Dragons are cool … just don’t get them all fired up!


In the past few years, a fascinating array of reptiles have become available in the South African pet trade. It can be very tempting to buy one of these animals on the spur of the moment, especially when it looks exactly like a cute baby dragon…

However, in the case of the common iguana, that cute 10 cm  ‘baby dragon’ will need a special ultraviolet full spectrum light in its cage, a steady diet of a variety of leafy greens, and will grow to be the size of your sofa. It will also tail whip you occasionally. Before deciding on this type of reptile as a pet, do your homework

and ensure you have the enclosure already set up, before venturing into the realm of ‘dragon keeping’.

Wrong conditions may be fatal

Most of these animals have very specific environmental and husbandry requirements, and will become ill (and often die) if these are not strictly adhered to. About 90% of the diseases we see in reptiles in our clinic are as a direct result of poor husbandry.  Being a reptile means you are totally at the mercy of your environment, as you cannot shiver to warm up when you are too cold, or sweat to cool down when too hot. Reptiles regulate their body temperature by adapting their behaviour and by moving around in the environment, for example by finding a hot rock to warm up on in the mornings, or burrowing down into cooler sand when it gets too hot. They are exquisitely adapted to the environment which they have evolved to live in, but generally cannot adapt to a different set of temperature and humidity readings like mammals can. Reptiles kept in the wrong environment may die outright if it differs too much  from their natural environment.  Otherwise they may  become susceptible to host of infections and metabolic conditions.

Stay in the zone!

In nature, reptiles maintain their body temperature within a range called the ‘preferred optimal temperature zone’ (POTZ). Within this range (which differs from species to species) they can digest food efficiently and their immune systems can function properly. To complicate things further, the optimal temperature varies depending on whether the animal is gravid and what time of the year it is, among other things.   In practical terms, this means that a reptile in captivity needs to have a temperature gradient in its’ enclosure – i.e. a hotter and colder area, between which it can move at will. How hot and how cold will depend on the species.  In designing this cage, you need to take into account the natural history of the species – species that burrow into sand to cool down will not do well if you place a heating pad under their enclosure (the deeper they burrow the hotter it will get), and neither will species that live in trees and move higher into the branches to catch the rays of the sun. For these species a basking lamp may be more appropriate. “Hot rocks” are also available, but may heat unevenly or short circuit and cause severe burns.

Scale up your options

Some reptiles (especially temperate species of snake, such as corn and king snakes) can be kept in our climate without too much extra effort, and do not need heat pads and increased humidity. Temperate species do and should be hibernated.  These are the kind of pets recommended for beginners.

Tropical species such as Burmese pythons and boa constrictors, need a tropical climate – high humidity (70 – 80 %) and temperatures (28° C – 34° C) – in their vivariums. Tropical snakes should not be hibernated in captivity – at the end of every winter we see some extremely sick pythons with severely compromised immunities, due as they have been exposed to cold temperatures.

Catch those rays!

Most of the lizard species (for example iguanas and bearded dragons), in addition to having the above issues with POTZ and humidity, need access to full spectrum UV light in order to utilise the calcium in their diets. These lights generally need to be within 30 cm of the animal, and need to be replaced every 6 months as the UV output decreases with time. All UV lights are not created equal, however, and certain species need more UV than others (Bearded dragons, for example, need the highest level). In many cases, providing an outside enclosure where animals can bask in direct sunlight (not filtered through glass, which blocks the important part of the UV spectrum), is the best thing you can do for your lizard.

Endangered species?  Just say ‘no’!

Wild caught reptiles are often available at a lower price than locally bred specimens. However, it is always a good idea to rather buy captive bred animals from a reputable source, for several reasons. Firstly, a staggering proportion of wild caught animals die before, during and after shipping. Secondly, these animals are often highly stressed and never fully adapt to captivity. Thirdly, they are often riddled with parasites, and have been exposed to diseased animals in transit. Fourthly, they often do no recognise the food available in captivity as food, and can be very difficult to feed. Many of these animals are endangered in their native habitats, and the trade in wild caught animals is accelerating this process.

No permit, no snake

Please remember that most provinces in South Africa require that you have a permit  when keeping any indigenous reptile, be it a brown house snake or anything else. There are steep fines associated with breaking these laws.

Lastly – do your research before acquiring any reptile – find out what it eats, how big it will eventually get, what specific environmental requirements it has and whether it will remain docile as it becomes older. There are several good books available on the specific species, and websites, like www.anapsid.org, provide valuable information. Please ensure you can care for this amazing animal properly once you take custody of it – they are completely dependent on you providing the appropriate environment for their health and well being.



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