Best Reptiles Pets for Beginners

Posted by Critter Depot on

Table of Contents

Best Reptile Pets for Beginners

Reptiles have skyrocketed as pets of choice in the last two decades.  Currently, about 4.5 million households own a reptile as a pet. About 9.4 million reptiles are owned as pets across the US. Each household that owns a reptile has an average of two reptiles.  The reptile pet trade is flourishing and many pet stores carry a wide assortment.  

Let’s assume that you have never owned a reptile before and are now convinced that one or two would be an awesome addition to your household.  But where to start?  There are so many choices, and all species have their pros and cons. 

How to select a new reptile?

I suggest a good place to start is not with the desire for an awesome pet, but rather with a frank assessment of your lifestyle and family’s attributes.  If you are a single person with limited space and a super busy lifestyle but a generous budget, certain pet choices will be more practical than others.  Does your family consist of a number of small, active children in a big house with plenty of room? Then other choices may become more practical.  Do you desire a pet to interact with continually and handle a lot, or just or two really aesthetically pleasing pets to grace a vertical terrarium full of plants?  I think you see where I’m going with this.  

Once the future keeper really knows the pros and cons of their own living situation, a sensible choice becomes easier.  I will categorize these choices not by species, which is what most pet guides do, but by the desires, needs and constraints of the owners. For many hobbyists, their first reptile serves as a teacher to help them understand reptiles in general.  For this reason, it’s important to start with something relatively easy to care for and forgiving of mistakes. Some animals at pet stores, such as chameleons and boa constrictors, while beautiful, can be very difficult to care for without ample experience.

Reptiles for Limited Space

Reptiles can be some of the most space efficient pets that apartment owners can have. But as with most species, it all depends on the parameters.  A small reptile such as a beardie or leopard gecko can be managed on a book shelf or small table. For persons with a small space, the following pets are recommended.

As you can see, geckos in general are a good call for those with limited space. A good rule of thumb for future reptile pet owners is snout to vent length.  A ratio of 12 inches square for an occupant that is 6 inches long excluding the tail is a good guide, although one should not be too rigid with this measure.  The animal’s activity level should also be considered, as well as the orientation of the enclosure. An arboreal gecko can be housed in a tank with a fairly small footprint as long as it is vertical.  Spaces where the animals will be housed should also be measured with a thought for access and equipment, not just interior housing space.  If the habitat is to be placed on a shelf, is there enough clearance at the top to accommodate easy opening and closing, heat elements, ventilation, and so forth? 

Reptiles for Horizontal Space

For future owners who feel they can spare 24 square inches of horizontal space, additional reptile species become an option.  

Any small python that can be hand tamed and taken out of the enclosure frequently for exercise should do well in a 24x24 inch tank.  Garter snakes, even though small and thin, are extremely active, and don’t like a great deal of handling.  So even though it may be tempting to cram them into a smaller habitat because they seem like they will need less room than a girthier python or constrictor, their energy level needs to be accommodated with more space.

Reptiles for Unlimited Space

Future owners with virtually unlimited space can consider:

Custom digs will be needed for these monsters at maturity.  Some people devote and entire spare bedroom to their needs. Tegus and monitors can often be walked on leashes, and if kept in undersized housing, they will need daily exercise. Just like walking the dog daily, an undersized reptile dwelling will require regular exercise, either in the house or outside.

Lifestyle

Future owners who work long hours outside of the home or travel a lot need to factor this into their choice of pet.  The age at acquisition will matter.  Hatchlings and juveniles will need daily care until sexual maturity, and neglect will cause the animal distress, from overly slow growth to immune deficiency and even death.  More mature individuals can handle a little deprivation.  A general rule of thumb for a pet you can space out regular feedings for would be snakes over lizards.  Mature snakes can usually be fed once per week with no problem, while lizards need to be fed three times a week or more.  Insectivorous snakes will need to be fed more often than carnivorous ones.

Reptiles For the super busy owners:

Reptiles For the semi-busy owners

Reptiles for the not terribly busy who also don’t travel:

Any and all of the above species plus chameleons, and the very large snakes and lizards listed under the size heading.

Budget

Future owners need to consider three things when it comes to pet costs:

  • initial purchase price
  • monthly feed
  • veterinary care

That’s at a minimum.  The really forward thinking owner might want to consider pet insurance and an evaluation of the maintenance time.  We wrote a detailed guide on the costs for owning a bearded dragon, which goes into the these hidden fees that many new owners may not be thinking about.

If time is money for certain owners, then a less exotic, less costly, lower maintenance pet might be prudent.

Less than $1000

For folks looking to spend less than $1,000 on their pet:

  • Bearded Dragons
  • Leopard Geckos
  • All small snake species

Note: the initial cost for species exhibiting wild type coloration will be 3-4 times less than exotic morphs. The two lizards listed above will cost about $30-$50 for wild type coloration. They will eat approximately $200 per year in food items, including nutritional supplements.  They will need approximately the same amount to be spent on substrate yearly. They will also require about $300 in initial setup costs, and $100 per year in equipment replacement annually. Vet bills for fecal exams and other emergency needs may range from $200-$300, depending upon the part of the country and the nature of the illness. Small snake species tend to run about 25% more than lizards for the more common species with wild-type coloration. The set up and feeding needs will be approximately the same, perhaps even a little cheaper for snakes that eat pinky mice. A pack of frozen pinkies (>25) generally sells for about 30 cents each online.  Supplements are less necessary since mice are a more complete meal.  So even though snakes are a more expensive purchase up front, they are less to feed each month.

For folks who want really unique coloration in their pets, you can expect to pay anywhere from $300 to $500 for lizard morphs, and the same for the most common snake morphs.  You can spend more, however, if you really want to. For instance, recessive gene Ball Pythons such as the GHI can go for $10,000.  This type of cost is certainly an argument for an owner investing in pet insurance and making sure that the veterinary petty cash fund is at least $500 per year. Snake morphs do tend to be more expensive than lizard morphs, with the most expensive bearded dragon ‘zero’ morph costing just under $1,000.

More than $1000

The larger the snake or lizard, the more likely the purchase price to be high. Weirdly the monthly feeding cost does NOT increase proportionately.  The average adult ball python will cost about $50 to buy and $30/month to feed, pretty much like an insectivorous lizard. A reticulated or Burmese Python will cost anywhere from $850 to $3,000 to purchase. For adult reticulated, feeder rabbits at $20-$25 each will need to be fed monthly, so that’s about $250 per year.  Burmese seem to need a couple of extra feedings per year if they are really large, so $280 for them.  Ironically, the smaller more insectivorous pets will cost as much or more in feed over time.

So after the initial purchase cost, most owners of the most common small to medium sized reptile pets will spend about $40/month for everything. Over the course of a reptile pet’s life span of 10 years (some live less time, some a lot more), owners can plan to shell out about $4,800.

Young Children

A lot of reptile pets are unsuitable for small children. Any that are extremely large or aggressive are plainly a bad idea.  Very fast, or very fragile and tiny species may be at risk of unintentional harm from children under 5 years of age. 

Yet there are some that a parent can choose that increase the odds of a good outcome for both pet and child.  Most experts agree that the following species are good for kids:

  • Bearded Dragons
  • Leopard Geckos
  • Crested Geckos
  • Corn Snakes

I would personally caution parents with children under 6 years of age to avoid the two gecko species, not because they aren’t quite fun and charming for kids, but because their tails are autotomous.  Small children can be impulsive and grabbing tails sometimes just seems like the easiest way to get ahold of them, causing the animal to drop its tail.  These species are fine for kids 6 years and older, however. 

Temperament (pets and owners)

Some future reptile keepers may be thinking of attractive pets to complete a carefully landscaped terrarium.  There are lots of great reptiles that are really beautiful additions to a vertical tank filled with lots of lovely plants.  These keepers want a pleasing bio-scape to enjoy passively.  Watching active creatures display their natural behaviors is most important to this kind of keeper, and needing to handle them on a regular basis is not a priority.

Reptiles for observing

For this type of owner, the following diurnal species are an excellent choice.

  • Corn snake
  • Green anole
  • Hognose snake
  • Panther chameleon
  • Veiled chameleon
  • Garter snakes
  • King Snakes
  • Frilled Lizards
  • Gold Dust Day Geckos

These pets are listed here because they are easily viewed during the day.  Some of them, such as corn snakes, are both great to observe and easy to handle. Some, like frilled lizards, might like to be handled just a little, but in general want to be left alone.  Chameleons are always a fascinating choice for a large terrarium, and like corn snakes and king snakes, can be included in both categories.  However, some of these beautiful species, although fantastic to observe, require a level of care that can be difficult for new owners to manage.  And there are noticeably personality differences in some of these species.  Frilled lizards can tend toward nervousness, but some individuals are very calm and social outside of their habitat. Corn snakes are always a good bet for a visually interesting pet that comes in so many morphs, but garter snakes, although equally stunning, may or may not want to be handled. Hognose snakes are adorable, and like corn snakes, chameleons and king snakes, can switch hit as both viewable and handle-able. The above list is not exhaustive, and there are many other reptiles and amphibians that can grace an indoor habitat that are easy to care for, but not the sort of pet you can physically interact with much.

Reptiles for Handling

For future owners who definitely want an animal to play with, the following species are highly recommended.

  • Corn snake
  • Hognose snake
  • Panther chameleon
  • Veiled chameleon
  • King Snakes
  • Milk Snakes
  • Bearded dragons
  • Leopard geckos
  • Blue Tongue Skink
  • Ball Pythons
  • Black and White Tegus
  • DeKay’s Brown Snakes
  • Water Dragons
  • Rosy Boas

All of the potential pets listed above are known to be very sociable with humans. Leopard geckos and bearded dragons are probably the most well-known, docile, social, and easily acquired of the pets listed. Some of these pets get to be a lot larger than others, some live a lot longer, and some are much more expensive than others. 

Tegus?

Take Black and White Tegus.  With proper care and consistent socialization when young, they can turn into big puppy dog-like pets. They can easily be walked on a leash.  But consider this, they can get nearly 5 feet long and weigh almost twenty pounds.  And, they go through a teenage stage where they can become quite aggressive occasionally until settling down as adults. This phase can last 18 months to 2 years. They should not be kept in a home that also contains pet rodents.  The initial purchase price can be $250 or higher, and the cost of a habitat large enough to keep them happy can run $500 to $800. And even adults can become a little snappy if they are ignored for a long time.  This species needs constant contact with the owners in order to stay tame.  On the pro side, they are quite omnivorous and much of their food can come straight from the grocery store. Some owners even feed them on veggies and canned dog food. So that part is both affordable and convenient.

Given the framework suggested above, before investing in a tegu, the new owner should evaluate their own needs, expectations, and family dynamics and parameters.

  • Limited space: not a good choice
  • Busy lifestyle: not a good choice
  • Limited budget: a moderate choice after initial expenditures

Small children: not a good choice. An adult tegu has a 300 lb. bite force, while a pitbull has a 230 lb. bite force, for comparison. This is not a pet to have around toddlers, or hyperactive, mischievous older kids who are not patient or respectful.

Temperament: a good choice for people who want a super unique pet that tends to bond deeply with their owners when given plenty of attention.  They are even good with other large pets in the home once the teenage years are completed. 

The owner profile for this sort of pet should be that of a single person or childless couple, or a family with older children.  They should have plenty of space, and should save up for the purchase, but after that can relax on maintenance costs.  They will need to be home bodies at least part of the week, so that the pet can be continuously handled, walked, and generally socialized with. A busy college student in a dorm would not be a good candidate for owning this pet, and would end up rehoming them fairly quickly.

The owner profile for snakes that will be handled is a little more broad. Less cost is involved for many species, less room required for the smaller ones, and for some owners snakes that tolerate intermittent handling and feeding who can accommodate busy lifestyles and short vacations easily are a must.  The small species are more suitable for families with youngish children. Monthly feeding costs will be consistently modest but more than the tegu listed above. Some of the snakes will be fed on rodents, which may be objectionable to some family members. The personalities and energy levels of family members will need to be considered.  A house with quiet adults will be a great home for a hognose snake.  One with boisterous children that are super active would not be unless this shy species can be housed in its own space. A boisterous family that only has room for a medium sized tank right in their living room would be better of with the unflappable corn snake. Bearded dragons would be a better choice for this family than leopard geckos, but families with children of a broad span of ages who are calm and deliberate in their mannerisms can do really well with Beardies, Leos, all of the snakes listed under good temperament. 

Older people may do best with pets that take a little expertise and are visually pleasing without being super active. The level of care required by chameleons and the animal’s deliberate, slothlike pace of movement, as well as their lovely colors and quirky personalities make them ideal for seniors or experienced young adults who are home a lot. 

Families with children should evaluate their needs and dynamic objectively. It’s great to include reptile pets in the home, especially if children are involved in the animal’s day to day care. A sense of responsibility and empathy can be nurtured, and often result in a lifelong interest in reptiles of all kinds, as well as a love of animals and nature in general. But not all families at all stages are suited for any and all reptile pets. Introverted family members may find that large reptiles become too intimidating to be enjoyed, while extroverted individuals might like any and all reptiles of any size or temperament, but have a physical expression of their own energy that make some reptile pets nervous or aggressive. This is why a frank assessment of the family’s needs, desires, and resources is really the most critical step in choosing the right species for the family. Research on the desired species should always be matched with practicality, both now and in the future. Never should a reptile pet be a spontaneous purchase at a pet store because the animal looks either really cute or really lonely without first considering the family parameters. This pet will become part of the family, and if cared for properly, will bring joy and companionship for years.  When not considered carefully, a tearful burial or rehoming may result.  That is a shame, especially when it can be avoided with just a little insight and evaluation. 

Whatever pet you decide to acquire, treat them with respect and affection and they will return the favor for many years.

Happy Herping!

1 comment


  • As you mentioned earlier, if we wish to have a reptile as our pets then small geckos are some of the more suitable option if we live in a very confined space. This very well reminds me of my daughter who, since last month, has been thinking of adopting an exotic animal to be her apartment companion. I’ll advise her to take this info into consideration before making any final decision. https://snakesatsunset.com

    Amy Saunders on

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published