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Safe Reptile Keeping for Young Children

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 13 May 2010 | comments*Discuss
 
Reptile Pet Children Safe Salmonella

Are your kids pestering you for a reptile as a pet? Or have you thought of getting your kids a more “unusual and interesting” pet and wondered if reptiles are suitable and safe for children to keep?

The Truth About Reptiles…

It is important to remember that reptiles are “exotic pets” which require education and understanding of their specialised needs and habits. They can be challenging enough pets for adults, never mind children, and it is fair to say that in general, reptiles are not ideal pets for children. First of all, children like pets that they can handle and play with and very few reptiles will tolerate being handled a lot. In fact, many reptiles like to spend a large of their lives hiding in or under things and many species are also nocturnal – both habits that children will find very frustrating.

Secondly, many reptiles are not the ideal size for a child’s pet – they are either too large and powerful to be safely handled by kids or so small and delicate that they can be easily hurt or dropped by children. Reptiles also require very specialised care – both in terms of diets which need a lot of preparation and also in providing the right habitat and environment. These needs can be very specific and need to be monitored closely daily – and few children have the patience or the skills to do this. For example, many reptiles that are omnivores or carnivores require live prey and so will need you to maintain a separate “insect farm” or have a supply of killed mice to feed it.

The S Word

Perhaps the biggest reason reptiles may be unsuitable and unsafe for children to keep as pets is the very real risk of Salmonella infection. The Salmonella bacteria is carried by almost all reptiles (even if they do not display any symptoms themselves) and is easily transmitted through contact. Infection can be severe, even life-threatening, especially in those with weaker immune systems such as very young children and the elderly.

Of course, it is possible to avoid Salmonella infection by practising good, basic hygiene – such as keeping the reptile and its habitat clean and washing hands thoroughly with soap after handling any reptile – but this can be difficult to ensure 100% with young children. Similarly, children mustn’t put their hands near their faces or in their mouths while handling the reptile and certainly mustn’t kiss their reptilian pet! But as any parent will attest, this can be very hard to ensure with very young children, even under constant supervision!

Good Reptile Choices

Having said all that, it IS possible for children to keep reptiles as pets, providing they have the maturity to take on the responsibilities for the reptiles’ specific needs and follow the necessary hygiene precautions. This means that reptiles would probably be more suitable as pets for older children.

A lot also depends on choosing the right kind reptile. Taking into consideration factors like adult size, tolerance of handling, habitat and diet requirements…this narrows the list down to only a few species within each category of reptile. If your child fancies a lizard, the best choice is probably a bearded dragon. These are extremely popular in the pet trade and for good reason: they remain a manageable size as adults and can be housed in a reasonable terrarium; they tolerate a certain level of handling and overall, are relatively easy to care for, provided their basic habitat and dietary needs are met.

They also have wonderful personalities, which makes for a more rewarding pet. Some other species of lizard to consider are leopard geckos, Berber skink and blue-tongue skink and the uromastyx which has the benefit of surviving quite happily on a varied diet of fruit & vegetables, thus removing the need to keep live prey for your reptile pet. Avoid chameleons and iguanas as pets for children.

If your child has his or her heart set on a snake, then the corn snake might be a good choice. They are relatively docile and tolerate handling well; similarly the king snake is another good beginner’s pet. If you’re looking for something more substantial, then a ball python makes a good pet – although they require more understanding to keep, especially as they can be fussy eaters. Snakes actually make better pets for children than the other types of reptiles as they require less space and are easier to care for. Their one drawback is the need for pre-killed mice as food.

Finally, turtles and tortoises are often popular requests since they feature frequently in children’s books and have a high “cute factor”. Turtles will probably require a more complicated set-up since they need to have water in their habitat and spend much of their lives in water. Some tortoises, on the other hand, can grow to enormous sizes and therefore may not be suitable unless you have adequate outdoor space.

No matter what kind of reptile you ultimately decide on, make sure you do your research thoroughly to understand all its needs and habitat requirements and find an experienced reptile supplier who can guide you through the initial set-up.

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