How to care for lizards and reptiles

By: Shelly Sanders Greer

Author: Canadian Living


How to care for lizards and reptiles

By: Shelly Sanders Greer
I must have had a momentary lapse of reason. When my eight-year-old son, Ian, asked me for the millionth time if he could have a lizard for his birthday, I finally said yes.

Normally, I would have done some research before committing myself, and the rest of the family, to becoming reptile owners. Normally, I would have discussed this decision with my pragmatic husband. But I simply looked into my youngest child's pleading green eyes and told him that yes, he could have a lizard. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. (Truth be told, I had run out of excuses about why he couldn't have one.)

"I wonder what kind of lizard I should get," Ian said as soon as I had given in.

What breed should we get?

Good! I thought, seizing the opportunity to delay the purchase. "Use the Internet to find out about different breeds," I told him. "Look at what they eat, the care they need and their sizes. Write down all the information and then we'll decide."

I breathed a sigh of relief. I was being a responsible future reptile owner, making sure we did our homework. But most of all, I knew there was no way Ian would gather this information quickly. Especially with two older sisters who had dibs on the computer for homework.

"Ian, here's a great site about lizards," offered Bethany, my suddenly, surprisingly helpful 12-year-old, who overheard me talking to Ian. My glowering gaze was lost on the ambitious duo, who were scrolling down a page of lizard photos.

"A lizard?" asked 14-year-old Amanda, when she got home from school. "That's disgusting. I'm moving out."

Amanda stomped up to her room and slammed her door shut. Maybe Steve, my husband, has a secret soft spot for lizards, I hoped. Maybe he's harbouring a desire for a reptile.

"Mom said I could get a lizard!" Ian announced to his dad as soon as he walked in the door. The incredulous look on Steve's face assured me that he had never thought about owning a reptile.

"And they all eat live crickets!" Ian exclaimed, his eyes shining.

Page 1 of 3 - read page two to find out why Ian's new lizard refused to eat

Vegetarian lizard
Over the next couple of days, Amanda, Steve – and soon Bethany, too – joined forces to dissuade Ian from getting a lizard, claiming they didn't want to feel like they were living in Algonquin Provincial Park, with crickets chirping day and night. It didn't help when a
friend with a gecko told us to be prepared for crickets flying around the house.

But Steve and Amanda relented when Ian discovered a vegetarian lizard called a uromastyx (or uro). It has a distinctive spiky tail, leathery skin and turtlelike face. Craig Stewart, owner of, an online store that sells up to 8,000 reptiles a year from the Greater Toronto Area, told me uros are challenging to breed in captivity, so there are few breeders. And they require more care than leopard geckos, currently the most popular reptiles in Canada.

Stewart explained that uros need a basking area of at least 38 C every day and large tanks because they grow bigger than other lizards. They're also more expensive – about $130 each, compared to about $75 for a crested gecko. But geckos require live crickets that cost about $15 a month, or mealworms, whereas uros eat vegetables, and even get the water they need through food.

Ian and I pushed on, purchasing two uros. (Why two, you may be wondering? Because they're siblings and I'm a pushover. Enough said.)

A few weeks later, Ian noticed that Nuparu and Gali (named after Bionicle by Lego) weren't eating. A veterinarian who specializes in reptiles, whom I found in the yellow pages, gently examined both lizards and suggested boosting the temperature in Ian's room with a space heater. Ian also asked about the white substance that often covered their nostrils. The vet explained it was calcium deposits from food.

Luckily, the space heater did the trick and, before long, the lizards were basking and eating well. Ian also began clearing the calcium from their noses. Nuparu and Gali rest patiently in his hand as he performs this duty, looking up at him with their curious, beady eyes.

Today, Nuparu and Gali are well- adjusted to life in Ian's room, and my son has proven to be a responsible and observant pet owner. He treats them like members of our family, leaving the radio on when he's not there (he's convinced they love music), drawing a picture of them for his family portrait at school, and taking them out to play when they scratch on the tank, which he calls "glass dancing."

Every morning Ian cleans out their poop, turns on the UV and heat lights, and prepares their food. Hanging above the 30-gallon tank is a list of greens suitable for uros, and a huge Valentine's Day card Ian made for them.

Amanda, Bethany and Steve don't spend much time with the lizards, but admit they are perfect cohabitants, without smell or noise – easier to live with than our two dogs. Bethany held Gali once, but didn't like how she could feel the lizard's bones through the skin on its belly. Sometimes Amanda and Steve peer into the tank, but so far have refused Ian's offers to play with them. However, Ian has convinced Steve to help him build a wooden enclosure for his lizards, so that Ian can take them outside on hot, sunny days.

Lizard love

I, surprisingly, have become fascinated by these creatures, chatting with other uro owners online at I �ll my pockets with dandelions, which they devour, and get down on the floor to play with them and Ian.

I'm in awe of their capacity for emotion. They curl up together when they bask and sleep in their cave, and they adore Ian, climbing all over him and walking toward him, even when others are in the room. Maybe one day Ian will become a paleontologist or a vet or a reptile breeder (though I shudder at that last one).

Page 2 of 3 - read page three to learn more about different reptile breeds!

A peep at the popular reptiles in Canada

Red-eared slider (turtle)
Toonie-size when young, but grows to size of a dinner plate; $25 to $35; can live for more than 20 years; commonly left in shelters.

Leopard gecko
Six to nine inches long when fully grown; $50 to $3,000, depending on colour and origin; eats live crickets, mealworms, moths; safer and cleaner to handle than many reptiles; can live 10 to 15 years in captivity.

Bearded dragon
Can be 18 to 23 inches long when fully grown; $70 to $150; eats vegetables and insects; can live an average of 15 years in captivity.

Twelve to 30 inches long when fully-grown, depending on species; $130 to $150; eats mostly veggies; life span estimated to be as long as 50 years.

Green iguana
Can be six and a half feet when fully grown; $50 to $60; often refuses to eat prepared food, so you have to make a mix of veggies and fruit; life span of 20 years in the wild, but just 10 in captivity; commonly left in shelters. – James Doyle

Reptiles – Buyer beware
Buying a reptile should be a carefully considered decision. A happy, healthy life for your scaly friend means knowing the facts – including its habitat requirements, life span, diet, health concerns and more – before you buy. "Everyone should do their research," says Dr. Heather McDonald, a vet with the Centennial Animal Hospital in Winnipeg. Sadly, not enough reptile owners do. "Ninety per cent of the health problems for the reptiles I see are from improper [care]," says McDonald, such as owners not having the proper UV lights, temperature or humidity settings, or heat tanks.

What's more, if you're thinking of buying a reptile, be aware of potential health risks. Reptiles are often carriers of zoonoses (diseases transmitted from animals to people), including salmonella (prevalent in turtles and geckos, and very hard to test for), campylobacter, E. coli and parasites such as tapeworms. If you have a reptile, or are still keen on getting one, McDonald recommends careful handling, and washing your hands after contact with the pet.

These health concerns may make you think twice about buying a scaly friend for your child, which is wise because McDonald says "a reptile may not be the best pet for a household with kids." For instance, while easy to hold, leopard geckos are easily injured by hasty young hands, and iguanas can scratch or deliver a nasty bite to handlers who aren't careful and respectful. If you have children who want a reptile, consider getting a snake; corn snakes are common pets that are good with kids, says McDonald.  – James Doyle

Pet ownership is for life – and with reptiles that can be a long time. Depending on what species you choose, your pet could live up to 50 years, and end up being six feet long. As reptiles grow, so do the costs for food, housing and equipment.

Page 3 of 3

This story was originally titled "Get a Little Critter-Crazy on the Home Front" in the September 2009 issue.

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How to care for lizards and reptiles