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How to set up a reptile terrarium

19 Sep, 2022
Reptiles | Small Animals

Step-by-step checklist for your reptile enclosure

Reptiles make great pets – they won’t demand your attention to the same extent as dogs and cats, they don’t require much space so they’re ideal for townhouses and apartments and, best of all, they don’t sport hair or feathers – common culprits for allergy sufferers!

But before you bring your reptile home, you’ll need to set up a special enclosure just for them! Whether you build your terrarium from scratch or buy a ready-made tank, you’re going to need to kit it out with all the essentials so your rascally reptile is safe and comfortable.

Step 1: Size Matters!

How do I choose the right terrarium?

Unfortunately, there’s no one answer (or one size fits all!) for this question. Different animals have different requirements – are they climbers? Then they’ll need a higher enclosure. By contrast, roamers will need more horizontal space.

Generally, bigger is better as, like us, reptiles are curious and need room to explore but younger animals may feel overwhelmed with too much space too soon (small pythons are notorious for this). Research the specific requirements for your pets.

Step 2: It’s Getting Hot in Here!

Heat requirements for reptiles

Reptiles are essentially solar powered: they’re ectothermic and, in the wild, they rely on energy from the sun to fuel them. You’ll need to simulate this for your pet. There are several ways to do this.

Heat Lamps

These imitate the sun and provide overhead heat via a light source. Make sure you apply a mesh cover to your heat lamp, so your pet doesn’t get too close and burn itself (this is especially important for snake enclosures – pythons have a habit of wrapping themselves around lights and injuring themselves) and avoid using white lights, as these prevent your little one from sleeping.

Heat Mats and Cords

Like lamps, heat mats and cords are designed to emulate heat sources reptiles would have in the wild. In this instance, the ground of their enclosure is heated, imitating the effect of the sun on soil. Like with heat lamps, you’ll need to provide a barrier between the heat source and your animal to protect them from burning themselves.

Whichever method you choose, ensure there’s a thermal gradient (a warm and cool zone in your reptile’s enclosure) so they can regulate their temperature and don’t overheat. How much variation needed will depend on the species kept, but variances of 5-8 degrees is common.

Thermostats, Thermometers & Hygrometers

You’re going to need these bad boys to monitor the temperature and humidity in your terrarium and keep it optimal for your little one.

Use a thermostat to monitor the temperature of heat sources. It’s important it doesn’t get too warm in there – heat lamps and other heating products are designed to operate under moderate temperature conditions (around 20 degrees Celsius) but on hotter days where the temperature is already high, the terrarium could overheat. Using a thermostat to monitor the temperature in terrarium (and most importantly turning down heat sources if a maximum temperature is reached) keeps your little one safe.

You’ll also need thermometers to ensure your thermostat is working correctly, and to check that your ‘cool’ zone is the right temperature – which means you’ll need two devices. Place one thermometer on the warm side of the thermal gradient next to the heat source and thermostat, and then place the other on the cool side of the enclosure.

Round off your measurement tools with a hygrometer! It measures the humidity of your terrarium. Once again, different animals have different humidity requirements – dependent on the climate they’d be in in the wild. As a rule of thumb, tropical species prefer higher humidity levels while those found it desert landscapes are comfortable in a drier terrarium. Research the requirements for your animal and use a hygrometer to ensure the humidity levels are correct.

Step 3: Let There Be Light!

Lighting requirements for reptiles

Most reptiles need lighting for two reasons: firstly, just like people, reptiles need a day and night cycle to ensure they sleep properly and maintain a healthy biocycle. Secondly, reptiles require light for calcium metabolism.

To simulate day and night, it’s important your terrarium is subject to a period of light followed by a period of darkness. If you don’t provide this, your animal will likely become stressed – so it’s important to get the balance right. You can achieve this by having an enclosure that partially or completely blocks out natural light and using a light in the terrarium that has a day and night function.

Most reptiles also need ultraviolet light for vitamin D production and calcium metabolism – providing it is necessary for your animal’s health and doing so comes with a range of additional benefits from vivid scale colour, to increased activity and appetite. UV light can be provided in the form of tubes or globes – they simulate sunlight by providing UVA and UVB wavelengths. As with heat sources, make sure you cover the light with mesh casing to prevent your pet from making direct contact with it.

Step 4: Go Easy on the Eyes…Accessorise!

Reptile tank décor

When decorating and kitting out your terrarium, something to consider is the natural environment your critter would find themselves in in the wild.

Would they be comfortable in the tropics? Opt for leafy green foliage and vines. Would they be found in the desert? Maybe rich earthy colours and skull accessories are the way to go. Remember that most reptiles are shy, and they’ll need places to hide to feel comfortable and safe. Make sure you provide this, or you’ll stress your little one out.

Reptile Substrate and Bedding

Reptile substrate should adorn the base of your pet’s enclosure. It provides grip and a comfortable surface for your pet, allows for burrowing, absorbs waste, and helps maintain the right humidity levels in your enclosure.

There are multiple substrate options including topsoil, coconut coir, shredded bark, aspen, mulch and even sand. What works best is dependent on your animal and the climate they’re used to – for example, aspen is suitable for animals that require medium to low humidity levels but will become mouldy at high humidity. By contrast, coconut coir works well for high humidity enclosures but goes dusty when dry – causing discomfort to your pet. Do your research on your animal’s specific needs and choose appropriate bedding for their humidity requirements.

Ensure that the substrate you choose is free from contaminates such as parasites, bacteria and fungi so it won’t cause harm if accidentally ingested.

Article supplied by PETstock

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