Reptiles have been increasing greatly in popularity as pets in the United States over the past several years. According to surveys, in 2007 reptiles were kept as pets in 2% of US households. That has more than doubled to 4.5% of households in 2020.
There are several reasons for this increase, relating both to changing human demographics in the country and changing perceptions of the animals themselves. These two factors are also leading to a demand for better quality veterinary care in reptile species. This presents revenue opportunities for veterinarians as well as opportunity to improve the lives of these unique animals.
The Effect of Demographics
Many aspects of the demographic changes related to increased reptile ownership appear to be based in economics. Compared to decades ago, there has been an increased wealth gap. The cost of a college education has risen far more drastically than starting salaries and the minimum wage has not changed at the federal level in more than 10 years. This has led to far more young people living with parents for a longer time and living in smaller apartments rather than buying a single-family dwelling. In situations like that, ownership of an animal like a dog is more difficult. In turn, this has led to increased ownership of exotic pets overall.
Most new jobs have been in more urban areas, leading to an urbanization of the population during this time as well. Reptiles can be some of the least demanding exotic animals in terms of space requirements, tendency to have destructive behavior and tendency to create noise.
The wealth gap has led to many people working longer hours or working multiple jobs. This leads to less time at home and more sporadic schedules that leave less predictability. Trying to keep a feeding and care schedule for a pet becomes more difficult. Most reptiles are lower maintenance in terms of care and schedules since they will often require feeding with far less frequency and tolerate more time in the enclosure so long as the enclosure meets their need for exercise and enrichment.
While many reptiles tolerate (and may even enjoy) human interaction, they are far less demanding of that attention than small mammals or birds. That helps increase the appeal of reptiles as companion animals as well.
The Changing Perception of Reptiles
Even a superficial examination of reptiles in the media and popular culture shows a shift in perception during recent years. Television shows like The Crocodile Hunter depict them as animals that are important to their ecosystems and animals that are loved by their owners in captivity. There are more reptile cartoon characters in children’s shows, and no longer universally as the “bad guys.” This can be compared to less than a generation ago when the most common presentation of reptiles in film or television was as scary, evil, mindless beings.
There has been increased research into the mental and emotional needs of reptiles that has also led to a better understanding of the complexities of their minds. There are studies that clearly show stereotypic behaviors in reptiles housed improperly and more normal behaviors in captive reptiles housed in naturalistic habitats. Other studies show the more social nature of reptiles that has been previously unknown.
Reptiles have been increasingly trained for desired behaviors and the training has been used to decrease stress. Studies of sentience in reptiles have supported the capability of reptiles to experience anxiety, stress, excitement, fear, pain and suffering. There has also been suggestion of more positive emotions and recognition of human caretakers in a pleasant way. The information from these studies has been increasingly disseminated to people who keep them as pets.
The need for enrichment of captive reptiles has been seen far more in zoos, research facilities and in homes of pet owners. Unique food items, naturalistic habitats, puzzle boxes, human interaction and novel activities have been used in all these settings to improve the quality of life for reptiles. In the pet trade, more products are being marketed for reptile owners that are directed at enrichment and improvement of the human-animal bond. Social media is also connecting reptile owners, and the posts are full of people sharing enrichment ideas, pictures of pet reptiles being cuddled in front of the TV and reptiles wearing sweaters.
What Does This Mean for Veterinary Medicine?
Naturally, reptile owners are becoming more common with the growing popularity of these species as pets. With the increased awareness of complexities of the reptile cognition and emotion, the demand for improved veterinary care has also been increasing in this demographic. More than 75% of pet reptiles are owned by people in Gen X and Gen Y. These generations have also been found to be more likely to humanize their pets and are therefore more likely to seek veterinary care for their animals.
For veterinarians, this means that not only are you more likely to encounter reptiles in private practice, but you are more likely to have owners who place importance on their care—and are more likely to pursue diagnostics and treatments that are recommended for the welfare of their animal.
In current reptile practice, the use of advanced diagnostic tools is not unusual. Ultrasound, CT, digital radiography, blood testing, cytology and histopathology are all commonplace in the current environment. Hospitalization, endoscopy and surgery are also frequently pursued in order to improve the health of the pet reptile. Increasingly, wellness and routine care are being sought after by the newer generation of people who keep reptiles as pets. This trend places veterinarians in a good position to have a positive influence over the health and wellbeing of these animals. It also provides a good potential revenue stream for veterinary clinics. Treatment of these animals can not only be done out of the interest of the individual veterinarian, but can also be a good fiscal decision for a veterinary practice.
For the veterinarian seeing reptiles in practice, there are also ever-increasing opportunities to continue acquiring the education needed to accurately diagnose and treat conditions for reptile patients and increasing numbers of referral locations for cases that require more advanced care. Numerous online educational opportunities exist and many of the larger veterinary conferences now routinely present reptile tracks as a regular part of their annual schedule.
For more ongoing support of practice, there are great opportunities for continuing education, access to journal articles and peer support or mentoring through the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians. This group also has an annual conference at ExoticsCon in collaboration with the Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians and the Association of Avian Veterinarians.
Meeting the demands of reptile owners for good care of their animals can be an interesting, challenging and rewarding part of any practice. With the increased opportunity for learning the latest in reptile medicine and the willingness of reptile owners to seek good care for their pets, the possibilities are almost limitless. +
For more information on the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians, visit: arav.org