Pet Tarantula

What to Feed Your Pet Tarantula

All tarantulas are carnivorous, and they feed on living prey. Most tarantulas seem to prefer small insects and other invertebrates that don’t put up much of a fight when caught, which means the tarantulas get dinner by expending very little energy. Even the largest tarantulas would prefer to take half a dozen nearly defenseless crickets rather than have to fight with a single armored beetle that weighs the same as the combined weight of the crickets.

There are indeed records of wild tarantulas actually taking nestling birds and small rodents from their nests, as well as the occasional lizard, frog, and even small snake, but these are exceptions to the usual rule. Some tarantulas will take animals that have recently died, but in most cases they can only detect food when it moves, so a dead cricket will be ignored unless the mouth of the tarantula is actually placed over it.

Pet Tarantula1 What to Feed Your Pet Tarantula

(This sometimes is done with very ill tarantulas that can only eat squashed, freshly killed crickets.) The fangs inject a neuro­toxin that can kill prey up to the size of a mouse but gener­ally is harmless to humans. A very large tarantula has tremendous force in its chelicerae, however, and can drive a fang through a human fingernail.

Digestion takes place outside the body, with the spider regurgitating strong digestive juices on the prey, which usu­ally is wrapped in silk to help control it and also to store it for later meals. Remember, the tarantula does not actually swallow its food—what you see left in the terrarium are empty husks of crickets with all their soft tissues digested away. If you feed a very juicy morsel, such as a pinky mouse (a newborn mouse before its eyes open), to a tarantula, the spider will treat it just like a cricket, including mangling it by the maxillae of the pedipalps and producing a truly bloody mess. The remains will be shriveled skin bits with some car­tilage and other indigestible parts.

Tarantulas feed at night, as a rule, generally waiting for prey to wander near the opening of the burrow or scrape and trip a fine silk line that warns the spider that prey is near. When motion is detected close enough (less than a body length, usually) to the tarantula, the spider rapidly moves from the burrow, grabs the prey with its pedipalps and front legs, and injects it with venom that kills it or at least slows its heartbeat enough to prevent struggling.

Pet Tarantula 1 What to Feed Your Pet Tarantula

The prey may be eaten immediately or, if food is abundant, wrapped in silk and stored for later. A tarantula will feed until it is sated and will ignore prey if it is already full. Because of the low energy requirements of a tarantula, it needs little food, and an adult female tarantula may repro­duce and survive on only a few insect meals each month during the active season.

Pet Tarantula

What to Do If You Are Bitten by Your Pet Tarantula

If your tarantula bites you, which is likely only if you try to handle it or are careless when cleaning the cage, you could suffer some pain and possible bleeding because the taran­tula basically has driven small nails into your hand. The pain soon passes, but the area around the bite may become red and slightly swollen, and there may be a numbing tingle in the hand or adjacent fingers for a few hours to a day.

Keep the wound iced and apply an antibiotic salve to prevent sec­ondary infections. That’s usually about it—no fingers falling off, no heart attacks, no need for a visit to the emergency room. This applies to almost all common pet tarantulas, especially the species of Aphonopelma, Brachypelma, Avicularia, and Grammostola found in pet shops.

Pet Tarantula What to Do If You Are Bitten by Your Pet Tarantula

If you are bitten by one of the potentially dangerous South American, African, or Asian tarantulas, it would be wise to spend the rest of the day just reading or watching TV and avoiding exercise that could spread venom. If you feel any shortness of breath or notice an irregular heartbeat, have someone calmly drive you to an emergency room for observation. Almost certainly nothing will happen, but one never knows for sure. Individual reactions to any venom (from bees to rattiesnakes) vary greatly, and self-induced hys­teria over the potential danger of a bite could be worse than the venom itself. Remember, there is no hard evidence that any tarantula in captivity has actually killed anyone, and most bites don’t even inject any venom (so-called dry bites).

Avoid speculative treatment for bites. At the moment, there is no antidote for a venomous bite and very little evi­dence to show that one is needed. There also is no real evi­dence that the venom of a big Theraphosa spp. is the same as that of a feather-leg or that either would react well to injec­tions of widow spider (Latrodectus spp.) antivenin.

Pet Tarantula 11 What to Do If You Are Bitten by Your Pet Tarantula

Treatment, if any, presumably would have to be supportive to stabilize breathing and heartbeat. I’m not aware of any such treatment ever being needed in theUnited States, though thousands of people keep tarantulas, including many of the potentially dangerous species, and bites are not uncommon.

Pet Tarantula

What to Do If You Are Allergic to Your Pet Tarantula

It is quite possible that you could have an allergic reaction (anaphylactic shock) to even a small amount of venom from a harmless tarantula, much as some people react badly to a bee sting. An allergic reaction assumedly could include a rash, itching, shortness of breath, and collapse. Anaphylactic shock can be treated in familiar ways in any emergency room, but again I’m not aware any cases in theUnited States.

You are much more likely to develop localized and some­times dangerous rashes from the urticating hairs on the abdomens of many common American tarantulas. The species of Aphonopelma and Brachypelma, among others, are notorious for kicking thick clouds of bristles off their abdomens with a hind leg, and the webs of Avicularia species are notoriously bristle-laden.

Pet Tarantula What to Do If You Are Allergic to Your Pet Tarantula

Pseudotheraphosa spp. and Theraphosa spp. hairs can cause extensive bleeding sores on humans. The cages of any of these tarantulas may be coated inside with urticating hairs, which could be breathed in each time you open the cage. Then the bristles can work their way into your nose, lips, and mouth, where they cause irritation to mucous tissues with swelling and redness. If a tarantula sprays you with bristles, many could become embedded in the tissues around your eye (or even in the eye itself), causing painful swelling and even temporary blind­ness until the eye is cleaned by a doctor. A child holding a tarantula next to the face could be in serious, though tem­porary, trouble. Hand-washing is a must after handling tarantulas and their cages.

There are many anecdotal reports of keepers developing allergies to urticating hairs and being forced to give up their tarantulas or face repeated hospital treatment, and some perhaps are true. There is little doubt that irritation from these bristles can be painful and annoying, and if present in large numbers, the bristles could cause serious eye and throat problems (possibly blocking the air passages or caus­ing blindness).

Pet Tarantula 1 What to Do If You Are Allergic to Your Pet Tarantula

It seems that the bristles do not carry any toxins, so the damage they cause is strictly physical, a result of the barbs having worked their way into the tissues; this means that true allergic reactions are not likely, though cer­tainly not impossible. Rashes on the hands and arms are commonly treated with hydrocortisone creams, whereas affected eyes may need special rinses under the guidance of a doctor. Urticating hairs are not something to ignore if you believe you could have stronger than normal reactions to everyday activities involving your tarantula.


What Is The Ideal Temperature To Keep Tarantulas?

Burrows and retreats are relatively humid and thus cooler than the surrounding surface, plus the substrate itself helps insulate the spider from extremes of temperatures. In nature the tarantula’s burrow usually is situated in a shaded or par­tially shaded area where vegetation or rocks help divert dry­ing winds, increasing humidity and decreasing temperature. This means that all common terrestrial tarantulas can be kept without addi­tional heating in most homes. Tarantulas also can survive quite well when the retreat temperature drops to as little as60°F(15.5°C), though they become sluggish and won’t feed.

Remember, this is the temperature in the retreat, not the ambient cage temperature.

Tarantulas1 What Is The Ideal Temperature To Keep Tarantulas?

Use a thermometer to measure the temperature both in the center of the terrarium (ambient) and the retreat (spe­cific). Don’t just guess; few people can accurately judge tem­peratures, especially in the high relative humidity in a retreat.

Extra Heat

If extra heat is needed (indicated by a tarantula becoming sluggish and curling up in the warmest area of the terrarium), you can try using a small undertank heating pad under a third of the cage floor away from the retreat. Never place heating pads under the entire floor, as this could force a burrowing tarantula to try to make its retreat in an area of excessive heat, leading to stress and death. Be sure all heaters (pads, strips) are correctly installed and not subject to dangerous shorts that could lead to fires.

Keep tarantula terraria away from air conditioners and heating vents; I’m not aware of tarantulas being able to catch respiratory viruses (“colds”), but certainly they are not adapted to moving warm or cold air.

Tarantulas 11 What Is The Ideal Temperature To Keep Tarantulas?

If you need just a little bit of extra heat for a terrarium during the winter, try using a small (15 watts maximum) incandescent red light-bulb over the cage. A bulb larger than this can lead to excessive heat and dehydration. The red color will allow you to watch your pet as it moves around during the night. Never place a bulb within the cage, as it could easily cause bums when the tarantula crawls over it and cov­ers it with webbing. Be very careful whenever offering extra heat to a tarantula—make sure your thermometer is working well and is placed so you know the specific temperature in the retreat, which must not exceed86°F(30°C).

Tarantulas as Pets

Things You Should Know When Choosing a Tarantula for a Pet

Finding the perfect tarantula can be difficult, as many commonly imported species (especially from Africa andAsia) are simply too aggressive to make good pets for the beginning or intermediate keeper. The most col­orful American tarantulas tend to be expensive, but if you can find affordable half-grown to adult specimens, they probably make the best pets.

Tiny spiderlings are less expensive but harder to care for. After you have become used to caring for a grown tarantula, you may find it easier to care for spiderlings. First, however, let’s try to relieve your fears about whether it truly is safe to own a tarantula as a pet.

Tarantulas as Pets1 Things You Should Know When Choosing a Tarantula for a Pet

The Deadly Tarantula?

Tradition has branded tarantulas as venomous killers that would not hesitate to attack a human. This idea has been around for at least three hundred years and is widespread in novels, movies, television, and even some scientific books. (The most widely used book on identifying North American spiders erroneously mentions the “deadly bite” of some South American tarantulas.) The reality is quite differ­ent, because tarantulas are shy, secretive animals that cer­tainly wouldn’t attack something the size of a human unless cornered with no way to escape. Yes, laboratory tests do show that for some reason tarantula venom is especially toxic to small mice and rats, and this has been taken as evi­dence that a bite may be dangerous to humans. Humans are not mice, fortunately, and experience proves that the bites of most (but not all) tarantulas are fairly harmless.

Exceptions occur, however, and there is good reason to believe (though actual scientific evidence is sparse) that American tarantulas belonging to the genera Acanthoscurria, Themphosa, Phormictopus, Tapenauchenius, and Lasiodora could cause more widespread reactions, including short­ness of breath and swelling of an arm, for more than a day. These also happen to be generally aggressive spiders that do not fail to defend themselves if approached.

Even more potentially dangerous are many or most tarantulas from Africa andAsia. Though none of the species in the hobby are certain to have caused major human prob­lems, the ornamental tarantulas (Poecilotheria spp.) ofIndiaandSri Lankahave certainly caused severe shortness of breath and uneven heartbeats, reportedly resulting in hospi­talization. The large earth tigers of southernAsia(Haplopelma spp.) are reputed to be just as bad. InAfrica, the feather-legged tarantulas (Stromatopelma spp.) are greatly feared, and there is some evidence that their venom can affect the human heart. Similarly, the very aggressive baboon spiders of southern Africa (Citharischius spp., Ceratogyrus spp., and Pterinochilus spp.) are reputed to cause more than temporary swelling and numbness from their bites and have close relatives (Harpactirella spp.) that are said to have killed humans.

It is fairly certain that the release of venom is under vol­untary control of the spider, and only a few bites to predators (meaning you) are likely to release a significant amount of venom. This makes it even harder to determine whether a tarantula truly is dangerous to humans, as anecdotal evi­dence from even many bites doesn’t prove that the venom has had a chance to act. Play it safe if you plan to keep any of these tarantulas; keep their cages securely covered and locked and never handle the spiders.

Tarantulas as Pets 11 Things You Should Know When Choosing a Tarantula for a Pet

Are tarantulas deadly? No, probably not. Are they danger­ous? Yes, just a few. Make sure to consider the danger potential when choosing a pet tarantula. Your best choices for a “safe” tarantula certainly would be a Mexican red-knee (Bmchypelma smithi) or painted red-leg (Brachypelma emilia), followed by any other Brachypelma species. North American Aphonopelma species and Chilean rose tarantulas (Cirammostola rosea) probably are safe, as are the pink-toes (Avicularia spp.), if you have enough experience to take care of fast-moving spiders. OfOld World tarantulas, the starburst tarantulas (Pterinochilus spp.) may be safe, though there have been a few reports of localized reactions to bites. Anecdotal evidence casts doubt on the safety of other tarantulas.

Tree-Dwellers Tarantulas

Tips on Housing Tree-Dwellers Tarantulas

Some tropical tarantulas have made the move from the ground to shrubs and trees. There they spin thick, unsightly webs over tree holes in which they spend the day. The web­bing helps them maintain the proper relative humidity and temperature for life. Consider the problems of living in a tree: wind drives down the humidity, sunlight bakes you, and a tree hole can never provide as much insulation as a burrow in the ground can. Yet tarantulas from both the New World (Avicularia spp. and Psalmopoeus spp.) andOld World(Stromatopelma spp. and Poecilotheria spp.) have made the transition successfully.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, most tree-dwelling tarantulas live quite well in a normal vermiculite-based terrarium. They tend to spend most of their time near the top and cover the sides with so much webbing that owners seldom see them, but they will feed and even breed in these cir­cumstances.

Tree Dwellers Tarantulas Tips on Housing Tree Dwellers Tarantulas

Advanced keepers, however, want to give their tree-dwellers a more natural-looking setup, so they tend to use high, narrow cages (often just 6 inches [15.2 cm] square at the base and 12 to 16 inches [30.5 to40.6 cm] high) that contain a real or artificial branch, often with a small retreat hole, on which the spiders can attach their webbing. Many hobbyists specializing in tree-dwellers like to build their own cages of glass and plastic, but some find that turning a 20-gallon (75.6-L) aquarium on its side and building a secure cover for the now-vertical front works well for larger species. Some even house young tree-dwellers in the plastic boxes designed to hold Beanie Babies and similar stuffed toys—these boxes are roughly 4 inches square (10 cmsquare) and about 8 inches (20 cm) long.

The cage for a tree-dweller, regardless of species, usually includes a layer of damp vermiculite in its base to supply needed humidity (in addition to daily misting). Tree-dwellers are adapted to live at a somewhat lower relative humidity level than terrestrial tarantulas are, and most will tolerate 50 percent humidity within their web retreats. Remember that humidity is measured within the retreat, not at the center of the cage. Though some can withstand quite warm temperatures and bright lights, most tarantulas are best kept in low tight levels and at normal room temperatures, much as you would keep a red-knee or king baboon. These species may be tough, but they still are tarantulas.

Tree Dwellers Tarantulas 1 Tips on Housing Tree Dwellers Tarantulas

Make sure the branch used as the center point of the ter­rarium is clean. Many branches you just pick up in the yard contain ant colonies that can devastate a tarantula colony. Colony, that reminds me of one other difference between tree-dwellers and terrestrials. Some tree-dwellers live quite well together as long as they are of similar size, are well fed, and have a multitude of suitable retreats present so there is no fighting. There still is a risk of losing a molting tree-dwelling tarantula to its cagemate, but the risk is not as great as with terrestrials. Consider colony arrangements, but also consider the risks.

Tarantulas as Pets

Tarantulas as Pets – Captive-Bred Versus Wild-Caught

Many tarantulas have small geographic ranges and probably don’t occur in large numbers in the wild. They also face the usual problems tropical animals do, including loss of suit­able habitat due to conversion of forests to pastures and savannas to villages, as well as total flooding of huge areas by hydroelectric dams.

Add to this a sometimes massive col­lecting of attractive species for the pet trade, and you can understand why some tarantula species have become greatly reduced in numbers in the wild. Even in theUnited States, where native tarantulas are not that popular as pets, large numbers lose their homes to land conversion, and ines­timable numbers of males are killed each year by automo­biles as they cross roads while looking for females.

Tarantulas as Pets Tarantulas as Pets   Captive Bred Versus Wild Caught

In 1985, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) listed the very popular and colorful Mexican red-knee tarantula (Brachypelma smithi), which effectively allowed Mexico to pro­hibit exportation of the species and its relatives while receiv­ing cooperation from the United States and other countries that recognized the CITES treaty ( Red-knees virtually disappeared from the market except for those smuggled out ofMexico (a practice that continues even today) and older specimens already established in col­lections. Fortunately, this species has females that live for more than twenty years in captivity and breed fairly easily, so within a few years the first tiny captive-bred spiderlings became available for sale. They sold at higher prices than adults had sold a few years earlier, but they found a good market and became an incentive for many breeders to try their hand at captive breeding a variety of tarantulas. Today, perhaps about twenty-five species are bred on a regular basis, with spiderlings available for just a few dollars even when very expensive imported adults are available.

By all means, start with captive-bred tarantulas of one of the common species. The most common ones generally are also the most attractive and docile, and they make the best pets until you gain more experience. Captive-breds usually are healthy, are of known age, and often have been sexed by experts based on details of their shed skins. Imports may be dehydrated and carry bacterial infections and intestinal worms; little may be known about how to establish them in the terrarium.

Tarantulas as Pets 1 Tarantulas as Pets   Captive Bred Versus Wild Caught

Unfortunately, the cheapest spiderlings are tiny and look nothing like the adults; they might be hard to tell from spi­ders you notice around the house. Each spiderling needs its own small cage and careful feeding. It grows slowly, with the males often taking three to five years to mature and females taking six to eight years. They may not resemble the adults until they are three or four years old. However, you can house many different species in a small area and spend relatively little money for what, with patience, will become a great collection of beautiful adults.

Molted Skins

Sexing a Tarantula from Molted Skins

Handling a tarantula always is problematic, and holding it upside down can be stressful to both you and the spider. Instead, many breeders prefer to determine sex, especially of females, by examining cast skins under a microscope.

The procedure is moderately complicated and requires both experience with a variety of species at different ages and a reference collection of shed skins, preferably of spiders fol­lowed through to their maturity molts (males) or to the lay­ing of eggs (females). In basic terms, the skin is soaked in soapy water to make it flexible, and then the underside of the anterior abdomen is examined. Remember that you are looking at the skin from the inside out, preferably with a bright light shining through the skin toward the observer.

Molted Skins Sexing a Tarantula from Molted Skins

(At least a 10 x loupe is required, and a stereomicroscope is much better.) Find the four book lungs, which appear as two pairs of whitish squares. Between the generally smaller front pair will be the epigastric furrow, and in the center of this will be a pore that is the primary opening to the internal sexual organs. In a male, the furrow is simple and low, with­out projections.

In a female, even an immature one, there should be small tubes or pockets to the front of the furrow; these are the spermathecae (singular, spermatheca), which are sacs in which the female stores sperm inserted by the male to fertilize the eggs at a later date. As a rule, the tubes are narrow, are widely separated along the furrow, and end in rounded bulbs, but they also may end in a pair of bulbs (as in king baboons) or have very wide bases that together cover much of the length of the furrow and are much wider than the bulbs at their ends (Costa Rican striped-knee).

Molted Skins 1 Sexing a Tarantula from Molted Skins

In most of the common Brachypelma species (including the red-knee and painted red-leg), the spermathecae are fused into a single oval pocket the width of the furrow and lack distinct external bulbs. Regardless of shape, the shed skin of a female tarantula more than about six months to a year old should show the spermathecae.Some tarantula clubs and experts offer to sex your taran­tula from a shed skin. The price is low and the degree of accuracy is high, so if the service is available, utilize it.

Tarantula Is Molting

How to Tell if Your Tarantula Is Molting

Many hobbyists fear the molt because of the possibility of a molt-related death. However, this separation of the new and old exoskeletons is essential if the tarantula is to grow. The new skin is fully developed under the old skin up to several weeks before the molt; the old skin must shed to allow the new skin to be exposed, fill with fluids, and harden upon contact with the air.

A healthy tarantula should have no trouble during a molt, except possibly a broken leg, and it usually can take care of this itself. Death occasionally occurs for unknown reasons, perhaps due to an internal problem in the tarantula that we cannot detect, but since an adult tarantula probably has gone through more than a dozen molts, the process must be quite safe.

Tarantula Is Molting1 How to Tell if Your Tarantula Is Molting

Many tarantulas turn on their backs to molt, possibly because they find it easier to pull their legs out of the old skin downward rather than upward. In American tarantu­las that have rubbed the top of the abdomen bare, you sometimes can notice a darkening of the area caused by hemolymph accumulating between the old and new skins, but otherwise the only sign of impending molting may be that the spider stops feeding for a week or two. Molting generally takes place at night, in a secluded corner or under a cover, and may take just an hour or less. The old skin splits at the front and side edges of the carapace, and the tarantula simply pulls its entire body out through the opening. All chitinous surfaces are molted, which includes not only the mouthparts, but also the lining of the gut and other internal structures. The cast skin is a nearly perfect reproduction of the tarantula, as you might expect, and is helpful for sexing young tarantulas and correctly identify­ing species. Shed skins commonly are taken out, dried, wrapped loosely in tissue paper, and stored in labeled boxes for a record of growth.

Tarantula Is Molting 1 How to Tell if Your Tarantula Is Molting

In theory, the environment should have little to do with the success of a molt, but observations indicate that a taran­tula that is kept too dry will have more chances of dying during a molt. Perhaps if the relative humidity is too low (less than 60 percent) the odds increase that the new skin will dry to inflexibility before it can be pulled out of the old skin. Regardless, help prevent problems by making sure the humidity near the molting tarantula is sufficient.

Tarantula Eggs

How to Take Care of Tarantula Eggs

For the next three to six months, the female continues life as usual, though she should be fed more heavily if possible to help her build up food reserves before laying. Eventually she will construct a loose web in her burrow and either molt or lay eggs. If she molts, the sperm are cast aside with her old exoskeleton, and she can no longer lay fertile eggs. If instead she comes out without molting and rolls the web into a stiff (usually oval) case then she has laid her eggs.

Tarantulas may lay from less than a hundred (Theraphosa spp.) to more than a thousand (Citharischius spp.) eggs in a clutch, with no obvious correlation between clutch size and age of the female.

Tarantula Eggs How to Take Care of Tarantula Eggs

Normally, females guard their egg cases by hovering over them, protecting them from attacks by ants, other spiders, predatory insects, and possibly fungus. If stressed, the female may rip open the case and eat her eggs (which admittedly are a good food but certainly not the result you are looking for), so, leave her alone as much as possible. A guarding female usually continues to eat (some keepers withhold food to prevent insects disturbing the case) and otherwise behaves fairly normally. If the egg case is hung in a dense web placed within the burrow and not pro­tected under the body of the mother, the female may become even more aggressive than normal. Each day the mother rotates the egg case several times, equivalent to a hen turning her eggs.

If you leave the egg case with the female, you will notice after about six weeks that the case has been torn apart and the eggs are missing. If you look carefully, you should notice at least some spiderlings in tiny burrows scattered over the cage bottom, where they probably will die because you will not be able to feed them or even separate them from the mother. For this reason, most breeders corner the female after she has cared for the case for a month and remove the egg case to a separate container, where it can be watched and the young rescued immediately. Remember that mother tarantulas may be exceptionally aggressive.

Generally the egg case is placed in a small plastic cup (such as a cup used for delicatessen salads) with a cover to keep the humidity at 65 percent. Roll the case at least three or four times a day. In about two weeks, the eggs should be six weeks old and, for most species, near hatching. Carefully slit the case open with small scissors and pour the contents into a shallow covered dish (such as a petri dish) with a circle of laboratory filter paper on the bottom. The eggs may be in any of three or four stages of develop­ment. Some will be simply round cream to brown eggs that are still far from hatching. Others (perhaps the great majority) will be postembryos, which look like an unmoving hump holding on to the egg with partially developed legs. The postembryo cannot move and is still using the yolk of the egg to continue development. If kept clean and at about 65 percent humidity, these will continue to develop into spiderlings.

Tarantula Eggs 1 How to Take Care of Tarantula Eggs

In many cases, most of what is released from the egg case will be first instars, which look like pale, often trans­parent, little spiders that can move around and feed. These generally molt within a few days into second instars, which have more substance and often the beginnings of a color pattern (which seldom comes close to that of the adult). At this point, the yolk sac has been absorbed and the spider­lings are distinct little individuals.