When it comes to exotic pets, reptiles are a popular choice, but not one that should be rushed into, says veterinarian Sylvain David, of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Hong Kong (www.spca.org.hk).

"Don't purchase a reptile without preparation, or as a gift without warning the recipient. Reptiles can be a lot of work to care for and have a lot of husbandry requirements when compared to a dog, cat or rabbit."

For example, every type of reptile requires specific equipment and care, so it is important to know about these before making a decision. Cost is another factor due to the necessary equipment. "Always try to buy the best housing and husbandry tools you can afford first, and then figure out what animals fit within your budget. Too often the opposite happens, and the animal suffers," David says.

He says it is best to purchase a captive-bred reptile. "Reptiles bred in captivity have an increased chance of being calm right away, and it also reduces possible health concerns, which can accompany wild-collected animals, as well as the ecological risk to wild animals."

When it comes to which reptile to choose, David says excellent household pets for beginners include leopard geckos, bearded dragons, Argentine black-and-white or red tegus lizards, and corn snakes. On the other hand, frogs, arboreal geckos, African rock pythons and Nile monitors generally do not adapt well to handling. Some may be defensive when they're young, which can lead to occasional nips, but with calm, confident handling they will outgrow this, according to the vet.

Owners need to be careful of bites, as snakes, lizards and even turtles are predators and therefore can bite as either a feeding response or a defensive strike. To avoid this, especially with snakes, David says that before you pick the pet up, respectfully and confidently let it know that there is no food involved. "This can generally be done by using an inanimate object to gently touch the snake's nose, or by simply removing the animal from the enclosure with a small hook."

Washing hands before and after handling is also important. Snakes and lizards have amazing sensory organs, so if you have any prey-like scents on a warm hand they may mistake it for prey. Washing also helps to eliminate the risk of introducing foreign bacteria, germs or parasites to the reptile. "The reason to wash after is due to the human pathogens that reptiles can carry in their mouth or skin," David says.

The vet also endorses the "loaded gun" theory for handling reptiles, which means that until you are completely comfortable with a pet snake or lizard, it should be treated like a loaded gun that can go off at any time. Respect it, be confident, wash your hands, and with newly acquired reptiles that have shown past aggression (perhaps due to fear), keep their heads pointed away from your body.

In terms of diet, give the reptile time to digest its food. David says whenever a reptile is given a sizeable meal that can't be digested in a single day, it is best to limit handling. "Stress on the abdomen during digestion can provoke regurgitation, and this is harmful for a number of reasons. Do not handle a reptile with a visible lump unless absolutely required, and always exercise extreme care and caution if you do need to."

If the reptile is a family pet, or one of a number of pets, make sure to protect other members of the household. Children should only handle the reptile under adult supervision, and should never be allowed to remove it from its enclosure, because this is when the chance of a feeding-response bite is at its greatest.

David says another concern about exposing reptiles to children is cleanliness. "We recommend children less than 18 months be kept away, because their immune systems aren't stabilised or mature. When allowing a child less than five years old to pet or touch a reptile, wash the child's hands before and after to prevent the risk of bacteria affecting the child."

When it comes to veterinary care, David says to source an appropriate clinic. "Not every veterinary surgeon and clinic are used to dealing with reptiles or have the equipment to do it properly. Try to look for a veterinary clinic that has experience with exotic species in advance."

Finally, never release a reptile into the wild. Many of the reptiles available as pets in Hong Kong are imported, and as such are not adapted to this environment and will die quickly as a result.

"Even local species, when bred in captivity, are not used to hunting or looking for food, and will starve if let alone," David says.

If having a reptile becomes too much, the vet says a legitimate alternative reptile owner or a rescue organisation should be found to take the pet. 

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