Reptile Housing

One of the key differences about keeping reptiles as pets is that a great amount of thought must be given to their housing, as unlike many other types of pets, they will be spending their entire lives in their captive environment. In general, the closer their captive environment approximates their wild habitat, the healthier and happier the reptile will be. Thus, you need to think about how the reptile would get its food and water, how it would behave in the wild, how active it normally is and how large it is likely to grow.

The Problem with Aquariums…

While many people do manage to keep their reptiles successfully in commercially-bought aquariums, these do come with some problems as they are ultimately designed with fish in mind. Thus, most do not have the correct type of “lid” for the top of the tank; in particular the glass tops make it impossible to use UV-B fluorescent light as UV-B is filtered out by glass and plastic. Furthermore, it is difficult to mount heating equipment safely to the glass tanks or to install shelving inside them. Glass tanks also often do not have the height needed for arboreal reptiles.

Even other types of enclosures supposedly built for reptiles, using wooden, melamine and moulded plastic, present similar problems. They are rarely wide enough for a fully-grown lizard or snake and they often incorporate large, front-opening doors which make it impossible to prevent a determined reptile from escaping. Wire cages, usually made for mammals and birds, are largely useless as it is impossible to maintain the correct thermal gradients and humidity levels most reptiles need without having to heat the entire room. In addition, reptiles can injure themselves on the wire by climbing, clawing or rubbing against the sides or trying to squeeze through the openings.

Most reptile enthusiasts end up improvising, using existing structures and modifying into suitable habitats for their reptiles. One thing to be aware of is that reptiles can grow rapidly and may quickly outgrow the dimensions of the enclosure; therefore it may not be worth investing a lot on an “ideal home” until the reptile reaches its mature size. Another thing to remember is that while it is attractive and beneficial to create a “naturalistic” environment, using plants, branches, layered substrate, ponds, side walls and other features, these are sometimes created at the expense of space for the reptile inhabitants to move around, feed or access the necessary thermal gradients. It is important to always try and retain 30-40% of open floor space for the reptile to move around, feed and defecate. And it is absolutely vital to have enough space for a proper thermal gradient to be set up.

Keeping Different Species Together?

While many people like the idea of keeping different species of reptiles together, this is not always advised. One of the key reasons is health as many reptiles have co-evolved with specific micro-organisms in or on their bodies, to which they are naturally immune. However, this immunity will not extend to the other types of reptiles that may be put together with the first species and serious disease and illness could result. This is especially true if you mix species that originate from different continents.

Another mistake people often make is mixing species from completely different habitats. No matter how well designed, the enclosure will not be able to satisfy the needs of both species properly and extreme stress may result, leading possibly to illness and even death. Housing prey and predator types together can also cause problems, even if the predator does not usually hunt the reptile it is housed with. For example, lizards housed with snakes will remain stressed and terrified the entire time, even if that particular species of snake is not interested in this particular species of lizard.

It is also unwise to use pet stores as a guide for mixing species as most do not give proper consideration to any of the points mentioned above. Thus, they will mix temperate and tropical reptiles and keep terrestrials with aquatics. If you really do want to create a multi-species environment, make sure you do extensive research and consult the advice of herpetological societies or even zoos.

Types of Habitats:

  • Aquatic The most obvious requirement for an enclosure containing aquatic reptiles is water-proofing. In addition, it should be easy to clean and disinfect regularly and have filtration systems fitted for cleaning on a daily basis. Any submersible heaters used in the water should be shielded so that the reptiles cannot come into direct contact with them. Don’t forget that while aquatic reptiles will need large bodies of water to swim in, they will also need some land or rocks on which to haul themselves out and bask on.
  • Semi-aquatic The key requirement for semi-aquatic reptiles is lots of space as not only will they need a large body of water but they will also spend a considerable amount of time on land so these enclosures need to have both an aquatic and terrestrial set-up.
  • Terrestrial Terrestrial environments must not be too uniform as its inhabitants need a variety of different microclimates to thrive and for adequate thermoregulation. Thus, make sure that there are plenty of irregularities in their environment, such as hiding spots, caves, rocks, branches, areas of high humidity and plants or shelves for climbing and sunning.
  • Arboreal Arboreal reptiles spend most of their lives in trees in the wild and therefore enclosures for these reptiles need to be tall enough and wide enough to accommodate several strong branches or even shelves, particularly if housing large snakes and lizards. Make sure all features and fixtures are securely fastened and that any lighting and heating elements are properly shielded, particularly if they are within easy reach of climbing reptiles. If using live plants, make sure they are non-toxic and harmless and that you check them regularly for damage from chewing and climbing and replace them if necessary.
  • Fossorial These are reptiles that like to spend most of their time covered by substrate or in a burrow, often to sleep and digest their food. Thus the key requirement here is that the substrate is several inches deep for burrowing and that the enclosure is strong enough to hold this amount of substrate. Enough height and width is also crucial and the needs here match that of terrestrial reptiles.
  • Scansorial Scansocial reptiles, usually lizards, like to hide in rocky crevices and also to bask or hunt for food on rocky walls and outcroppings. Thus, providing lots of rocks – cleaned and disinfected – is important. You can even cement some together using non-toxic silicone cement to provide attractive arrangements. These can also provide caves and crevices for hiding and sleeping. Make sure all rocky features are secure and cannot be toppled by an active reptile. Make sure also that the enclosure is deep enough and tall enough to not only accommodate these rocky features but still provide enough distance to keep reptiles safe from overhead lighting and heating.

Creating the right habitat for your reptile may take time, work and money but it is well worth the effort and will give you the enjoyment of watching your reptile thrive.

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Reptile Expert