There are over 800 species of tarantula, belonging to the family Theraphosidae. They are native to many areas and climates - arid, subtropical and tropical. They are roughly divided into two groups: "old world" (from the eastern hemisphere) and "new world" (from the western hemisphere). One of the more popular species kept as a pet is the Chilean rose (Grammostola rosea), a hardy, easy to care for spider native to Chile.
References, care sheets for selected spiders, and links to sites with species specific care information are provided at the end of this article. Here, we will take a general look at the needs and care of tarantulas, and special considerations when keeping spiders as pets.
They do bite, and their bites are venomous. However, for most species, the toxicity of their venom is much like that of a bee or wasp. It is most likely to cause a nasty local reaction incluidng pain, redness, swelling. However, people can have a an allergic or anaphylactic reaction to spider bites in the same way that some people react to bee stings, and this reaction can be fatal. Also, there are few species which have a stronger venom that could potentially be fatal, or at least make the bite victim quite ill. So while tarantula bits are unlikely to be fatal, you still want to avoid being bitten, and the best way to do this is to learn about spider behavior and treat the spider accordingly. Tarantulas are wild animals, and need to be treated with respect. As a rule, however, most spiders would rather retreat than bite.
Another concern with regards to handling tarantulas is irritation and itching from special hairs found on some new world tarantulas. These tarantulas possess what are called "urticating" (itch-causing) hairs on their abdomens, which they can release by vigorously rubbing their abdomens if threatened. These tiny hairs are barbed and can work their way into the skin and cause itching and irritation. If these hairs get into the eye they can easily penetrate the eye and cause inflammation, so it is very important to make sure the hairs do not get into the eyes (or head for an ophthalmologist if they do). Be very careful not to rub your eyes after doing anything with the spider and it's cage until washing your hands (there may be loose hairs in the cage that can be picked up while cleaning, etc.), and don't get in too close to look at your spider. If you get some hairs on your hand you can try blotting with tape and then washing well - and topical cortisone cream might help with the itching.
Choosing a Spider
As mentioned before, there are many species available is the pet trade, which vary in how difficult they are to care for. In general the best "beginner" tarantulas are the ground dwellers or burrowers, as they tend to be a little slower moving. The following are among the best tarantulas for first time owners:
- Chilean Rose (Grammostola rosea)
- Costa Rican Zebra (Aphonoplema seemani)
- Mexican Redknee (Brachypelma smithi)
- Mexican Redleg (Brachypelma emilia)
- Desert/Mexican Blonde (Aphonopelma chalcodes)
- Curly Hair Tarantula (Brachypelma albopilosum)
As a pet, a female is usually the better choice simply because females tend to be much longer lived than males. A female Chilean rose may be expected to live up to 20+ years, whereas the male of any species will not likely survive more than a couple of years at best. Many dealers will guarantee the sex. In any case males will spend most of their time trying to get out to find a mate, much to their distress.
When choosing a spider, avoid spiders that are hunched with their legs curled under them, or that are housed without a dish of water. Try to find out the scientific name for the spider as that will be the best way to get the appropriate care information, and make sure the sex/age are known.
Next: Basic Care