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REPTILE ACCLIMATION By Jonathan Rheins
To an experienced reptile keeper, the term acclimation would likely be associated with the (sometimes) lengthy and rigorous process of aiding in the adjustment of a wild-caught animal to a captive lifestyle. And while this is sometimes the case, many beginning hobbyists may not realize that even captive bred herps of all types and sizes will require a acclimation period when first obtained.
While the length and involvement of this process may vary greatly from animal to animal, it is vital that newcomers to the hobby realize that it does in fact take time for any new reptile to settle into a new way of life. Far too often, first time reptile owners assume that their new pet is sick or damaged, when in reality, it just requires a little more time to adjust.
Reptiles, like any living organism, have a special relationship with their environment. Even though this relationship may be very subtle, reptiles are no doubt aware of their surroundings, and furthermore, aware of when they change. Whether you have just obtained a rare African toad, or a baby corn snake, many of the same principles apply when it comes to proper acclimation.
Luckily, many reptiles adjust perfectly fine to their new homes with little or no extra involvement by their owners. However, it is always a good idea to start off with any new pet on the right foot, and in this article you will be presented with a few helpful tips for helping your reptiles adjust to their new homes, and consequently, insuring that they live long, healthy lives.
This applies mainly to transporting a reptile from the place of purchase to your residence. Traveling with reptiles for vacation, or when moving cross country, will call for drastically different considerations to be taken, and that type of information is beyond the scope of this forum.
Most retailers and show vendors will carefully package your purchased reptiles for you at the time of sale. They may use deli cups, paper bags, boxes, or cloth snake bags to package the animals. They should ask you how long of a journey you have, and then based on type of animals and current weather conditions, will pack it accordingly.
Sellers take care in packing your animals for a reason. It ensures that when you get home your reptile is in the same perfect shape as it was when you left the point of sale. Resist the urge to carry your new pets home. They are already nervous about being removed from their current homes, and will likely be rather overwhelmed by the car ride and subsequent activities.
If possible, have your reptile enclosure set up with all heating and lighting systems running prior to obtaining your reptile. This way you can double check that all temperature and humidity levels are in a healthy range. If you purchase your enclosure and animal at the same time, then find a warm room to store the still packaged animals until you have completed the assembly of the set-up.
Allowing a newly obtained reptile to cruise around the room or sit on your shoulder during this process may be quite frightening to them.
It can be very difficult to resist the temptation to handle and interact with a new pet. However, the first few days that a reptile spends in its new home are very important to the overall acclimation process. Handling can be especially stressful for very young animals, but even older ones will likely want to be left alone and given ample time to adjust prior to initiating a pet-owner bond.
With most reptiles, regular feeding and normal daily behavior are good indicators of proper adjustment. Lizards, frogs, and turtles will usually take no more than a few days to exhibit these properties, and at that point you can slowly begin working with them in a hands on manner. If you encounter a sudden change in activity patterns or lack of appetite, back off a bit and give the animals a few more days to relax.
Snakes typically eat only once a week, so if you purchase a new snake, be prepared to leave it alone for up to 7 days. While this may seem like a long time to go without handing a new snake, you must remember that these animals usually live over 20 years, so a few days without handling does not amount to much in the grand scheme of your time owning the animal.
As mentioned above, animals with an appetite are typically animals that feel happy and secure in their surroundings. But most reptiles will take at least a few days to settle in prior to showing any signs of hunger. Put simply, there are no reptiles that cannot go 24 hours without food. So resist the urge to dump a handful of crickets in with your brand new gecko.
If you offer food to an animal that is not ready to eat, it will likely become agitated by the presence of the food items (in the case of live prey), or simply ignore non-living foods. It is good rule of thumb to wait 24 hours, and then begin offering food in small quantities, paying close attention to the animals interest in said foods.
While many reptiles can and do go for long periods of time without food, this is not the case with water. Make sure that all newly acquired reptiles have access to drinking water, or are misted regularly depending on the nature of the animals you have.
Proper hydration is key to the health of any animal, and is especially prudent when dealing with reptiles. It is not uncommon for a startled or stressed reptile to defecate or urinate frequently, and this can greatly deplete the stores of water within their bodies.
By getting your animals hydrated quickly, you can be certain that the entire acclimation process will go smoother and quicker than if these efforts were not made.
While some common reptile pets are personable and outgoing, an equally large number are naturally shy and reclusive. These animals should be given ample hiding spots within the enclosure to ensure that they can feel secure and flee prying eyes should they choose to do so.
In some cases, especially with naturally flighty animals like water dragons or arboreal snakes, covering most of the cage with an opaque sheet or towel will aid in the animals sense of security. Placing the entire enclosure temporarily in a quiet, low-traffic part of the home is an equally good idea.
Notes on Shipped Animals
In this age of Internet commerce, it is not uncommon to purchase a reptile online and have it shipped directly to your door. This is certainly a wonderful and convenient way to obtain reptiles that may not be available to you locally, and is in no way discouraged.
Keep in mind that even though the majority of shippers are experienced in carefully packing reptiles for transport, there is still an added element of stress on the animal after being shipped. Depending on the time of year and where you live, your animals may be cold upon arrival, and this is further reason to have a heated set-up assembled and running prior to receiving the reptile itself.
Essentially, acclimating reptiles that have been shipped does not differ drastically from ones that were not shipped, but you should acknowledge the fact that they have been through a lot and should be given as much time and attention as possible to assure their proper adjustment.
As reptiles continue to gain popularity as mainstream pets, we are seeing more and more of them purchased on a daily basis. Many people spend lots of time and energy preparing for their new charges by doing research on their captive requirements and by designing appropriate enclosures. However, far too many do not realize the importance of the initial acclimation process, and as a result cause themselves more grief and concern that should be necessary.
Regardless of whether you have some recently imported ball pythons, or a baby bearded dragon that is 20 generations removed from the wild, a little bit of thought and time on your part during the first few days or weeks of ownership will go a long way.
The purpose of this article has not been to frighten or dissuade, but to educate herpers on an aspect of captive husbandry that is often overlooked, or if addressed, not given the consideration it deserves. I believe that many beginning keepers will find that if the guidelines above are acknowledged and followed, few issues will arise, and the overall reptile-owning experience will be a positive one.