Pets: It's worth shelling out for a reptile

THEY'RE scaly, cold-blooded and not generally seen as cuddly – but it seems that snakes, lizards and tortoises have become man's new best friend, overtaking dogs in the pet popularity stakes.

Research by the Federation of British Herpetologists shows that almost eight million reptiles are now being kept as pets in Britain – compared to an estimated pet dog population of 6.5 million.

It's a trend that Kevin Eatwell, a specialist in reptiles at Edinburgh University's Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, has noticed in recent years. He says: "More and more people are keeping reptiles as family pets, not just obscure objects.

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"The perception of reptiles is changing. Species that are commonly sold now are very amenable and people love them very much, bonding with them just like they would a dog, and just like any other family pet, people care how well they look after them."

Once you understand how to care for your reptile they can be very low maintenance. Less time consuming than many pets and cheap to buy and look after, they do actually fit far better into modern lifestyles than dogs. However, unlike more traditional pets, some serious preparation is needed before taking the plunge and buying a lizard, snake or tortoise.

Reptiles are extremely sensitive to temperature and most need carefully controlled humidity and specialist tanks. Researching the environment for your reptile is key to having a happy, friendly pet.

If a reptile is cared for without proper advice, serious consequences can occur. Slight variations in temperature can seriously affect reptiles. If they get too hot they can overheat or suffer burns, and if they get cold they will refuse to feed.

Diets must also be carefully monitored – if a reptile is eating the wrong food or is underexposed to UV light, it can develop metabolic bone disease, causing its bones to become soft.

For first-time reptile-buyers, choosing a cold-blooded companion can be a quite complicated process. Sticking to well-known, small and friendly species will make the process much easier. If it is a lizard you are after, Kevin recommends the bearded dragon. This has proved a popular species for keeping as a pet due to its sociable and interactive nature. Bearded dragons are basking lizards which means they lie in the sun to warm themselves, and are therefore less temperature dependent. They also live for a manageable 15 years, on a par with a more traditional family pet.

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While a python might seem like the glamorous option, they can quickly outgrow their tanks. The more humble corn snake, is a much lower maintenance pet. They are comfortable with being handled and only need to be fed once a week.

Making a mistake when choosing a tortoise can leave you with a big problem on your hands. Living for up to 150 years, some tortoises grow from a 100g hatchling to a weight of 50kg, a serious commitment for a first-time owner.

Mediterranean turtles are much smaller and easier to care for. However, they still live for more than 100 years, so make sure the kids are fully on board!

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