Madison Area Herpetological Society

The Do’s and Don’ts of Cohabitation

Can I Keep My Animals Together?
The Do’s and Don’ts of Cohabitation
By Eric Roscoe and Ryan McVeigh

 

Perhaps one of the most commonly asked questions on herp related forums and Facebook groups is whether their animals they currently own, or are prospectively interested in can be cohabitated together. Cohabitating, or “cohabbing” is the term used to refer to the practice of housing and maintaining multiple animals of the same and/or different species within the same enclosure. Cohabitating is, however an often controversial subject in herpetoculture and the reptile community, and some reasons or justifications for doing so may be more valid than others. In general, anyone who may be considering this subject for their animals should take the time to conduct significant amounts of research into the biology, natural history, and behaviors of the species or individuals they are considering housing together, as well as several other factors such as their own living arrangements, amount of space available, and other resources. This short article will explore and cover the do’s and don’ts of cohabitating animals for anyone with a serious interest in doing so.  This list will cover many ideas and options, but no matter what you do there is no way to predict how two animals will react to each other, so keep this in mind.

Do’s

1. Be sure to always conduct extensive research into the biology, natural history, and overall compatibility of the species or individual animals you plan on housing together.
a. Are they from the same environment?
b. Do they have the same heat and humidity needs?
c. Do either of them have a special need that the other one can’t handle.
d. What is the potential they will see the other animal as prey/food?

2. Be sure to avoid overcrowding by providing an adequately sized enclosure or sufficient amount of space for all animals to be housed together, following general rules of thumb of added amounts of space per additional animal. Many times animals that do well together will not use the same space in the terrarium, such as an arboreal species and a terrestrial species.

3. Provide ample resources within the enclosure including food and feeding opportunities, hiding spaces, basking areas, foraging space, and temperature gradients.
a. Does each animal have its own space to eat?
b. Are enough hiding areas provided so neither of them are hiding on top of each other?

4. Practice greater diligence in maintaining enclosure and water cleanliness if multiple animals are housed together. Amphibians can be especially prone to foul or dirtied conditions due to their smooth, moist, and permeable skin. Many amphibians can also be highly susceptible to the toxic skin secretions of other species. Be sure to understand the toxicity of the amphibians and if there is a possibility of them poisoning the other species of reptile or amphibian within the enclosure.

5. Learn, look for, and be aware of more subtle signs and behaviors which may indicate stress, territoriality and dominance as well. Behaviors such as “stacking”, arm waving, head bobbing, and anorexia (failing to feed) can all indicate issues with dominance or animals being territorial.

6. Be sure to practice safe quarantine and acclimation procedures prior to introducing any additional animals into an enclosure. Also consider the source or origin of each animal, and whether they are wild caught (WC), captive hatched (CH), or captive bred and born (CBB). This greatly reduces the likelihood of the spread of diseases, pathogens, parasites, and other health related issues.
a. It is important to understand that at any time, even healthy animals can transfer pathogens and it’s difficult to know how another species may react.

7. Provide sufficient forms of appropriate enrichment for each species if their biology, lifestyles, and natural histories may differ (i.e. arboreal animals with terrestrial animals, or aquatic animals with fossorial animals, etc.). Having deep enough substrate for fossorial animals and enough climbing spaces for arboreal animals is key.

8. Consider the sex or gender ratios if multiple animals of the same species are housed together. Also consider the ease of breeding and reproduction of the species, as well as that species’ overall market and ability to be sold or re-homed. Some species such as green iguanas and red eared sliders can often be extremely difficult to re-home if offspring are produced through unplanned reproduction.
a. If you don’t want them to breed, only keep females.
b. Understand the risks in keeping males of different species together. They may fight or cause injuries to other animals.

9. Have additional or alternative enclosures or setups on hand or available should the need to separate animals arise for any reason.

Don’ts

1. Don’t house animals of significantly differing ages, lengths, or sizes together. Many reptiles and amphibians can be cannibalistic, and may even consume smaller individuals of their same species. Likewise, larger or older animals can often more easily dominate, outcompete, or even injure or kill smaller individuals out of dominance and territoriality.

2. Don’t cohabitate species that have significantly differing or incompatible temperature or humidity requirements. If each animal’s husbandry requirements cannot be met through tailored conditions or specifications for each of the species, don’t keep them together.

3. Do not purchase or acquire any animal or species, or add them to a communal enclosure on impulse or without conducting appropriate research.

4. Don’t add new animals to an enclosure of established animals without a proper quarantine. You don’t want to add bacteria, viruses, or other pathogens to healthy animals.

5. Don’t forget about a species’ potential natural predator-prey or other commonsense biological relationships as they relate to other herp species which may make cohabitating inadvisable for these reasons.

6. Don’t try to anthropomorphize your animals, which is the attribution of human traits and emotions to most other non-human species. Most reptiles and amphibians are, for the most part, solitary animals that do not come together for most of the time except for mating and reproduction, incidental use of the same areas or resources, or in some cases, communal denning or brumation. Realize that some interactive behaviors you may witness in captivity between animals can actually be subtle signs of stress, aggression, or dominance.

7. Don’t practice co-habitation simply to save on space or to cut corners in other aspects of proper animal care and husbandry. Cohabitation must be thoroughly researched beforehand, and be done for the right reasons.

8. Don’t assume that if no immediate adverse issues are seen in the short-term with a cohabitation, that everything is fine, or that issues cannot/will not arise in the long term. In many cases, it may take weeks, months, or even years before signs and symptoms can fully manifest. Many reptiles and amphibians have differing symbiotic relationships with microorganisms, immunities, and mechanisms for displaying or masking signs of stress, ill health, and disease.

Be Aware

1. Understand that even under PERFECT conditions, intense research, and immaculate husbandry, things can still go wrong. This is always a risk, and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly.  Animals are unpredictable.

2. Many reptiles and amphibians are opportunistic predators. When they see movement, they can react with a feeding response and that may be to an animal you don’t want them to eat.