Pet Tarantula Care– ALL You NEED to Know!

Published Categorized as Tarantula Care
pet tarantula

Keeping and Caring for Tarantulas as Pets

Tarantula 101

Tarantulas are large, hairy spiders that have been often been vilified by stories in books, movies, and urban legends. Let’s take a look at these animals through the lens of truth, rather than fiction, as see if we can’t help improve their image.

Tarantulas are the largest spiders in the world and are found in almost all mild and tropical climates, from 40 degrees latitude (northern California) in the United States down to Chile in the Western Hemisphere, and China down to Australia in the Eastern Hemisphere. 

Some live in warm tropical rain-forests, and others live in desert highlands that may experience snow from time to time.

They’re generally hairy, come in an incredible variety of colors and sizes, and have enormous black fangs.  To grow, they molt out of their exoskeletons, a process that may take exhaustive hours of struggle. 

Some arboreal tarantulas (such as members of the genera Avicularia and Poecilotheria) prefer to live in trees and on the sides of buildings.  Others, such as the King Baboons (Citharischius crawshayi), spend their time in self-constructed burrows. 

There are tarantulas that can cross streams, some with no eyes, and some that make a hissing sound by “stridulating” or rubbing specialized bristles. 

Beyond their obvious similarities of eight legs, fangs, and fuzziness, different species and even different individuals of the same species are, well, different- just like people, cats, and dogs.

First, what makes a spider a tarantula? The descriptors “large” and “hairy” don’t quite cover it, as their are many spiders in the world that fit this description that are not tarantulas. (Some people find a wolf spider in their house and think they have found a young tarantula!)

For one, all tarantulas have eight eyes, while some other spiders can have six. Tarantulas have two retractable claws at the end of their legs, like a cat. The fangs of the tarantula are “hinged” to move vertically (up and down), while the fangs of other spiders move horizontally.

Take these characteristics, and cover them in hair, and you have the basic qualifications of a tarantula.

Where Do Tarantulas Live?

Oh Give Me a Home, Where My Tarantula Can Roam!

Tarantulas make their homes in one of two places; in/on the ground, or in trees. Ground dwelling tarantulas are called terrestrial, while tree dwelling tarantulas are called arboreal. If you are purchasing your first tarantula, be sure to do enough research to find out which one your tarantula is, as they each have different caging requirements.

Terrestrial tarantulas are more concerned with the length and width of the cage than height. The general consensus is that the minimum floor space is 1.5 – 2 times the leg span of the tarantula. The height of the cage should be enough that the spider can flip over onto it’s back (for molting). Many people go the inexpensive route and purchase plastic storage containers (shoe/sweater box) and ventilation holes drilled into them. Aquariums are also popular choices, but you must be careful that the tank is not too high. Terrestrial tarantulas will explore their tank, which includes climbing the sides and the lid to the tank. There is a good chance that the spider could lose it’s hold and fall to the cage floor. If the spider is too high off of the ground when it falls, that could spell trouble for the tarantula.

Arboreal tarantulas love to climb and will rarely be seen on the floor of their cage. Because of this, these tarantulas should have a cage with greater height than length or width. Many tarantula keepers will turn an ordinary plastic tank or glass aquarium on end, giving the arboreal spider the vaulted ceiling it was born for.

In either case, you want to be sure that you provide water (in a shallow dish), air (ventilation), either a place to hide (cork bark or half-buried flower pot) or enough substrate to dig a burrow of their own, and food. Decorations for your tarantulas cage are strictly up to your tastes. Believe it or not, your spider doesn’t really care!

Tarantula Anatomy

Let’s take a look at the parts of the tarantula. That big, round, hair covered back-side (sometimes resembling a kiwi) is the abdomen. Some tarantulas, like those living in the Americas, will flick their hairs when they become agitated or threatened. This can cause some tarantulas to have bald patches on their abdomen. (The hair does grow back with the next shedding of their exoskeleton.)

Our wild-caught Aphonopelma chalcodes (Mexican Blond).

Tarantulas, like all spiders, have eight legs. Often, people will claim to see ten legs, but they are mistakenly counting the tarantulas pedipalps. The pedipalps look a lot like two miniature versions of the spiders other legs. The spider uses these to help capture and hold prey. If you wanted to, you could call them the tarantula’s hands. (If you want to, though. Nobody is forcing you into anything!)

The “body” of the tarantula, above the abdomen, is known as the cephalothorax. The round portion on top of the tarantula, where the eyes are located, is known as the carapace. On the picture below, you can see the tarantula’s carapace outlined with orange hairs. The cluster of eyes can be seen towards the bottom-right of the carapace (in this photo), almost the very center of the photo. Despite having eight eyes, the tarantula has poor vision!

Here is a close-up of a Brachypelma smithi (Mexican Redknee).

On the front of the tarantula, below the eyes, are the spider’s chelicerae. I have heard the chelicerae as looking like a large mustache on the spider. The real action, however, is what is hinged on the bottom/underside of the chelicerae – the tarantula’s fangs. Each fang acts like a syringe, injecting the spider’s prey with venom and allowing the tarantula to consume it.

The fangs of a Grammostola aureostriata (Chaco Goldenknee).

Tarantulas grow by casting off their exoskeleton in a process called molting. While this is a vital part of life for the tarantula, it is also one that can hold unforseen problems. First and foremost, for tarantulas in the wild, they are extremely vulnerable during this process. If the spider is not able to completely free itself from the exoskeleton, the spider may lose a limb…or even die. Young spiders molt more often than adults do, as adults average approximately one molt per year.

Our Grammostola rosea (Chilean Rose Hair) molting.

A NOTE ON HANDLING

Regard your tarantula like pet fish.  Neither are into being handled.  There are some species that put up with it (usually New World varieties) and others that will have a fit if you touch them (said fits include running around in a panic like a maniac while pausing to flick hair and/or rearing up to bite). 

If you’ve just got handle your spider for whatever reason, check the general “species info”  page on this site and learn about a tarantula’s origins and potential temperament (remember that they do have individual personalities, though). 

Also, browse further on the internet to find out what kinds you can pick up without the imminent risk of them flying out of your hand to a free-fall death and/or biting you.  Do both before “trying out” a spider. 

Above all, remember that just because your redknee will sit still in your hand does not mean it’s thrilled about the whole affair.  Give them plenty of solitary, personal time, be slow and gentle if you want to pick them up, and NEVER use your spider as a “party trick” in which you scare people with it, etc. 

Such acts are not only stupid and cruel- they’re a green light for harm to you, your guests, and the spider- emotionally and physically.
 

BASIC Care Sheet

The following information is a basic caresheet for pet tarantulas. You will need to adjust various items, such as substrate depth and humidity levels depending on what species of tarantula you are keeping. Additional research on the internet will help you with specific caresheets. (See the “Resources” page for links.)

Before your tarantula is brought home from the pet store, or delivered from a mail order dealer, there are some things you will want to have ready. Here is a good shopping list to start with:

  • Tank/Cage: Knowing the size and type of tarantula (terrestrial or arboreal) will be helpful in choosing the tank/cage you will need. (See “Give Me a Home…” below for more information.) BE SURE that the tank/cage you select has a secure lid.
  • Water Source: A shallow water dish will need to be provided for your tarantula. If the spider is on the smaller side, or the dish a little deeper, you may want to add a few small rocks to the dish to keep the tarantula from getting submerged and drowning.
  • Long Tweezers: Hardware stores, medical supply stores, or most pet shops that sell invertebrates will be able to provide you with this invaluable tool. Long tweezers keep your fingers out of the way when removing dead prey (or pieces of dead prey).
  • Wooden Spoon or Paintbrush: Basically, you want something handy to prod or coax a reluctant or angry tarantula out of your way (or into a holding tank).

Temperature: Mid 70’s to 80 is optimal for many tropical species. Many from the Americas can be kept slightly cooler. Remember that too cold and a spider may not eat. Too hot and they may not live. Again, this is a good place where specific species research is helpful.

Humidity: Most desert species will do fine with a water dish to provide enough humidity. Obviously, more tropical species will need your help to keep the levels up. You can do this using a spray bottle filled with distilled water.

Substrates: The big three you will often see are vermiculite, peat moss, and potting soil. Do not use bedding used for hamsters or rabbits, like wood shavings of any kind, paper, corn cob, etc. Remember to find out if your tarantula will want to dig a burrow, of if it will be happy using a provided hide. Those that will want to burrow will need deeper substrate than those that will be content under a piece of cork bark.

Diet: A tarantula will eat almost anything it can overpower. However, that does not mean I would recommend that you start experimenting with random bugs and small woodland animals to give your spider a varied diet! Most tarantulas will do just fine on a diet of crickets, feeder roaches, grasshoppers, etc. (If you are using wild caught bugs, be sure that they have not been exposed to pesticides. This will be passed on to your tarantula.) Some tarantula owners will feel small mice (live or dead) to their tarantulas. Like many things in the hobby, you will find mixed thoughts on this practice.

Feeding: Tarantulas are not like other pets, like dogs or cats. They do not require food daily. In fact, tarantulas have been known to go months without eating. Some tarantulas may even fast for a period of time, which to the new tarantula owner, can cause alarm. As a rule of thumb, offer some food (not a large amount) at least once per week. I would offer the food at night, as tarantulas are nocturnal. Be sure to remove uneaten prey if left overnight.

Oh Give Me a Home, Where My Tarantula Can Roam!

Tarantulas make their homes in one of two places; in/on the ground, or in trees. Ground dwelling tarantulas are called terrestrial, while tree dwelling tarantulas are called arboreal. If you are purchasing your first tarantula, be sure to do enough research to find out which one your tarantula is, as they each have different caging requirements.

Terrestrial tarantulas are more concerned with the length and width of the cage than height. The general consensus is that the minimum floor space is 1.5 – 2 times the leg span of the tarantula. The height of the cage should be enough that the spider can flip over onto it’s back (for molting). Many people go the inexpensive route and purchase plastic storage containers (shoe/sweater box) and ventilation holes drilled into them. Aquariums are also popular choices, but you must be careful that the tank is not too high. Terrestrial tarantulas will explore their tank, which includes climbing the sides and the lid to the tank. There is a good chance that the spider could lose it’s hold and fall to the cage floor. If the spider is too high off of the ground when it falls, that could spell trouble for the tarantula.

Arboreal tarantulas love to climb and will rarely be seen on the floor of their cage. Because of this, these tarantulas should have a cage with greater height than length or width. Many tarantula keepers will turn an ordinary plastic tank or glass aquarium on end, giving the arboreal spider the vaulted ceiling it was born for.

In either case, you want to be sure that you provide water (in a shallow dish), air (ventilation), either a place to hide (cork bark or half-buried flower pot) or enough substrate to dig a burrow of their own, and food. Decorations for your tarantulas cage are strictly up to your tastes. Believe it or not, your spider doesn’t really care!

“A happy Pink Zebra Beauty!”

I decided to compile a list frequently asked questions that we get from kids and adults alike. Many of these questions center around some of the big misconceptions that are out there regarding tarantulas. Hopefully these will help dispel some things that you may be unsure of.

How big can tarantulas get?

There are a few species of tarantula that will grow to be 9 or 10 inches, but the largest on record is the Theraphosa blondi (Goliath Birdeater), which can reach approximately one foot (12 inches) in length.

Do tarantulas bite?

This, of course, is asked in relation to a tarantula biting a person. I don’t like to mislead people and say that tarantulas do not, or can not bite. We know that crickets and roaches would tell you that yes, they do bite! I try to break tarantulas down into certain categories to try and help people understand.

Since there are close to 800 species of tarantulas in the world, and they come from almost every part of the planet, there are differences seen throughout them. Most tarantulas, as a general rule, will try other methods of defense prior to biting (such as running away or flicking hairs).

Many tarantulas just seem to have such a docile temperament that bites are a rare occurrence. Then there are other tarantulas that are more aggressive and should never be handled, as they may have a tendency to use their fangs first and ask questions later.

Have you ever been bitten?

No, I haven’t. (Nor was I ever stung when I kept scorpions.) There are two reasons for this. First of all, as mentioned above, there are some species that are notoriously docile, and some that are aggressive. Guess which ones I handle and which ones I don’t? The other reason is that I take the time to read the body language of the spider. I use the analogy of a dog. If you came across a dog that was growling and snarling at you, would you reach out and give it a pat on the head? Probably not. Likewise, spiders have ways of telling you that it would be best for you to keep your distance. I will say that the tarantula keepers that I have talked to that have been bitten will readily admit that it was their fault – that they were careless about something they did.

This does not mean, “Give me a hug!”

Can tarantulas jump?

Ahhh, you’ve been watching “Arachnophobia,” haven’t you? Granted, I’ve heard the rumors that tarantulas can jump a few feet in the air long before that movie came out. The biggest problem is that tarantulas are very fragile, and a fall from even a few inches could injure or kill the spider. So why would a tarantula take such a dangerous leap? That is assuming that they physically CAN leap that far. Most tarantulas will “pounce” on their prey, moving a half-inch to a couple of inches forward.

With that said, there are arboreal species (tree dwellers) that can and will jump from branch to branch if necessary. If they live in trees over water, such as a brook or stream, they have been known to jump out of the tree and into the water to avoid an approaching predator. People that keep some of these arboreal species, such as the common pink toe tarantula (Avicularia avicularia), report that they will take a leap from your hand onto your chest or face – or unfortunately, the floor. (That is why you need to be careful when handling these guys!)

Do tarantulas make webs?

Tarantulas do not make the “typical” spider web that other spiders do. Tarantulas do produce silk, however, and they will use this silk for many different things. Some will put a layer of silk on the floor of their burrow to keep it clean, and free from ants. (Like wall to wall carpeting!) Many tarantulas will also have the entrance of their burrow lined with fine silk to notify them of visiting prey items. Others will actually built a hammock-like “fort” out of thick silk, which they will lay in during the day.

How long do tarantulas live?

Some tropical species of tarantula live an average of 10 to 15 years. Other species, like many of the New World terrestrial spiders, can live over 30 years (females). Compare that to the few months that many common house spiders live, and you’ll see another reason that we consider tarantulas to be amazing!

Can more than one tarantula be kept in the same tank?

With the exception of a couple of species that have occasionally been kept successfully in a communal tank, the answer is no. Spiders are territorial and cannibalistic. Two tarantulas in one tank will eventually equal one fat spider.