By: Dr. Dawn Ruben
Reptiles need a variety of temperatures in their enclosures to allow for thermoregulation. Since reptiles rely on environmental temperature to regulate their body temperature, cool spots, warm spots and basking areas are crucial in maintaining your reptile’s health. There are many different ways to provide a temperature gradient and supplement heat in your reptile’s enclosure. Some are safer than others.
Though readily available and commonly used by beginning hobbyists, heated rocks are not recommended by seasoned reptile people. These rocks are typically electrically powered and are meant to provide a warm area for the reptile to lie and bask. The primary problem with these rocks is the high rate of malfunction and poor distribution of heat. Some have very hot spots that can burn your reptile. If you choose to use a heated rock, covering it with fabric can help reduce the risk of contact burns.
However, there are safer alternatives than rocks. For example, just placing a plain incandescent bulb over one end of the enclosure can add supplemental heat. Make sure there is a screen or protective cover. Some reptiles, especially snakes, may be able to reach up and touch the bulb, resulting in burns. Don’t forget to turn the light off at night. Twenty-four hours of light is not healthy.
Infrared heat lamps are another alternative. These lamps provide heat and can be left on all the time. Many people feel that reptiles cannot see in red light so even though you may be able to see your pets, they cannot see you. This can provide them with a somewhat normal photoperiod, as long as they are also exposed to sunlight. These lights get very hot so you must have some way, like a screen, to protect your reptile from touching the light.
A ceramic heater is another alternative. These units screw into a light socket and provide warmth. Once again, make sure you have a protective cover over the enclosure, such as a screen.
Under-tank heating pads and heat strips are yet another option to provide heat. These are applied under one section of the enclosure, usually an aquarium, and provide radiant heat to one section of the tank.
Many people choose to use a combination of the above safe heat sources. A small spotlight can be used for a basking area. Then, additional heat can be added with an under tank heating pad. This way, the area is also heated at night when the spotlight is off.
Regardless of which way you provide supplemental heat, make sure you have several thermometers within the enclosure to monitor the temperature. Most species need a hot area of around 85 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit and a gradient of cooler areas in the tank. The exact temperature requirement will vary from species to species so do a little research. At night, a 10 to 20 degree drop in temperature is acceptable but beyond that is too cold. Without proper temperatures, your reptile can become quite ill and may not survive.