San Diego Natural History Museum--Your Nature ConnectionSDNHM Field Guide

Fact Sheet on Reptiles as Pets

People in the U.S. own an estimated 7.3 million pet reptiles. This number has increased dramatically since 1986. As an example, in 1986 there were 127,806 green iguanas imported; in 1993 there were 798,405 of this species imported, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Source: See general comments on

Experts estimate that between 50-90% of reptiles die in the first year of captivity on top of the 10-50% that die during importation and shipment.

The reptile pet trade is a multi-BILLION dollar industry, which means economic concerns, not animal welfare or conservation, often drive decision making.

Many people buy reptiles without realizing how much money and time must be invested in keeping their pet healthy and in a suitable environment. Some reptiles have specific food preferences that are very difficult to provide. Consequently many reptiles do poorly or die in captivity.

Salmonella is frequently associated with reptiles and other health risks are possible with handling. This means special precautions such as sterilizing gloves and cleaning areas are necessary for the protection of the pet owners.

Of all animals kept in captivity, reptiles are the ones that most often do not reach their natural life span, because so many of their requirements for natural food, environmental conditions, etc. are difficult to meet. (Most other pets have improved conditions in feeding, protection from predators, etc., and can in general expect to live longer than in the wild.)

Organizations that work with rescuing unwanted reptile pets attest to the very large numbers of reptiles that are abandoned when they are no longer wanted by their owners. These reptiles are often sick or diseased as well. Some reptiles are very long-lived and may outlive their owners. These reptiles are often abandoned to die in the wild or destroyed because they cannot be donated to breeding programs, and the owner’s heirs are not prepared to take on the responsibility for their care.

Reptiles in the wild are becoming more and more threatened due to loss or fragmentation of habitat. Ex: The flat-tailed horned lizard has lost huge chunks of its native habitat in Arizona and California due to off-road vehicle, spreading suburbs, increased agriculture, military activities, etc. Once populations are fragmented by such disruptions they are isolated from one another and declining populations result, which can eventually lead to extinction. Capturing reptiles as pets only adds to the burden these animals face for survival.

Collecting wild reptiles for pets results in widespread destruction of habitat, for both reptiles and other animals and plants. For example, some collectors have been known to spray gasoline into cracks in rocks to drive out cryptic species, as well as overturning rocks and destroying nests and dens. (Mellink, Eric. 1995. "The Potential Effect of Commercialization of Reptiles from Mexico's Baja California Peninsula and its Associated Islands." Herpetological Natural History 3(1):95-99.)

Releasing reptiles may be damaging to the health and well-being of wild populations. Reptiles that are obtained from dealers are often exposed to a wide range of pathogens that may run rampant in the native populations after release. Ex: An outbreak of respiratory distress syndrome in 1987-90 left only 30 surviving desert tortoises out of approximately 100 individuals at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area, an epidemic that may have been caused by well-meaning pet owners releasing their pet tortoises. (From "Recommendations for Care of Amphibians and Reptiles in Academic Institutions" by F. Harvey Pough, National Academy Press, 1992 at

Introducing individuals from a distant locale can and often does negatively impact the local populations. Exotic species may become established that outcompete native ones for habitat, food, and other requirements. As of 1992 there were over 20 exotic species of reptiles and amphibians established in the U.S. (From "Recommendations for Care of Amphibians and Reptiles in Academic Institutions" by F. Harvey Pough, National Academy Press, 1992 at

See Reptiles, Captivity, and Trade Issues
for more on the SDNHM policy regarding this subject.