The Basics of Having a Pet Tarantula

Tarantulas can make fascinating and rewarding pets. They require little care as compared to other exotics, and living with them gives you a window into the life of an almost alien species.

First, some important considerations pre-purchase:

Is everyone in your life as into tarantulas as you are? Some people are seriously frightened by tarantulas, and you might not know it until you ask them. Find out in advance. Who will take care of your spider when you go on trips?

Are you ready for the commitment? Female tarantulas can live as long as 25 years. This is like taking on a child. (A furry, cricket-eating low maintenance child, but a child nonetheless.)

Are you able to deal with crickets? (You won’t need to worry about pinkies unless you purchase an exceptionally large breed of tarantula, something I don’t recommend to first-timers.) Crickets need to be purchased live, and they will chirp all night long, just likeâÂ?¦.crickets. So make sure that this is something you’ll find comforting, instead of irritating.

Do you realize that this is not an active pet? As a tarantula owner, you will get to see your tarantula do beautiful and amazing things, like building webs, catching prey, and molting. But for the most part, your tarantula will be dormant, or will only be active at night. While you can carefully “play” with tarantulas, you shouldn’t force them into dangerous activities (more on this later), nor should they be used as comedy props. Be aware of your spider’s lifestyle going into ownership and you’ll be more satisfied in the long run.

If you’ve answered yes to the above questions, let’s see what kind of tarantula will be right for you. Male, or female? The answer to this is always female. Male tarantulas only live for 1-4 years, and once they are sexually active, their only urge is to wander off and find a mate. They’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing, out there breeding, contributing other spiderlings to the world. If you catch one, set it free – it will only be sad inside your cage, trying to escape to spread
its genes. Females live longest, as many as 25 years, and as they are more “homebodies”, they are much more appropriate for a cage lifestyle.

How do you tell the difference between boys and girls? A truly indepth discussion is available here. But the best photos of tibial hooks are seen on this article of the American Tarantula Society’s website. Males have these additional appendages on their front set of legs. They come off of the joint about halfway up. Any spider without these is female, or an immature male.

Now, should you purchase an aggressive, or traditionally unaggressive tarantula? Please go with unaggressive
to begin with. While tarantula venom is completely harmless, causing at worst a small welt, and is less painful than a bee sting – there’s no need for you to have an angry spider in your house. If this is your first spider, you’re not going to bond as well with a creature that reacts violently (hissing, shedding hairs) to you every time you try to clean its cage. On that note, some species of tarantula are more prone to urticating than others – this is a defense that they’ll use when threatened, and it involves rubbing their abdomens to shed small irritating hairs in the direction of their attackers. This is why some tarantulas look a bit bald at the petstore.

A ground or a tree dweller? Ground dwelling tarantulas tend to be stockier specimens. They have no real jumping ability. If you pick up a ground spider, and drop it, it will splat like a bag of jelly. Tree dwelling tarantulas are more at home aerially, and they can jump out of your hands, making handling difficult.

So what’s important to you? Most beginner spider choices boil down to aesthetics, and what’s available in the area. You can catch your own from outside (although most roving tarantulas are male) or you can see what your local petstore has in stock. Things to look for at the petstore – is it a good petstore in general? Things smell okay? All the animals look healthy? Specifically for tarantulas – ones that are curled up in the corner of their tank, legs tucked too far underneath, are usually unwell and pre-death. The relaxed tarantula that’s doing well should be sitting with his legs out, looking rather mellow, aware of his surroundings, but not worried about anything in particular.

Here is an excellent list of tarantulas available in the pet trade, and their general demeanors, from Tarantulas.com. Most tarantulas cost $15 – 20.00, although some advanced species can get very pricey. Pink-toes and Chilean Roses are excellent beginner tarantulas.

I suggest seeing what tarantulas are available in your area, and then going out to buy an appropriate cage for your selection – this way, you’ve got everything set up for your spider, instead of setting up a ground cage, but then getting distracted by an aerial pink-toe.

Once you’ve selected your tarantula, but haven’t yet bought it, you should get a cage ready. Ground spiders will want a squatter cage with substrate to dig into, and a hidey-hole. Aerial spiders will want a taller cage with objects to climb, and will most likely spin their own hiding spot. No matter which type you get, you need to be aware that when tarantulas molt, they are in a very delicate condition – until their new skin hardens, they’ll be very vulnerable. You don’t want anything with sharp edges in your cage, just in case. For the cage itself, you can use plastic or glass – there are many appropriate cages for sale at pet stores. Just make sure that if the top has screen on it, that it is microscreen, and not window-screen sized mesh – if it is too large, they can get their little claws stuck in it, which might lead to an unwitting amputation.

For ground spiders, you’ll want to use a few inches of substrate – potting soil, top soil, peat moss. Never use cedar or pine products, as these can be poisonous to tarantulas. For aerial species, you don’t really need substrate – just some safely fastened corkboard, sterile branches, or vertical strips of bark can provide them with their own environment.

Temperature-wise, most tarantulas are comfortable between 75-85 degrees Fahrenheit. Indirect sunlight is best, and failing that, indirect lighting. Direct lighting might heat the cage up too much, and no lighting at all would make the tarantula too cold and it would lack the visual cues it uses to keep its metabolic cycles in order. If you need to provide additional heat, use a low wattage night-lamp over its cage, so that the light won’t disturb your tarantula.

All tarantulas need a constant supply of water. This is best supplied by a very shallow dish with pebbles in it, so that crickets can get in to drink without drowning. Sponges are not recommended, because they might have been treated with poisonous anti-fungals. Misting is also not recommended, as tarantula cages really should be kept dry, so as not to promote mites, fungus, and mold. Refresh the water daily, and if you see your tarantula hovering over the water dish, realize that this is her way of asking for more water.

Tarantulas prefer live food. Crickets are easily purchased, and you can feed your tarantula as often as it will eat. If your petstore has silkworms, or other prey items, feel free to use these as well, variety is great. You should remove uneaten prey after a day or so – your tarantula will signal that it’s getting ready to molt by stopping eating, and crickets can kill a vulnerable molting tarantula. You can also feed your tarantula wild caught prey, but you must be sure that they are free of pesticides.

Last but not least, your tarantula will molt. It will lay on its back, and split its own skin open, and escape it with a new, softer, shell. This is a delicate time for your tarantula, and it should not be disturbed. There isn’t much you can do – or should do! – to help it molt. When it frees itself, it will take several hours to several days to dry out and harden. Wait a day or two to offer food, and monitor its eating closely. You’ll know when your tarantula is back to its old self again, if you stay aware of its daily habits.

Should you handle your tarantula? Probably not. It’s really not needed, and it only increases the chance that you’ll accidentally harm it. For all their frightening appearances, tarantulas are delicate creatures. Unless you’re sexing it, or moving it so that you can clean debris (dead crickets, poo) out of its cage, it’s really unnecessary.

I hope this article has given you a good starting base of tarantula knowledge. There are a lot of forums for concerned owners, and a lot of information available on the internet. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and don’t be afraid to second guess the answers you get – theories of care change over time, as owners realize what works best for certain species through trial and error. (It takes awhile since you can’t really ask the tarantula, or ask an invertebrate vet, you know?)

If you’re willing to take a tarantula into your life, and take care of it for its lifespan, you’ll be deeply rewarded by the appreciation for it, and knowledge of it, that you’ll gain over time.

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