Pet Tarantula

Most people don’t use words like "fun" when it comes to spiders, especially big ones. But Linda Rayor of the Department of Entomology at Cornell thinks that tarantulas can make awesome pets for the right people.

"There are a ton of perfectly lovely, interesting, beautiful tarantulas that you can start with that are really fun," she says. 

Why Tarantulas?

One thing that fans like about these arachnids is that they’re pretty. Really! Rayor is a fan of the Mexican Redrump, which she calls "calm, interesting, gorgeous." And her favorite group is called the "ornamentals." 

What’s really cool, though, is that they’re both beautiful and deadly: Some owners may find watching the tarantulas’ natural behavior fascinating. 

"The speed at which they attack their prey is very impressive," says Holli Friedland, who keeps tarantulas. "You drop a cricket in there, and it’s just milliseconds and they’re already eating it." 

Safety First 

OK, but what you really want to know is Are they deadly to me? There are definitely some species with more toxic venom that aren’t for beginners. But Friedland, who has about a dozen tarantulas of various species, has never been bitten, and Rayor, who’s had up to 30 species at a time in her lab over almost 20 years, says on the rare occasions it’s happened to her, it was no big deal. 

"With all the spiders, about 50 percent of bites are dry bites with no venom," she says. "I’ve been pinched by a bunch of spiders, and they mostly don’t break your skin. When their fangs are big enough that they break your skin, that’s what hurts, not the venom." 

You (and other household pets) also need to be careful of the urticating hairs that some species kick off as a defense. "They itch like the dickens," Rayor says. "You don’t want to get them in your eyes or breathe them in."

But she says that none of this should ever happen if you’re keeping tarantulas properly, because these are not pets for cuddling. "Tarantulas shouldn’t be handled — they’re not puppies," she says. "They’re more like fish."

So Rayor doesn’t pet or carry her tarantulas any more than you would your goldfish. If the spiders need to be moved from one place to another, she uses a cup. Friedland suggests something like a clear food container. "I put that on top and then slide the lid under their feet, and then they’re in the container," she says.

Friedland does sometimes handle the very calm species, but even then, she doesn’t reach in and grab. "I put my hand down in the cage, and with my other hand, sort of scoot [the spider] onto my hand and encourage it to walk in that direction, and it climbs onto my hand," she says. "I don’t [just] pick it up."

Minimal handling is not only for the owner’s safety, but also for the pet’s. "Of the ones that you might handle that aren’t particularly dangerous, the exoskeleton is relatively thin, so if you drop them, they can go splat," Rayor says. "That’s not good for the tarantula."

Tarantula in the Wild

Spider Lifestyles

There are two basic groups of tarantulas as far as behavior and looks: arboreal and terrestrial. "They have a different build," Rayor says. "Terrestrial are kind of chunky and heavy bodied. Arboreal are the sleek sports car of tarantulas, with long legs and much more cylindrical bodies."

They need slightly different enclosures to accommodate their lifestyles. "The terrestrial ones need enough bedding to make a burrow and little logs to hide in. They’ll build their own tunnels — they’re very industrious," Friedland says. "Arboreal ones need something to climb — plastic plants work well." 

Otherwise, their care is the same, and it’s really simple. They don’t even eat every day, and they need very little maintenance. Rayor cleans out their whole habitat about once a year, or when she moves them to a larger enclosure. There’s little cleaning in between, because what they do excrete is tiny, white and dry.

In fact, because they eat live prey, that can be the real work. "You spend a lot more time taking care of the crickets than the tarantulas, unless you buy what you need every week and put it right in," Friedland says.

Tarantula Quirks 

If you find yourself like these enthusiasts, who are unable to stop at just one, you’ll need room for separate enclosures. "[For] most species, you can’t keep them in groups," Friedland says. "You have to keep them individually because they’re cannibalistic."

An odd fact is that it’s going to be hard to predict your pet’s life span. "The males don’t live very long, and the females live really long, and it’s very hard to tell what sex they are," she says. Life span varies among species but can be along the lines of two or three years for a male, compared to more like 15 years for a female.

And you should also know that tarantulas shed their exoskeletons so they can keep growing for their entire lives. The process can fool an inexperienced owner into thinking the worst. 

"If they’re lying on their back with their legs spread and they look like they’re dead, they’re getting ready to molt," Rayor says. "If they’re on their belly with legs tucked in, that’s when they’re dead or dying." 

Most owners will confess that another appeal of tarantulas is the fact that some people find them creepy. And by molting, tarantulas provide a perfect way to scare your friends without even bothering your spider.

Once they’ve molted, Friedland says, "the next morning, it looks like there are two tarantulas in there, but one is just a shell. It looks exactly like the real thing, fangs and everything."

How can you not love a pet that produces its own Halloween decorations? Friedland has one friend who stuffs the empty parts with cotton, and she says, "I keep all of mine. I have a big jar full of them."

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