The care and feeding of reptiles

Posted: April 6, 2008 in pets
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

First, a couple of things.  WordPress changed its user interface.  It’s kind of weirding me out.  I can’t find the spell check.  I don’t like that. Sorry for any misspellings. Dammit.

Also, I covet Photoshop CS3.  If anybody feels like giving me a really expensive and really early birthday present, I’ll be your BFF.

Cheeto and LucyOkay.  Today is all about reptile husbandry.  It’s on my mind since I just placed an order with Reptile Supply, and also since I spend a good chunk of time every day caring for these guys. These critters of ours (the beardies, and the snake) take much more care than just plopping them in their habitats and tossing food to them.  There needs to be a very specific balance of light, heat, humidity, bedding, space, fixtures, food, and supplements to sustain them.  All of which I don’t think we entirely realized when we first thought, “Hey, let’s get some lizards!” (The Flickr set of our lizards and snake is here.)

To save those not interested from abject boredom, I’m inserting my Very First Cut EVAR!


The habitat needs of Bearded Dragons are fairly uncomplicated. Lucy and Cheeto each have a 65-gallon glass tank with a wire mesh top. Their bedding consists of rabbit pellets, a couple of inches deep. Each have logs to climb on/under, a hide (a plastic or stone hidey-hole big enough for them to fit into), and a food dish. Each also have two flourescent light fixtures, a heat lamp, and a ceramic heat emitter. Humidity is not an issue because they are desert dwelling reptiles, so the important thing for them is having enough heat.

The habitat requirements of a Ball Python are somewhat more complicated. Kali has a four foot wide by five foot tall by three foot deep vivarium (read and see how Calvin built it here). There is a cabinet on top that encloses the heat and light sources, which emit through wire mesh at the top of the habitat. A cabinet on the bottom holds all of the “spare parts” for the various tanks, as well as supplements and non-refrigerated worms. Certainly this is more than the average Ball Python owner needs, but we had it available after our aborted attempt at raising Thai Water Dragons. She has vines and logs angled to climb up to the platforms at higher levels, a hollow log hide on the bottom, a pond with a waterfall, and sand bedding. She has daytime light/heat emitters, and nighttime ceramic heat sources. And she has a humidifier piped into the enclosure. Ball Pythons are tropical snakes and require high temperature and high humidity in order to thrive.

Light and Heat

Beardies require UV-A and UV-B lighting in order to stay healthy (stimulate appetite, promote healthy skin, make them generally chipper).  Those lamps, if they don’t go out on their own, need to be replaced once a year.  Plus they need daytime light/heat emmitters and nighttime ceramic heat emmitters (that aren’t lights because hello, we like to sleep).  It is best to keep the temperature of their habitat between 80 and 90F during the day, and between 70 and 80F at night. It is also good to have a “hot” side and a “cool” side to the tanks, so the lizards can vary their own temperature (which is externally regulated by their environment, rather than internally regulated like a mammal). Beardies are diurnal, which means they’re awake during the day and sleep at night. The timer attached to the light and heat fixtures gives them 12 hours of “daytime” and 12 hours of “nighttime”.

The snake doesn’t need so much in the way of UV-A/B, since she’s nocturnal (sleeps during the day, awake at night), but she does require a day/night schedule with steady heat (between 80 and 90F). Her vivarium is timed to give her a 13 hour day/11 hour night schedule, with heat emitters running throughout the day and night. She also regulates her body temperature via her environment, so the top of her tank, which is closest to the heat and light fixtures, is the “hot” zone, while the bottom of the tank is the “cool” zone.


The beardies need to be soaked every day or every other day, because they don’t have water in their tanks.  This is common in keeping beardies, since they stomp around like little bulls in their china shop tanks, move their fixtures around, scatter food everywhere, dig dig dig dig dig, and create general mayhem.  Since they have rabbit pellets for bedding, spilled water would not be copasetic.  So they get to go swimming in the tub, and they get a nice long drink.  You’ve never seen anything so cute in your life as a bearded dragon gulping away.  The water usually stimulates them to go doodie, and that just gets handily washed down the drain (and the tub gets scrubbed before human occupation, rest assured).  Soaking them also promotes their skin sheds, which always come off in patches from different areas of their bodies at different times.  They never shed all their skin all at once. For instance, today Lucy shed her tail, and last week Cheeto shed his face.

The snake has a pond and waterfall in her vivarium, which requires regular cleaning and refilling.  She also has a humidifier piped into her environment, which gets run about twenty minutes a day to achieve the right level of humidity (around a consistant 80%).  Humidity is vital for her shed cycles – not enough and her shed comes off in patches or not at all.  Her eye caps can get stuck on her eyeballs (did you know snakes shed the scales over their eyes?) which will cause vision problems.  We know she’s healthy because she sheds consistantly (every couple of months or so) and it comes off in one long piece.  It’s kind of ookey, but kind of cool too.


Feeding time is always a trip.  The beardies get fresh fruits and veggies every day, and worms coated in vitamin/calcium powder every other day (fed via tongs because a) I don’t want to actually TOUCH the worms; and b) the beardies can miss the worms and chomp on your fingers).  The current veggie rotation is kale, carrots, green leaf lettuce, and tomatoes. We also use dandilion, cactus, red leaf lettuce, apples, summer squash, zucchini, and grapes. It’s important not to feed them foods that inhibit calcium absorbtion, like spinach.  The worms are a delightful variety of superworms and millworms.  We used to get them crickets but they never caught them all in their tank and we got to listen to the chee-deep all night long. Sometimes for treats we give the beardies cockroaches. They sound like they’re chomping on Lay’s potato chips. Naaaassstaaaay.

The snake gets a medium live rat (yes, LIVE) every week, or a large live rat (yes, LIVE) every two weeks. We (and by “we” I mean “Calvin”) take the log out of the bottom of the tank to give Kali a large open space, make sure she is in position (on the bottom instead of up on one of the platforms – and once she hears the door slide open and the paper bag containing the rat crinkle, she usually high-tails it to the bottom), and drop the live rat into the bottom on the habitat. We can rarely count to three before Kali strikes, wraps herself rapidly around the helpless victim (ball pythons are constrictors), and suffocates it. Then she positions herself and the rat so that she can swallow it head-first. The tip of the tail usually disappears inside her mouth five to ten minutes later, depending on the size of the rat. It’s very Discovery Channel.

Feeding her a live rat is actually the healtiest thing for her, as it mimics how she would hunt in the wild, and the live food has the best nutritional value for her. I don’t like the process of feeding her, but I have no moral issues with it.


Bearded dragons are very docile, normally, and are very easy to handle. They just like to feel secure so it’s best to hold them close to the body and let them cling onto your clothes. Cheeto and Lucy are very good at riding around up near my shoulder, and I cup my hand over their bodies to make them feel safe. They’ll tongue-taste people, surfaces, and fabrics to check them out – it’s just a little lick with their sticky little tongues. Quite often I’ll hold one of them in my lap while watching TV. We just have to keep an eye out, because sometimes they’ll suddenly explode into motion and stomp across me, the couch, or whatever is nearby to go exploring. They’re pretty fearless little critters, but if something scares or upsets them they’ll “beard”, which is a puffing out of the loose skin on their necks under their chin, which can darken to an absolute black if they’re pissed enough. If they’re really upset they can hiss, as well. We’ve rarely seen either Cheeto or Lucy exibit either behavior with relation to us. They’ll do it toward each other, though, modified with head bobbing and color changes to indicate interest in mating with one another.  We usually keep them separated during breeding months since Cheeto is a horny little bastard.  It’s a VERY complicated thing to raise beardie babies from eggs, so we’re probably going to avoid that altogether.

The handling of snakes is dependant on how that snake was raised. It’s a good idea to get a snake used to being handled when it’s young and small. When we first got Kali she was barely 18 inches long and about as thick around as my pinky finger. Now she’s approaching five feet long and thicker than my wrist. We handled her almost constantly for the first few months of her life, and now she’s very used to being handled. We always approach her to pick her up when she’s balled up (hence the name of the breed) and still or dozing. We speak softly to her and gently run our fingers down her body, then slip a hand under her and lift her up. We’ll then let her arrange herself over our neck, along our body, or around our arms. She likes to move around and explore (up under my hair, down into Marie’s shirt…), and “taste” her environment with her tongue. The reason we don’t approach her for handling when she’s awake and very active is because this usually indicates that she’s hungry and ready to eat. She’s only struck at one of us twice, mistaking our incoming hand as food. She didn’t make contact either time.

So! That’s the brief tutorial on how to care for Bearded Dragons and Ball Pythons. It’s a fun and complicated hobby; I really enjoy it.  Here’s some more good information if you’re interested:

Beautiful Dragons
Bearded Dragon Care
Ball Python Guide
The Reptile Rooms
Reptile Nutrition 

  1. josh says:

    I have a ball python and it has redesh brown spots on his belly is that bad

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