Pet Selection: Reptiles for Children

Synopsis: A reptile can be a fascinating pet for a child old enough to understand the responsibilities involved. A child with a pet herp requires adult supervision. A child must learn to practice good hygiene if allowed to handle a pet herp.

Many children pester their parents for a puppy or kitten, but if you have a child like I was, yours is asking for a pet snake, turtle or lizard! If you, as a parent, are not familiar with reptiles, the thought of owning a cold-blooded, slippery creature to make your child happy, might be a daunting thought. Fear not! The good news is that reptiles aren't slippery at all! The skin of reptiles is covered with scales, but it is dry. If you are thinking about purchasing a reptile as a pet for your child, please make sure that you don't have an aversion to handling one. While it may be a pet for your child, you will need to take responsibility, teaching your child how to properly handle the reptile, and you must supervise cage cleaning and feeding.

A child should not own a reptile until he or she is able to understand that the pet is a living animal, capable of experiencing pain, hunger, fright and other feelings. While a young child might be content observing turtles swimming in a tank or a lizard basking in a cage, chances are that curiosity might overcome a child eventually, so a reptile enclosure should have a childproof locking mechanism to keep little fingers out.

A child should have a good degree of hand-eye coordination before being allowed to handle any reptile. For most children, by the age of six or seven, they can properly hold a very tame, sturdy reptile. It is still recommended that children be supervised at all times while handling a pet reptile.

The choice of a pet reptile for a child should be based on the maturity and coordination of the child, the stability of the reptile and the commitment of the family to support the proper care of the pet. When choosing a pet herp for a child, it is important that the animal is tame and calm. A reptile that tries to bite, squirm away or whip its tail, will frighten a child. The child may attempt to restrain the pet, resulting in injury to the animal, or perhaps even the accidental removal of the tail.

While I can recommend certain species that generally tend to be calm and tame, there are exceptions to every rule. Once you have decided on a particular species, it is always best to handle several individuals, and choose the most calm one. Of course, in some cases, calm and tame may also mean sick, so make sure that you don't pick out the sickly one.

Generally good reptiles for children:

  • Water dragon
  • Leopard gecko
  • Bearded dragon
  • Corn snake
  • Rat snake
  • Kingsnake
  • Captive-bred ball python
Turtles & Tortoises
  • Box turtle
  • Asian box turtle
  • Red-footed tortoise
  • Leopard tortoise

In spite of some people's reluctance to own a pet snake, in actuality, the snake may make the best first pet reptile for a child. About the only negative aspect of snake ownership is that they consume prey items. It is best that they be taught to eat pre-killed prey items. Instead of purchasing a live mouse to feed to a snake, you can now buy frozen rodents that can be simply thawed and fed to a pet snake. Many pet stores now train their snakes to consume dead prey, so if you purchase a snake already trained to do so, this takes a lot of the negatives out of owning one.

Young corn, rat or kingsnakes are usually quite docile, and tolerate handling. Some are quite content to be held for hours, winding through a child's fingers, or curling up to sleep in a warm palm. However, snakes should not be held for several days after feeding to prevent regurgitation.

Bearded dragons and water dragons can be very tame and docile. They must not be held by the tail, however, to prevent damage. Geckos can also be a very good pet, but since they are smaller, they require a more delicate touch and gentle hands.

Tortoises are usually gentle, but should not be handled often. Care must also be taken to ensure that they are not dropped, which can cause shell damage or internal injuries.

There have been several cases where a large boa or python has escaped from its cage and has injured or killed a child. If they are hungry, large snakes will strike at, bite and constrict any warm-blooded creature, including dogs, cats, other household pets and even children. In my opinion, families with small children should not keep large boas or pythons in the same home with them. Any large boas and pythons must be securely caged and locked to prevent escape or accidental injury to the family. Even a medium-sized constrictor can squeeze tightly enough to stop respiration of a child.

Children must be taught to thoroughly wash their hands with antibacterial soap and hot water after handling any reptile to minimize the risk of disease transmission. They also must be taught that they should not kiss their pet or share its food! After handling their pet, they must be aware that they cannot touch the eyes, mouth, nose or ears until they have washed. They must also understand that they should wash their hands before using the bathroom after playing with their pet reptile, and then wash again after the trip to the restroom!

If you have explored owning a herp, and you don't think that you can live with a herp around the house, perhaps you should explore alternatives to ownership. Discuss the possibility of purchasing a reptile and set-up (full-spectrum lighting, heat source, basking light, food and water dishes, cage, and any other necessary equipment) for your child's classroom. With classroom cut-backs, teachers are often thrilled at the prospect of having donations. Of course, make sure that the pet is welcome and that provisions will be made to care for it during weekends and vacations.

Owning a herp can be a fun experience for the whole family. Supervision is the key for a child fascinated by reptiles. You never know, you could end up with a child who develops a lifelong interest in reptiles, and could even make a living from that interest. (That's how I got started!) At least, your child will have a super day at show-and-tell!

Copyright 2006 Margaret A. Wissman, D.V.M., D.A.B.V.P.
All Rights Reserved

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