotes foraging behavior and in turn physical and mental stimulation. Another idea is to drag the food around the enclosure to give your reptile a scent trail to follow. 

How exactly you provide enrichment to your scaly pal will depend on their species, so it’s important to have a basic understanding of their natural biology. Learning about where and how they live, how they find food, what their circadian rhythm is, and the like will go a long way in creating an enriching environment that is appropriate for your reptile’s species. For example, fossorial (burrowing) species like hognose snakes require a deep substrate that will allow them to dig, otherwise they will get stressed.

two turtles swimming

Reptiles are often seen as couch potatoes who don’t need much care, but keeping them as pets requires effort and commitment too. Here’s a quick recap of the most important takeaways that were covered in this guide:

  • Reptiles are very good at hiding illness, but monitoring your pet’s behavior regularly enables you to catch health problems early. 

  • Reptiles are either herbivores, omnivores, carnivores, or insectivores. Regardless of diet, feeding the right foods and supplements can prevent deficiencies and imbalances.

  • Reptiles have special housing needs due to their inability to regulate their body temperature. Your pet’s enclosure should mimic their natural habitat and promote wild-like behaviors. It should also have the appropriate temperature, lighting, and humidity levels, all of which play important roles in a reptile’s health and happiness. 

  • Most reptiles prefer not to be handled. Always wash your hands after handling your pet to avoid getting sick.

  • Reptiles also need physical and mental stimulation. Providing an enriching environment can help your pet live longer. 

Did you know that non-venomous reptile species are welcome on the Wag! platform? Download the Wag! app for all your reptile’s care needs! 

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