I am often asked if I believe that reptiles and amphibians make good pets. My answer, often delivered with my tongue firmly in cheek is, “No. I think they make great pets.” And that is the truth. However, I am always quick to point out that while keeping and breeding herps is extremely rewarding, it is, without a doubt, a much different experience than raising a dog, cat or any other “mainstream” pet.
These differences, of course, run the gamut from physical to logistical, but perhaps the most unique aspect to keeping herps as pets is the provision of live food items typically required. Most pets can be fed from the cupboard, or their dinner may come from a can or a bag. But most popular pet herps require long-term access to live insects, fish and/or rodents.
Retailers that sell reptiles and amphibians should stock appropriate live food items as part of their inventory. Most pet shops offer mealworms and crickets at a nominal price, but the available options run the gamut. Just as no one would stock a single dog food formula for all dog customers, it would be equally unsatisfactory to offer only one or two live feeder options to your cold-blooded clientele.
At our shops, we make every effort to offer a large selection of live feeders to keep up with the wants and needs of today’s evolving herper. As the herp-keeping community continues to get a better picture of which foods are best for their pets, we try to maintain a similarly evolving stock. Granted, we are a specialty store, and may have a considerably larger herper customer base than most. Nonetheless, the principles remain the same across the line. At the end of the day, it will be up to each individual retailer to decide which live feeders are in demand and which can be effectively maintained and sold.
Perhaps the most well-known and often consumed prey insect in the country is the cricket. These insects, when properly cared for and supplemented, make an ideal staple for many species of insectivorous herps.
Crickets of varying sizes should be stocked at all times to ensure consistent availability not only for customers, but also for the animals being held for sale. Cricket care is fairly straightforward, requiring that the insects be given ample standing room, adequate ventilation and a constant supply of high-quality food and water. There are a tremendous number of excellent cricket foods, water crystals (to prevent drowning) and complete diets that will prevent losses and keep feeder crickets healthy and well gut-loaded until sale.
Second only to the cricket are mealworms of all sizes and varieties. These “worms” are actually the larvae of tropical and sub-tropical beetles. While the mature beetles themselves are an additional and healthy meal offering, the larvae rarely achieve their mature state unless additional preparations are taken. Mealworms of any size should be offered only to larger herps. Very young animals may have difficulty digesting the chitin-laden shell of the worm.
Mealworms of the Tenibro genus can be stored for weeks or even months in a state of brumation in a standard household refrigerator, making them an ideal prey item to stock. Zoophobus species, also known as superworms or kingworms, must remain at room temperature or warmer at all life stages. A simple tub filled with oats and fresh produce for food and water is all that will be needed to house and sell these nutritious feeders. Their larger size and active behavior makes them highly desired by many insect-eaters, including bearded dragons and box turtles.
Waxworms are actually the larval stage of the wax moth, a small, temperate species that inhabits the active and abandoned hives of bees. These worms are small, plump and light in color. They are a soft-bodied feeder, making them easily digestible to herps of all types and sizes.
Like mealworms, waxworms can be stored in a cup full of light, absorbent bedding in the refrigerator. Waxworms are generally considered a treat. as opposed to a staple prey item. They are high in protein and fat, which makes them ideal as an occasional supplement or for growing, ill or egg-producing herps but a little rich for everyday offerings.
Full-service pet stores often sell mice and rats as pets that are similar to those sold as feeders. The moral and ethical connotations of selling live rodents as feed is far beyond the scope of this column, but I must point out that in some situations, extra care must be taken to avoid inadvertently offending anyone involved.
That said, retailers should stock mice ranging in size from newborn (pinky) to adult, in order to meet customers’ varying needs. Mice and rats, which should be made similarly available in a range of sizes, make up the staple diet for nearly all snakes and many large lizards and should not be overlooked as a plausible source of additional sales.
It is important for retailers and customers to understand that a diet made up solely of crickets and mealworms is simply not diverse enough to sustain vigorous herps and promote long lives. To replicate the wide array of vitamins and minerals that herps are exposed to in the wild, pet owners can use specialized supplements.
These products are typically sold in powder form and are dusted onto feeder crickets and worms directly prior to being offered to the herp. The added calcium, as well as the reptile-specific multi-vitamins in these products, help reptiles and amphibians to grow fast and strong without the risk of any dietary deficiencies.
Jonathan Rheins is an avid herpeteculturist whose interest in all things reptilian began at an early age. He is a manager at LLLReptile & Supply Co. in Escondido, Calif. and, when not fulfilling that position, spends his time working with and writing about a wide variety of exotic reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates.