Before you hop on the chair and scream, let me explain!
Tarantulas are actually quite harmless animals that are no more interested in you than in quantum physics. While they do have venom, they rarely bite and the venom is no more dangerous than that of a bee sting. Hang in here with me, and I promise the rest is painless.
Tarantulas are large, hairy spiders that are nocturnal predators. They appear more dangerous and formidable than they actually are and do not normally shed hairs or bite unless provoked.
There are almost 800 species of tarantulas, with average life spans of 10-15 years (males) to as long as 30 years (females). These arachnids as pets are quiet, require very little space and are easy to feed. They live in ground tunnels (burrows) and in trees in the wild, and creating a habitat for them in your home is simple and fun.
Terrariums & Aquariums
Perhaps the most important fact to remember about tarantulas is that they are territorial cannibals. Do not ever house more than one tarantula in a habitat! You will be left with only one fat and happy arachnid and wondering where the other one went.
The main component when you go to make a pet tarantula habitat is a terrarium or aquarium. The ideal size is 10 gallons, but five is sufficient. It is very important to make sure the top of the habitat is a locking closure, because tarantulas are excellent escape artists. Bedding is usually a few inches of sterilized potting soil or Eco Earth substrate (affiliate link).
Place the habitat in an area of the home that averages 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, or use a heating pad. Tarantulas do not like bright light, but if you want to use one, a red light is recommended. Accessories similar to those in fish tanks (plants and rocks) are ideal additions, as is a hiding place like a hollowed log. Keep the decorations away from the top of the habitat; if the tarantula is near the top when it is opened, the spider could make a fast getaway.
You can purchase and fill an existing structure, or create your own by building it yourself:
Cleaning the Habitat
Remove the water dish and scrub it clean to remove any possible mold or remains from drowned insects that were not eaten. Change the water each day and clean the dish thoroughly once per week. You should empty and clean the habitat every four to six months. Move the tarantula into a temporary container with holes for ventilation. Wash the tank, replace the bedding and remove any spun silk from the sides and accessories.
If you don’t like insects or bugs, this might not be a fun part of owning a tarantula. They eat a variety of insects and bugs, most commonly crickets, grasshoppers and beetles, but they do not need to be fed often. The average tarantula will eat once or twice a week, and larger species may eat as many as six insects per week. A water dish should be around ½ inch deep and changed daily.
The creatures are great at regulating their dietary needs, which makes it impossible to overfeed them. If they have not eaten their prey by the second day, remove it from the habitat. Keep an eye out for shriveling in the abdomen; this is a sign of underfeeding and possible dehydration.
Tarantulas have very sensitive bodies and are prone to injury easily. It is not recommended to handle them, but you can do so carefully. Keep a hand underneath the tarantula and another hand ready for it to walk on and prevent falling. A fall of just a few feet can burst or crush the abdomen, and this is usually followed by death.
Tarantulas have two typical methods of defense. They can kick hairs off their bodies and onto you, and these hairs have barbed edges that can cause redness and swelling similar to a rash. The tarantula can also bite if it feels threatened, but there is a visible warning just before this occurs. The spider will raise its front legs and show its fangs just before it strikes.
A tarantula bite is comparable to a bee sting and releases a very low amount of venom. The bite area may appear red, swollen or create mild pain. Clean the area and apply an antiseptic to prevent an infection. Nausea and fever are possible and even more so in people allergic to bees, so be prepared to seek medical attention if symptoms persist or worsen.
There’s no lava, but you will think some flowed through the terrarium when your tarantula is lying on its back and appears dead. This is a process similar to how snakes shed their skin; as the tarantula grows, it needs a larger outer body. You may be able to predict the onset of molting by noting a change in the abdomen color and the spider’s refusal to eat. The molting process can take several minutes or several hours, and this incredible process also allows the tarantula to regenerate internal organs and missing limbs! Missing leg? No problem!
This is a critical time for the tarantula that requires special care on your part. The body will be extremely fragile until its new exterior hardens, so do not handle the spider for at least one week. Also, avoid live feeding for a few days; even a seemingly harmless cricket or grasshopper can injure the tarantula in this state.
If you are thinking of breeding tarantulas, there are a few things to bear in mind. Mating can be dangerous for males (see Fun Facts below), and the average reproduction can produce 500 to 3,000 offspring! If you have your heart set on a tarantula village, seek some professional advice before beginning. Expert owner and educator Brian Kleinman explains more in this video:
Fun (and Somewhat Gross) Facts
- A specific breed of wasp can sting and paralyze a tarantula. If the sting is successful, the wasp will lay eggs on the tarantula’s abdomen and bury him in a closed burrow. When the wasp eggs hatch, they will consume the paralyzed spider while it is still alive.
- Tarantulas use their venom to dissolve their prey into a liquid to be sucked up like soup.
- While not common, female tarantulas can eat males during the mating process. Most males will lay eggs and run away. Do you blame them?
You can buy tarantulas from breeders, pet stores and pet shows, or exhibitions. The additional resources below offer more detailed information on the various species as well as annual tarantula conventions (I couldn’t believe these existed, either!) in the United States and England.
- Amazing Tarantulas is full of information, care, facts and an extensive species list with photographs and specifications.
- The American Tarantula Society holds an annual conference for tarantula owners and fans. The next one is in July 2012 in Tucson, Arizona.
- The British Tarantula Society holds an exhibition in England annually. The next one is in May 2012 in West Midlands.
Photos: bobbybradley (top), Leslie Kirkland/Flickr