Reptile Socialization: What Pet Owners Need to Know

Unlike dogs and cats that have long been domesticated, reptiles (also known as herps) are considered wild animals and as a general rule, should not be handled frequently.

Many species do best if not handled at all. Being fairly low in the food chain, many reptiles must constantly be on their guard against being eaten. Such wary behavior may make them nervous in a new or strange environment. Other herps, especially snakes, spend their time hunting for prey items, and may strike at anything that moves.

In addition, reptiles don't handle stress well. Family members should be instructed that tapping on the glass, moving the cage often or frequently interacting with a herp is inappropriate behavior. Children should never be allowed to handle herps unless supervised by a responsible adult.

That is not meant to imply that herps cannot make good pets. They certainly can! You just need to keep in mind that your expectations for a pet reptile should be different than those we have for domestic animals. For example, it is natural to expect that a pet dog or cat, once housebroken or litter trained, can wander freely around the house.

On the other hand, while evoking a Jurassic Park-like feeling of having a real, live dinosaur lumbering about the living room might seem pretty cool, in practice letting a reptile, for example a green iguana, roam around the home isn't such a good idea. Here's why. While conditions in the average home are very comfortable for its human inhabitants, those same conditions prove less than adequate for a green iguana.

The reason being is that these lizards are usually found in hot, humid tropical conditions, and unless you live in Florida without air-conditioning, your home does not mimic that tropical environment.

There is also the issue of territoriality. While most green iguanas can be quite adaptable to interactions with humans, adult males, in particular, can be dangerous. Iguanas tend to be wary of strangers, but an adult trying to defend his territory (your home!), may unexpectedly attack a human, inflicting serious injuries. There are many reports of unprovoked attacks by adult iguanas on humans - even their owners!

If that is not enough to convince you to keep your pet iguana in a secure cage, consider that visitors to your home might not have that same warm, fuzzy feeling about your green pet as you do! Not only that, but you might leave yourself open for a lawsuit should a visiting child or adult be injured by your pet.

Some green iguanas really seem to enjoy interacting with their owners. The special iguana will actually seek out family members to be petted or rubbed. Some will take food from owner's hands. Other iguanas never seem to tame down, and remain wary of all people. They whip their tails and try to skitter away at every encounter. While the high-strung iguana may tolerate having its cage cleaned, and may allow an owner to place its daily meal in the cage, it may never be happy being touched or held.

It is very important to not try and force a pet herp to conform to what you expect or want it to be. If you repeatedly slowly place your hand into the habitat, and are unable to gently slide your hand under a lizard in order to pick it up because it skitters away, you should accept that it might not tolerate handling.

Conversely, other reptiles, tortoises in particular, can be very intelligent and good-natured creatures. Often thought of as slow, both physically and mentally, tortoises can be wonderful companions. Many enjoy being hand-fed, and others really like being rubbed under the neck, often standing up high on all four legs and stretching the neck way forward. Still, tortoises should not be frequently picked up, as being suspended in the air is unnatural for them. A nervous tortoise may empty the bladder, and especially in desert species, this can result in significant dehydration.

Other pet herps may thrive in situations where human interaction in minimized. These types of reptiles are best enjoyed from a distance. Classically, chameleons usually do best when kept in a solitary environment and handled as little as possible. They naturally live alone and only come together to mate. Typically, if two males meet they will engage in combat. If a male and female meet, mating behaviors may ensue. A male should only be placed in with a female for a few hours (under careful observation) when it is time for them to be bred.

In general, most reptiles should not be handled frequently or for any length of time. Some of the less stress-prone lizards may tolerate some handling, and some snakes may, as well (non-venomous, of course!) Some snakes, especially those handled early and often, can often become accustomed to the human touch and seem to enjoy interacting with an owner.

While Solomon Island skinks SEEM large and docile, be aware that they can swiftly inflict a painful bite if startled. Bearded dragons are another group of lizards that often tolerate some handling and many become quite tame, enjoying being carried on a human's shoulder, or being handled daily.

No snake should be handled when it is preparing to shed (this is called in-the-blue). Snakes preparing to shed will have skin with a dull appearance, and the eyes will appear bluish. Snakes cannot see well during this time and appear more nervous; some will strike blindly at perceived movements near them. It is also not wise to handle a snake if you have recently touched or handled prey items, since snakes have a good sense of smell, and may mistake a finger for a prey item.

Most reptiles should be housed singly. In some cases, a group of herps can share a habitat. Young turtles can share an aquarium, as long as dominant or larger ones aren't biting at others or preventing them from eating. Hatchling tortoises of the same species can also share a terrarium. It is very bad practice to house species from different areas of the world in the same habitat. It is likely that doing this can pass diseases. Snakes should be housed singly. Snakes may consume each other if housed together. Many tadpoles and frogs cannibalize also each other.

In conclusion, reptiles can make fascinating pets for the right kind of owner. Herps are not fuzzy, cuddly creatures, but some are able to provide more than minimal interaction with their owner. An owner should never force a herp to interact if it clearly is nervous, uncomfortable or afraid to do so, based on its actions (trying to get away, biting, striking, whipping the tail, etc.) For your own safety, make sure that anyone handling any reptile washes his or her hands thoroughly afterwards.

It is important that you learn to accept your herp for what it is and to not try to force it to be what you expect it to be. Each unique herp can and should be appreciated for the wonderful creation that it is.

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