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Caring for Reptiles: How to Keep them Happy and Healthy


Forgive us for stating the obvious, but reptiles are not the same as cats, dogs, birds and other common pets. They have scales rather than fur or feathers and have very different anatomies. As a result, they often require specialist care. 

Reptiles are among some of the most exotic pets you can keep at home, and understandably, looking after animals from some of the furthest corners of the planet brings some unique challenges. However, you must meet their needs by law, so make sure you do plenty of research before you buy a reptile such as a bearded dragon, royal python, corn snake or a leopard gecko as a pet. 

In this guide, we’re going to look at the steps you should take to keep your reptile happy and healthy and explore some of the challenges you’re likely to face.  

Creating a home

If you’ve done your research and are committed to taking care of one of these fascinating creatures, you need to create an environment that will allow it to thrive. Temperature and lighting play a crucial role in making a home that your reptile will be comfortable in. 

  • Temperature

Every species of reptile has an ideal temperature range, so you should ask at the pet store, speak to your vet or do your own research to find the perfect temperature for your vivarium (tank). Either installing a heat map below or a lamp above the vivarium that’s connected to a thermostat, and placing a few thermometers around the tank, will help you get it just right.   

  • Lighting 

Reptiles need a light that mimics natural sunlight to thrive, otherwise, they can become deficient in the vitamin D3. You should buy a reptile light and timer that has been designed specifically for your species and make sure the light is the correct distance away from your reptile’s favorite basking spot. 

Settling them in

Bringing your reptile home for the first time is an exciting moment for the whole family, but there are also several things you must do to make it a pleasant experience for your new pet:

  • Already have the vivarium set up and at the correct temperature so they can move straight in.
  • Keep your reptile in the container you bought it in until you get home.
  • Keep the environment calm and relaxed to help them settle in. Turning off the lights in the vivarium will make them feel more secure, but ensure the tank has been preheated to the desired temperature beforehand so as not to cause distress. Then turn the heat lamp back on after an hour. 
  • Place your reptile’s transport container at the cooler end of the tank and let them come out when they’re ready.
  • Don’t feed your reptile for the first 24 hours so they have time to settle in, explore their new home and hydrate. That will allow them to build their appetite.
  • Resist the temptation to play with your reptile until they are settled in and feeding regularly. Eating well is a good indicator of happiness, so once they have a good appetite, you can then handle your new pet. 


Reptiles are an incredibly diverse group of animals with a broad range of dietary requirements. Some, like tortoises, eat an entirely vegetarian diet, while snakes such as boa constrictors and pythons eat only meat. As the dietary needs of your reptile are so unique, you should develop a feeding program that’s been created specifically for your reptile. If you have any questions about your reptile’s diet, then speak to your vet.  

Some general rules that apply when feeding reptiles:

Carnivorous reptiles

  • Bacteria are common in live meat, particularly rodents, so avoid giving them live meat as much as possible.
  • Pre-killed meat that’s been stored in the freezer for 30 days is generally the safest option.
  • Placing live prey in your reptile’s tank could result in an injury as the reptile cannot actively hunt or camouflage itself as it would in the wild.

Herbivorous reptiles

  • Dark, leafy greens are the best for herbivores.
  • Avoid iceberg lettuce as it has very little nutritional content.
  • Spinach, broccoli, kale, cabbage and romaine lettuce should all be avoided as they all contain an ingredient that prevents reptiles from absorbing calcium properly.

Insectivorous reptiles

  • If your reptile is not native to your area, your local insects may not be safe for it to eat. You should always check with your veterinarian before feeding reptiles native bugs.
  • Spiders, ticks, centipedes, millipedes, ticks, scorpions and fireflies should all be avoided.

Read more about unexpected toxic food for pets.

Health check

A veterinary health check is recommended for all new pets, and that includes reptiles. However, there are also some ongoing checks you can do yourself to make sure your reptile is in the best possible health. 

  • Eyes – Check that your reptile’s eyes are clean and free from any build-up. There should also be no swelling or lack of symmetry around the head where parasites tend to gather.
  • Mouth – The inside of your reptile’s mouth should be bright pink.
  • Skin – Your reptile’s skin should be smooth and supple with no scratches, bite marks, burns or dulling. The seller should advise you on the typical skin changes you’re likely to see if your reptile sheds its skin.
  • Shell – If your pet has a shell, check that it’s firm and free from defects.
  • Handling – Reptiles that have been handled since birth should be tame and happy to be handled. They should also be aware of their surroundings. 

Uncommon pets require uncommon vets

If you’re concerned about the health and happiness of your reptile, don’t assume that every vet will have the knowledge and experience to care for them. For exotic pets such as reptiles, parrots and small birds, you might have to see a specialist. 

The same applies to their medication. Due to reptilian physiology, medicating reptiles is very different from common household pets such as cats and dogs. At BCP Veterinary Pharmacy, we have an innovative range of treatments for domestic and exotic animals. Find out more about our medications for veterinarians and pet owners and get in touch with our team today.