Reptiles and other exotic pets
Exotic pet species, like reptiles and other wild animals in captivity, have the same needs as they would in the wild. So their environmental, dietary and behavioural needs can be challenging.
Commonly-kept reptiles include bearded dragons as pets, corn snakes, royal pythons and leopard geckos.
Before you decide whether you’d like to care for an exotic pet, make sure you’ve done plenty of research before committing to taking one home.
What to consider
We urge anyone considering an exotic pet to find out as much as possible about the animal’s needs and whether they’re a realistic pet.
- Their environment - many exotics need a carefully controlled environment. For example, they may require specialised heating and lighting, or they may become ill.
- The environment must allow for natural behaviour, such as burrowing, climbing or basking.
- How long they’ll live and how large they’ll grow.
- What they eat and how much.
- Size of enclosure - this may need to increase as the animal grows.
- Whether the animal needs to be kept alone or with others.
- Whether the animal’s behaviour fits in with your lifestyle - will they be active at night (nocturnal) or during the day (diurnal)?
- Is there a specialist vet for the species nearby who can treat this animal if they become sick?
- Do you need a licence or other legal paperwork to keep them?
Bearded dragon care
Bearded dragons as pets, or ‘beardies’, are one of the most popular lizards in captivity in the UK. As wild animals in captivity, it’s important you keep them in a way that mimics the wild as much as possible.
What do bearded dragons eat?
They eat a diet of live invertebrates (insects) and vegetables. They need a wide variety of safe plants and vegetables, as well as the correct supplements.
How long do bearded dragons live?
Owning a bearded dragon, or ‘beardy’, is a big commitment as they have a lifespan of 10 to 15 years, or even longer.
How big do bearded dragons get?
This robust looking lizard can grow up to around 45cm including their long tail.
Bearded dragon set up
Getting started with the right vivarium
A 120cm long x 60cm high x 60 cm wide vivarium is the minimum size required for one adult dragon.
Make sure it’s secure, well-ventilated and made from solid material that’s easy to clean.
There are a wide variety of furnishings for bearded dragons. If using sand, use reptile-safe sand and avoid ‘calci-sand’ as it’s dangerous for reptiles if accidentally eaten.
Temperature and lighting
Bearded dragons need a vivarium that ranges from a hotter (38 to 42°C) bright end, to a cooler (22 to 26°C) shaded end.
You’ll also need to provide a 10 to 12 per cent fluorescent UV tube at the hot end otherwise your beardy can get metabolic bone disease. It’s also essential that humidity is kept low - use a hygrometer to measure this at the cool end.
It’s important to add vivarium accessories, such as rocks and branches to climb on. Help your reptile feel secure with hiding areas too.
Health - bearded dragon shedding and brumation
Beardies shed their skin in large pieces. There’s no rule as to how often it happens, but younger dragons do shed more than older dragons.
Shedding problems can usually be corrected by improvements to their environment. Seek advice from a reptile specialist vet if problems occur.
During cooler seasons, it’s normal for bearded dragons to slow down, sleep more and eat less, like hibernation, but in lizards it’s called brumation. They shouldn’t lose weight or stop eating entirely, so keep a close eye on them and get in touch with your vet if they’re losing weight.
Corn snake care
Most corn snakes for sale in the UK are bred in captivity. However, it’s still important that the captive environment of a pet corn snake mimics the wild as much a possible.
Diet - what do corn snakes eat?
Mice should be their most common food, but you can feed them other prey such as suitably sized quails or rats.
Make sure prey is thoroughly defrosted and the width is no greater than 1.5 times the widest part of the snake’s body.
Corn snake vivariums - temperature and lighting
An adult needs a vivarium that matches their length, allowing them to stretch out fully, and the minimum width and height must be a third of their length.
Make sure it’s a secure and solid material that holds heat and will prevent escape.
Reptiles require a ‘thermogradient’ - meaning placing a guarded heat lamp at one end of the vivarium and leaving the opposite end cool.
The basking zone should range from 28 to 30 degrees C, and the cool end 20 to 24 degrees C. Monitor temperatures daily using digital thermometers at each end.
You’ll need to create a ‘photogradient’ that varies from light to shade. Fit a 2 to 7 per cent UV tube at the hot end.
Don't forget to set day and night light patterns - consider using a timer - 12 hours light followed by 12 hours dark.
A hygrometer measures the humidity, which should be around 40 to 50 per cent, essential to keep your corn snake’s skin healthy and prevent breathing problems. If it’s too high, you’ll need more ventilation.
Keeping a corn snake healthy
Healthy corn snakes flick their tongue frequently and have clear, bright eyes. Their skin should be smooth without blisters. Monitor their health daily and seek advice from your specialist reptile vet if you’re concerned.
Corn snake lifespan
Their lifespan is around 10 to 15 years. If you’re interested in buying a corn snake, or considering adopting one instead, make sure you’re ready to provide the care they’ll need for their entire life.
How big do corn snakes get?
They can grow to around 150cm long. Female corn snakes usually grow larger than males.
Corn snakes can become used to regular handling. Gently lift them with one hand underneath the animal near the head and another hand nearer the tail, but never grab them.
Safe handling is around 10 to 15 minutes, any longer and their core temperature will drop too low.
Do corn snakes bite?
All snakes may bite under stress or if they smell food. However, they’re not venomous.
When threatened, corn snakes may pull their head back displaying an ‘S’ shaped neck. If your snake does this, handle them another time.
Don’t handle after touching prey items without washing your hands well before, otherwise your snake may bite.
We have some basic information you need to ensure your pets setup mimics their natural habitat as much as possible to keep them healthy and happy.
Gecko lifespan, size and other general information
A leopard gecko can grow to around 15 to 25 centimetres and live for 10 to 20 years in captivity, so owning one is a big commitment. They prefer to live alone, but can become used to being handled if done so carefully.
A healthy gecko has clear, bright eyes and a thick tail and its belly should only touch the floor when resting.
Leopard gecko setup - vivarium
Reptile starter kits will be outgrown quickly, so when purchasing new equipment it’s better to get a large enclosure at the outset. When looking for a leopard gecko vivarium, there are a few essential things you’ll need:
- An adult gecko needs a tank at least 60cm long, 40cm high and 30cm deep.
- To ensure bacteria doesn’t build up, the setup needs to be easy to clean and well ventilated.
Temperature, heat lamps, uv lights and humidity
Leopard geckos use their environment to regulate their body temperature. So, it’s important to provide a ‘thermogradient’ - with a heat lamp at one end and a cooler area at the other. Use thermostats to regulate the temperatures. Leopard geckos also need ultraviolet light and a dry environment.
- The basking area should remain between 28 and 30 degrees C during the day, and the cool end 24 to 26 degrees C.
- At night turn off the heat lamp but ensure the temperature doesn’t dip below 18 degrees C with a heat mat or ceramic heat lamp.
- Leopard geckos need a relatively dry environment. Measure the humidity at the cool end of the tank with a hygrometer - it should be between 30 and 40 per cent.
- Your gecko will need low levels of ultraviolet light. A 2 to 5 per cent UVB bulb will provide this and allow them to make vitamin D inside their body - an essential mineral which allows your gecko to store and use calcium.
Hides and substrates
To ensure your leopard gecko can exhibit natural behaviours you’ll need to provide hiding places, and low, sturdy branches or rocks for climbing.
The substrate, or floor covering, needs to be natural so as to minimise the risk of impaction - a potentially fatal issue where particles become lodged inside of the belly and cause a blockage. So do not use ‘caci-sand or beech wood chips as these cannot be digested.
What and when do leopard geckos eat?
They eat a diet of live invertebrates (insects) which can include crickets, ‘calci worms’, waxworms and small locusts of suitable size: no bigger than the size of the gecko’s head. You need to provide fresh vegetables and clean water to keep the livefood hydrated.
Juveniles should be fed daily; adults every other day. You’ll need to top up your gecko’s nutrients with supplements too. Ask your vet for advice on the best supplements to use.