Tarantula Care Guide - The Critter Depot

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Tarantula Care Guide

tarantula care guide

Table of Contents

 

Tarantula Care Questions?

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Tarantula Lore

In Italy, there are famous dances referred to as ‘tarantellas’. They were inspired by the spontaneous dancing patterns exhibited by women supposedly bitten, and then possessed by, local species of tarantulas. The dancing of the bite victims might last for hours, before the sufferer collapsed, apparently freed from the effects of the toxin/evil spirits.

So when someone wants to handle a pet tarantula, they better be prepared to get bitten and if they do, find a good place to perform an extended whirling dervish, right? Well, not really.

Do Tarantulas Bite?

Tarantulas seldom bite, although they can. And yes, some species can make you quite ill. The bites of these animals can cause redness and swelling at the bite site, sometimes accompanied by muscle spasms, itching, stiff joints, sweating, and tightness in the chest. Certainly sounds unpleasant, but not fatal and not grounds for hours of vigorous dancing (anthropologists have concluded that ‘tarantism’ was a plea for social assistance for marginalized female populations, which is why it no longer occurs).

Still, there are some species that are not for beginners. The poisonous bite of Poecilotheria tarantulas yields more venom than other large tarantula species.

poisonous tarantulas

These ‘Indian ornamental tree tarantulas’ can bite when provoked, although even then much of the time they administer a ‘dry bite’ (venomless) to their attacker (or annoying keeper).

Still, beginning tarantula fanciers might want to stick to some of the other stunningly beautiful and utterly harmless pet tarantula species available on the pet market. With over 800 species of tarantulas, the newbie keeper should have plenty to choose from.

Best Tarantulas for Beginners

Tarantulas belong to the Theraphosidae family and are roughly divided into two groups: "old world" (from the eastern hemisphere) and "new world" (from the western hemisphere). Old Worlders do not flick hairs, so have a more potent venom than their New World cousins. They also move much faster than New World spiders.

The Old World tarantula's first mode of defense is to retreat if the option is available.  But an adult is less likely to do so in captivity because enclosure size is often very restrictive (in territorial terms). If they consider you to be within their territorial bounds, which many do as soon as you pop the opening on their container, they are ready to defend their burrow, legs and fangs raised.

tarantula in defense mode

These species are recommended only for very experienced keepers.

New Worlders bite far less often, but can fling stinging hairs if provoked or startled. Nevertheless, in general, the best "beginner" tarantulas are New World ground dwellers or burrowers, as they tend to be a little slow moving and good natured.

Pet tarantulas from both parts of the globe come in two additional flavors: terrestrial and arboreal. As such, they need completely different kinds of vivariums from one another. First, let’s look at the kind of enclosure and husbandry that a terrestrial tarantula requires.

Owning Mexican Red-Knee Tarantula

mexican red knee

One of the most well-known of terrestrial tarantulas and a favorite among newbies is the Mexican red-knee tarantula, of which there are two different species indigenous to the Pacific coast of Mexico. The Brachypelma hamorii and the Brachypelma smithi both have vibrant "red knees" that contrast with their dark body color, making them easy to distinguish from other types of tarantulas. Both species are coveted for their beauty, temperament, and long lifespan.  Both species are slow moving and can be handled regularly, often with no stress to the animal.

Flinging Urticating Hairs

This spider rarely bites. However, like most tarantulas, it will kick out urticating hairs from its abdomen and legs if it thinks it's in danger. This natural defense mechanism is meant to embed into an attacking animal's or human’s skin or eyes, causing discomfort and physical irritation.

In humans, the poisonous hairs can cause an allergic skin reaction resulting in inflammation, rash, and itching. One keeper I know of who had handled her female regularly when she was younger had to give up trying to remove her from her tank, because as the spider got older and older, she got crankier, and the urticating hairs were being flicked constantly and abundantly in all directions. The message was duly received by her handler, who left her in undisturbed peace for her remaining years, which was about 20 years of age.

Mexican Red-Knee Age & Size

Although not the biggest of tarantulas, with a 5 inch leg span, they are still pretty impressive. Females can live up 30 years, but males live for only about 10 years. So if unsure how long you want to pamper this arachnid pet, opt for a male.

Find a Reputable Breeder

Also, be sure to acquire your pet from a reputable breeder. Both species of red-knee are CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife and Flora) Appendix II listed, which means that they are not necessarily threatened with extinction, but rather a species in which trade must be controlled in order to ‘avoid utilization incompatible with their survival’ such as collection for the pet trade.

Habitat destruction and capture for the pet trade are both future threats to the continued existence of these beautiful arachnids in the wild, so why contribute to that.

Also, wild caught spiders may be full of nematodes (parasites), which will definitely affect the animal’s health. Just find a good domestic breeder instead and not an importer.

Tank Size for Terrestrial Tarantulas

A 5- to 10-gallon tank horizontal is suitable for a terrestrial species such as the popular Mexican red knee. Even though not technically superlative tree climbers, they still do pretty well and are notorious escape artists. The enclosure should have a clampable mesh screen on top, and preferably feature a side opening to prevent the spider from falling each time you need to service its tank (since tarantulas like to hang out on top).

Due to the very thin and somewhat fragile exoskeleton of these creatures, bigger is not necessarily better. An enclosure that is too high encourages climbing, and a fall can cause serious damage to your pet. An enclosure that is too big can also make prey hard to find, so stick to a carefully planned, appropriately sized habitat for your spidey.

Substrate

The substrate or bedding should be a mix of peat moss, soil, and vermiculite and should be at least 4 inches thick to allow for burrowing and to cushion any falls. Wood, cork bark, or half of a small clay flower pot can be used for a shelter or hiding spot for the tarantula. Adding a few fake plants also helps mimic its natural environment. Live plants are nice as well, and help with humidity levels.

Temperature & Humidity

Maintaining a consistent temperature and humidity is an important element of Mexican red knee tarantula care. The recommended terrarium temperature is around 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit and can be achieved by using a heat mat under one portion of the tank (definitely not under the entire bottom surface).

While supplemental heating is recommended for most North American environments, it's also important to give your spider a non-heated area to cool off should the tank get too hot. These species may actually die at temperatures reaching above 90 degrees F for an extended period of time. Indeed, depending on where you live, many species of terrestrials tarantulas will need no supplemental heating at all.

Humidity levels should be kept around 60 to 70 percent, which can usually be achieved through evaporation from a water bowl. However, in some climates, misting the tank may be necessary. If you see your spider hovering over its water bowl but not drinking, chances are that the tank environment is too dry. Conversely, if it's continuously hiding out in a corner of the terrarium, it is probably too humid. 

Although some variability in humidity is acceptable, in general the humidity should average around 65%. To much misting and too much sustained humidity can cause health problems for your pet, so an average humidity that seldom rises above 70% is best.

Tank Size for Arboreal Tarantulas

Arboreal tarantulas have very different needs than those of terrestrial and burrowing types. Also, they are really not a pet that should be handled. One entomologist, Dr. Linda Rayor of Cornell University, states that arboreal "Tarantulas shouldn't be handled— they're not puppies…They're more like fish." In other words, enjoy them for their aesthetic qualities only. As far as husbandry is concerned, arboreals are generally more challenging than terrestrials.

For instance, the ​pinktoe (Avicularia avicularia) is often cited as a good first arboreal tarantula but not a good first tarantula overall.

pink toe tarantula

They are fast and agile, making handling more difficult. They rarely bite but can jump out of your hands, flick urticating hairs, and even spray fecal matter at you with their little pink toes. They tend to be less placid in nature than terrestrials, but more tolerate of handling than many of the more challenging arboreal species that are cranky, aggressive, and venomous.

Pink toe and other arboreal tarantulas need a taller tank than terrestrial species that provides them with ample room to climb. A 10-gallon vertical tank with a secure side opening works best. Since arboreal tarantulas like to spin webs up high, a side opening prevents damage to the web every time you need to feed your pet. Make sure any openings, or lids, are escape proof, too.

Substrate

These species don’t burrow, so 2 inches of a substrate such as Terra Sahara or Exo Terra Rain Forest Substrate will be adequate for several months. They will also needs logs, branches, and live plants for climbing.

Habitat Greenery

Skinny branches stripped of bark are not recommended, even for these agile climbers. Instead, play it safe and supply them with rough barked cork objects or rough oak branches 1 inch in diameter.

Providing live clinging vines as part of a vivarium can make slick surfaces safer.  Creeping fig is a good choice and if wound around a slick barked piece of drift wood can make the this furniture safer for your climber and more attractive to both you.

Plenty of tillandsias (‘air plants’) stuck here and there on the sides on the branches also provide interest and cushioning. Bromeliads such as Neoregelia or Aechmea are also good, especially for Avicularia tarantulas. Other good plants for lower light conditions include Pothos and Rhododendron.

Pink toes can share their captive home with others of the same species, but solitary housing removes the threat of cannibalism—a situation that can occur in tight quarters or with poor husbandry. Heating needs are similar to a terrestrial tarantula, as is humidity.

Tarantula Lighting

Special lighting is not necessary for tarantulas as it is for many reptiles. The normal amount of light in a room is enough and in fact they do not like bright light. A 40 watt household bulb is enough (and that is mainly so that the keeper can observe the pet, not for the spider’s benefit). Be sure that any light used does not dry out the enclosure, especially one containing a juvenile.

Habitat Air-Flow

For both types of tarantulas, in arid environments keepers may need to modify the top of the screened cage. Sometimes it is necessary to seal 1/2 to 2/3 of the screened top to prevent excessive moisture loss and lowering of humidity. A good enclosure should offer cross ventilation (holes/vents should be on the sides) and some top airflow, but should be sealed enough to prevent conditions inside the cage from becoming too dry.

However, be careful not to restrict airflow too much, as not enough ventilation will create a stuffy, dangerous environment, prone to molds. Regions with cold winters, necessitating a furnace, chimney, or wood stove to heat the home, or hot dry summers, may require the keeper to acquire a humidifier for seasonal use to assure that the humidity levels will not get dangerously low. In these instances, even properly set up cages can dry out quickly.

Keeping one room that contains your pet at around 40% and 50% will suffice for a few months and may even help prevent nosebleeds in the keeper! However, if possible it is best to keep these creatures at a slightly higher humidity than terrestrial varieties, around 75% or so. Many keepers supplement the moisture content of the habitat by dampening their tubes. These spiders create silk tube retreats for themselves, usually high among the plants within the enclosure. A thorough misting of their silk retreat once or twice a week is recommended by many experienced keepers, but care must be taken not to overdo it and accidentally create an overly damp substrate.

Tarantula Habitat Sanitation

Tarantulas are not messy pets. They excrete a quick-drying fluid that has virtually no smell or mess. 

You should clean your tarantula’s cage whenever it looks like it is needed, which shouldn’t be very often. The only item that needs to be cleaned regularly is the water dish to prevent it from becoming moldy or fouled by an insect that drowns.

Cleaning Schedule

It is usually a good idea to deep clean the enclosure of an arboreal tarantula every 4 to 6 months, and a terrestrial’s enclosure once per year is usually sufficient, due to the slightly lower humidity requirements.

How to Clean Your Tarantula's Habitat

Transport your pet tarantula to a secure holding container before beginning to clean the tank.  Then…

  1. Remove any cricket parts from the tank,
  2. Wash the inside and outside of the tank with soap and water, rinse thoroughly,
  3. Spray with 10% bleach solution,
  4. Spray again with distilled water, allow to dry for 3 hours,
  5. Replace the old substrate with new,
  6. Sterilize water dish, and fill with dechlorinated water,
  7. Sterilize and replace into the water dish the pebbles needed there to make sure a thirsty spider doesn’t fall into its dish and drown

Diet and Feeding Schedule

Crickets!

A diet of crickets, supplemented occasionally with other foods, is quite fine for pet tarantulas. Adults only need to eat about once a week, juveniles (known as ‘slings’ in the pet trade) should be offered food every other day. Adults may fast for extended periods (a month or two is not unusual), particularly before a molt. When this fasting begins to take place, all uneaten live and dead prey items should be removed. Molting spiders are easily stressed by the presence of other animals.

Dust your Insects

As with feeding any pet a mostly insect based diet, thought must be given to nutritional supplements. Calcium supplementation should be added to the food weekly and a multivitamin supplement every 2 weeks. Regular dusting of prey items with a supplement such a Nutrobal is most important for young, fast growing slings - older animals that are closer to adult size need supplements less frequently.

Gut Loading Crickets

In addition to dusting, prey items should be gut loaded. “Gut loading” means placing the feeder insects on an enriched diet for at least 24 hours prior to being offered to your tarantula. This enhances the nutritional value of the insects substantially. A purchased supplement such as those offered by reptile hobby stores, or even online, is easily available and affordable. The convenience of a dry gut load diet, purchased from a pet supply house, is undeniable.

However, many experienced breeders and keepers have found these products inadequate, so for the really persnickety keeper (and you know you should be) the following formula for gut loading your feeder crickets or roaches is suggested.

  • 24 pbw whole wheat flour (not self rising)
  • 8 pbw calcium carbonate with vitamin D3
  • 4 pbw brewer's yeast (Not baker's yeast).
  • 3 pbw soy powder
  • 1 pbw paprika (this is to provide beta carotene)

The ‘pbw’ stands for parts by weight, whatever that weight may be. Think of this formula as a table of ratios. For instance, if you begin with 24 tablespoons of whole wheat, you would add 8 tablespoons of calcium carbonate and so forth. So for every unit of whole wheat flour, you would add 1/3 as much of the same unit of calcium powder and so forth. Place your feeder insects onto this feed for 24 hours at least and then release the needed number into your tarantula’s habitat.

Alternative Foods

Larger tarantulas can even be given pinkie mice, although it is probably not necessary. Pinkie mice fed once every couple of months can help ensure proper nutrition, but there are other means of doing this as well. Correct nutrition and hydration is actually relatively easy for these pets, one just needs to keep a sensible eye out for emerging problems, such as incipient dehydration, one of the more common problems the beginning keepers encounter.

Tarantula Hydration

The easiest way to keep your pet well hydrated and keep the humidity up in an enclosure is to add a water dish. A large, open dish will allow water to slowly evaporate, raising the humidity inside the enclosure as long as it isn’t overly vented. It will also, obviously, serve as a drinking source for a parched spider.

Although your spider may seldom be seen drinking, they will occasionally need to supplement their bodily fluids with more water than can be derived just from their food items.

Look For Shriveled Abdomen's

Not seeing your pet drinking is not cause for concern, however a shriveled abdomen is. The spider should be offered food and water immediately. If the animal is severally dehydrated, more extreme measures are called for.

How to Re-Hydrate Your Tarantula

The spider will need to be placed in a plastic cup with a lid with a few pin holes poked into it. A paper towel liberally moistened with warm water should be folded and mashed into the bottom of the cup. It should be so damp that there is a tiny bit of standing water, less than 1/8 inch deep. The tarantula needs to have a water source right around its mouth, which is not used for breathing, but still be able to breathe through the book lungs that are on the bottom of its abdomen.

Gently place the tarantula inside and secure the lid. Place the container in a warm area just a bit above room temperature (upper 70s to mid-80s) is helpful. A mildly dehydrated tarantula will often recover within 24 hours, but a couple of days might be necessary. Having a second clean container ready to move the tarantula into if the towel becomes dry or dirty is a good idea. Check on the spider a couple of times a day and move to clean container as needed.

Good husbandry will insure that these interesting and conversation worthy pets are with you for many years of ohhs and ahhs (and shrieks from those friends with arachnophobia).

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