American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) Care Sheet
So you've decided that normal herps weren't doing it for you. You wanted something more aggressive, something more challenging. Something that would strike fear in the hearts of other reptile owners at your local pet store. Something perhaps, like an alligator!
You did it. You went out and got yourself a gator. You excitedly take him to his new home, obsessively stroking him because you've never felt anything like his skin before. You begin imagining all the wonderful things you'll do together, and decide that not a day will go by that you won't play with him. You'll have his enclosure immaculately decorated, and it will make all your friends and family jealous. But you soon find that he doesn't want to be held, and often tries fighting you off when you go to pick him up. He constantly knocks over the decorations, breaking and biting them. Your water is always dirty and cloudy, although you have the right size filter for the amount of water in your tank. Dead fish float unmercifully throughout the water causing it to smell horrible, because he just kills them and does not eat them. You find yourself having to change the water every two days, which seemingly does nothing but disrupt the cycle that you are trying to create to keep healthy fish, and a healthy gator. With all of the water changes, your gator seems to do nothing but hide form you all the time. It's only been a month or two, yet somehow is already too big for his tank. Owning a gator has somehow lost it's luster, and you realize that you are spending all of your free time cleaning the tank. You begin to get angry that no matter what you do, he never wants you near him, let alone touch him. You decide that you don't want him anymore, and so you try to get rid of him, but no one wants him. The local pet stores won't take him, and no one is calling about your ad in the local newspaper. There's only one thing left to do?
This is what I imagine happens when people are not prepared before purchasing a gator. They assume that caring for one will be like any other herp, and are quickly discouraged when the reality of owning one suddenly slaps them in the face. You may have quite an extensive knowledge of both alligators and crocodiles, but knowing and owning are two very different things. That is why I have prepared this basic care sheet for you, which is based on some resources, but mostly out of my own experience.
If you have no prior experience with reptiles or fish, I would not recommend getting a gator. Owning a gator requires a good amount of knowledge of both reptiles and fish; their habits, needs, and maintenance. Additionally, if you are seeking a gator as a companion, owning one is not for you. They nether prefer nor like to be touched, and the tamest they will get is moderately aggressive. At a mere 3 feet in length, a good bite is potentially lethal. Gators require what I like to call the four "P's". Planning, precaution, patience, and persistence.
Always plan first. Planning helps you to be prepared, and being prepared ensures that you will be ready for most situations when/if they arrive.
Being pre-cautious is a must. Gators are very fast on both land and water. Although they are strongest in the water, they are capable of bursts of speed up to 30mph for a length of 50-60 ft. Taking steps to be safe should be common sense.
Patience is a virtue. There will be many obstacles to overcome dealing with just about everything from feeding and cleaning schedules, to interaction and maintenance. If you are not patient, you could jeopardize the safety of both you and your gator.
Persistence is self-explanatory. Never give up. Set your goals and stick to them, and all parties will benefit in the long run.
The purpose of this is simply to inform you of the harsh realities that come with the responsibility of having a gator. It is by no means intended to dissuade your decision.
Two of the biggest issues with owning a gator is the size of the enclosure, and the duration of time owners are willing to keep them. If you are serious about owning one, you must consider this as a long-term investment. While juveniles are fairly easy to maintain, adults require a large amount of space and are the most difficult to keep. Another issues is that of growth. There are many variables that effect this, and all gators grow at different rates. It's good practice to always be prepared. Preparation and planning are the keys to owning a healthy gator.
It's a good idea to have your enclosure ready before you get him. By this, I mean your water needs to have a cycle already established. When fish extract oxygen from water, they release ammonia as a byproduct. The ammonia is broken down into nitrite, which is then broken down into another form of bacteria, nitrate. Nitrate are not present in new tanks, and they need time to replicate. These bacterium are essential in keeping healthy fish because they break down the dangerous quantities of ammonia and nitrite in the water. This process also takes about a month, and is not started until fish are added. Dropping your gator in his new tank with fish at the same time will produce disastrous results. The fish will not be able to breathe, and will die very quickly. This will cause the amount of ammonia and nitrite in the water to skyrocket, causing potentially dangerous levels of ammonia.
The best types of fish to use are small barbs (tiger, gold, rosy), larger tetras (head and tail light, red eye, red minor, buenos aires), danios (zebra, leopard, pearl, gold) and rasboras (heteromorpha, scissortail, redtail, brilliant) because of their high tolerance to ammonia and nitrite. After adding the fish, it is important that you do not add any more until the cycle has been completed. After completion, the tank should be ready for your long-awaited friend.
I found a pet store recently that was selling hatchlings so I decided to ask the owner of the store her recommendations for housing.
Q: What size tank do you recommend for a hatchling?
A: "A 20-gallon aquarium should easily hold a hatchling."
This is wrong. More detailed information will be provided in the "Enclosure" section.
Q: About how fast do they grow? A: "Alligators grow for the first five years, at about 6"-8" a year, but if the enclosure is small, the alligator will not grow as fast."
This is terribly wrong. There are many variables as to the exact rate of a young gators growth, but she was not even close to the approximate margin. In addition to this, she (like many others) falls prey to one of the most horrific myths pertaining to gators. More detailed information is provided in the section "Approximations and Growth."
One of the main places to receive incorrect information is local pet stores. Many owners are hobbyists, and may only know about a few common species; whether they be reptilian or mammalian. Always research.
Many people say when building an enclosure you should use the gators snout-to-vent length as your variable. I disagree with this. Different parts of the body grow at different rates; more specifically the brain case. This particular part of the gators body is always the last to grow, and has highest differential in size throughout juvenile growth. The bottom line is the brain case grows entirely too sporadically to use as a basis for measurement. Using the gators total body length allows for a more precise, and more precautionary approach.
Hatchlings are usually between 7"-9" inches in total length. Your land mass should be 1.5 x (total length) long, by (total length) wide. This ensures your gator will have enough space to bask without feeling trapped. You may have a larger size land mass, but be sure your open water area meets the criteria below before experimenting with larger sizes.
Your open water area should be either 3-4 x (total length) long, by 2-3 x (total length) wide, by 1.5 x (total length) high OR 2-3 x (total length) long, by 3-4 x (total length) wide, by 1.5 x (total length) high. This may seem a bit grandiose, but your gator will spend most of the time in the water. In order to keep him healthy and happy, he needs a large amount of space to be able to swim. This also allots extra space needed to compensate for his rapid growth (which will be discussed next). You may not have any problems with adjusting the size of the land mass, however, these water sizes are important to the development of your gator and being thus, should not be altered outside of the recommended sizes.
I suggest starting out with a 55 gallon+ tank to ensure you will have the space to allow him to grow while planning his next enclosure.
The growth of a young gator greatly depends on temperature and feeding, but they grow approximately one foot (1') to a foot and a half (1' ½") a year for the first seven years. This DOES NOT depend on the size of the enclosure. If you have a gator in a tank that is too small, you can permanently deform him. This can also make him very sick, and severely effects his chances of survival.
Overall temp should be 83-85 F with a basking temp of 94-97 F. Gators prefer warmer water, so a water temp of 80 F would be ideal.
You may be asking why these temperatures are so specific. Gators are exothermic. What this means is their main source of body heat is taken from their environment. Like many herps they bask to gain warmth and store energy. When they have stored enough energy, or they become over-heated, they will then submerge themselves in the water. Even though they are extremely adaptive, the slightest change in temperature will not only effect growth, but appetite as well. When the temperature drops below 80F they will not feed as often, and if it drops below 73F they will stop feeding altogether.
The use of thermometers is extremely important. Placing one at the basking area, one on the opposite side of the tank or enclosure, and one in or at the water will help you determine all the necessary temperatures.
As discussed in the "Enclosure" section, a young gator needs lots of water, and trying to keep a steady temperature with your average tank heater just won't cut it. An external heater would be best, but using a 300 watt aquatic heater should keep your water temp steady in up to a 100 gallon tank. Remember to always use a heater with a thermostat.
It is imperative you keep a specific schedule for lighting your enclosure, so the use of automated timers is a must. Depending on the season, gators require specific durations of light. These are roughly:
Spring: 12 hours
Summer: 14 hours
Fall: 10 hours
Winter: 8 hours
Use of UVB and UVA lights is necessary. Make sure to place the lights above the land mass to provide the best possible basking area. The best source of heat during the night would be an infrared light bulb. These bulbs are ceramic and provide heat without light, and are perfect for keeping the basking area warm. Remember, gators are nocturnal. All though they typically hunt at night and sleep during the day, it is not uncommon to have an active gator when the sun is up. However, lighting your enclosure at night posts a possibility of disturbing the natural instincts and/or cycle of your gator, and could possibly make him ill.
Gators make quite a mess, and a normal tank filter will not do. An external filter would be your best bet. It should be for the size of your tank, not the amount of water you will have in it. For example, if you have a 55 gallon tank with 20 gallons of water, your filter should be for a 55 gallon tank. This may be expensive, but as I aforementioned, owning a gator is not cheap.
Gators eat a lot. I'm sure many people will recommend different things, but I will tell you what has worked for me. I find that good mixed diet will allow the proper nutrition young gators need. Dietary supplements can be used, but I don't prefer it. Also, it is good to have a regular feeding schedule, and use the same type of feeding each time.
My recomendations for types:
Fish (goldfish, barbs, danios, minnows, rasboras, tetras)
While feeder goldfish are the most inexpensive, adding other types of fish can make your tank look much more lively, and give your gator a choice for his late-night snacks.
Start with crickets and fish in your tank and allow him a week or so to get used to his new environment. This way ensures that he knows there is food always available for snacking. Then, when he has had time to adjust, begin slowly introducing the pinky's. It will be tough at first to get him on a regular feeding schedule, but it is well worth it in the long run. It is also very important that he sees you placing the pinky's in the tank. This shows him that you are responsible for his care, and will build trust over time. Also, there should be a regular ritual for feeding. When I bring my gators food home I go to the tank and hold the brown sandwich bag out so he can see it. He knows this means it's feeding time, and he gets very excited; occasionally jumping in and out of the water.
As he grows, you will need to upgrade the size of your feeders, and either the number of pinky's, or begin feeding him fuzzy's.
My feeding schedule for my gator (6 months old) is as follows:
Feeder fish always available
1 dozen crickets every 10 days
2 fuzzy's (if they don't have any it's 3-4 pinky's depending on size) every 4 days
Although it will be very difficult to gage exact days for cleaning at first, your best bet is to stick with an aquarium-type schedule. Your land mass will require just as much cleaning as your water, and cleaning them separately is not recommended. Water changes and cleaning should be done the same day. This will become quite a big job, but when done all at once it limits the amount of "intrusions" in your gators environment. If done regularly, your gator will learn that this is a normal process, and not your attempt to "eat" him.
You can decorate the tank as you see fit, but keep in mind your gator will more than likely just knock everything over, and/or destroy/try to eat it. Just make sure what you use is well grounded, and non-toxic.
It is important that you perform good practices while owning your gator. Good husbandry is always necessary, but it pays to be scientific as well. Once a month I measure my gators head, body and tail, so that I can calculate his rate of growth. This gives me an approximation on when I should have his next enclosure ready.
Gators like calm or slow moving water. Though it is not possible to keep a healthy gator or fish in stagnant water, there are little tricks you can do to keep the water constantly moving, and still have a happy gator. Placing pumps or wave-makers at the very bottom of the tank will not only keep the water moving, it will help push particles and waste toward the filter without disturbing the surface.