Office of Law Enforcement
Pacific Region



October/November 2010

Cold Blooded Trade

Reptiles are quickly becoming the new hamster.  More and more households are opting to buy reptiles instead of a dog or other traditional pets due to allergies, space constraints, and cost considerations.  However, there are some key things to know before buying or selling a reptile.

It could be illegal

The United States imports thousands of reptiles each year for the pet trade.  While most of these animals are brought here legally, smugglers know that a ready market also exists for rare and endangered species.  Even if you are buying a common gardener snake, there are a few things you can research in advance to make sure your reptile was not brought here illegally and is legal for you to have in your home. 

Check to see if the species of reptile is protected by the Endangered Species Act by going here.

  • If it is listed as threatened or endangered and it isn’t captive bred, then it was probably illegally collected from the wild, or in the case of foreign species, illegally smuggled in to the U.S.  If the seller states it is captive bred, he should have a permit you can look at to confirm this.


Picture of a wandering Garter Snake
Wandering Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans vagrans), is not federally protected but may be protected by state law. Found throughout the U.S. and in some parts of Canada. Photo credit: USFWS

Check to see if the species of reptile may be possessed as a pet in your city or county.

  • Many cities and counties do not permit certain species or sizes of reptiles but be aware that pet stores can still sell these reptiles.  So seeing a reptile for sale at a pet store does not mean it’s legal to have as a pet where you live.  Contact your regional U.S. Fish and Wildlife Office or your state fish and wildlife department to find out what restrictions exist.

If you rent an apartment or live in a dorm, check your lease and housing agreement.  Violating the terms of your lease or housing agreement could result in eviction.

Try to purchase directly from a licensed private breeder who you personally know.  If you don’t know any or are thinking about purchasing a reptile at a pet store, reptile exposition or breeder you aren’t familiar with, check for reputable sellers on internet herpetology (the branch of zoology dealing with reptiles and amphibians) groups or in herpetology magazines.  Melissa Kaplan, a reptile expert has created a list of herp societies and reptile rescue groups organized by state.  

If you have seen a threatened or endangered reptile for sale and would like to report it, please go to and click on the “contact us” link at the top of the page.


Picture of a male Rhinoceros iguana
Male Rhinoceros Iguana (Cyclura cornuta) is listed as an Appendix I species under CITES which means international trade of this species is restricted. Photo credit: Tim Ross/ Wikimedia Commons

Picture of juvenile copperhead snake
Juvenile Copperhead Snake (Agkistrodon contortrix).  Copperheads are not federally protected but may be protected by state law.  They are found throughout the eastern and central U.S.  Photo credit: USFWS


It could get you sick or harm you

Most people don’t know that almost all reptiles, including healthy ones, carry salmonella bacteria and could give it to you or your children.  Salmonella can be deadly to humans causing diarrhea, vomiting, and fever and may develop into invasive illnesses such as meningitis and sepsis.  Children and elderly are especially at risk.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that reptiles be kept out of households that include children and people with compromised immune systems, and that children and immunocompromised people avoid all contact with reptiles and items the animals have touched. Direct contact with a reptile is not necessary to become sick; Salmonella bacteria can live for days on surfaces.

Reptiles also pose the obvious risk of using their natural defenses against you.  Each year, nearly 8,000 people receive venomous snake or poisonous lizard bites in the U.S.  A good chunk of these are from snakes and lizards attacking their caregivers.  Even a bite from a “harmless” reptile can cause infection or allergic reaction.

If you are interested in having a venomous snake or poisonous lizard for a pet, make sure you can get antivenin, a medicine to counteract the effects of poison, before you take the reptile home with you.  If you are bitten, seek medical attention immediately, if you are not able to get professional treatment, please click here for information on what to do.

It could already be sick

Reptiles don’t show illness as quickly or easily as other animals.  Since they are cold blooded, it could take significantly longer for an illness to outwardly manifest itself and longer for the reptile to die from an illness.  Some sellers will knowingly sell sick reptiles to customers.

Research how to pick out healthy specimens of the reptile you are interested in before you buy one.  Don’t buy a reptile if you aren’t able to tell whether it’s healthy or not.  If a pet store or re-seller tells you the reptile is captive bred, ask for documentation in the form of sales receipts. 

It could cost more than you think

Reptiles can end up costing much more than just the price of purchase.  There are a few things that people don’t realize about caring for reptiles that can weigh down the pocketbook.           

Picture of a negev tortoise
Negev Tortoise (Testudo kleinmanni), often called the Egyptian tortoise is listed as an Appendix I species under CITES  which means international trade is restricted.  It can be found in Egypt and Libya.  Photo credit: B. Simpson Cairocamels/ Wikimedia Commons

Picture of an Eastern spiny-tailed gecko
Eastern Spiny-tailed Gecko (Strophurus williamsi) is not a federally protected or CITES listed species.  It is abundant in the mid-western highlands of Australia. Photo Credit: Cplum/Wikimedia Commons


Caring for a reptile requires more space and specialized equipment than many people realize.  Most people don’t think about how much the reptile will grow when making their purchase and end up buying a tank that won’t hold their reptile for long.  Many reptiles either outgrow their tank or are kept in tanks too small for their needs. 

Reptiles will also cost more than one would anticipate because they can live longer than most dogs.  Some reptiles have been known to live up to 150 years.  Make sure you understand the potential life-span of the reptile before you purchase one. For example, a gecko can live up to 20 years with proper care.  If a reptile only lives a year or two, it is because it was probably sick when you bought it or it didn’t receive proper care.  Animals in captivity should live longer than wild animals as they don’t have predators or the dangers of living in the wild.

The next time you think about purchasing a reptile as a pet, keep these key issues in mind or you could be getting a lot more than you bargained for.

To contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about this piece or to report a violation you have witnessed, please go to and click on the “contact us” link at the top of the page.


Last updated: December 3, 2013

Law Enforcement Home
National Office of Law Enforcement Home Page
Pacific Region Home

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Home Page | Department of the Interior  |  | About the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service  | Accessibility  | Privacy  | Notices  | Disclaimer  | FOIA