Want a Pet Reptile? Consider a Skink
Although many people don’t know what a skink is, they actually make great reptile pets and have become increasingly popular in the past few years. Perhaps the most popular pet skink is the blue-tongued skink (or “blue tongue”), a group of lizard species that are all typically fairly large and found mainly in Australia but also in New Guinea, Tasmania and Indonesia. While these animals are sometimes captured from the wild and sold by unscrupulous dealers, those available in the U.S. are mostly bred in captivity to be kept as pets. You really want to obtain a captive-bred skink, as these animals likelier will be healthier, easier to handle and not taken from their wild home.
Cool Facts About Skinks in General
The skink family of lizards that blue tongues belong to is comprised of more than 1,500 different species, most of which have no necks and very short legs (some species actually have no legs or feet at all and move more like snakes). Many species have long, tapered tails that they can release and break off if they are grabbed by a predator and that they can subsequently grow back. Despite this fact, skinks in captivity should not be picked up or restrained in any way by the tail. If the tail does happen to break off, it’s a good idea to have a veterinarian take a look at the injury to make sure no medical intervention (such as antibiotics or wound care, if it isn’t a clean break) is needed.
Depending on the species, skinks range in size from 3 to 18 inches long or more, snout to tail tip, and many — although not all — skink species are predominantly carnivores or specifically insectivores, consuming crickets, flies, various beetles, worms and caterpillars, plus occasional small rodents. In the wild, many skinks dig and bury themselves underground in tunnels where they can hide from predators such as raccoons, foxes, snakes, hawks and opossums, while a few species are arboreal (tree-climbers). Most are active during the day and love to bask in the sun. Many skink species lay eggs and nest under foliage or under the edges of buildings, while a few give birth to live young. They can be very territorial and protective of their nest sites.
Why Blue Tongues Can Make Cool Pets
There are lots of reasons why I recommend blue-tongued skinks over other types of skinks or even over many other reptiles as pets. Here are a few cool facts you might like to know, as well as some things you should be aware of if you are thinking of bringing one home:
1. Their tongues really are blue! Blue tongues are called such because they have a large, bright blue tongue that they stick out to try to ward off enemies. They have short legs, broad bodies and triangular-shaped heads and can live 15 to 20 years in captivity.
2. They’re generally happy to be handled. Blue tongues tend to be gentle, intelligent, inquisitive, easily tamed lizards that often like to be handled. Many even enjoy being petted or having their heads scratched. Children should be supervised when handling them, as the reptiles can become startled and jump. They can mistake small fingers for worms if they’re hungry, so be careful not to handle them when they haven’t eaten in a while, and be sure to wash hands after handling, as all reptiles can carry Salmonella bacteria.
3. They love to eat — and not just meat! Blue tongues are ground-dwelling omnivores that eat several different types of insects, fruits, berries and flowers. Pet blue tongues should consume about 60 percent plant matter (the majority of which should be salad of dark, leafy greens and fresh mixed vegetables, plus a smaller amount of fruits, berries and flowers) and 40 percent animal matter (mainly insects such as crickets, mealworms and earthworms, plus small amounts of hard-boiled egg, cooked chicken or beef and pinky mice for larger skinks). Young skinks may be offered food ad lib daily; as they become adults, they may eat only every other day. They need fresh drinking water available at all times and a vitamin/mineral supplement containing vitamin D3 (offered twice a week to adults and every other day to growing juveniles).
4. They are large lizards! As they can grow as long as 18 inches or more, snout to tail tip, pet blue tongues need a minimum 50-gallon tank but ideally should have a larger one to be able to roam. They also need logs and rocks over which they can climb for exercise, and their tank lid needs to be securely closed so that they can’t escape. Most are best housed alone, although sometimes females or opposite sex pairs can live together. They need dust-free bedding (either paper-based, such as recycled paper pellets, or cypress mulch), an un-tippable shallow water bowl into which they can crawl to soak and a humid hide box filled with damp sphagnum moss or a damp paper towel to help them shed. Wood chips and shavings aren’t recommended as they are dusty and indigestible if consumed by your skink. A hygrometer should be used to help monitor humidity levels, which ideally should range from 25 percent to 45 percent for blue tongues.
5. They love light!
Blue tongues require daily exposure to UVB light (either through direct sunlight unfiltered by a window or through a UVB bulb). Most love to bask. In addition to light in their tanks, they should have a daytime temperature gradient (provided by an over-the-tank heat bulb and/or an under-the-tank heating pad) from the low 70 degrees F on one side of the tank to the 90 degrees F range on the other side in the basking zone. Temperatures should not fall below the low 70s F at night. Additional heating elements may be required to maintain cage temperatures in cold climates during winter. (Your veterinarian can help advise you on tank set-up.)
There are so many reptile species that can make terrific pets and can live a long time with proper care and regular veterinary attention. If you’re looking for a different-looking, friendly, fairly easy-to-manage pet, then think about a skink! And as always, before getting any new pet, talk to a veterinarian familiar with reptiles to make sure you know how to care for your new friend properly and realize that, just like dogs and cats, exotic pets like skinks need regular veterinary care and attention as well.
More on Vetstreet: