An Introduction to Reptile Care ~ Basic Husbandry
We have written this guide for people thinking of buying their first pet reptile. It may also be of interest of benefit for those in the early stages of reptile keeping.
(We apologise for the lack of illustration on this and any of the other guides. Images will be added over the next few days.)
Although we have tried to include advice that is current and correct we believe it is always wise to obtain information from a variety of sources. Please do a bit of research yourself. There are numerous sources of information, the internet, fellow keepers, reptile shops and of course the old fashioned library. However, as well as being great sources for good information, these can also be sources of very poor advice. This is why it is wise to obtain your information and advice from a variety of sources. In our ‘ useful links page ‘ we include a few good sources for information, advice, support and help.
When we take ownership of any form of animal we also take on a duty of care, along with a legal and a moral responsibility to ensure the animal gets the best possible care, that its kept in the best possible conditions and in the best physical and mental health. In many instances it is not too difficult to meet the needs of our reptilian companions, however if we neglect their needs, if we get things wrong we can condemn them to a life of suffering and misery. There is therefore only one option, we must get the care for our animal’s right.
The information that follows is written as a guide to the basic
aspects of reptile care. Please refer to appropriate 'care guides' for
information specific to your chosen reptile
Housing your Reptile.
There are many alternatives for housing
your reptile. These include wooden vivariums, converted fish tanks, specialist
glass display vivariums (e.g. Exoterra products) or simple clear plastic tubs
such as ‘ Really Useful Boxes '.
All forms of reptile housing have some common considerations. It must be secure to prevent the escape of your reptile or its ‘live food’, it must protect against intrusion by animals such as the households pet cat and they must allow the reptile to see a distinct day / night cycle. The vivarium should of course be appropriate in size and orientation for the species you wish to accommodate. The material that the enclosure is made from must be suitable for the micro climate that will be created within it.
The key to successful ownership of any reptile is research. Gaining an understanding of the life and habitat of your reptiles 'wild' cousins will help you in providing an appropriate level of care and environment in the captive setting. Please spend a bit of time researching your reptile of interest.
New or Second Hand ?
It may seem a little odd to bring up the subject of new or second hand when discussing reptiles. However it is something that merits serious consideration if you are thinking of buying second hand vivaria or equipment. If you do decide to buy second hand equipment etc it is essential that is thoroughly washed and disinfected prior to putting your animal in contact with it.
The specialist veterinary disinfectant F10 is excellent for this as it kills most pathogens etc that could harm your animals. It is available in most good reptile shops or ‘on line’. If you buy F10 SC, a concentrated version that is diluted with water, it works out as a very ‘cost effective’ disinfectant for all routine cleans etc.
F10 SC XD contains the same concentrated disinfectant combined with a detergent.
Milton solution is also a very good disinfectant for equipment and vivaria but rinsing is required after use.
The biggest concern with second hand reptile equipment is the deadly reptile disease cryptosporidium. None of the commercially available disinfectants will kill the crypto pathogens. In fact, in the home setting there is no practical means of disinfecting vivaria or equipment contaminated by crypto. In confirmed cases of crypto it is advised that enclosures and equipment is incinerated.
If you choose to buy second hand equipment please ask why it has become available. It may be that the previous occupant had outgrown its enclosure or other similar reason. If the animal is still alive and healthy providing you thoroughly disinfect things you should be fine. However if the previous occupant has passed away, particularly without a definitive cause of death it would be wise NOT to buy the second hand goods. Cryptosporidium is extremely virulent and has wiped out whole collections of reptiles.
The lighting needs for your reptile are species dependent. Research should provide you with the information required to provide an appropriate light source for your reptile.
Nocturnal species do not generally require any form of lighting although low wattage bulbs or leds can be utilised for night time viewing of your reptile. The use of red or blue lighting does not normally cause the nocturnal species any distress and allows them to continue with their natural behaviour.
Most day time active (diurnal) reptiles have very specific lighting needs. Generally they require specialist UVB lighting either in the form of strip lights or compact bulbs. Again research is essential to determine and ensure the correct strength of UVB is used for the species.
These are normally operated on a timer to
provide a defined light cycle.
Heating for your Reptile.
Reptiles are a 'cold blooded' animal and they do not have the internal temperature control abilities that mammals share. More appropriately they are considered to be 'ectotherms'. To maintain their optimal body temperature they move from areas of warmth or cool to achieve and maintain their desired internal body temperature.
Some reptiles require quite high temperatures whilst others thrive in comparatively cool temperatures. It is essential that your reptile is able to achieve and maintain its optimal body temperature. If it can’t, gut function and enzyme activity etc within the reptile will be compromised. The reptile will become sluggish and fail to thrive. If it remains at a sub optimal temperature its health can be severely compromised by things such as respiratory infection, inability to digest food etc. Ultimately sub optimal temperatures can kill your reptile.
Understanding how your reptile lives in the wild will help you provide the most suitable form of heating (if needed) for your reptile.
Diurnal lizards such as Bearded Dragons spend much of their day basking. They will spend long periods absorbing the suns rays.These animals need an overhead heat source to replicate the warmth they would feel from sunlight.
Nocturnal or crepuscular lizards such as Leopard Geckos would not normally be active in the day. They do not gain warmth from basking in direct sunlight. Instead they absorb a lower level of heat whilst hidden in crevices,under rocks and in burrows during warmth of the day. When they emerge at dusk there is little warmth from the sun. However they will absorb through their bellies some of the heat that has been retained by rocks warmed by the sun during the day.
The majority of a Leopard Geckos temperature receptors are thought to be in its abdomen and this is likely to be the case with most nocturnal / crepuscular species.
With this knowledge it is easy to understand that captive Leopard Geckos are most suited to accommodation that is heated at floor / substrate level. In this case, heat is best provided with the use of heat mats, heat strips or heat cables.
It is essential that any heat source is controlled by a thermostat to prevent the serious risk of overheating and / or burns to your reptile. A thermostat will also help to reduce the ‘running costs’ of a heat lamp. There are several options available with regards to choice of thermostat. It is essential that the correct thermostat for the type of heat source used is selected.
For heatmats, heat strips or cables a basic mat stat will generally suffice. When the sensor probe of the thermostat detects the temperature has reached the set level it clicks the heat source off. Once the temperature falls it clicks the heat source back on.
Heat lamps need a more specialised dimming thermostat. As the name suggest, these work by increasing or decreasing the output of the heat lamp to keep the temperature within a set range. We have found the new generation Habistat Digital Dimming Stats to be excellent for gaining accurate temperature control with heat lamps. These ‘stats’ also provide a control for things like the timing of UVB lamps.
Please click HERE for more information regarding reptile thermostats and how to calibrate and set them up appropriately for the various enclosure heating requirements.
It is vital temperatures at basking spots and within the vivarium are accurately monitored with a good quality digital thermometer. The cheaper ‘stick on ’ analogue dial thermometers are notoriously inaccurate and are best avoided.
It is also essential that when a heat source is used that there is a temperature gradient within the vivarium. This allows the occupant to move from the warm area to the cool area in efforts to regulate its body temperature. The risk of overheating your reptiles should not be ignored.
Sadly every year many reptiles die needlessly through over heating because a thermostat and basic temperature monitoring has not been used. Failure to provide your reptile with a good temperature gradient within the vivarium significantly increases the risk of over heating.
Cage Furnishings and Décor.
Again, research will be invaluable when it comes to furnishing or decorating your chosen reptiles vivarium. Some reptiles require very basic cage furniture and minimal décor. Other species require places to bask, vines or branches to climb and bask on and plants to hide amongst.
Knowledge of the chosen reptiles natural environment will aid you in selecting suitable furnishings and décor within the captive environment. There is little point in providing logs and vines for species such as Leopard Geckos that aren’t good climbers. Similarly, there is little point in concentrating décor at the base of tank housing a species like a Crested Gecko which spends most of its time in the branches above.
When UVB lighting is used, foliage etc is essential as it is used to provide a photo gradient within the enclosure. Your reptile may not wish to bask continuously under the full intensity of the UVB lamp. It may prefer to spend time in partial shade or dappled lighting.
Many species will not drink from a water dish.They will only drink from droplets of water following spraying of the enclosure. Foliage and decor will provide places for your reptile to access these water droplets.
Most species of reptile need somewhere secure to hide themselves away.Natural looking hides can be purchased from reptile shops or if preferred constructed out of non toxic modelling clay or salt dough.
Alternatively they can easily be made from margarine tubs or upturned plant pot saucers.
Generally the reptile is not too bothered about the aesthetics of the hide it uses. The reptile is more concerned about whether it feels comfortable, safe and secure. Many species also require a moist hide to aid them with the natural process of shedding. A moist hide can easily be made from a plastic tub with a suitable sized opening. Placing damp kitchen roll, natural sphagnum moss or damp eco earth in the bottom of the tub, providing it is sprayed regularly, should provide an appropriate amount of humidity within the hide.
Vivarium decor can turn a vivarium into a stunning display tank that is visually appealing to the reptiles keeper. Arguably of greater importance it can provide enrichment for the tank occupants, shade, climbing surfaces, abrasive surfaces etc etc.
Substrate is the term given to the material used to cover the bottom of the vivarium. Again, research will aid you in selecting the appropriate substrate for your chosen reptile. There are many different materials that can be used for substrate.
Kitchen roll is widely used as it is cheap and can be disposed of when soiled. Slate or natural stone tiles, specialist ‘reptile carpet ’ or vinyl flooring provides the perfect substrate for many species.
In the case of lizards requiring a higher level of humidity substrates such as 'eco earth' which retain moisture are more appropriate. Sand should be used with caution.
It is often wrongly assumed that desert living species live on expanses of sand. In reality many areas of desert where reptiles are found are areas of rocky terrain and compacted clay.
With any particulate / loose substrate there is a risk of the reptile ingesting some of it when it captures and eats its prey at substrate level. This can result in impaction, a blockage of the intestine by indigestible particles. This is very painful for the reptile and in many cases it is fatal. The faeces of any reptile housed on a particulate substrate should be carefully monitored. If the poops appear to contain significant amounts of substrate an alternative substrate material should be used as a matter of urgency.
It is also worth mentioning that impaction is a multi factorial problem. The risk of impaction is significantly increased if the reptile is experiencing mineral depletion. If for example the animal feels it needs more calcium, it will seek it from within its environment,. Often it will ingest particles of substrate in its search of calcium. The problem if further compounded if the animal is not able to achieve its optimal body temperature as this causes stasis or slowing of the gut which allows blockages to form more easily. This problem is discussed in more depth in our 'health problems guide'.
With any cage furnishing, décor or substrate it is important that it should be easy to clean and disinfect or if appropriate dispose of. Plastic plants, hides, vines etc can be sterilised with commercially available reptile safe disinfectant or Milton solution. (Thorough rinsing is essential).Our chosen disinfectant is the F10 range, a professional grade product used in many veterinary practices and by many keepers of large reptile collections.
Where appropriate some items can be disinfected by boiling. Spahgnum moss or eco earth is easily disinfected by damping it and placing it in a glass bowl covered by cling film and popping it in the microwave for 3 or 4 minutes.
It is also important that we mention hand washing. Whenever you have handled your reptile, cleaned its enclosure,furnishings, dishes or equipment that you wash your hands with soap and water. Basic hygiene will help protect you from the risk of salmonella or other zoonotic diseases. It is also wise to avoid allowing the very young,the elderly or the immuno-compromised to handle your reptile or its equipment.(This is discussed more fully in the 'health problems'guide.)
Vitamin and Mineral Supplementation.
Generally lizards within the captive environment will require supplements of calcium and vitamins. These are essential for the health of your reptile and if neglected can result in serious problems such as metabolic bone disease.
Specific vitamin and mineral supplementation regimes are necessary for different species of reptile. This subject should be explored when researching care sheets specific to your chosen reptile.
In the wild, a reptiles vitamin needs are met through the diet it consumes. Mineral supplements such as calcium are obtained via diet or from the environment through licking mineral rich rocks etc.
At Grinning Gecko and Smirks, ALL of our reptiles (excluding snakes) receive vitamin / mineral supplementation. Our vitamin / mineral supplementation of choice is Repashy Calcium plus. This 'all in one' product is used to dust all live food prior to feeding to the reptile.
We have had superb results since we switched to using Repashy Calcium plus a few years ago. We are confident in saying that it has played a big part in the health, well-being of our reptiles and the success of our projects.
Repashy products are available from many reptile shops or online from Lilly Exotics, the UKs main licenced Repashy distributor. (Please visit our links page for details)
Vitamin D3 is essential for calcium metabolism. Without D3 the animal can not utilise calcium properly resulting in problems such as metabolic bone disease. Vitamin D3 is naturally synthesised from sunlight or UVB light.
Repashy Calcium plus is suitable for use even if the animal is exposed to the highest strength possible UVB source.
Please click HERE