On the Keeping of Tarantulas

When I mention that I have tarantulas, there are rare occasions where the first reaction is not an expression of befuddlement. These unlikely times I instead will be met with "Wow! I've always wanted a tarantula!"

Hearing such a phrase tickles me greatly, primarily because it means that I have just found someone who will listen to me rant about the astounding nature of theraphosid spiders. On a less egotisitical level I am pleased to know that yet another person may be sucked into the hobby.

Luckily for those so intrigued, keeping tarantulas is a simple matter, requiring only a small container and a suitable food source. All that remains is minimal effort and the joys of observance. The hardest part of the process comes down to deciding which species most piques your interest.
Setting the choice of species aside, let us get to the meat of the issue: selecting a home for your tarantula.

A suitable container requires three things:
  • Security 
  • Adequate ventilation
  • Proper size
Security in the chosen container, as I can tell you from experience, may not be as obvious as one might think. A tarantula, like many arthropods, can squeeze its body through holes that deceptively appear too small. They are not as talented as certain roach species, but any holes for ventilation, or gaps between lid and container, should be no larger than half the tarantulas abdomen. Believe me on this. Lids should also close securely; a lid that snaps on is suitable, but more ideal are latches to hold the lids (or doors) closed.

Ventilation is critical in tarantula enclosures. While tarantulas don't have the heavy humidity requirements of some snakes, they should be provided with a moderate humidty between 40 and 60 percent. Fungus and mould can infest the enclosures substrate and, more rarely, the tarantula's booklungs, so the humidity is ideally provided through frequent misting rather than a saturated substrate.

Proper size is the simplest cage requirement to provide, and even with the largest species the enclosure sizes are far from overwhelming. A length of twice the tarantula's legspan, and a width and height of one-and-a-half the legspan are recommended as minimum for terrestrial (ground-dwelling) species. This gives the tarantula some room to wander, while keeping it safe from harm due to falling. Remember: tarantulas are essentially gooey sacs on legs, and the terrestrial tarantulas are often clumsy climbers. Arboreal and semi-arboreal species, by contrast, should have a container with height being the largest dimension. A measure of 1 1/2 L x 1 1/2 W x 2 H times the legspan is ideal for these climbing tarantulas. Larger dimensions can be provided, of course, with the only limiting factor being height for terrestrial tarantulas.

Once you have a proper home, there is minimal work to be done in the set up. You can get as elaborate as creating a fully functioning vivarium, although for the majority of species a set up consisting of an overturned margarine container and a lid with water will be adequate. Some type of substrate is desired, and virtually anything can be used, excepting sand. The substrate most commonly used, and most readily available, is chemicle- and fertilizer-free potting soil. This stuff holds humidity well, is non-toxic, and is easily spot cleaned. It also allows the burrowing species to do what they do.

With your new tarantula set up in a cozy home, all that remains is to get some food and watch what is one of the neatest feeding behaviours we can bring into our homes (second, in my book, only to the tongue-action of chameleons). Luckily for reptile keepers, tarantulas have a diet that is virtually identical to insectivorous reptiles. Mealworms, crickets, roaches and superworms form the staple diet of captive tarantulas, with small vertebrate prey being an acceptable treat. Vertebrate prey can include appropriately sized lizards and snakes, rodents, and birds. Care should be taken when feeding vertebrates to tarantulas, as adult animals are likely to have defensive abilities. Pinky mice are obviously not going to harm your tarantula, but an adult budgie (for instance) could likely cause some harm (although my money is still on the tarantula). Amphibians and fish are debatable feeders. Amphibians have potential to be toxic, but non-toxic species are safe to be fed rarely. Fish are best avoided, as rare indeed is the tarantula in the wild which would encounter fish.

To feed your tarantula simply drop the food item nearby. The tarantula will lunge forward, grabbing the prey with its pedipalps and chilicerae, and sink in its fangs. Most prey items die quickly (thankfully) and the tarantula will begin to feed as soon as the prey item is secure.

You've set up your tarantula in its new home and given it a good meal, now sit back, relax, and be thankful you chose to care for a tarantula instead of a dog.  Maintaining the tarantulas mini-habitat will take only moments of work each week. Just keep the place clean, and don't let the poor spider get too cold.

Spot cleaning the occasional bolus of prey remains and faeces helps to prevent mite infestation in the substrate, and the entire enclosure should be cleaned about every 6 months, or when it starts to have an odour. Wiping the glass with a mild vinegar and water solution is all the disinfecting required. Stronger disinfectants may be used, but the enclosure must be very thoroughly rinsed to prevent dosing your tarantula with harmful  chemicals, especially when using bleach.

Tarantulas can generally be kept at room temperature, but most species will be happiest close to 80F (27C... stupid Imperial system being more popular in the hobby). If supplemental heat is necessary -such as it is for us unlucky bastards who live in basements in Canada- it is best supplied with heat tape/pads under the tanks, as light bulbs will bother the tarantula through the visible light as well as dry out the enclosure faster.

There you are, tarantula care at its most basic. Soon we'll get into some of the best species for beginners, and some random tricks for care.

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