An Overview of Pet Reptiles for Beginners

Two boys (5-7) outdoors (focus on boy with Ball python around neck)
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Reptiles can make excellent pets but sometimes inexperienced owners are overwhelmed when they realize how expensive and difficult some reptiles are to care for. Unfortunately, many owners go home from pet stores with incomplete and even incorrect information on the proper care of their chosen reptiles. This leads to a surprised and unprepared owner when they find out what it really takes to care for their pets.

Unmet expectations and poor advice about reptile care can result in a bad experience for the owner and can ultimately be fatal for the reptile.

Best Reptiles for Beginners

Some reptiles are poor choices for beginners due to their diet, 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, compared to other reptiles, but they still need a significant investment in the proper equipment up front. Thorough research before deciding on one of these pets and getting your enclosure set up before bringing your new pet home is crucial. 

Lizards - Unfortunately, one of the most common types of lizards found in pet stores, the iguana, is not a great choice for beginners. Due to their size, tendency to become aggressive at maturity, and their specific dietary and environmental needs they are not ideal pets.

Many lizards have very specific requirements when it comes to heat, humidity, lighting (especially the special bulbs that emit UVA and UVB light), and diet. However, a couple of lizards stand out for their suitability for beginners.

  • Leopard Geckos - These geckos are considered by many to be the ideal lizards for beginners since they are relatively small and easy to care for. A 15-20 gallon tank is large enough for an adult leopard gecko 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 - These are probably the most challenging of the beginner reptiles listed listed here, mostly due to the equipment needed to keep them. These Australia natives reach a size of 18-24 inches so they need a good sized tank (about a 50 gallon for an adult). They are desert dwellers so a relatively high temperature needs to be maintained as well as exposure to UVA and UVB light (the bulbs are relatively expensive but last a long time). Owners of these lizards can expect to spend a fair amount of money on the proper enclosure but 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.

Snakes - The biggest obstacle for many owners is the diet needs of snakes. For most commonly 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 often only 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 requirements for UVA/UVB lights.

  • Corn Snakes - These beautiful snakes are docile and easy to care for. They reach an adult length of only three to five feet or so 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, though!
  • Ball Pythons - A small constricting snake, ball pythons are usually quite docile and easy to care for. They do have a reputation for refusing to eat 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 a long life (20-30 years) and are possibly the most common kind of pet snake.

Turtles - Fortunately, the idea of marketing turtles (particularly red eared sliders) as wonderful pets for kids seems to have fallen from favor. Aquatic turtles get to be quite large and messy and turn out to be pretty boring to children. It can be very challenging to meet the housing and environmental needs of most turtles (aquatic turtles and tortoises).

Deciding to get a turtle requires a great deal of preparation and commitment. 

  • Eastern Box Turtles - These turtles live a long time but they do not get large like a lot of tortoises. They do not have the aquatic requirements like red eared sliders have therefore they have less maintenance. Eastern box turtles live in varied climates so they are quite adaptable and are omnivores so they eat both plants and insects.

Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT