Online Veterinary Education Library
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- Small Animals
It's worth committing a lot of attention to creating the perfect home for your amphibian or reptile to ensure its safety and because they are great hiders when they escape! Key determinants for how to house your species are its adult size, activity level and natural environment.
To ensure the pet has enough room, you need to create a space that can accommodate its adult size and activity level. For example, many snakes grow 6 to 8 feet long and while they can curl up, it is important for them to be able to stretch their lung(s). Yet some large snakes, such as pythons and boas (which can grow to 20 feet long), tend to be lazy and won't need space to stretch to their full length. Meanwhile, other smaller snakes, such as garter snakes, are active and fast, demanding plenty of room for their mischief-making. A typical iguana has a snout-tail length of about 6 to 9 inches as a hatchling, but can grow to 45 to 60 inches in five years and may need areas in the enclosure for sunning, swimming, sleeping, hiding and climbing. That means you'll need a large tank and enclosure from the start.
Each reptile needs to have its enclosure mirror its natural environment. That may mean aquatic space for reptiles to swim and cool down; arboreal space with branches and roosts that imitate a woodland environment; fossorial space for reptiles that burrow into the ground for cooling or sleeping; scansorial space for reptiles accustomed to basking, eating and hunting on rocks; riparian space for reptiles that swim in water but feed, sleep and bask on dry land; and terrestrial space for non-aquatic reptiles that need different types of land areas, such as rocks, branches and caves.
Different enclosures work for different individual or combined types of environments:
- Aquatic terrariums are similar to aquariums for aquatic reptiles. Important elements for an aquatic terrarium are a submersible heater; a filter for continuous, easy cleaning; a vented or wire screen on the top with a lid or covering for easy ventilation and access; gravel spread on the bottom; a basking light that cannot be reached by the reptile; a basking area, such as a rock or floating surface; and a comfortable background. This type of enclosure is ideal for turtles, frogs, newts, water snakes and salamanders.
- Semi-aquatic terrariums combine water and land areas. You can divide the two areas with a piece of glass attached with sealed silicon or use a removable container for the water. The land area should be created in layers for adequate filtering, drainage and use. You can use small gravel, moss, bark, or potting soil for these substrates. A layer of charcoal at the bottom can help keep the substrates fresher. Use some driftwood, moss, rocks or plants in the terrarium for interest and activity. Select plants that are right for your specific species and pet size. Depending on the animal, you may also need to create a basking area and heat gradient in the terrarium (see Heating below). Semi-aquatic terrariums make great homes for salamanders, newts, frogs, some lizards and some turtles.
- Woodland terrariums are similar to semi-aquatic terrariums but with significantly less space designated for water. Simply use a bowl for the water element. The same substrates can be used. Make sure to incorporate more branches for arboreal animals and more rocks for terrestrial species. Depending on the animal, you may need a heating and/or full spectrum lighting element. Usually a temperature gradient is also needed within this type of enclosure. A wide range of reptiles live in woodland environments, including frogs, salamanders, snakes and lizards such as geckos, anoles and skinks.
- Desert terrariums are for those reptiles that require dry, arid environments. Substrates can be constructed of reptile bark, terrarium carpet or sand. Use plants that require little water and low humidity, such as cactus or succulents. You will need to build a thermal gradient into the enclosure and will likely also need a heating and full spectrum lighting element. These enclosures are designed for animals such as chuckwallas, desert iguanas, leopard geckos and a variety of other lizards.
Some other rules of thumb for reptile enclosures are:
- Build in enough added height so that your pet cannot climb, jump or crawl out of the enclosure.
- Make sure all perches, shelves and rocks are secure and won't move when they are used.
- Use materials that are easy to clean and disinfect for background materials, such as carpeting or tiles. Make sure everything is sealed tightly.
- Reptile cage carpets are available that are non-abrasive to your pets and are easy to remove and clean. Do not use household or commercial carpeting â€” they are chemically treated and too abrasive for these animals.
- Use plastic plants for tortoises and herbivorous lizards; they'll eat live plants. Be sure you know which live plants can be safely ingested for your choice of species, too.
- Use plants, branches or boxes to create shade and hiding areas that give reptiles the privacy areas they need.
- Locate your enclosure in a room that has a lot of activity. Generally, the kitchen is not recommended because of frequent changes in temperature.
- Only use sand for animals that encounter it in their native environments. Otherwise sand can clog filtering systems and build up on pets' skin and in their digestive tracts, causing health problems.
- Remember that any material you place in the enclosure must be able to be cleaned, disinfected and sterilized. If you are incorporating branches, dirt or rocks, don't add in pieces from the outdoors unless you can fully clean, disinfect and sterilize them. Everyday items like these can bring unhealthy, and at times deadly, microorganisms into your pet's environment.
- By the time all the water and substrates are added, even relatively smaller terrariums get heavy. Choose the location for your enclosure and build it where it will remain.
Many reptiles are ectothermic, which means they can't regulate their own body temperature. To keep them in captivity, you'll need to control the surrounding temperature and humidity to reflect their natural environment. Each species has its own temperature tolerances, which need to be in sync with their sleep and activity cycles. For some reptiles, that may mean a temperature range of up to 10 degrees difference at different times of the day or night.
In nature, many animals regulate body temperature by moving in and out of sunny areas, shady areas, cooling water or burrowing into the ground. Your enclosure will need to accommodate these needs for your animal. For most reptiles, your enclosure will need a thermal gradient â€” a built in temperature range across the space from warm in one location to cool in another. There are a variety of heating devices and alternatives you can use, ranging from submersible heaters for aquatic animals to basking lamps, ceramic heating elements, ambient heating and space heaters. It is important to keep the heating elements out of your pet's reach to prevent accidents and burns.
Effectively heating the enclosure requires the use of thermometers. Plan on using at least two thermometers; place one at each end of the enclosure in order to measure temperatures at each end of the gradient. Although temperature charts offer a benchmark for each species, your pet might respond better to particular temperatures at different times of the day and in different seasons. Keep a chart and track temperatures at both ends of your pet's enclosure at various times throughout the day and night. Watch how your pet responds at these times so that you can determine ideal temperatures for it. You'll also have to make sure your humidity levels are relatively consistent. So when you use central heating in your home during the winter, you'll need to provide added humidity to the enclosure. This may be as simple as spray misting the environment daily.
Basking lamps are a good solution for reptiles that need sunning. They can be mounted on top of the cage or enclosure. Be sure that the animal cannot come into contact with the lamp to prevent burns and other accidents. One of the advantages of basking lamps is that they can provide full spectrum lighting during the day and be used as a blacklight (a red, frosted bulb) to simulate and ensure adequate darkness.
Ceramic heating elements need special sockets, but otherwise screw in like any other light bulb. They provide heat, but no light. They can be mounted on top of the enclosure as well. Another technique used to create an overall heating element, particularly for water environments, is under tank heating pads or tapes. Your gravel substrate responds to the heat below it and warms the water.
Please note: It is not advisable to use hot rocks as they can overheat and cause burns and other injuries to your pet.
Most reptiles need full-spectrum lighting, which imitates the sun, in order to maintain their health. There are two common lighting solutions used for reptile enclosures:
- Basking lampsthat can be mounted on top of the enclosure, but must be out of the reach of the animal. These lamps provide heating as well as light.
- Full-spectrum incandescent light bulbs, common household incandescent lights, provide the quality of light needed at a less expensive cost.
Please note: Some animals, such as lizards, must have exposure to natural sunlight, which requires the use of fluorescent bulbs. Be sure to learn about specific heating and lighting needs for your chosen pet.