All you need to know about owning Reptiles as family pets


Reptile expert, Pete Hawkins, discusses reptiles as family pets and why he believes they make great family pets. He also suggests the best reptiles for children.

When you think of a children and pets you generally think of a fluffy puppy or little kitten. I think it’s fair to say that’s what most of society would consider normal.

But in my household, along with the circle of friends and colleagues I associate with, it’s reptiles and amphibians who take the lead role under that ‘Pet’ banner. Our children are very much involved in the overall care and well-being of our animals.

What ultimately is my passion and has been for well over 30 years now. One my wife married into 16 years ago, who now loves the hobby too. This means, of course, my children were also born into a house with reptiles around them and have very much been involved.

My eldest from a previous partner was very young when I separated with her mother. She has not been around my Reptiles.

She appreciates, and supports me when it comes to my writing, and all things reptiles. But she certainly doesn’t share the passion. It’s her choice, I’d never force my passions onto my children.

However, my youngest has always shown a keen interest. More so over the past 5/10 years where she is understanding more, asking more questions, and being generally inquisitive, as we encourage our children to be.

She even talks about our pets at school. Which in-turn has prompted her to take the likes of snake skin (Shed) into “Show and Tell” topics. She gave a discussion on Chameleons in front of her class.

This has also bought other children asking her for information about reptiles. Wanting to come over and see them. Even some of the parents approaching us as their child is asking about keeping a reptile. Oh, how proud I am!

But at the end of it all, it’s the adults/parents who will make the purchase and follow up on research. At least, that IS what I try and get them to do.

Getting the right environment for your exotic

It doesn’t always go as planned of course. I know many who made a purchase, a Bearded Dragon for example, buying a “Complete Set-up” from a pet shop, believing that is that. All sorted.

But as many experienced Reptile keepers will tell you, in their opinion, often, these large chain stores just don’t have the knowledge and experience regarding all the animals and needed equipment. So little information of setting up, care, etc, is given.

This in turn means you may end up with problems down the line with common issues being, “my reptile isn’t eating”, “my reptile is sick”.

Of course, not all shops are like this. I find a reptile specialist shop is the best way to go regarding the information and knowledge on your chosen species provided to you, as well as any aftercare you need.

In addition to this, there are a number of useful species specific articles which talk you through everything you need for your exotic. ExoticDirect has some great ones such as our Bearded Dragon Set Up Guide.

Encouraging children’s involvement

You could seek to encourage your children from the get go and safely involve them in getting their pet’s home set up. This is a great opportunity to explore the importance of your pets home to them.

You can explain why your reptile’s home is important to them and what it offers them in terms of safety, security and enrichment.

Children don’t always want to get involved in the building process. If they do though that’s great.

Once built and set-up, this is where children tend to gain more interest. Seeing the reptile in their newly created home/territory, exploring, even simply sleeping can captivate a child’s interest.

In my experience, children’s interest is piqued further when the reptile is a feeder bug eater. They want to know what the feeder bugs are, what the feeder bugs eat and where they come from.

So, it’s a good idea to have such info researched. ExoticDirect has a number of articles on reptile guides such as our Bearded Dragon Diet guide.

I also find children are almost never scared of the feeder bugs, a spider, sure, but Locusts, Crickets, Morio worms, Silkworms, Mealworms, Roaches for example…almost treated like little pets themselves – and rightly so.

I always try and explain that a good quality well looked after, well fed and hydrated feeder bug is the best meal you could provide our reptiles/amphibians.

Like with us humans and the saying “you are what you eat”, this runs so true. Healthy bugs = healthier animals.

There are many aspects of keeping reptiles/amphibians which won’t grab the interest of young children as much. I’ve tried many times to explain the needs of UVB, and heat to children, but it’s too much of a complex subject to simplify unfortunately.

But they tend to understand that without these 2 vital items, they WILL die. A simple and harsh yet effective summary.

Encouraging your children’s involvement in setting up your pet’s home is a great way to get them involved.

Enclosure and hand-hygiene

Cleaning, and overall cleanliness can also be an issue for yourself and any kept reptile/amphibian.

Here, and more so over the past 5/10 of years, I’ll recommend a Bio-Active or naturalistic set-up. Surprisingly enough, the children grasp this concept far easier I find.

I’ll say, “when a wild animal has a poop on the floor, a fox for example, what happens to it while it’s the floor?”. they will mostly reply with, “flies and worms eat it”, which is correct.

Essentially, it’s what we want to happen in a Bio-Active set-up. Just, without the flies.

Instead, replace the flies in the enclosure with woodlice, earthworms, mealworms, springtails, what are commonly called cleaner bugs which are readily available at most Reptile specific shops.

The cleaner bugs eat the poop in the enclosure which keeps it all clean. They themselves will also poop, thus adding vital nutrition back into the substrate/soil, and the cycle starts over again.

Personal hygiene is also vital for your own health, minimising the spread of potential illness to yourself, and any kept animals you have, and something that is great to install into the mindset of children as early as possible.


It is common knowledge reptiles such as the Bearded Dragon can carry the Salmonella bacteria. But hand hygiene involving a wash with antibacterial soap before and after handling will keep things in check.

I also recommend the use of an antibacterial hand gel afterwards, which is something we should all be familiar with now, following the times of Covid.

Ensure you and your children are thoroughly washing your hands after handling your reptile.

Suitable reptiles and amphibians for children

One thing you’ll want to ensure, is that your child is comfortable handling their pet.

When you think children and any animal, you think being able to handle that animal is an essential, and I’d have to agree.

This probably IS the best route to take for the interest to stay maintained and not fizzle out after a few weeks leaving ALL care to the parent/adult.

Now there are a few Reptile/amphibian species I’d recommend, so I shall summarise these below. I’ll explain my reasoning behind them, and any pros/cons.

With all the animals mentioned below, I suggest you call up your local Reptile Rescue Centre to see if they have any wanting a new home before you make any purchase.

With these being popular species, often the subject for this article is the main reason for the animals being in these rescue facilities. People unable to provide the care needed due to the child the animal was purchased for losing interest.

Bearded Dragons

Originating from Central Australia, these are probably the hobby’s most popular reptile, certainly over the past decade or so.

For a child, I’d recommend getting a Juvenile, or even adult Dragon from the start.

Babies, up until around 8 months old or so are quite skittish, and handling could be problematic.

More so safety for the dragon. I’ve known baby bearded dragons to jump out of a child’s hands, and land on a wooden floor, breaking a couple of legs in the process.

This in turn leads to the obvious hefty Vet bill, and very upset children.

A Juvenile or adult of the species tend to have a far calmer demeanour. They tolerate handling, and that all important “stroking/petting” very well. They are certainly easier to catch if they are startled and make a run for it.

A Bearded Dragon, with a good, varied feeder bug diet, and daily greens, along with that important heat and UVB can live a good healthy life for an average of 10 years. Many will live much longer.

Check my Facebook group for FULL info on this species: Bearded Dragon Network

Royal Pythons and Corn Snakes

Two of my favourite reptile species. Again, I’d also recommend getting one that has grown a little. A couple of feet long at least. Same reasoning here too. They handle far easier.

Royal Pythons, found across sixteen countries within the African continent, and Corn snakes, native to North America, are both very docile snake species by nature.

In my experiences, it takes a lot to get one to even show any “I’m annoyed” traits. So, they make an ideal first Reptile with any children involved.

The only real common potential issue is the feeding of the thawed frozen Rats/Mice/Chicks.

It’s at your own discretion as to whether you make your child aware of snake’s diets. It’s advisable to not let children feed snakes directly however.

In my opinion, once children understand they are already dead and they are not alive, it becomes less of an issue.

Feeding an appropriately sized Rat/Mouse/Chick will also limit, or increase, the amount of feeding needed.

Generally, a two-to-three-foot snake can feed once a month with good sized prey. Be sensible here, ask the Reptile shop or Rescue Centre where you got the snake for their feeding regime.

Under the correct care, these snakes are literally lifelong pets. With them reaching ages of twenty plus years.

You can get all the info over in my Facebook group, Snake Network


Snakes can, and will bite, but for the above-mentioned species it would literally be a very last resort.

You will find babies and young snakes of the above species (under 2ft in length) are naturally very cautious and will often lunge towards any hand coming within range of them.

Now biting, and lunging are vastly different. The lunge is just a warning, and would rarely involve any bite at all. It generally has the desired effect of your hand rapidly removing itself from the vicinity of the Snake, so, job done by the Snake.

Of course, this could scare a child so as mentioned previously, it’s at your discretion as to whether you involve a child in the feeding process. We wouldn’t recommend letting children feed snakes directly however.

A more mature Snake would rarely do this – but still, if you have handled their food source, or even other food, that smell could trigger a feeding response.

Washing your hands with a good antibacterial soap before and after handling will stop this.

If you have any further concerns, we’d advise consulting with a vet.

Leopard Gecko

Leopard Geckos are a beautiful crepuscular ground-dwelling insect eating lizard. Naturally found in the rocky arid regions of Asia.

Often very shy and reserved but will mostly tolerate gentle handling without issues.

The only real issue is that these lizards tend to come out more at dawn and dusk. So, this could be a viewing problem for children.

They can often be coaxed out of hiding with food during the day, but it’s not their natural behaviour to do so, therefore I do not encourage that on a regular basis. It’s in early evening/night that they come out in search for food and when any feeding should take place.

With this in mind, you can incorporate time with your Gecko into your children’s schedule such as allowing time before school and before bedtime, as to not disrupt your pet whilst they’re asleep.

You can get all the care info over in my Facebook group. Gecko Network

Pac-man Frog (Horned Frog)

Found throughout South America, this could be an odd choice here for many, but a valid choice.

Yes, we could well have picked a few dart frogs, milk frogs, etc, but I feel the care of these is a little more specialised and delicate.

With a Pac-man frog (named due to their large Pac-man like mouth), you don’t need a huge enclosure. I’d say a 45x45x30cm or similar as ideal, and their care and cleaning is very simple and child friendly.

But there are a few potential issues that could have a child lose interest.

One being they hide a lot. It’s their natural behaviour though unfortunately. It’s how they hunt. They are opportunistic hunters.

They will bury down into the substrate with just their eyes sticking out (like horns, hence the name). Then wait for prey to walk within range, and strike! Which is great to watch as it happens so fast.

But will they be out enough for the child to see? possibly not.

Will the child be able to handle the Pac-man frog? Yes, but the experience certainly wouldn’t be much. It would literally be on cleaning of the enclosure. Ideally, with latex gloves on too, as the oils in our skin could potentially harm delicate Amphibian skin.

The reason it’s in my list though is its ease of care.

Please be aware, ExoticDirect does not insure amphibians.

The ugly and hard side of things


Handling of ANY of the mentioned animals should be done gently, slowly, and with great care.

  • Never chase the reptile – If the Reptile is trying to get away from your hand, leave them alone and try another day. Picking the reptile up when it has been trying to get away will only cause huge stress, and potentially have it start being defensive.
  • Move slowly – slower movements will be less scary for the reptile.
  • Always pick the reptile up from its underside and support with both hand if the reptile is large enough, never approach from above. Naturally, predators come from above, and this is something they instinctively know, this could cause defensive behaviour.
  • Sit down – Have you children sat down for handling. Any accidental drop or jumping from a reptile could cause injury if at standing height, so sitting on the floor or sofa minimises this risk.
  • Be gentle – don’t try and cuddle your reptile. They do not understand this, and it could cause injury. Or induce defensive behaviour. Slow gentle movements are all that is needed.
  • Don’t have them out to long – 30mins a day would be more than enough. Remember, all there needed heat, UVB, and needed environmental factors are within their enclosure. This is where they feel safest.
  • If the reptile starts to speed up its movements and trying to get away, it’s probably feeling stressed, so put it back in the enclosure. Whether this is after 30 seconds, or 30mins, it’s time for the reptile to go back in its enclosure so it feels safe again.

Be mindful

It’s not always plain sailing with Reptile/Amphibian keeping. Issues do and probably will happen.

These are wild animals, so aggression and defensive displays are something that can happen, should the animal feel startled or threatened. Like us, all Reptile and Amphibians are different, and will act differently.

So, it’s important a child understands this and understands why it’s doing such.

In addition to this, it’s important to teach children to behave correctly around pets, reminding them that their actions have consequences and that they need to ensure they remain calm and considerate around their pets.

Another aspect to remember when you and your children are owning pets is the unfortunate, but inevitable “loss” when your reptile/amphibian gets sick or passes away.

You can’t expect an animal who lives (depending on species) ten to thirty years not to have health related issues where treatment is needed via a Reptile Vet at some point in their life.

It happens. But, under optimal care and conditions, you will be doing your best to minimise such things.

With any ‘loss’, it’s all part of an unfortunate learning curve. All animal keepers have been there and honestly, it’s never easy regardless of any children being involved.

The old story of someone’s fish dying, and the partner/parent gets another that looks the same, so they don’t notice, this is just avoiding an issue.

As good a notion as it is, the overall effect is negative in my opinion. Loss is part of life and needs to be dealt with.

There are a number of children’s books available which cover this loss in a softened way, so it might be worth utilising these to support children if you suspect you may lose your reptile soon.


So, the choices are plenty. There are other options, I’ve just picked a few which I’d consider most child friendly be it in the aspect of handling, care, or both, but also taking a child’s point of view for other interaction.

But importantly, the Parents/Adults point of view too. As if their child does lose interest, it will far to that adult/parent to resume the optimal care of that animal.

So, with this at the front of your mind, whichever option you choose, research must be done regardless.

The cost of any initial setup is often very costly, and available space for an enclosure can also influence the choice of animal here. It’s also worth bearing in mind the ongoing costs as a lot of reptiles have specific lighting and heating requirements.

But when it comes to research, depending on the age of the child, this will inevitably be done by the parent(s) and then passed on to the child in a way that makes the learning process fun and importantly retainable via repetition and continued involvement and interaction. This can of course be very time consuming.

At the end of the day, I would fully support any child wanting to get involved with these wonderful species. Encourage and support as needed. After all, these young Children are the literally the future and survival of many of these species.

Pete Hawkins
19 Aug 2022

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