Exotic pets guide: How to take care of reptiles such as turtles and lizards

Exotic pets guide: How to take care of reptiles such as turtles and lizards

An exotic animal doctor explains how to care for and feed these charming, misunderstood creatures

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The pancake tortoise (Malacochersus tornieri) is native to Africa.
Photo: Doris Wai

Leathery skin, gnarled claws, and huge bulging eyes. While these may not be traits most people look for when choosing an animal companion, exotic animals such as reptiles are becoming more popular in Hong Kong and elsewhere.

Young Post speaks to Dr Violaine, aka Dr V, from Island Exotics and Tai Wai Small Animal and Exotic Hospital to find out more about these exotic pets, and how to care for them.

Dr V is a vet who works with exotic animals such as rabbits, snakes, birds – basically any animal that isn’t a cat or a dog – and some of her favourite animal patients are reptiles.

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These cold-blooded creatures are often misunderstood because of their hardy appearance, but Dr V believes reptiles are “charming animals” with “fascinating habits and behaviours”.

“Every reptile has its own personality. You can see that some of them are more shy, others might be a bit more outgoing,” she says.

Dr V has had a few lizard patients and snakes, but the bulk of her patients have been turtles, and in particular, red-ear sliders, which are commonly found in Hong Kong's Goldfish Market in Prince Edward.

Dr V with a pair of pancake tortoises.
Photo: Doris Wai

Dr V says a lot of pet owners don’t always educate themselves before they buy exotic animals, especially when they buy turtles – which can be found on sale for as little as HK$10 at the wet market – and that the advice given by sellers is not always correct.

Sellers rarely tell their customers how long turtles live (the red-eared slider can live up to 50 years in captivity), nor do they explain how big they can grow – which can become an issue in Hong Kong where living space is usually quite small.

“Turtles can grow up to be very big ... A baby red-eared slider weighs no more than 30g and can grow up to be 1.5kg,” she explains.

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“Owners have to be prepared to increase the size of the tank as they keep growing.”

Dr V adds that although some turtles are aquatic and spend most of their time in water, the ideal tank should have a wet area and dry “basking” area.

New owners of other reptiles – such as snakes and lizards – are also rarely taught how to properly care for these critters.

Photo: Shutterstock

“Reptiles are extremely sensitive to their environment because they aren’t able to produce their own heat like mammals can,” explains Dr V. “They must be kept in a temperature-controlled environment, even in Hong Kong where it’s warm most of the year.”

Another important thing to note, says Dr V, is that all reptiles can potentially carry salmonella, a kind of bacteria that affects people’s intestines. She says that humans can catch it from turtles, so owners must be extra careful if they allow their pets to walk around their floor.

“Most turtles are not toilet-trained, and most of them will poop and urinate on the floor. This can contaminate the place, which is especially dangerous if there are young children in the house.

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“But it doesn’t mean you can’t have a pet reptile. You just need to be aware that everyone who touches them should always wash their hands before touching their face or eating.”

For the most part, small reptiles are relatively low maintenance and make great pets for people who are allergic to mammals and birds, or those with a busy lifestyle, as they don’t require much human interaction and prefer to live alone.

“If you have more than one reptile, you’ll need to expand the habitat and space, because they exhibit aggressive behaviour once they reach puberty and the hormones kick in,” says Dr V. “If the tank is not big enough ... they might attack and injure their [neighbour].”

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Dr V emphasises that it is important that first-time owners do as much research as they can about the animal they’re thinking of buying, particularly their dietary needs. She explains that reptiles have a special diet, and that not all of them eat meat; some only eat plants.

“If your pet is an insectivore, you can buy insects from the shops but you’ll need to “gut-load” them – provide the insects with nutritious food – before feeding them to the reptile. Most geckos will eat insects, except the crested gecko. They eat a mix of plant and insects. Some owners will even blend vegetable leaves to make a ‘smoothie’ for their pet.”

For those who have done their homework and are sure a reptile would be the perfect addition to their family, Dr V strongly recommends either adopting or only buying one that has been bred in captivity.

“A lot of reptile species are at risk of being endangered in the wild, and the illegal pet trade puts extra pressure on the wild population. Wild caught animals are also less likely to adapt to living in captivity, because they have been removed from their natural environment and then are kept in small cages. This can cause them unnecessary stress, and they have more parasites, so they might not survive for long,” she says.

“There are many species that are bred in captivity so there are enough species available for sale if none are being put up for adoption.”

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
So you want an exotic pet?

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