Spotlight on Exotic Pets: How about a Lizard?
By Sarah Liu
So you want a pet, but cats, dogs, guinea pigs, birds – they just aren’t the right fit? The apartment is too small? The maintenance is too much? You’re allergic? Just not interested in bunnies or puppies? These are all legitimate roadblocks in the journey of traditional pet ownership.
But there are still interesting options. Exotic options!
Keeping a pet lizard offers several advantages over traditional mammal or bird companions. For example, reptiles in general are relatively low maintenance. Pet lizards don’t require the same level of attention as a cat or dog. They can be left alone longer than more traditional pets, and are great for vacationers or families who work out of town or long hours. Conveniently, there are no litter boxes, daily walks, or grooming. Most lizards don’t eat every day, and when they do, it’s an easy and interesting event with crickets or fruits and vegetables.
Most pet variety lizards don’t take up much space. Enclosure habitats will depend on the size of your pet, but many species are comfortable in a ten or twenty gallon sized terrarium. They also don’t have the exercise needs of a cat or dog and are virtually silent, making them perfect for a quiet household. On top of all that, lizards, and reptiles in general, don’t come with the fur and feathers that make other pets unwelcome in families with allergies. Though best discussed with your doctor, lizards can be an interesting and enriching non-allergenic alternative for families who want a pet, but can’t tolerate feathers, dander, or fur.
But before you go out and buy your lizard, it’s important to be aware of potential drawbacks. Significantly, lizards, like other reptiles, do not crave the attention that cats, dogs, or some birds do, and won’t provide the warm and cuddly experience that many pet owners desire. Though some lizard owners report that their pets enjoy interaction, most reptiles are highly independent, and will go about their day without much concern for what you’re doing in yours. And while there is no litter box, the lizard’s habitat will still require regular cleaning.
Moreover, while lizards are low maintenance in terms of attention and ongoing care, they do come with some initial set up costs and concerns. For example, lizards are cold blooded and will require specific configurations for providing light, heat, and humidity. Special equipment may be required, such as water filters or hygrometers, to ensure optimum care for your new companion. Your local pet store can provide you with advice and equipment, but a prospective owner should take ample time to set up a proper habitat well in advance of acquiring the pet lizard.
Additionally, many traditional veterinarians do not provide care for exotic pets. This includes lizards and other reptiles. Before acquiring your lizard, make sure you touch base with your current vet, or research your community for exotic pet practitioners who can assist you in caring for your new friend. It’s a great practice to call ahead, before acquiring any new pet, for tips and recommendations related to optimum preparation and care of your future companion.
Finally, though generally non-allergenic in terms of fur, feathers, and dander, reptiles can pose other health risks such as salmonella bacteria, or other zoonotic diseases involving fungi, viruses, or parasites. While these issues can be prevented with proper hygiene, it’s always best to discuss concerns with your doctor before acquiring your new pet, especially in families with young children.
So, now that we know some pros and cons, what are some great lizards for beginners? According to Reptiles Magazine, good choices for beginners and children include bearded dragons, water dragons, anoles, and certain types of geckos (particularly leopard and crested). Interestingly, Margaret A Wissman, D.V.M., writing for Reptiles Magazine, does not recommend the green iguana as a starter pet. The United States Humane Society also cautions against keeping iguanas as pets. Though readily available in the pet trade, green iguanas can grow to be very large, require spacious accommodation to thrive, and can become aggressive. By contrast, bearded dragons – native to Australia – don’t get too large (16 to 24 inches), eat a variety of foods, are inexpensive, hearty, and gentle. Likewise, the green anole – native to the southern U.S. – is a small but beautiful lime green lizard (4-6 inches), very affordable, widely available, and agile but easily handled. Leopard geckos – native to Asia – are small to medium sized nocturnal lizards (8-10 inches long), with several color and pattern variations, generally docile and easier to tame, and happy to live in a 15-20 gallon tank with one or two roommates.
The above are just a few species potentially available to an individual or family interested in keeping a lizard. However, as with any pet, the best approach is careful research to ensure a good fit between your lifestyle and the habits and needs of your prospective lizard companion. Find a veterinarian who treats reptiles, and ask which species he or she recommends and why. Ask about common ailments and associated health care costs, so you aren’t taken by surprise when something goes wrong. Research your local pet stores to make sure your companion is captive bred and hand reared vs. wild caught. Find out as much as you can about the lizard’s history, habits, and health. Finally, consider consulting your local shelter organizations for adoptable lizards and other reptiles. Just as with other pets, many reptiles are surrendered through no fault of their own and looking for a second chance.
Most of all, have fun, and be safe!