Choosing a pet lizard that's right for you

So you're thinking of getting a lizard. You're doing the right thing by researching the idea, first! There are several lizards that make wonderful pets and, naturally, several that do not, although they can make great display lizards in an elaborately-accessorized terrarium. In most cases, while getting the lizard itself is fairly inexpensive, it will need an elaborate set-up that can cost a lot of money.

Before even going any further, there's a very important question that needs to be answered, and that is if you're even allowed to have a pet lizard! Every city or town has its set of laws when it comes to keeping exotic animals, which often includes a list of acceptable and forbidden animals. Unfortunately, they don't make sense most of the time, because they are written by people who know nothing about the animals, so you shouldn't be surprised to find your harmless pet lizard on the forbidden list. It obviously makes no sense to go through the trouble of figuring out which lizard you want to get until you make sure what it is you're allowed to have, and what permits might be required for you to keep it. We have all heard many heart-breaking stories from people who have had to part with their cherished pet because of these stupid, discriminating laws.

For the same reasons, it's also a good idea to check with your landlord or coop to make sure that no one will object to your prehistoric-looking friend. Although most don't allow pets, some will allow for a terrarium animal, or the opposite may be true in that they allow for a domestic animal, but not an exotic one that they may perceive as potentially dangerous. This is especially true with large lizards such as iguanas and monitors. It may sound like a lot of work, but it really is better to be safe than sorry!

If your heart really is set on a particular animal that is forbidden, then it is time to get active with the council or other governing body that wrote those laws. Talk to your representatives and ask for the reasoning behind the laws; then you have something to argue on in the future, when you meet again to propose a change to those laws. By following a process like this, you help all of the lizard-loving community retain the appearance of responsible, reasonable people, rather than self-styled above-the-law freaks.


Questions you need to ask yourself

Now that you've made sure that you can have a pet lizard - without worrying about potentially losing your pet - there are several things to consider before deciding which one is right for you. These include the lizard's adult size, activity level, behavior, and diet. You also need to think about how much you are willing to spend on the lizard, both in time and in money. To help narrow down your choices, take your time and consider each of these questions:

How much money are you willing to spend?
Again, keep in mind that buying the lizard itself can be fairly inexpensive, but creating a set-up for it can run up quite a hefty tab. Your new pet will need a suitably sized terrarium, heat and light fixtures, basking lamps and heat emitters, at least one thermometer (preferably two) and a hygrometer, a rheostat and/or thermostat, food and water dishes, and of course, food. Most lizards also need a source of full-spectrum lighting, which comes in the form of a fluorescent tube or mercury vapor bulb, and can be fairly expensive. In summary, that $5 anole will end up costing you over $100 in supplies alone. DO NOT simply buy whatever the pet store employee tells you to buy -- most of the time, they are ill-educated when it comes to reptile husbandry and you will end up wasting your money, not to mention potentially harming your new pet.

Once the lizard is established in its new home, you then need to think about the cost of keeping the lizard, such as feeding it, replacing its substrate, etc. For instance, feeding most lizards can be fairly costly; even a small lizard can end up costing about as much to feed as it would to feed a medium-sized dog. This can be substantially reduced by getting foods - such as feeder insects and rodents, pelleted foods, and supplements - online instead of at the pet store, since most online retailers generally have very low overhead and can sell their products at a much lower price. Finally, in the case of omnivorous and herbivorous lizards, you need to keep your refrigerator stocked with a variety of fresh greens and vegetables.

You also need to replace the lizard's basking lamp when it burns out (about 2-4 times a year), as well as change its full-spectrum lamp once or twice a year. Although they continue to produce visible light for several years, fluorescent lamps typically stop producing the ultraviolet rays your lizard needs to stay healthy after six months to a year, so they need to be replaced at that time. Certain mercury vapor bulbs produce ultraviolet rays for a few years, but cost twice as much as the fluorescent lamps.

Naturally, all this equipment is going to consume a fair amount of electricity! So this is something else to consider. Basically, the larger the lizard, the more wattage it takes to keep it warm. Also, diurnal lizards need more lighting and heating equipment than nocturnal lizards. Check with your local power company to get an estimate on how much it would cost you every month to run your potential lizard's equipment. If they have a website, you can probably find an energy calculator that you can use, to help give you an idea of energy cost.

Last but not least, think about how much money you are willing to spend on your pet lizard's veterinary care. Newly acquired lizards need at least one initial visit to check for internal parasites. This can cost anywhere between $30-50 for the visit and $10-15 for the fecal analysis. Just like any other pet, your lizard also needs yearly exams and may need emergency exams, either because of illness or accidents. Unfortunately, the cost of treating a lizard is inevitably more expensive than treating a domestic animal, sometimes 3 to 4 times as much. For example, spaying a cat or a dog can cost $45-100, while spaying an iguana can cost $250-400. Being able to find a vet that is competent with reptiles is especially important; check out the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians (http://www.arav.org), Herp Vet Connection (http://www.herpvetconnection.com/) and Melissa Kaplan's Herp Veterinarian listings (http://www.anapsid.org/vets/index.html#vetlist) to find out if there is one in your area.

How much space are you willing to sacrifice for a terrarium?
This will help determine what size lizard you should get. Naturally, if you can only spare enough room to house a gecko, then you really shouldn't be getting that green iguana you've always dreamed of having. Compared to most snakes, most lizards need a fair amount of floor space; arboreal lizards also need enough vertical space to be able to climb. The lizard's behavior will also affect how much space it needs. For example, because of its activity level, an adult veiled chameleon, which only measures 5-6" from snout to base of tail, needs about as much space as most lizards twice its size.

How much time can you spend on your lizard?
Most lizards need daily care. At the very least, they need fresh food and water every day, and any feces or spilled food needs to be picked up daily. This can take up to an hour a day, depending on the size of the lizard and its terrarium. If you choose an insectivorous or omnivorous lizard, you also need to tend to the feeder insects on a regular basis, which typically takes an average of a few minutes a day. Herbivorous and omnivorous lizards need fresh leafy greens and vegetables in their diet, which means that you need to prepare your lizard's food several times a week; this can take up to an hour, depending on the size of the lizard and consequently, the amount of food you need to prepare. Finally, you need to take some time to socialize your pet lizard, if you decide that you really want a pet and not just a terrarium display animal. This means two to three brief handling sessions of 10-15 minutes at a time and these sessions need to be consistent; you can't make up for lost time by handling your lizard for 3 hours one day, then not handle it for the rest of the week. The same applies to feeding and cleaning. If you can't consistently provide the lizard with the time it needs for its required care, then you should not get that lizard.

Do you need a lizard that will be active during the day or at night?
Most lizards are active during the day. If you work long hours and don't think you will be home before 6 p.m. most of the time, then a diurnal lizard is probably not the best choice for you, as most diurnal lizards go to sleep by 8-9 p.m. Diurnal lizards also tend to eat in the late morning to early afternoon, once their bodies have had a chance to warm up, which is when their appetite gets stimulated. This is especially an issue with herbivorous lizards, as fresh vegetables spoil quickly in a warm environment. Feeding the lizard early in the morning means that the food sits there for several hours before the lizard is ready to eat, so the only other option if you work all day is to be able to feed the lizard when you get home, preferably before 6 p.m. If your schedule doesn�t allow for this, consider a nocturnal lizard instead.

What are you willing to feed?
Most lizards need live insects in their diets. Although some companies have come up with canned insects and even battery-powered "jitter-bowls" to help people avoid having to deal with live insects, these solutions are only useful for providing variety and should not be used as a main source of the lizard's diet. Fresh food is always better than processed food if you want a healthy pet! So if you're squeamish about the idea of having to keep live insects, you really should not consider getting an insect-eating lizard.

If this is the case, you're left with carnivorous or herbivorous lizards. Most carnivores eat live rodents, but usually also readily accept frozen rodents that have been thawed. Are you willing to keep frozen rodents in your freezer? If not, then you need to consider an herbivore. These lizards need a wide variety of leafy greens and vegetables that you've probably never even heard of. A lot of the vegetables available at the grocery store are not suitable for feeding herbivores, so you need to spend some time learning about what vegetables are suitable to feed and which ones are not. There is also a lot of time involved in preparing the food and you need to be willing to sacrifice about 30% of your refrigerator space to store it all. Again, if this is not something you're willing to do, then you should not consider getting an herbivorous lizard.

Commercial diets are also available for carnivores and herbivores, in the form of canned foods and dry pellets. Here again, some of these can be useful for providing variety, but should not be used as a main source of the lizard's diet. We can't emphasize this enough: fresh is best! Trying to find cheap and easy alternatives will only result in an unhealthy, unhappy pet.


Recommended species for beginners

The following species are typically recommended for first-time lizard hobbyists, because they are not too large, have easy-going temperaments, and do not require a huge investment to set up or maintain.

Leopard and fat-tailed geckos
These small nocturnal lizards are very popular in the pet trade, because they don�t need very elaborate set-ups or ultraviolet lighting and they require minimal care. They�re docile, hardy, and interesting to observe. Here are some recommended links:

Crested geckos
These geckos have quickly become runner-ups in popularity, next to leopard geckos. Being a tropical species, however, they do need a slightly more elaborate set-up. There are several beautiful color morphs, which tend to be fairly expensive. However, most breeders sell their adult males fairly cheap, especially those that have missing tails. These can be a good choice for a first-time lizard, although some are skittish and can drop their tails easily when startled. Before buying, make sure you ask if you can hold the lizard so you can see what kind of temperament it has.
Bearded dragons
These medium-sized desert lizards are one of the most popular pet lizards in the pet industry, because of their outgoing personalities. They are often compared to dogs in temperament. They do require a large set-up and extensive heat/light equipment, but the investment is worthwhile for this very rewarding pet. Read these care sheets and make sure you know what you�re getting into: Blue-tongued skinks
These medium-sized lizards are also very popular in the pet trade because of their docile natures. They tame easily and have very smooth skins, making them a pleasure to handle. Like bearded dragons, they need a generous set-up and special lighting.
More challenging species

The following species are not generally recommended for beginners, but are worth looking into if you�re willing to invest the time and money in creating an adequate set up and in maintaining these lizards. Read as much as you can on the care requirements of these lizards before considering any of them as a pet.

Geckos
Most geckos tend to be skittish and do not tolerate handling well, but they can be very rewarding display animals in a nicely set up terrarium. If you are looking for a nocturnal lizard, these are definitely worth considering, if you are willing to put in the initial investment of creating a suitable habitat. Visit Kingsnake�s Gecko Forum so you can ask other gecko hobbyists for some suggestions: Veiled chameleons
As a general rule, chameleons are very sensitive and have very demanding requirements, so they are usually reserved for experienced lizard hobbyists. Veiled chameleons are the hardiest and most forgiving species of all captive chameleons, and are a worthwhile consideration for hobbyists who are looking for a bit of a challenge: Green iguanas
These large tropical lizards are probably the most popular pet lizard in the industry, while being one of the most demanding to keep in captivity. They can be very rewarding pets, but their temperaments vary widely from one individual to another; some are very tame, while some have the temperament of a rabid dog � not a very becoming trait in a 6-foot, 20-pound lizard! If you are considering a green iguana as a pet, make sure you know what you�re getting into: Savannah monitors
These large carnivorous lizards are also very popular in the pet trade. They are curious, intelligent and are easily tamed when interacted with regularly. They do need a large enclosure and can be expensive to feed. Again, make sure you know what you�re getting into before considering a Savannah monitor as a pet:


In conclusion

We hope you have found this article helpful in choosing a pet lizard. You are doing yourself and the lizard a big favor by taking the time to do your homework, first! There are undoubtedly several other species of lizards that can be suitable for first-time hobbyists, that we have not mentioned here. It might be worthwhile for you to visit Kingsnake�s Forums (http://forums.kingsnake.com/); they have several forums grouped by species. Good luck!