Tarantulas As Pets – The Good, Bad, and the Misunderstood

When I was around 6, my father took me with him when he visited a local pet store. While my dad spoke to the clerk, I wandered around the small shop checking out the many animals offered for sale. As I walked by the standard gerbils, lizards, guinea pigs, and frogs, I noticed something that just about blew my young little mind. In a large aquarium in the center of the store was the largest spider I had ever seen in my life. Sure, I had seen tarantulas in the old black and white horror films I would watch on Creature Features with my mom, but those lurid depictions didn’t hold a candle to actually seeing one of these animals just inches from my face. This striking creature, which I would later come to learn, was a Brachypelma smithi, or “Mexican redknee”, an icon in the tarantula hobby, was the single most amazing and terrifying thing I had seen in my young life.

Thus began my fascination with tarantulas.

It wasn’t until almost 15 years later, after I moved out with my wife, that I FINALLY got my first pet spider. And, although it took some time, I eventually found myself diving headfirst into the hobby and amassing a collection of over 130 species. A teacher by trade, I felt compelled to share what I had learned about tarantulas and their care, leading to the creation of the website Tom’s Big Spiders. Here I could post articles about care and husbandry and answer the inevitable questions hobbyists might have. 

Although the majority of people who contact me for advice are those who either already own or are committed to acquiring tarantulas, there are a handful of folks who are on the fence and trying to decide if one of these giant hairy arachnids would make a good pet for them. Now, I’m obviously all in on the tarantula hobby and adore these creatures as pets. However, that doesn’t mean that experience hasn’t taught me that they are not the right animal for some folks. Like any animal, tarantulas have their pros and cons, and any potential keeper should be well aware of both the good and potential bad when preparing to bring a furry eight-legged friend into their home. 

So, with that in mind, let’s break down the positives and negatives of keeping a pet tarantula! 

THE GOOD

They take up little space

One of the top perks of keeping a tarantula as a pet is that they need very little space when compared to other animals. With most full grown tarantulas reaching a maximum legspan of 5-6”, they require little more space than something comparable in size to a 5-10 gallon aquarium. Many keep their spiders on shelves, desks, dressers, or even nightstands. This makes them perfect pets for smaller apartments, bedrooms, classrooms, or even offices. 

Their small footprint in the home also leads to another popular aspect of the hobby; collecting. Because they take up such little room, many tarantula enthusiasts find themselves keeping more than one as they amass collections of several different species. Why would someone want more than one tarantula, one might ask? That leads us to our next point…

There are many to choose from 

C. versicolor

When you say the word tarantula, most people envision the basic big, brown hairy spider. What many don’t realize is that there are over 900+ species of tarantulas with different characteristics and that come in a myriad of sizes, patterns, and colors. There are terrestrial tarantulas that live mostly on the ground. There are fossorial species that live in burrows. And there are stunning arboreals that live up in branches of trees. There are spiders that like a dry, arid environment, and there are other species that require some moisture to thrive.

They also come in brilliant blues, greens, oranges, and even purples. When I first started my research into tarantula keeping, I was convinced that photos I was seeing of these animals with dazzling and rich colors were Photoshopped fakes. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the stunning images I was seeing were totally real. Between patterning, colors, size, and living requirements, there are many unique and interesting choices for the interested future hobbyist.  

They are VERY low maintenance 

Most of us are used to taking care of furry pets that require multiple daily feedings, periodic cleaning of their enclosures, walks, and yearly vet visits. Therefore, it can be quite the shock for people to learn that tarantulas are one of the most low-maintenance pets available. First off, forget about daily feedings; tarantulas need only to eat an appropriately sized meal once a week or even once a month to stay healthy. They are also incredibly clean animals that don’t require frequent bedding or substrate changes.

Those who buy a spiderling or younger specimen will start their animal in a smaller enclosure and will have to move it into a larger enclosure as it outgrows its home. This is called “rehousing” and most spiderlings will require two rehousings before they reach young adulthood. Once in their adult homes, tarantulas can be kept on the same bedding for years as long as the keeper spot cleans and removes food remains, called boluses, and old molts. When they evacuate waste, the feces is small and birdlike, and is often absorbed into the substrate. If some should get on the sides of the enclosure, it can easily be wiped off with warm water and paper towel. Any feces on the substrate can easily be scooped out with a spoon and removed. Besides that, just make sure that your tarantula has access to a water dish with fresh water (NO sponge needed, and they won’t drown in it!), and you’re good to go.

They are inexpensive to keep

Because these animals need very little to thrive, they can be one of the easiest and least expensive pets to maintain. There are no pricey enclosures or heating elements required, and many successfully keep their spiders in cages acquired for a few dollars at their local Walmart. My first spider, The Queen, spent the first 10 years of her life with me in a modified plastic storage bin that cost about $3 total. The fact is, a tarantulas can do just as well in a modified plastic storage bin as it would in a pricey glass terrarium, leaving the keeper plenty of leeway when determining how much she wants to spend on her pet. A basic adult tarantula setup requires only an enclosure, some substrate (coco fiber or topsoil work fine) a hide (cork bark being a popular option) and a water dish. That’s it. As they do well at room temperature (mid-60s or above) and don’t require lighting, expensive lighting systems and heat mats/rocks are not required. Therefore, a frugal owner could set up his new pet in an appropriate home for under $20. 

An example of inexpensive plastic bins used as tarantula enclosures.

When you take into account that spiders eat insects and only need to be fed only a couple times a month, the low cost to keep them when compared to other pets is even more profound. An owner feeding his tarantulas crickets weekly would spend only about $0.60 a MONTH for his pet. Mealworms are another cheap option, as the ones that aren’t used can be refrigerated and saved for later. People who find themselves with larger collections may also raise their own feeder colonies of mealworms or roaches so that they have a cheap and never-ending supply of prey for their animals.

Even the spiders themselves can be fairly inexpensive. Although sexed adults can be pricey, baby spiders, or spiderlings, can often be purchased for under $50. Finally, with tarantulas, there is no need for annual vet check ups, shots, or expensive medications and surgeries. Most of these wonderful arachnids will make it from spiderlings to adulthood with no issues; as a whole, they suffer very few maladies.  

Setting up their habitats can be quite rewarding

An example of a more expensive acrylic cage with a live plant inside.

For many who keep tarantulas, part of the enjoyment comes from creating beautiful and naturalistic enclosures for their pets. Although fancy setups are not required and often offer no real benefit for the spider, they add another dimension of enjoyment for many hobbyists. Eschewing simplicity for more aesthetically pleasing arrangements, some keepers choose to house their pets in premium glass or acrylic enclosures, including live plants and other natural touches, such as moss, leaf litter, and backgrounds. These setups can easily bring a touch of nature into a room and become a conversational centerpiece for visitors. For some, setting up gorgeous, visually-appealing homes becomes an integral part of the hobby in much the same way those who keep exotic fish prioritize the tank setup.

Longevity

The Queen, a tarantula that lived with me for 25+ years.

When I bought my first tarantula, a young adult G. porteri or “Rose hair tarantula” back in the mid ‘90s, I was worried that she wouldn’t be with me for all that long. Boy, were my concerns misplaced. This spider, or The Queen as she came to be called, lived another 26 YEARS in my care. Most female tarantulas can live 10 to 30+ years, depending on the species, and many of the so-called “beginner tarantulas” are slow growing animals that can easily live 20 years or more. Although males have shorter lifespans, many can still live 5 years or even longer. If you’re looking for a pet that will be around for many years, there are definitely many species of tarantulas to consider. 

Tarantulas can help people to overcome arachnophobia

When I acquired my first tarantula back in the ‘90s, it was partially to help me get over a lifelong fear of spiders. Although it took some time, working with tarantulas helped me to completely conquer my fear of these misunderstood eight-legged marvels. 

And I’m by no means alone.

Over the years, I’ve spoken to dozens of keepers who were arachnophobic when they bought their first tarantulas and who now have no fear of spiders. It may sound strange, but most say that they find the large, hairy spiders much less threatening than the common true spiders they encounter around their homes. As a result, they find it easier to work with them without experiencing the same level of fear they would working with say a wolf spider. For those who keep tarantulas, the fascination that they feel when observing and caring for these animals starts to erode their fear, replacing it with respect and eventually admiration for them.

They are fascinating

Do a search on YouTube for “tarantula feeding videos”, and you are likely to discover thousands of videos of keepers feeding their prized pets. And these videos have amassed millions of views for the sole fact that many people find spiders hunting and eating to be incredibly fascinating. There’s just something about a 6” arachnid doing the “tarantula happy dance”, spinning around on its tiptoes while webbing up its prey, that captivates people. 

Feeding time is just one of the many captivating aspects of keeping a pet tarantula. Raising a tarantula from a baby spiderling to a robust adult can be an amazing and rewarding process. Although I’ve seen hundreds of spiders molt, I’m still in awe every time one goes through the shedding process. Those who decide to try to eventually breed their tarantulas will discover one of the most awesome and gratifying experiences the hobby has to offer. 

And sometimes just watching them sit there and do nothing is cool, too…after all, it IS a giant spider. By default, tarantulas are just infinitely cool and fascinating animals. 

The Bad

They are NOT cuddly or affectionate

Unfortunately, those looking for a pet that will show affection, like a dog, cat, or even a rat, will not find that quality in a tarantula. Although the debate over how intelligent they are still rages on, and many folks have witnessed actions that have us questioning if they can “learn”, they are just not hardwired to be affectionate. Just as you wouldn’t take your pet fish out for a cuddle and a pet, many keepers agree that your spiders should be treated with the same respect. 

Although folks that handle will report that their specimens may become accustomed to the close interaction, there is no evidence to say that they enjoy or benefit from it. Also, a tarantula’s temperament can change from molt to molt, so it’s not rare for a tractable specimen to become more skittish and defensive after a molt. If you’re looking for an animal that can sit on your lap while you watch a movie, you’re better off looking for something furry and conventional.

Although not common, there are some towns, states, and even countries that have restrictions against keeping tarantulas. In some cases, it’s just certain species; in others, it may be any venomous arachnid. Be sure to be familiar with your local laws before acquiring one.

They are venomous animals that can bite or “hair” if threatened

Although tarantulas can make great pets, it’s always important to keep in mind that they are exotic animals that have not been domesticated. If they feel the need to defend themselves, they ALL have fangs and venom to use as a deterrent. Also, all of the species considered good “beginner” tarantulas are New World spiders from North and South American and the surrounding islands. These spiders have mild venom, and a bite from one is considered to be about as bad as a wasp sting. However, New World spiders have a second defense which is  known as “urticating hairs”. These are irritating barbed bristles on their abdomens that they can kick free in a cloud if threatened. These hairs become lodged in the skin, causing burning, itching, and general discomfort. Now, anyone who treats their animals with respect and caution should easily be able to avoid any situation that could result in a bite or hairing. However, anyone keeping these creatures should be aware of the potential risk.  

Feeder insects can be a turnoff 

B. lateralis or Turkish roaches used for feeding.

Believe it or not, the biggest issue for some keeping tarantulas isn’t the spider itself, but the insects one has to feed them. Those squeamish around creepy crawlies may soon discover that they find the cricket, roaches, or mealworms they use as prey items repulsive. I’ve spoken to more than one keeper over the years who dreaded feeding time because they didn’t like working with the feeders. Others struggle with the actual feeding experience because they sympathize with the bugs and don’t like to feed live prey. 

Others may have negative reactions to them

Recently my wife, who’s quite involved with the hobby, posted pictures of some molts on her Facebook page. After explaining that we kept tarantulas as pets, one of her “friends” thought that it was appropriate to brag about how many tarantulas she had killed in her life. Sadly, those who keep spiders are used to hearing comments like, “I would smash it,” “Kill it,” and “Burn that thing” whenever they try to show off their beloved pets. I’ve had people tell me that they wouldn’t visit my home because they found out that I kept spiders. 

The fact is, arachnophobia is one of the top phobias in the word, and with fear comes revulsion. Instead of respecting these creatures and understanding that they are very beneficial, many folks loathe them. Those who want to share their love of tarantulas with friends may discover that they are met with a very hostile audience. Worse still, people living with roommates or family members may experience resistance when asking to bring a pet spider into the home. Personally speaking, I was absolutely forbidden from keeping any tarantulas when I lived at home because my mother was arachnophobic. Others have also been given the hard pass by roommates and significant others. If you ARE in a living situation that involves others, it’s important that you address any potential issues sooner than later. 

They can attract the wrong type of keeper

In my years working with keepers, I’ve found that tarantula hobbyist can come from all walks of life. I’ve spoken to many teachers, doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, and even grandmothers who keep these animals. The idea that all tarantula keepers are heavily tattooed social outcasts who play with their animals while sitting in the dark blasting death metal is a lingering stereotype.

That said, there are many people that are attracted to keeping tarantulas because they are perceived as “scary” and “dangerous”, and their sole reason of acquiring them as pets is to flaunt their “bravery” and recklessness. A cursory search on YouTube will bring up hundreds of exploitive and sensationalized videos by keepers touting their “aggressive” and “deadly” spiders as a way to get views. Many practice poor husbandry, like keeping adults in tiny cages without enough dirt, so that they can get displays of “aggression” whenever they interact with their animals. Others post photos and videos of themselves on social media being reckless with their animals by teasing them, handling highly venomous species, or even putting them on their faces. People like this are terrible for the hobby, as they put themselves and their animals at risk while perpetuating the stereotype that spiders are dangerous animals to be feared. Tarantulas are not domesticated animals or toys, and they deserve keepers that will treat them with the respect and that will present them to the public at large in an intelligent and safe way.

Finally, The tarantula hobby is incredibly addictive

A portion of my collection of tarantulas. I currently have 210 specimens and 135 different species.

Maybe this should be more of a warning than an actual con, but it needs to be said. Whenever I speak to a person who is getting his or her first tarantula, I always end the conversation with, “Be careful: they are addictive!” Most just giggle and laugh it off at first but will contact me months later when they currently keep dozens of these critters. It’s a fact that the vast majority of those who pick up a tarantula as a pet eventually end up with more than one. It took me years of keeping my G. porteri before I really got “bit” by the hobby. I now have a collection of over 200 spiders. I’m obviously an extreme example, but collections of 30 or more are not uncommon. If you are the type of person who enjoys collecting things, you have been warned…

So…is a tarantula the right pet for you?

For anyone looking to keep an uncommon and truly fascinating pet, a tarantula can be an amazing alternative. Gorgeous, hardy, and endlessly fascinating, these incredible animals are much more than the eight-legged terrors media makes them out to be. If treated with respect and care, they can be an amazing pet that can give their keepers years of joy.

If you’re considering keeping a tarantula as a pet, good research is KEY. I designed this website with beginner keepers in mind, and the information is current and from personal experience. That said, consider joining tarantula forums or Facebook groups to talk to others who keep these amazing animals.

Tom Moran – Tom’s Big Spiders

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