Socialization Among Reptiles

Synopsis: Almost all species of reptiles are solitary animals. Housing several of the same species together creates a very stressful environment for them. Mature male iguanas, other types of lizards and snakes should never be housed together, due to the very real risk of fighting.

When we think of reptiles, we may picture in our minds those ancient dinosaurs, often portrayed in a group, grazing or hunting. However, modern reptiles are not normally found in a group; they are usually quite solitary creatures that only manage to come together from the urge to reproduce. This solitary nature of reptiles can pose a problem when the reptile enthusiast wishes to own more than one of a species, or several different species.

To minimize stress upon captive reptiles, it is best to keep them housed individually in most cases. Many species are very territorial. Even juvenile green iguanas and rock iguanas will often gesture and display towards cagemates at an early age. Chameleons are also very territorial. Males housed in the same cage may fight, or the more aggressive chameleon may assert his dominance in more subtle ways, keeping the subordinate one away from food and water. Male lizards should never be housed together, if at all possible. Lizards should also not be kept in highly reflective stainless steel cages, and mirrors should not be placed near their environments, because males may display to their reflection, resulting in additional stress.

Often, in pet stores, several (or many) lizards may be housed in the same cage, giving the false impression that they are social animals. Crowding will exacerbate stress, and usually the more dominant and aggressive lizards will feed, while the others will slowly fail to thrive.

Geckos are an exception regarding housing. It is common practice to house a group of females with one male, for purposes of breeding. But, it is still bad to house more than one male per enclosure.

Water turtles may successfully be housed together, if they are all close to the same size and observation shows that a few aren't nipping at the others. A general rule of thumb is that all the resident's shells should not exceed 25% of the cage floor surface. Aggressive species (such as snapping turtles, large soft-shell turtles, mud and musk turtles) should only be housed with similar species of the same size.

Box turtles and tortoises can often be housed in groups of similar species. If several are kept together, the cage should be as large as possible. Land turtles and tortoises are usually quite gentle, and do not harass each other. However, closely observe them for any signs of negative interactions and remove any upstarts.

Snakes should be housed alone. They should only be placed together for breeding, after conditioning and temperature manipulation (if necessary). Larger snakes may consume smaller ones, or two snakes in the same container could both strike at a prey item, ending up with the large one eating the smaller one along with the prey item. Adult males often will fight with each other, and may inflict mortal wounds upon each other.

To minimize stress, reptiles should be kept out of sight of the same or similar species, if at all possible. All reptiles should be provided with some sort of hide box. Providing a snake, lizard or chelonian (turtle or tortoise) with a secure, dark place to hide is one of the best things you can do to make it feel as secure as possible.

If the situation is such that you must house lizards of the same species together, try to choose those that are close in size. Males should not be placed in the same enclosure due to the real risk of fighting and territorial displays. A cage for more than one lizard should be as large as possible, with visual barriers so that they can stay out of sight of each other, and it should provide separate locations with access to basking areas, UV light, food and water. Chameleons, rock iguanas and green iguanas are very territorial species that become very stressed in the presence of conspecifics.

Since reptiles are wild animals, there is a certain amount of stress simply from being in a captive environment. It is our duty as their stewards to provide them with as natural a setting as possible, and to minimize stress in their lives. In most cases, this means housing them singly. While this creates more work for the caretaker, in the long run, it is the kindest, safest and healthiest way to maintain most species.

Cadeusus
Copyright 2006 Margaret A. Wissman, D.V.M., D.A.B.V.P.
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