The Basics of Reptile Keeping
Keeping Reptiles Isn't Difficult, With The Right Equipment!
Most people who start out keeping reptiles will fail if they have not done advance research on the species they are trying to keep. This happens for a number of reasons. First, many owners ask pet stores for information on how to care for the animals they buy. Unfortunately, pet store workers, and even owners, may not know how to maintain the animals they sell, in the long term. You need to seek specialist information for that, just as you would for tropical or marine fish.
As the Reptile Nation has grown, more companies have created and marketed specialized products for keeping reptiles healthy and happy in captivity.
Here is a list of the basic requirements for keeping reptiles properly:
1) A controlled heat source. Reptiles come from different climates around the world. Because they are ectothermic, and don't generate their own body heat, it is essential that they be kept at the same temperatures they would be at in the wild. So, if a reptile comes from a tropical rainforest where the daytime temperatures are 80F to 85F, then that temperature range should be inside their cage as well. Tropical reptiles cannot tolerate cold--some reptiles from mountain regions or more northern regions cannot tolerate excessive heat. It is very important to know the temperature requirements of the species you are going to keep.
Use a thermostat or rheostat to adjust the temperature of your heating device. Some heating devices do a better job than others. For desert species, overhead heating works great, but it can be too drying for rainforest animals. Undertank heaters are recommended for many species. They can also be attached to the back of a tank for arboreal species. Radiant heat panels work well for arboreal species. Heat tape, heat cords, and ceramic heat elements can also be used. Use thermometers to test the temperatures in different places in the cage. A thermometer with a remote probe works best--the type that stick on the glass are not very accurate, as they may register the glass temperature instead of the air. Never use a heat pad, cord, or tape without a controlling device (rheostat or thermostat).
Most reptiles do best with a heat gradient. This means that one end of the cage is much warmer than the other end. The warm end has a basking area--temperatures are usually 10 or even 20 degrees hotter there than they are on the cool side of the tank. Care sheets for reptiles will include both an air temperature and a basking temperature, so you can adjust your cage's climate properly. This basking area allows reptiles to thermoregulate--that means they can adjust their body temperature. A reptile that has just eaten may want to warm up in order to digest its food. This is a more natural way of living, and it's healthier for the animal than simply keeping it at one set temperature.
Improper temperatures are hazardous to reptiles' health, which is why controlled heat ranks first on your equipment list. Reptiles kept too cold may become sick with various infections, as it compromises their immune system. Reptiles kept too hot may die of heat prostration or dehydration. Always check your temperatures and get the best equipment you can afford to keep them right.
2) Proper humidity levels. Some reptiles come from desert regions, where humidity is extremely low. In many cases, these reptiles will hide during the heat of the day in burrows, which may be cooler and damp inside. As a result, some desert species need to be provided with a humid hide--this is simply a plastic tub or cave that is completely enclosed, with an access hole on top that they can climb in and out of. It should contain damp sphagnum moss or paper towel, and be cleaned and changed regularly. Not all desert species require this.
Some reptiles come from tropical rainforest regions with a high humidity. Humidity levels over 80% are needed to keep some animals well-hydrated and healthy. Low humidity can be devastating to these species. There are devices now on the market for raising and regulating humidity. For high-humidity species, an ultrasonic fogger such as a ReptiFogger can be used, along with a hygrostat which will turn the device on and off to meet a set humidity level, can be the ideal solution. Some species need more air flow than others, so make sure you check care requirements carefully for the species you want. It can be tough to keep a high humidity and temperature along with a high airflow in some climates.
3) Lighting. Most species need 12 hours of sunlight and 12 hours of night in order to sleep properly. As a general rule, animals that are nocturnal do not need any special lighting. You can use the same lighting you would for your home. Animals that are diurnal (awake during the day), however, DO need special lighting. These animals require a special spectrum of light from the sun called UVB. This allows them to manufacture vitamin D in their skin, and is essential to their health. These special lights are sold at most pet stores. Follow the instructions on the light carefully, as several different types are now available. Make sure that it says "UVB", and not just "UV". UVB lights may be fluorescent or mercury-vapor, but are never incandescent. Place them at the correct distance from basking areas so that the reptiles will be exposed to the UVB light while they bask. Most snakes do not require UVB lighting. Many lizards and all turtles and crocodilians do require it. If you like, you may use UVB lighting for a species that does not require it. Doing so will will benefit it, even though it isn't necessary.
4) Proper cage size. Some species require much larger cages than others, and the size of the animal does not always dictate the size of the cage needed. For example, a single grandis day gecko requires the same amount of space as a ball python, despite the huge difference in their size. Make sure that your cage is larger for very active, diurnal animals, and smaller for sedentary, nocturnal species. Some reptiles actually will not thrive in a cage that is too large for them. This may be because they live in burrows or enclosed areas in the wild, and find open space intimidating. Other species are so active, they need a very large cage to avoid being stressed. Naturally, make sure your cage is secure, and can be locked or latched tightly. Snakes can be very strong. Some types of cages can be kept humid more easily than others, so take that into consideration as well.
5) Hides. Reptiles are usually prey animals, in the wild. They need shelters in order to feel secure. They can be stressed (which will compromise their immune system and health) if they have no where to flee to and hide from danger. Many reptiles, especially snakes, will spend a majority of their time in hiding, venturing forth only to seek out food and water. Place appropriately-sized hiding boxes or caves on each side of the cage. This allows the reptile to hide in a hotter area or a cooler one, as it chooses, and it doesn't have to trade safety for comfort. If you want to see your reptile more often, choose a species that spends less time in hiding--don't try to force a shy species out into the open.
6) Water source. Every animal needs water. A very few desert species get virtually all of their water from the food they eat, but for most species, you will need to provide them with a shallow dish of clean water. Some species need more--a deeper pool of water that they can swim in. This must be kept scrupulously clean. Filtration can help with aquatic species, but you will need some truly LARGE filters to do a proper job of it. Many species of arboreal lizards will not drink water from a dish. They must be sprayed with a mister once or twice each day, so they can drink from the water droplets. Automatic misting systems can help with this, if you do not have time or feel that you might forget. Set up on a timer, these systems are not inexpensive, but they will make caring for these species much easier.
7) Cage furniture.
Some species are 'fossorial'. This means they live underground. Fossorial species need something they can burrow into, to hide, in the cage. This can be soil or coconut fiber, aspen shavings, or sand. Sand can be hazardous to some species, so do your research before you decide to use it. Fossorial species should have everything they require placed on the floor of the cage, and do not generally need any branches. Live plants may be dug up, so using fake ones may be a better choice.
Some species of reptiles are 'terrestrial'. This means they live on the ground. Newspaper, slate, cage carpet, soil or coconut fiber, aspen shavings, or bark can be used for terrestrial species. Sand (even calcium sand) is not recommended for the majority of terrestrial species, as they may eat it, and develop an intestinal impaction. For desert species, pieces of wood and bark and plastic plants can be used. For temperate or tropical species, live low-growing plants and large sturdy branches placed low down in the cage will provide a more natural environment.
Some species or reptiles are 'arboreal'. This means they live up in bushes and trees. Newspaper, slate, cage carpet, soil, coconut fiber, aspen, or bark can be used. Of course, arboreal species aren't often found in deserts, so sand is not appropriate for them. Several sturdy climbing branches should be used, including one that is only a short distance below the basking lamps or UVB light. Live plants of various kinds can be used for most species, as can plastic plants. Provide plenty of climbing space and foliage to make them comfortable. Food and water dishes may need to be placed elevated, as some species don't like to set foot on the ground.
That's really all you need! Wasn't that easy? Just make sure you have the right combination for the species you are keeping!