Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Rules of Thumb for Evaluating Pet Stores

Melissa Kaplan. Originally published in News from the North Bay, August 1995


The following is what good stores do, and bad stores don't. Some of this points take some knowledge of the specific requirements of different species; others should be blatantly obvious to anyone who has ever cared for any living animal.


  1. The enclosures should be clean: no old feces, urates, long dead or dried foods. It is not difficult to tell the difference between a recently soiled enclosure and one in which wastes have been accruing for some time.

  2. The substrate should be suitable for the animal: no cedar chips or shavings, no lava rocks, no inappropriate use of sand, corn cob, alfalfa pellets, soil, moss, etc. Substrate must be clean and dry with necessary humidity provided as needed by clean, damp--not wet--moss, air stone/bubbler, etc.

  3. Fresh water in clean bowls for every drinking and soaking animal; for drop-lappers such as geckos, chameleons and anoles, there should be suitable leaves, rocks, branches or clean glass for water deposits from misting/drips.

  4. All furnishings in enclosures should be clean, free of bits of dead prey, animal wastes and old food. Find out how the enclosures, water bowls and utensils are cleaned: is hot soapy water used, followed by a disinfectant, or is only cold water available?

  5. When more than one animal is kept in an enclosure, the enclosure size must be big enough for the animals to thermoregulate themselves without undue competition for basking and cooling areas. Sufficient food must be provided to feed all the animals. Aggressive animals causing injury to other animals should be housed separately.


  1. Aquatic turtles should be in an aquatic environment: clean substrata, clean water at least as deep as the length of the largest turtle in tank, smooth rocks, cork bark or other safe, clean material for climbing out of the water. Proper foods include live fish, turtle pellets or sticks, fresh vegetables and greens. A basking area over the land area must range in the mid to upper 80's and be available to the turtles for 10 hrs/day. Full spectrum light should be available 10-12 hrs/day.

  2. Box turtles should be in a primarily terrestrial environment with access to clean bridge-deep water for soaking and drinking. A basking area and full spectrum lighting must be available as for the aquatic turtles. Proper foods includes worms, snails, slugs, small amounts of prepared foods, fresh vegetables and fruits. Tortoises must be in a terrestrial environment with a shallow dish of clean water for drinking. Heat and full spectrum lighting must be provided as for turtles. Proper foods are fresh vegetables and fruits.

  3. Lizards and snakes should be housed according to their nature: terrestrial animals having sufficient flat area; arboreal animals having sufficient climbing area; fossorial animals having appropriate substrata in which to burrow; semi-aquatic animals with sufficient water area for soaking, feeding and drinking, etc.

  4. Amphibians must be housed in appropriate habitats with access to clean water, clean substrate, plants or moss and branches. The enclosure should be free of dead crickets and other prey, and of animal wastes.


  1. Diurnal lizards and all turtles and tortoises should be provided with true full spectrum lighting. Chromalux™ and other bulbs coated with "rare earth neodymium" do not provide the full spectrum required for vitamin D3 synthesis. Plant "grow" lights and aquarium lights are also insufficient.

  2. Heating should be provided which approximates the individual species' optimum gradient. Optimum gradients include the daily temperature gradients, with nightly temperature drops not below the lowest optimum for the species. In addition, suitable basking areas must be provided. Temperatures which are consistently too high are also harmful. Watch for desert animals kept at temperate-zone temperatures, and temperate and neo-tropical animals kept at desert temperatures.

  3. Look for unsuitable heat sources. Low wattage light bulbs used in large enclosures which are otherwise provided with no other sources of heat are inadequate. Hot rocks for iguanas and other arboreal lizards, ball pythons and other animals known to be susceptible to thermal burns. Unshielded light bulbs or heating elements which are not screened off and are accessible to the enclosure inhabitants may cause contact or proximity burns.

  4. Look for enclosures placed in sunny windows. Many times these are not provided with proper full spectrum lighting (under the mistaken assumption that the sun filtering through two layers of glass is sufficient to promote D3 synthesis). In addition, the heat can build up to dangerous levels within the enclosure causing severe dehydration and stress.


  1. There should be no noticeable smell or odor in the store. If the store breeds or otherwise sells live rodents and rabbits, some odor is inevitable but it should not be intrusive; bins for feeder/pet mammals and chicks should be clean, well-ventilated, with proper food and water available for the animals at all times and enough room for some spreading out of animals which are housed in groups. The prey should be healthy looking; watch for fleas, ticks, runny eyes, listlessness, etc.

  2. Feeder worms and arthropods should be housed in clean enclosures or bins, and should be provided with food and a clean source of moisture for drinking.

  3. When live non-mammalian feeders are put into reptile or amphibian enclosures, there should be some food for the prey to eat in case they themselves are not immediately consumed. Live mammalian and avian feeders should not be left in tanks unattended by a store employee, especially when the rodents are old enough to have significant teeth. Since most captive reptiles will easily eat killed prey, there is little reason to feed live mammalian and avian prey to pet store carnivores. Herps which must be fed live mammalian or avian prey should be fed before or after store hours.


  1. Look for abraded rostrums; water dragons and iguanas are particularly susceptible to stereotypic rubbing against their enclosure, often tearing away their skin and underlying tissue, leaving the jaw bone and teeth exposed. Such behavior is also common in many boids.

  2. Look for skinny tails, jutting hip bones, loose, saggy skin on legs, lateral folds, sunken eyes, dull skin: these are all signs of starvation and dehydration. Causes for starvation may be inappropriate foods being offered, food items offered in pieces too big for the animal to eat, mouth rot, fibrous osteodystrophy (swollen jaws consistent with calcium deficiency). Dehydration may be due to inadequate amounts of water offered, water offered in ways unusable by the animal (e.g., water bowls for chameleons, drip systems for snakes). Many animals arrive at the store already severely emaciated and dehydrated. Look to see if the store does anything to help the animal recover (veterinary care, electrolytes, subcutaneous or gavaged fluids). Does store staff know how to force feed animals properly, using nutritional gruels and slurries?

  3. Look for ticks and mites. These are often left untreated, with new, unaffected animals placed in the same tank as the parasite-laden animals.

  4. Fluids around the nose and mouth, excessive or thick or ropey saliva and open mouth breathing ("gaping") indicate a respiratory infection. In many reptiles, when the mouth is very pale, or is a grayish-pink, the animal may be anemic. Yellow plaques inside the mouth around the gums is mouth rot (stomatitis). Swollen eyes are an indication of infection or dietary problem.

  5. Crooked backs and tails indicate a calcium deficiency. Rounded, firm thighs, whether or not accompanied by bumps in the tail, legs or swollen jaws, indicates advanced calcium deficiency. Flaccid or limp toes or limbs indicate possible fractures.

  6. Feces-streaked vents and swollen, distended bellies may be related to amoebic or parasitic infections, inadequate heat, substrate which has been ingested and become impacted, inappropriate food items or dehydration.

  7. Look for lacerations, abscesses (lumps appearing anywhere on the body which may or may not have fluids seeping from them). These may be related to attacks by other animals or overcrowding during shipment or in the store.


  1. Does the store specialize in reptiles and amphibians, or are they sold incidental to mammals, birds, fish and/or pet supplies?

  2. What types of herp supplies does the store carry? Is it primarily commercial foods and home treatment preparations, or quality items required to construct proper captive environments?

  3. Does the store staff have access to good reference books such as herp field guides and atlases, or is the information they give something they picked up from someone else? What type of training does the staff receive? Do they give honest information to customers inquiring about giant boids and lizards (or tell them about the "slow growing anacondas," "dwarf iguanas," and "docile African rock pythons")?

Some stores blame their suppliers for the condition of their animals. A few instances of improper care may be the result of improper species identification by the wholesaler (such as the so-called forest chameleons (Corytophanes cristatus) sold to stores as brown basilisks (Basilicus basilicus). But if the store consistently sells animals are sick, underweight and listless, if the enclosures are always dirty, dark, too small or too crowded, the problem is not be their supplier. Improper environments are due to ignorance, lack of interest or the overriding desire to maximize profits on the part of store management. If they are getting sick, illegal or incorrectly identified animals from their suppliers, they should vigorously complain or send the animals back. If pet stores don't demand healthy, legal animals from their suppliers, the suppliers have no incentive to provide them. By the same token, if herpers don't demand healthy animals and clean, appropriate conditions, stores have little incentive to provide them.

It is the pet stores' owners or managers responsibility, however, to make sure that every animal is housed according to its needs, that every animal displayed for sale is healthy and properly fed, that enclosures are properly cleaned and disinfected, that staff is trained in species identification or at least taught to use and given access to appropriate references.

There are some good stores out there. There are stores that are open to learning how to do things better. There are some knowledgeable people working in pet stores. There are even stores that will only accept healthy animals from their suppliers. A good store can have a "bad hair" day once in a while. But if the conditions are the same each time you visit the store, then the problem is not a bad hair day, but bad management.

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State Animal Welfare Codes: California   Florida

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Report on a Santa Rosa, CA Pet Store

Report on a Sebastopol, CA Pet Store

Rules of Thumb for Evaluating Pet Stores (Finnish translation)

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