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Reptiles should not be kept as pets, expert warns

Reptiles shouldn’t be kept as pets because three in four die within a year, according to a leading biologist.

There are now more than a million snakes, lizards, turtles and tortoises in UK homes – well over twice as many as a decade ago.

Lizards have now overtaken horses and ponies in popularity.

Three quarters of reptile pets die within a year of being taken into their new homes an expert has warned as he tries to stop people buying the animals (file image)

But herpatologist Dr Clifford Warwick, a specialist in reptile biology and welfare, and colleagues point out 75 per cent of reptiles die during their 12 months in the home.

Writing in the journal Veterinary Record, he said: ‘We would argue ethical questions arise around the exotic pet business, not least given the multifaceted global harm involved.’

He added: ‘Compared to dogs, which achieve natural longevity in the domestic environment, 75 per cent of reptiles die during their first year in the home.

‘In addition, there are at least 30 behavioural signs of stress regularly observed in captive reptiles.’

The team said a review of research in the same journal by Dr Frank Pasmans and Dr Tom Hellebuyck, of Ghent University in Belgium, had put ‘misplaced’ faith in the current evidence.

Dr Warwick, who is a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, said: ‘There remains a dearth of independent, objective, scientific evidence-based data concerning the needs of the diversity of species traded and kept.

‘We would argue that the small amount published implies that reptilian and amphibian biological needs are so complex and require such advanced scientific understanding that they cannot be met even in the best zoos – let alone private homes – leading to the basis of ‘controlled deprivation’.’

Dr Warwick and colleagues argue the ‘five freedoms’ – from hunger/thirst, discomfort, pain, fear and to be able to express normal behaviour – set out by the Farm Animal Welfare Council in 1979 ‘simply cannot be met for captive reptiles.’

Dr Warwick said: ‘The evidence from the highest levels of bioscience demonstrates that mitigating the destructiveness of reptile trading and keeping resides in bans and ‘positive lists’ (PLs) – species impartially determined suitable to be kept by scientific evidence.

‘At least 13 European and 20 North American governments are at various stages of adopting PLs. Evidence-based consumer awareness protocols, such as ‘EMODE’ (easy, moderate, difficult, extreme), may also prevent irresponsible pet advocacy and acquisition where other measures, including those proposed by Pasmans and others, have failed.’

On the other hand Dr Pasmans and Dr Hellebuyck say with the right information and care, keeping reptiles and amphibians presents no more of a burden on public health or animal welfare than keeping more traditional pets.

Dr Clifford Warwick said it is virtually impossible to guarantee a reptile kept at home will be free from hunger or thirst, discomfort, pain, fear and to be able to express normal behaviour

Dr Clifford Warwick said it is virtually impossible to guarantee a reptile kept at home will be free from hunger or thirst, discomfort, pain, fear and to be able to express normal behaviour

They analysed issues such as disease transmission to humans, welfare problems associated with poor care, and the ecological implications of trading wild animals.

Dr Pasmans said: ‘Inappropriate management and nutrition by inexperienced keepers remains a concern.’

But they do not believe that keeping reptiles and amphibians presents a disproportionate burden on public health or animal welfare compared to that posed by the keeping of other companion animals.

Dr Pasmans said: ‘We therefore do not see any valid reasons to selectively restrict the keeping of reptiles and amphibians for these reasons.’

And they outline several measures to mitigate health, welfare and conservation risks, such as introducing minimal care requirements, improving pet keeper education, enforcing quarantine and entry controls, closing legal loopholes to prevent trade in wild animals, and increasing access to specialist veterinary care.

In a linked editorial Professor Gordon Burghardt, at the University of Tennessee, said issues of health, best practices for keeping captives, and preventing disease transmission to humans ‘are important for veterinarians to address’.

But he believes reptiles and amphibians ‘are compatible with modern lifestyles.’

Journal editor Adele Waters said: ‘There is growing concern about the welfare of reptiles.

‘Earlier this month the RSPCA [Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] published research showing they are often neglected, and not because their owners don’t care about them, but because they are unsure about how to care for them.

‘Research conducted for the charity found a lot of online advice is contradictory, inconsistent and variable in quality and this does not encourage responsible reptile ownership.

‘It is important for reptile owners to get information from a reliable, credible source – their local vet.’ 


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