Brachypelma boehmei, often called the Mexican Fireleg Tarantula

Keeping Tarantulas

Within the realm of keeping captive animals (whether you consider them "pets" or not), there are so many niches that it would seem to be impossible to experience them all. You have to ask yourself a number of questions when deciding what you want to keep. Do you want an animal that is interactive, such as dogs, cats, and many birds, or do you want an animal that is more of a look but don't touch pet, such as fish or certain reptiles? Do you know (and can you meet) the care requirements for this animal for the entirety of its (often long) life? Do you want something fairly common or more unique? Do you find any animal just too creepy to keep, or do you enjoy creatures that other people avoid? If you enjoy the creepier side of the animal kingdom, one of the most underrated pet niches is Tarantula keeping.

Background Tarantula Information

To be specific, the term Tarantula generally refers to the arachnids of the family Theraphosidae. The name Tarantula actually comes from a relatively unrelated spider, the large wolf spider Lycosa tarantula. When European explorers came to the Americas, they gave this name to any of the large terrestrial spiders they encountered , and the term shifted its meaning. Other common names given to these spiders include Bird Eaters in South America (although few if any tarantulas would actually eat a bird unless it was scavenging one it found already dead), Baboon Spiders in Africa, and Earth Tigers in Southeast Asia.

In evolutionary terms, Tarantulas are more primitive than "true spiders", and there are a number of small differences between the two types of animals. The most visibly obvious difference is the orientation of the fangs. "True spiders" have fangs that point and articulate towards each other in a pinching action, while Tarantula fangs are parallel and point down. Another very important difference between the two is the chemical composition of their respective venoms. While "true spider" venom is highly developed and can be deadly to humans (depending on the species), Tarantula venom is much simpler and easier for the human body to break down. As a result of this, there are no credible reports of any human deaths attributable to Tarantula venom, though the most potent species can still deliver a bite that can be painful for several days. Thus, despite their imposing size, Tarantulas are mostly harmless.

Theraphosa blondi, the "Goliath Bird Eater". Despite their ferocious appearance, they can do little harm to a human.

Housing Tarantulas

Housing tarantulas is a relatively simple task, and you can divide them into three general categories: Terrestrial, Arboreal, and Obligate Burrower. The terrestrial setup will be the basic model upon which variations for virtually all tarantulas can be developed.

For a terrestrial tarantula, you only need four basic items. The first is an escape proof cage. Most people will use a glass or plastic aquarium or tank with a secure lid, but other low-budget, more creative containers have been retrofit to accommodate tarantulas including plastic shoe boxes, storage bins, and food containers. Ensure there is adequate ventilation from metal mesh screens or small holes drilled or melted into the container, but be careful of the hole sizes as tarantulas can squeeze through surprisingly small openings. Also make sure that the container is not too tall, as terrestrial tarantulas are notoriously bad climbers and can be injured or killed from an even relatively short fall.

For substrate, either Coconut Fiber or ground Sphagnum Peat Moss (the kind that comes in large bales and looks like dirt, not the kind that still looks like moss) are safe options. Organic gardening top soil could also be used, but ensure there are no added chemicals in it. For the tarantula's safety, it is best to avoid sand, any soil containing added fertilizers or pesticides, and any hard or sharp substrate such as aquarium gravel, rocks, or marbles. For most terrestrial tarantulas, you can periodically moisten part of the substrate to keep the humidity raised. A few tarantulas, such as the Chilean Rose Hair Tarantula (Grammastola rosea) that come from exceptionally arid conditions do not need their substrate moistened while a very small number (primarily the Goliath Bird Eaters of the Theraphosa genus) should always be kept slightly moist with most (but not all) of the ventilation cut off in order to keep the humidity as high as possible.

The final items you need are some sort of hide (such as a half coconut shell or half rounded log) and a shallow water dish, preferably no larger in diameter than the tarantula's leg span. For most keepers, there will never be any need to supply external heat. I would have no concern for any tarantula kept in ambient temperatures anywhere between the low 60's and the low 90's degrees Fahrenheit. Likewise, because most tarantulas are nocturnal by nature, no external lighting is needed.

With this basic enclosure model, it is very simple to modify it for arboreal or obligate burrower tarantulas. Because arboreal tarantulas (Such as the Pink Toe Tarantulas of the Avicularia genus or the Ornamental Baboons of the Poecilotheria genus) prefer climbing up rather than moving along the ground, floor space is less important than height, so provide it with as tall of an enclosure as possible with cork bark or fake plants (or both) for them to climb on. Many people have good luck using 5.5 gallon aquariums turned on their end. Arboreal tarantulas will normally utilize some sort of tube (such as a cork bark round) as a hiding area, and are fine with the same substrate and water dish as a terrestrial tarantula.

For an obligate burrower (such as the Asian Haplopelma species, including the classic Cobalt Blue), set up a terrestrial enclosure but fill it with as much substrate as you can, preferably at least one and a half times as deep as the tarantula's leg span. Most will dig their own burrow, but you can also start a hole hoping to guide the tarantula into burrowing where you want it to (such as beside the glass where you can still see the tarantula when in the burrow). Hides are relatively unnecessary for burrowers, though some will start their burrow under the hide if one end of the hide is buried under the substrate. You should try to supply a water dish, though many people resort to pouring a small amount of water down the burrow hole as a result of the water dish frequently being filled with substrate excavated from the burrow.

Feeding and Watering Tarantulas

Once you have your tarantula set up in a suitable enclosure, the only care required is to provide food and water. There is a lot of outdated information being passed around regarding supplying water for tarantulas. Many tarantulas will get most or all of their required hydration from the prey they eat, but it is still a good idea to supply a shallow dish with actual water. The gels commonly used for hydrating crickets are at least incredibly inefficient for supplying water to tarantulas, and many will say that tarantulas cannot utilize the water in the gel at all. Many old sources recommend keeping some sort of cotton fiber in the water dish, but this generally only offers a haven for bacteria cultures to grow in. It is exceptionally difficult to drown a tarantula, and some species such as Hysterocrates gigas are actually known to submerge themselves when hiding from predators (and possibly even to catch aquatic prey). The only reason to keep anything but water in the dish would be to allow an escape route for crickets, who seem to go out of their way to drown themselves. A few small rocks will work just fine for this.

Food is also a subject of debate among many tarantula owners, but the bottom line is that any tarantula is perfectly capable of living long, healthy lives (and reaching their maximum adult size) eating only one or two invertebrate prey such as crickets or roaches each week. There is a lot of debate over the safety of feeding vertebrate prey such as mice, anoles, and frogs to tarantulas. There is anecdotal evidence of the excess calcium from the bones of vertebrates causing molting problems, particularly in the giant tarantulas, but there is no concrete proof of this. For the greatest degree of safety, sticking to crickets and roaches will not cause any problems for your tarantula. If you feel like you must feed vertebrate prey, do so sparingly and only use prey that can't fight back such as anoles or baby mice. If you've ever seen the damage an adult mouse can do to a snake, you can imagine the potential damage it might do to a tarantula.

A baby Avicularia versicolor spiderling with its blue coloring


Tarantulas often go through long periods where, to put it bluntly, they just are not very interesting. More than one tarantula has been called a Pet Rock in its life. While feeding is one of the most entertaining aspects of tarantula keeping, the other exciting time when the tarantula molts. Like all arthropods, a tarantula's rigid exoskeleton will not expand very much, so the tarantula must periodically molt the old exoskeleton in order to grow. After this process, tarantulas are often significantly larger (it's not unheard of for some juvenile tarantulas to almost double in size after a molt), and sometimes will even emerge with different colorations after the molt (such as Avicularia versicolor, which will gradually transition from a brilliant blue spiderling into an almost purple adult). At the very least, the tarantula will be leaner and its colors brighter after the molt.

Most tarantulas will flip onto their back in order to molt. If you ever see the tarantula in this position, do not disturb it as a failed molt can easily kill the tarantula. Just wait and check back periodically to see the tarantula's new look after it completes molting.

Final Notes

For many people, tarantulas are simply too creepy to keep. For those who are interested in them, they can be interesting and beautiful animals that offer a glimpse into a side of the world that is normally overlooked. While tarantulas have period where they are often are not particularly active, they are the ultimate low-maintenance pet that will go through periods when they are absolutely fascinating.