The Green Iguana Society does not consider iguanas to be suitable pets for kids because of the difficulty of caring for them, as well as other considerations. So, if you are an adult with a kid who is dying to have a pet reptile, or you are a kid who wants an iguana but whose parents or guardians have decided that an iguana isn't right for your family, what alternatives are out there? Certain reptiles can make good pets for kids, but many do not. Here are some things to consider.
Is the reptile you're interested in hardy and easily handled? Will it tolerate and thrive if it is handled a lot by a child? Children, of course, want pets they can hold and play with. Very few reptiles really enjoy being held by a child (or anyone, really), but some tolerate it just fine while others are too delicate and will be so stressed by frequent handling that their health will suffer. This is what makes true chameleons and little anoles ill-suited for children, for example. This is also why amphibians like frogs and salamanders aren't the best bet either. They do best when handled as little as possible. Species that prefer to spend most of their time hidden away are bound to end up rejected or neglected as kids get bored or frustrated with their "invisible" pet.
What is the adult size of the reptile? Too many people fall into the trap of buying baby reptiles for their kids, only to realize too late that the animal gets large and requires a living area that they are not able to provide. Plus, large reptiles are not easy or even safe for kids to handle. This is one of many reasons why iguanas are not suitable for kids. Other reptiles that get large include many of the monitor lizards, some of the pythons like Burmese and reticulated pythons, and many tortoises. Likewise, reptiles that are too small will be too delicate and too easily hurt or dropped when handled by most kids. Green and brown anoles, for example are too small to make good pets for most kids.
What kind of diet does the reptile require? Carnivores (meat eaters) and omnivores (animals that eat both meat and plants) are the easiest to care for in captivity, because their nutrient requirements are fairly easy to provide with a variety of insects and prepared foods, with little preparation required on the part of the owner. Strict vegetarians like iguanas and tortoises required a diet that is extremely varied and which requires a lot of preparation, including purchase, washing, and chopping/shredding. Kids aren't going to be able to take on this responsibility, and parents often don't want it. As a result, the animal is fed a few easily accessible foods with little variety, and nutritional deficiencies often result. Keep in mind that carnivores and omnivores usually require live foods, such as insects, worms and even mice. Be sure you are prepared to house these necessary feeder animals and are able to handle these items. If you buy your child a lizard that eats crickets and worms, but nobody in your family wants to touch them, you're going to have some difficulties. It's even worse when you've got a snake that eats mice.
Are the care needs of the reptile easily met? As I discussed the issue of reptiles for beginners and kids with herp expert Melissa Kaplan, she pointed out that temperate species are easier to care for than desert, tropic or montane species because they tend not to need the extreme conditions necessary for other species to thrive. This is another one of the things that makes iguanas ill-suited for most beginners and kids - their need for the high temperatures, large amounts of sunlight and high humidity levels found in their tropic homes. An animal that can thrive in conditions easily met without the addition of complicated heating or humidity systems is probably best for a child and his or her parents if they are new to the world of reptiles.
Has the species been around in the reptile trade for a while? Beginners are likely to have more success with more familiar species for a couple of reasons. First of all, species that have been around in the pet trade are likely to have captive bred populations available. Melissa Kaplan pointed out that captive bred animals are hardier, tamer and healthier, and are less likely to harbor parasites. There are also ecological reasons why captive-bred animals are best - they lower the demand for wild-caught specimens. Wild populations of many species have been reduced to the point of near-extinction due to collection for the pet trade. Another reason Kaplan suggested looking for a species that has been around is because more information will be available on its care, and it will be easier to find vets experienced with that species. This is an important point. Good vet care is essential for all reptile species.
Is everyone in the family aware of the risk of Salmonella? Salmonella bacteria is carried by most reptiles, and can be a threat to the health of family members. Salmonella can be avoided by following strict hygiene requirements, but everyone in the family must be aware of the issue and willing and able to take the precautions necessary. For more information on this issue, please visit our Salmonella page.
So, after all this, what's left? Are there any reptiles that do make suitable pets for kids? There are a few, but the list is short - especially for those families in which the parents are determined not to be saddled with something the kids can't handle or care for. Here are the reptiles we recommend for kids:
Snakes - Yes, snakes. Since this is the Green Iguana Society web site, you were probably thinking more about lizards, but in many respects, certain types of snakes can make better pets for kids and beginning herp enthusiasts. Generally, snakes require less room than lizards and other types of reptiles. They don't require quite so much care - fresh water several times a week, a feeding and bedding change once a week, constant monitoring of temperatures and humidity in their environments, and that's about it. Before anyone interprets that as "snakes are easy-care pets", they're not. No animal is truly easy care. All have their own specific needs and possible problems that owners must be educated about and ready to deal with. But, compared to lizards and turtles/tortoises, snakes tend to be easier - especially for kids. Some snakes, like those discussed below, tolerate handling well and are docile and even-tempered. One thing to note about snakes - they're great escape artists. If you plan to get a snake, be sure to get an enclosure with a locking lid. Enclosures designed especially for snakes, with sliding top or side doors, such as those sold by Bush Herpetological Supply, are best. Snakes can squeeze through tiny openings, and a top that isn't on right or isn't quite latched tightly enough is all they need to escape.
The snakes that you hear the most about - the ones that beginners do best with - are corn snakes, king snakes, and ball pythons. Corn and king snakes are slender snakes that don't get much more than 5 feet long or so. If you want a heftier snake, consider a ball python. They don't get too terribly long (4 feet or so) but are heavier-bodied. All three species eat mice, which you can purchase and feed to your snake pre-killed. There are many varieties of corns and kings, so you can find the color/pattern that suits your tastes. The different varieties have basically the same care requirements. We won't go into detailed care information here, but try the following links to find out more:
Melissa Kaplan's Caring for Corn Snakes
Corn Snakes Pictures and Facts
The Ubiquetous Corn Snake (Elaphe guttata guttata) by Petra Spiess, Rocky Mountain Herpetoculture
Melissa Kaplan's Kingsnakes and Milksnakes
About.com Kingsnakes and Milksnakes
Melissa Kaplan's Ball Python
Lizards - There are just a few types of lizards that make good pets for kids. Of those, leopard geckos and bearded dragons are probably the best. Be aware that most diurnal lizards (i.e. those that are active during the daytime) require access to UVB lighting, in the same way that iguanas do. So, in general, lizards have more complicated lighting requirements than snakes.
Leopard geckos reach up to 8 inches maximum size, and eat a diet of insects. They are common in the pet trade and are relatively inexpensive to purchase. A 20 gallon terrarium is a perfectly suitable home for one. The only drawback to owning this neat lizard is that they are nocturnal, and will spend the day sleeping. Kids may find that a bit frustrating.
Here are some leopard gecko links:
Christine's Leopard Gecko Page
Melissa Kaplan's Leopard Gecko Care page
Leopard Geckos: Past and Present by Ron Tremper
A larger, more impressive lizard that makes a suitable pet for kids is the bearded dragon. Beardies reach about 2 feet as adults, and can be housed in a 50 gallon terrarium. They are omnivores, and require a diet of insects, greens and vegetables. They have wonderful personalities and are very popular reptile pets. Here are some bearded dragon links:
Tosney's Bearded Dragon Care
Melissa Kaplan's Dragons Down Under: Inland Bearded Dragons
Inland Bearded Dragons
In addition to leopard geckos and bearded dragons, some of the skinks also make suitable pets for kids and beginners. Two species that are often cited in this regard are the Berber/Schneider skink and the blue-tongue skink. Blue-tongue skinks get fairly large - up to 30" long, and will need a very large terrarium. Like bearded dragons, they are omnivorous and require a diet of both invertebrates and greens/veggies. They can become quite tame. Blue tongues can be expensive and are not quite as common in the pet trade as the other lizards we discussed here, so we recommend them with some reservations. Berber/Schneider skinks are smaller, up to 18" long or so, and thus do well in a 30 or 40 gallon terrarium. Their diet consists mainly of insects and other invertebrates, but they will eat plants and should be offered greens, veggies and fruits two or three times a week.
Here are some skink links to get you started:
Melissa Kaplan's Blue-tongue Skinks
Blue Tongue Skinks, by K & J. Hollingsworth
Melissa Kaplan's Schneider Skinks page
The Reptile House: Berber Skinks
Melissa Kaplan has an excellent article - So, you think you want a reptile? - on her comprehensive herp web site. We suggest that parents read this article , because she addresses the issues we've discussed here as well as others, and offers suggestions regarding reptile pets for kids. She also provides some links to pages with care information for many of the reptiles she discusses and some of those we mentioned above. The companion article - So, your folks won't let you have a reptile... is recommended reading for kids looking to get their first reptile.
Petra Spiess has written a nice article entitled The Worst Reptiles for Beginning Hobbyists that provides a list of unsuitable reptiles for beginners and kids. It's worth visiting.
As always, we stress that the key to properly caring for your pet, no matter what kind of animal it is, is preparation and education. The few links we've listed here are just the tip of the iceberg (if that!). If you are seriously looking into getting another type of reptile pet for your family, please read and learn all you can about the species that interest you before you purchase any animals, so that you make an informed decision and know what you're getting into. You'll be doing your family, and your pet, a favor.