Underneath the rough and scaly exterior of a reptile is a delicate creature. As any dedicated reptile owner can tell you, it takes time, energy, resourcefulness, and commitment to keep these pets healthy and happy. You may go to great efforts to create and maintain a beautiful living environment for your reptile, but you need to be aware of the dangers that may already be inside her habitat.
No Way Out
Reptiles can be stubborn in their attempts to win freedom. One of your first steps as a reptile owner should be to make sure your pet's home is 100 percent escape proof. Remember, if her head can fit into a space, the rest of her body can, too. With persistence, she can make her escape by enlarging even a small hole. Be sure the lid on your enclosure has a snug fit and a firm anchor.
A Comfy Climate
A healthy herp needs a close facsimile to her native climate. If it's too hot, cold, humid or dry, your pet will suffer serious health problems. Some sources of heat could burn or even electrocute your pet, so be sure to do your homework on equipment, follow the manufacturer's instructions, and use common sense when placing heating elements inside a habitat. Watch your pet and make sure she keeps a safe distance from any hot heat source. Also, regularly check the heating elements to see if they're functioning properly.
Your pet is inquisitive; eventually she will eat some substrate out of curiosity. It's up to you to ensure that substrate, plants, and everything else in her environment won't harm her if and when she takes an investigative taste. Some substrates are suitable for some reptiles but not for others. While fine sand is a bad choice for most lizards, coarse sand is a good substrate for desert natives. Chunky gravel, wood shavings, cat litter, and artificial turf are generally poor choices for substrate. Cedar shavings, cat litter, and fine sand are especially harmful since they can also irritate your herp's skin.
Suggested substrates for a dry environment include newspaper printed with nontoxic ink, shredded bark, or recycled paper pellets. Ground corncob is good for larger snakes, and alfalfa pellets are appropriate for tortoises. Numerous plants can be poisonous, so if you plan to keep live plants in your vivarium, select them carefully. Consult a herp expert or a guidebook for herp owners.
It's in the Water
Reptiles are vulnerable to many elements in common tap water, including chlorine. It's best to give your pet purified water. If you must use tap water, why not rotate two drinking dishes? If you let water stand overnight, the chlorine will dissipate enough to be safe for reptiles. Switch dishes daily, always filling the one that isn't in the cage so you can use it as the next day's water supply. For amphibians, however, it's best to let tap water sit for at least two days; keep a bucket on hand, noting the date you last filled it.
Let There Be Light
Reptiles need Vitamin D to make use of the calcium in their food, and their bodies use ultraviolet light - specifically, UVB rays - to produce the Vitamin D they need. In their natural environments, reptiles rely on sunlight for these rays. Reptiles who are companion animals need a source of UVB, generally a lamp of some sort. A few hours of sunlight will also do the trick, but remember that glass or plastic will block UV rays, and your herp needs unfiltered sunlight.
Although many owners place their reptile's enclosure on a windowsill or outside in the sun, this is risky. Exposure to drafts or direct light can seriously chill or overheat your pet, and remember that the weather and cloud cover can change suddenly. Artificial UVB lighting within a constant environment is usually a better solution. Full-spectrum lights are important for some lizards - be sure the source you choose gives off those UVB rays.
Cage Crawlies, Keep Out
It's up to you to keep bacteria, mites, fungi, germs, and other nuisances from breeding inside your reptile's home. Your pet needs a clean environment, complete with daily water changes. Feces and uneaten food should be removed daily as well. Once a week, you'll need to change your pet's substrate where it's dirty as well as clean, disinfect, and sterilize the cage, furnishings, and bowls. A complete substrate change once a month will help maintain a hygienic environment for your herp. If you create a hazard-free vivarium for your reptile, she will be far safer there than anywhere else.