Reptiles can make excellent pets, but unfortunately, many new owners end up surprised and unprepared when they find out what it really takes to care for their pets, in both time and cost. Unmet expectations result in a bad experience for the owner and can ultimately be fatal for the reptile. Some reptiles are poor choices for beginners, often due to diet or environmental needs or an unwieldy adult size. However, there are some readily available reptiles that are good for beginners. These animals are relatively low maintenance, but they still need a significant initial investment in proper equipment to ensure they have a healthy habitat. As always, do thorough research before deciding on any pet and get your enclosure set up before bringing home your new pet. New owners should also read about salmonella and reptiles to become aware of the risks and preventing infections, and about reptile light and heat to get an overview of the possible methods of meeting the environmental needs of reptile pets.
One of the most common lizards found in pet stores, the iguana, is not a great choice for beginners, largely due to their size and tendency to become aggressive at maturity, as well as their specific diet and environmental needs. Many lizards have very specific requirements when it comes to heat, humidity, light, especially special bulbs that emit UVA and UVB light, and diet. However, a couple of lizards stand out for their suitability for beginners and availability.
Leopard Geckos are considered by many to be the ideal lizard for beginners because they are relatively small and easy to care for. A 15–20-gallon tank is large enough and since they are nocturnal, they do not need specialized (UVA/UVB) lighting. They are insectivores and should be fed a variety of insects. They are also quite docile and easy to handle.
Bearded Dragons are a bit challenging mostly due to the equipment needed to keep them. This Australia native reaches a size of 18-24 inches so needs a good-sized tank (40 gallon for an adult). They are desert dwellers, so a relatively high temperature needs to be maintained, and exposure to UVA and UVB light is a necessity (the bulbs are relatively expensive). Owners of these lizards can expect to spend a fair amount of money on the proper enclosure. However, these lizards are entertaining and easily tamed. They need a diet that is a combination of insects and a variety of fresh vegetables and fruit.
The biggest obstacle for many owners is the diet needs of snakes. For most kept snakes, owners must be willing to feed whole prey such as mice or rats (pre-killed is preferred). However, snakes have the advantage of frequently needing to be fed once a week or less so they can easily be left on their own for a few days without a pet sitter. They also have no requirement for UVA/UVB lights. Corn Snakes are beautiful and docile and easy to care for. They reach an adult size of 3-5 feet and can be expected to live 10 years or more. Corn snakes are excellent escape artists and need an enclosure with a tight-fitting lid.
The Ball Python is a small constricting snake (adults reach 3-5 feet) that is usually quite docile and easy to care for. They do have a reputation for refusing to feed, so potential owners should be persistent in finding a healthy captive bred ball python (you may even want to ask for a feeding demonstration to ensure the snake will readily take killed mice). Ball Pythons can be expected to live 20-30 years.
Turtles and Tortoises
Turtles have always been popular as pets, but unfortunately, many owners have discovered the hard way that turtles are not easy, low maintenance pets. Turtles and Tortoises are a long-term commitment. Turtles and tortoises that are well cared for can be expected to live for 50 years, some species can live to be 100. All turtles and tortoises should have exposure to ultraviolet light, either using UVA/UVB producing bulbs or through natural exposure to sunlight (many tortoise keepers use outdoor pens if they live in an appropriate climate). Most turtles can grow to be fairly large and need correspondingly large tanks or enclosures. Box turtles and tortoises do best if they can be in outdoor pens for at least part of the year. Most turtles need a variety of foods including fresh vegetables and fruits. Even for species where formulated food is available, this should only make up a portion of the diet. Large turtles can produce a lot of waste and can be messy. Some species need to hibernate, which is sometimes quite stressful for the turtle. Turtles are not the best pet for young children due the amount of care they need and the potential risk.