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A heated discussion over how humans treat their reptilian companions has flared up in a series of articles published this week in the journal Veterinary Record.
As reptiles and amphibians are becoming increasingly popular pets, animal experts are calling for renewed attention to the trade to ensure we’re not hurting our slithery and scaly friends. And the issue is more complicated than you’d think at first.
A team of authors led by veterinarians from Ghent University in Belgium has penned a review of the most major concerns surrounding the growing trendiness of exotic pets, especially reptiles and amphibians.
“The keeping of exotic pets is currently under debate and governments of several countries are increasingly exploring the regulation, or even the banning, of exotic pet keeping,” the team writes.
“Major concerns are issues of public health and safety, animal welfare and biodiversity conservation.”
While lizards and geckos can be easier to look after than Rocky the dog who needs a daily walk and lots of socialisation, these animals can still suffer from improper care and nutrition.
On top of that, increasing popularity means spikes in illegal trade too, possibly placing endangered exotic species at risk.
Some researchers are also concerned about the public health risk our love for reptiles might pose, since interaction with these animals could lead to us catching unexpected diseases.
But after going through all the pros and cons, the authors of the review conclude they don’t see a reason for selective restriction of these particular types of pets, as long as we make sure their keepers are properly educated to keep the critters happy and in good health.
The researchers note that even keeping less interactive animals like fish and reptiles still provides health benefits to the pet owners, plus exposure to reptile pets can promote children’s interest in these animals.
In an accompanying editorial, ethologist Gordon Burghardt from the University of Tennessee praises the review for its “balanced treatment of controversial issues”.
He emphasises that we need to make sure reptiles and amphibians get not just appropriate housing, but also socialisation options, since some of the species are actually more social than we think.
“In context, these problems are not worse than with other pet animals,” Burghardt writes.
But another team led by biologist and reptile welfare advocate Clifford Warwick responds to the review with criticism, arguing that captive reptile health and welfare is actually “unsustainable”.
“We would argue ethical questions arise around the exotic pet business, not least given the multifaceted global harm involved,” the team writes in the viewpoint article.
The team stresses that not only is reptile and amphibian abuse more common than you’d think, but that we understand so little about their biological needs, we can’t even properly keep them at zoos, let alone private homes.
“Compared to dogs, which achieve natural longevity in the domestic environment, 75 percent of reptiles die during their first year in the home,” they write.
In contrast to the review, this team argues that the best way we can deal with the growing problem of reptilian trade is to let governments impose both bans and so-called ‘positive lists’ – to make sure that we only keep exotic species whose welfare we can ensure according to scientific evidence.
The review was published in Veterinary Record, with corresponding responses here and here.