Reptiles are fascinating creatures, but they don't all make great pets for beginners, especially kids. In order to pick the right reptile for your budding junior herpetologist, use these questions as a guide.
How big is this reptile going to get?
Almost all reptiles start out fairly tiny, but they can grow to be quite large over time. For example, an adorable little Chinese water dragon hatchling will reach 2-3 feet in length, its adult size, within a year. While you can fit a baby into a 10-gallon tank, you'll need at least a 3'x3'x4' enclosure for the adult. Before you buy, find out how big the reptile is likely to get, how fast that's going to happen, and what size space needs to be given over to its habitat. That will keep you from having to buy starter housing just to turn around and buy a bigger space a few months later.
How long is this reptile going to live?
Reptiles can be some of the longest-lived pets there are. For example, ball pythons, which are popular as pets because they're fairly docile, can easily live 20-30 years in captivity. If you buy one for your ten-year-old, there's a very real possibility that your child may leave home and go off to college during the snake's lifetime—which means that you may have to care for the reptile yourself for a while (unless the dorm he or she is in is very liberal about pets). If you aren't keen on taking over its care for a while in the future, consider picking something with a considerably shorter lifespan. A pygmy chameleon, by comparison, only lives about 5 years.
How much handling can this reptile take?
Some reptiles are easier to handle than others, especially for young hands. Some reptiles actually thrive with contact, while others are somewhat stand-offish and prefer not to be touched very much. You need to try to match up the reptile with your child's general personality. If your child is likely to want to mostly watch the reptile do its own thing, pick something that does well without handling. Turtles, for example, don't particularly like to be handled and don't need that much attention to thrive. On the other hand, many people report that their ball pythons like to "cuddle" by curling up with them under a blanket or in a shirt pocket.
Ultimately, you have to try to match the reptile with the needs of your family—both now and in the foreseeable future. As you investigate various reptiles for sale, make sure that you find out about the longevity of each choice, their space demands, and how much handling they can tolerate before you buy.