Keeping Reptiles and Amphibians as Pets: Questions and Concerns

Keeping Reptiles and Amphibians as Pets: Questions and Concerns

Contributed by Marielle Grenade-Willis

The keeping of exotic animals as pets, especially that of reptiles and amphibians, has become an increasingly contentious issue in terms of conservation and animal welfare. According to new study,  Pasmans et al Vet Rec 2017 Exotics (1), “the number of exotic pets (here defined broadly as all animals kept as companion animals excluding dogs, cats, and horses) now makes up between 34 per cent to 64 per cent of the pet population”. In the publication, the authors discuss the impacts of exotic pet ownership on ecological biodiversity, animal welfare, and epidemiology. In assessing the degree of concern related to animal health, the authors define “welfare” in terms of the five freedoms as outlined by the Farm Animal Welfare Council:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
  2. Freedom from discomfort
  3. Freedom from pain, injury, or disease
  4. Freedom to express normal behavior
  5. Freedom from fear and distress

They then proceed to state that although the reptile and amphibian nutrition/husbandry industry is a multi-billion dollar business, that most owners of these species are not adept at meeting their pets’ needs. “Any veterinarian with a substantial reptile keeper clientele will probably confirm that husbandry and nutrition related problems are common.” Many exotic pet owners rely on unsubstantiated information from the internet to care for their animals rather than the peer-reviewed science cultivated at herpetological societies. Not only are reptiles and amphibians not receiving the adequate nutritional care that they need to thrive, but they are also subject to inbreeding issues from the manipulation of certain “morphological variants” in reproduction along with unenriched confinement in captivity.

The process of obtaining exotic reptiles and amphibians for pet ownership adds another layer of concern to this issue as the commercial chain is often nebulously unregulated. Wild reptiles and amphibians “often are transported in bulk and may endure crowding and stress before and during transit; conditions which are also conducive to the transmission of infectious diseases and trauma.”  To add fuel to the fire, many of the species captured from the wild, already face some form of extinction threat. This is then masked by fraudulent labels of “captive-bred or farm-bred” to skirt repercussions by regulating authorities such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Imported species can also lead to greater issues related to invasive species management and pathogen contamination.

In proposing actionable steps to help alleviate issues pertaining to exotic reptiles and amphibians, the authors promote the trade in captive-bred animals as a means of “closing legal loopholes that allow wild animals to be passed off as captive-bred or that do not take the species’ legal status in the country of origin into account.” Like the supposed claim that trophy hunting supports conservation, Friends of Animals discounts this argument as a means to close the gap as many times the black market is still operating. Just because a person can purchase a synthetic diamond that looks like a real diamond, does not mean that people are going to purchase it in lieu of the real thing. “Amphibians and reptiles have pronounced abilities to learn, show (socially) complex and (for reptiles) even playing behavior and the potential of emotional experience.” How can we promote these amazing animals’ capabilities without diminishing their quality of life in the wild?