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Reptile Remodeling: Proper Habitat Setup

Your reptile has certain biological needs, and this guide will help you set up a habitat that meets those needs.

When creating a habitat for your new reptilian friend it is important that your terrarium doesn’t just look like your reptile’s natural environment, it also acts like it. Your reptile has certain biological needs, and this guide will help you set up a habitat that meets those needs. Let’s get creating the perfect space for your new friend.

Your Reptile’s Basic Environmental Needs

Space

A larger habitat is always preferred. Larger habitats allow you to set up a more effective thermal gradient.

Temperature

Reptiles are cold-blooded animals, so they are unable to regulate their body temperatures on their own. This is why a heating source is critical. Most reptiles need a constant temperature between 70 to 85 degrees F with basking areas that reach over 100 degrees F. This number is different for each species, time of day and season.

A wide range of reptile heating devices including light bulbs, pads, tubular heaters, under-tank heaters, ceramic heating elements and basking lights are available to regulate the temperature environment for your new reptile. You'll need to research your particular species or ask a Petco associate to determine your herp’s optimal requirements.

"Basking" reptiles move in and out of sunlight to gain the heat they need, which is their form of thermoregulation. A basking lamp set up on one end of their terrarium will give your pet a temperature gradient that will allow them access to heat for digestion purposes and a cooler area for sleeping or resting.

Be sure the low ambient temperature doesn't fall below the low-end of your pet's ideal temperature range even with all the lights off. Ceramic heating elements and under tank heaters are advantageous because they maintain heat without the need to keep the light on 24 hours a day.

Humidity

Depending on the reptile you have, they may require different amounts of humidity or need different methods utilized to introduce moisture into their environment. Tropical Iguanas and other similar species require high humidity levels to maintain their health. Many different types of Chameleons rely on droplets of water on foliage or the sides of their habitats to drink rather than standing water. Every species has preferences when it comes to moisture, so become familiar with what types of moisture your pet will need and what equipment you will need to provide.

Moisture levels are controlled by ventilation, temperature and the introduction of water into the atmosphere. You can raise the humidity level by spraying the air with water frequently or by providing a source of standing or running water. Use a hygrometer in your pet's habitat to track humidity. You can maintain the appropriate level of humidity in your pet's habitat through commercially available humidifiers, misters and aeration devices. Decorative mini-waterfalls are growing more popular, not only to add interest to the vivarium set-up, but also to provide appropriate humidity levels.

Light

Lighting is another factor that varies greatly by species. Lizards, such as Collared Lizards and Green Iguanas, require certain amounts of light exposure each day, while nocturnal reptiles require more subdued lighting.

Basking species need special lamps, correct positioning and even specific light bulbs. They require vitamin D3, which they typically obtain from direct sunlight. D3 helps your little lizard absorb calcium. Normal household lightbulbs cannot provide this, so be sure you find an ultraviolet bulb. Your reptile will need to get within 12 inches of the light. Be sure there is a barrier to avoid risk of burns.

Before you build

Cedar & pine shavings

These shavings contain oils that may irritate the skin of some reptiles and they are not appropriate.

Heat lamps

Heat lamps should always be mounted well above the enclosure or with a barrier so there is no risk of injury to your reptile.

Driftwood & rocks

If you find and want to use a nice piece of driftwood or a rock for your terrarium, be sure to take the proper precautions. You must soak all décor n a light bleach/water solution for 24 hours. Next, soak it in clean water for another 24 hours to clean it of the bleach. Do not ever place items found outdoors in your terrarium as they may harbor dangerous organisms or bacteria.

Filters

A filter is not needed for a terrarium, but it is a necessary part of a vivarium or aquatic setup. You will need to change it regularly to remove bacteria and other toxins that form in the water or in the filter itself. Read the label and make a note of when to change the filter. If the water looks dirty, it's time for a change.

Branches

Living wood should never be used as a pet habitat decoration. The sap could be harmful to your pet. With aquatic or semi-aquatic habitats, the sap can actually contaminate the water. You should never use items obtained from outside for your reptile’s home.

Metal objects

Metal object are best kept out of terrariums, particularly in aquatic, semi-aquatic or humid environments. Heavy metals such as copper, zinc and lead are toxic and can contribute to gradual poisoning of your pet.

Plants

Finding a plant for your terrarium can be very tricky. You want it to look natural, but above all you want it to be safe. Many plants are toxic to your pet and can cause a reaction anywhere from minor itching to death. Never use a plant from outside as a decoration in your reptile’s habitat.

The signs a plant is causing an allergic reaction for your reptile:

  • Swelling, particularly around the mouth
  • Breathing problems
  • Vomiting
  • Skin irritation

If you notice any of these signs, take your pet to a veterinarian immediately. These reactions are often life-threatening.

These are the basic elements that will help you set up a home for your new reptile friend. Remember every species has different needs, and as a pet parent you will want to provide them with everything that they need to live a long, healthy life. Be sure to research the specific needs of your type of reptile and bring any questions you may have to your veterinarian.