Spiders as Pets: A Beginner’s Guide to Spider Keeping
So Why Keep Spiders?
When you are thinking of buying a pet, what comes to mind first? Cat’s… dogs? A cute little hamster maybe? Probably not a spider though, and yet, unconventional though they may be, for the right person a pet spider can be an ideal pet.
Some people who choose to keep spiders might do so just because they like the idea of having an unusual pet. It is not unheard of either for someone that is frightened of spiders to buy one in the hopes that by facing their fears they may learn to overcome them. It is probably not the best of reasons to buy a pet, but it does happen, I know, because that is one of the reasons that I became interested in keeping spiders.
Other kinds of spiders are kept as pets, but tarantulas are by far the most popular choice and there are many varieties to choose from. In some ways a tarantula might seem to be a pretty boring choice for a pet. You cannot take them out for a walk and they won’t fetch a stick for you, but they can be fascinating to watch and, if you choose a breed that lends itself to easy handling they can also be rather fun.
Choosing a Tarantula
There are many different species of tarantula spider available to buy as pets, but for the purpose of this article I will stick to just three: the Pink toed tarantula, the Curly haired tarantula and the Chile rose tarantula. These three, in my opinion, present the best choice for a beginner, because they all share a rather placid nature and are therefore less likely to bite – if you choose to handle them that is, and not all spider keepers do.
The Pink Toed Tarantula
Pink toed tarantulas are an arboreal species, so in their natural habitat they would make their homes somewhere high up; perhaps in a tree or on the side of a building, they would never choose to make their homes on the ground though. Pink toes can be quite industrious and build themselves quite complex silk hides to live in. These hides are surprisingly strong and feel a little like cloth to the touch. It is rather amazing to watch the spiders building them.
In my experience though, the main problem with Pink toes is that once they have built their hide they tend to stay hidden away inside it and I often do not see mine for weeks at a time, except for, perhaps, the tips of its legs sticking out from the top of its home. Pink toes are also very good at jumping and my wife once got quite a scare when mine jumped out of my hand and ran up the bedroom wall.
On the few occasions that I have handled my Pink toe it has walked from one of my hands to the other a few times and then just settled down in the middle of my palm and appeared to almost go to sleep. It has a nice enough nature and it is quite pretty for a spider, but it is the most boring of my pets. Except when it is running up the bedroom wall that is.
The Curly Haired Tarantula
Curley haired tarantulas tend to be quite active, so you do see more of them. They are a terrestrial species and in the wild they would live on the ground; or more precisely underneath the ground because they are a burrowing spider. I have known mine spend hours and hours walking around the wall of its home and I get dizzy just watching it.
I do not know if this is the same with all members of the species, but my Curly haired tarantula never seems keen to come out, and when I do manage to coax it onto my hand it usually just sits there and looks at me. It is very hard to encourage it to walk from one hand to the other. Would you believe it though? Putting it back into its home is just as hard because it clings to my hand. The awkward little so and so. Well not so little, it is actually quite a handful, in fact if it spreads its legs a little it can fill two hands quite easily.
The Chile Rose
Chile Rose tarantula spiders are, in my opinion, the best choice for a first pet spider. Like their curly haired cousins they are terrestrial, but they tend not to burrow, preferring instead to hide underneath a piece of propped wood or something similar. Mine is visible quite a lot and feels like part of the family. We sit on the couch and it sits on its log. It is usually quite happy to come out as well. I just put one hand in front of it and tap its behind with one of my fingers and it jumps straight onto my palm. It may sit there for a second or two, but never for long. It loves to walk from hand to hand and up and down my arm and rarely gets bored of it. It is a great spider and is a lovely cocoa color.
Chiles come in a few different colors and I have seen one or two that are a lovely delicate shade of pink.
Curly Haired Tarantula
Caring For Your Tarantula
Tarantula spiders are a very low maintenance pet. That cat mentioned at the beginning of this article will not only need feeding once or twice a day, but will also need plenty of love and attention. A dog may need more attention still. A spider though, can be left to its own devices and it will not fair any the worse for it.
Housing Your Tarantula
People use a variety of different things to house their tarantulas. A plastic fish tank, though, with a tight fitting lid is probably the cheapest option. Here in the UK you can buy one for about £5. The very best option however, in my opinion anyway, is probably a purpose built glass vivarium and your local dealer should probably be able to offer you advice about what will be the best for each breed of spider.
Arboreal spiders like the Pink toe prefer something taller, whereas the traditional cube shape would be a better bet for terrestrial species like Chile Roses and Curlies. Some spider keepers choose to use verticulite for the bottom of their vivariums, but I prefer to use a kind of peat substance that you can buy as a dried block from your local dealer (just add water and watch it expand). I actually buy mine from our local pound shop, though. It is cheaper. They sell it for using as potting compost, but it is just the same stuff as the pet shop sells.
You will also need a heat mat. You stand this underneath the vivarium, but make sure that only half of your viv is heated. That way your spider can choose to move if it gets too hot or too cold.
A spray bottle full of tap water is also a necessity. Pink toes prefer their homes to be quite humid so you will need to spray inside the viv once or twice a day, making sure that the peat is nice and damp. But not wet! Chiles are a different matter and their homes need only a light spraying maybe once a day or perhaps only every other day. If their home is too dry for them a good indication will be the fact that they will tend to spend a lot of time standing over their water bowl.
Important: You must not let any spider dehydrate!
Spiders do not have muscles, their bodies work on a system that is more akin to hydraulics, and they force body fluids into different areas of their anatomy in order to move. A dehydrated spider soon becomes an immobile spider and then a dead spider.
Curly haired tarantulas prefer their homes just a little more humid than a Chile does, but not nearly as damp as a pink toe would like.
Pink Toed Tarantula
Feeding Your Tarantula
Tarantulas are not big eaters and generally only need feeding two or three times a week. Live insects are the preferred dish of the day and crickets tend to be the staple for my tarantulas. My local dealer stocks both brown and black crickets and I tend to alternate between the two.
Occasionally I buy locusts for a change, but I never feed my spiders with either wax worms or mealworms, not because they cannot eat them, but because if the spiders don’t get them straight away the worms tend to loose themselves in the viv. Mealworms are particularly good at burrowing.
When it comes to their eating habits spiders are a law unto themselves and it is not unheard of for tarantulas to go for several months without food. As far as water goes Water Bites is the most popular choice. It is a kind of gel that comes dry packed in a plastic sachet and expands by an almost magical amount when added to water.
Spiders are not the only exotic pet I keep and so I need to always have a stock of crickets etc in my home. If I only kept spiders though, I think I would probably catch insects from the garden because spiders don’t eat much or often, so it would be pointless me keep buying crickets etc that might die before I used them.
Chile Rose Tarantula
Handling your tarantula
Every spider keeper will have his or her own opinions about what makes the best pet. I have already told you mine. You cannot handle all species of spider however. Some species, like Thai Blacks, for instance, are incredibly aggressive and if you put your hands or fingers anywhere near them they will bite. I have never been bitten myself but have been told that it feels similar to a bee or wasp sting and although tarantulas are a poisonous spider the venom is usually harmless to humans.
The greatest danger presented by being bitten by a tarantula spider is that you might have an allergic reaction to the venom. So, all in all, it is best to try to not get bitten in the first place. Species like Chilies etc are usually pretty placid and even if they were having real bad hairy legs day, they would tend to warn you of their mood rather than just biting you. All of the species that I have recommended as a good choice for a first pet spider have utricating hairs, which they can flick when they are annoyed. It is a natural defensive mechanism and if you should get one in your skin it is rather painful. So if your spider is flicking hairs at you think twice about picking it up at that point in time. Curlys are the worst for this and sometimes rather than flick they just fire them at you.
The second warning your spider will give you, if it is getting really peed off at you, is that it will rear up and expose its fangs. When it does this it is saying back off, dude or I will bite you, so you had better back off dude or it will.
None of my spiders have ever reared up like this, but I am aware of what it means if they do. If you are considering keeping a pet spider you need to be aware of it too. If your spider is happy to come onto your hand, as is often the case – especially with chilies—then just put your hand in front of it and use your other hand to encourage it to step into your palm.
A word of caution: A spider’s body is very fragile. Even a little fall of a few feet can kill it, so try to keep your hand above a table or the floor, anything at all, just make sure that if you do drop your spider you do not drop it far. Nobody likes to watch a pet die.