Your setup is all ready, you’ve got everything you need and today is the day that you’re bringing home your new reptile!
The care your new pet receives over the next few weeks is more important than most owners realise, it’s a very stressful time for any animal and reptiles are no different. Unfortunately for us, they hide the signs of stress well and if something is upsetting them we often only see very slight changes in their behaviour, until it reaches a much more critical stage.
A lot of problems that people encounter with reptiles are stress-related and often easily preventable, so to ensure that your new pet settles in well and avoids these problems, here are a few guidelines to follow.
Bringing them home
You need to make sure that your vivarium is all set up, and your temperatures are all checked before you put your reptile in his new home. If you have brought it all home on the same day, leave the reptile in the box you brought him home in and if it’s not a dark box, cover it over and leave it somewhere quiet until you’re all set up and ready. Its much better for a reptile to stay calm in a nice quiet place than be in a new vivarium while you are still fiddling with the furnishings or adjusting the temperatures.
Once you’re all ready, place him in his new home and leave him alone to explore, ideally even cover over the front of the vivarium for the rest of the day so that he has less things to deal with at once - and don’t peek in on him! This can be a really stressful experience for reptiles, every disturbance that they get in these first few days will only make it harder to settle in.
For the first two weeks (possibly longer for some more stress-prone reptiles like chameleons) you should have a hands-off policy around the reptile and vivarium. Once a day replace water, poo-pick if needed, and feed if needed. You should not need to intrude into the vivarium more than this while your reptile is settling in, and definitely no handling yet!
A well settled reptile is easier to handle and much healthier overall, so this patience will pay off in the long run.
Do not feed for the first 24 hours, they will rarely eat when stressed and feeding well is the biggest indicator of when they are starting to feel more comfortable in their new home.
Regardless of what species of reptile your new pet is, routine is important! Pick a time or day for feeding at for the first few weeks make sure you stick to it. This helps your reptile to know when to expect a disturbance and be confident that outside this time they’ll be left alone.
Change water daily, ideally at the same time each day.
Offer food once a week, following the advice given when you purchased him. Each species and individual is different and knowing how they’ve been fed in the past will help you to stick to what they know and are comfortable with. Always leave the food in overnight and remove if uneaten in the morning, a stressed snake is far more likely to eat in the dark and quiet. Do not be surprised or worried of they do not accent the first one or two food offers, and avoid offering food again until the next week.
Feed daily in the morning with a variety of suitable leafy greens and leave it in until the following morning, you can also use this opportunity to change the drinking water. Do not be surprised if the food appears to be undisturbed for the first few days, tortoises can be very slow to settle in and really appreciate you sticking to a routine. The salad will dry out over the day, and it is no harm should they decide to have a quick nibble later on when it is drier. Leaving it in and minimising the disturbance to the tortoise is much better than keep replacing it with fresh food.
Do not offer insects for the first 24 hours, they are unlikely to eat them with all the other stresses around and the insects running around will add one more thing to upset them.
Once you are ready to start feeding, start really slowly and build up the amount that they get fed over the next few days or weeks. A routine is important, for evening-active lizards you can do your daily maintenance of fresh water (and spraying if required) and food in the morning or evening, but for daytime-active lizards like Bearded Dragons and Chameleons it should be carried out in the morning. Other than this maintenance once a day, you should not disturb your lizard at all for the rest of the day (except an afternoon spray of water for chameleons).
The first time you feed your new lizard add just a few insects, up to about 5, and walk away to leave them to eat in peace - they are much more likely to eat when no one is watching. If they have all been eaten when you do your daily maintenance again the next day, add a few more! If they’re still running around in there, do not add any more yet. By leaving your lizard in pace to feed, and keeping any disturbance to a minimum, you should find that in a few days they are eating well and you can add a more suitable number for a good feed. Never be tempted to offer food by hand at this early stage - it takes a lot of trust for a lizard to feed from your hand or while you are watching closely, and before they have settled in properly this is more likely to put them off eating than to help.
The number of insects and frequency of feeding depends on the species of your lizard and you should have been advised when you bought them.
Don’t worry if it takes a few days or even weeks for the food to start being eaten consistently, and do not worry if you don’t see it actually being eaten. The appearance of droppings and disappearance of insects is enough at this stage to know that he is starting to feel comfortable in his new home.
Once your new pet has been at home for a couple of weeks and food is being regularly eaten, you can start to introduce a little bit of handling. At first stick to just a minute or two, no more than once a day and you can gradually increase this over the next few weeks.
If you have a tortoise, remember that they do not like to be anywhere that they cannot touch the floor with all four feet, so ‘handling’ a tortoise isn’t recommended - for them maybe add something new to the vivarium to explore and sit with them while they check it out.
If at any point you notice that your pet has gone off his food, stop all handling until he is back to feeding regularly.
Always remember that reptiles are small animals and by bringing them home you are changing everything that they know and have become accustomed to, and it always takes time for them to feel safe again.
Be patient with them, leave them alone to settle in and don’t expect the same confident animal that you met at the reptile shop or belonging to the breeder or your friend straight away! Reducing stress in the first few weeks will always pay off in the long run, so resist the temptation to check on him while he’s sleeping, to show all your family and friends or to pull him out of his hiding place to make sure he’s still there, I promise, he will not appreciate it.
By Ally Chapman