An Introduction to Reptile Care ~ Basic Husbandry
(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 for a full explanation of the safety of Repashy Calcium plus in conjunction with UVB lighting. (There has been some suggestion of this product being unsuitable for chameleon species.We do not keep or have experience with chameleons so please consult an experienced chameleon keeper to discuss the special mineral/vitamin needs of this species.)
A word of caution. There is commercially available reptile sand that contains calcium. Many lizards who would normally seek sources of calcium within their environment could be drawn to ingest this material in efforts to meet their calcium requirements.
It is claimed by some that despite the manufacturers claim that this product is fully digestible that it is a major cause of intestinal obstruction / impaction. This material when wet forms solid clumps so it is assumed that when it comes into contact with the reptiles gut fluids it will form clumps. I have no hard evidence to support the claims of this product causing impaction however I would not be prepared to take the risk of using it within our collection of reptiles.
Choosing and buying your reptile.
Hopefully after doing your research and setting up its vivarium you are now in a position to safely acquire your new reptile. Choosing your reptile, particularly if you are new to keeping reptiles is far from simplistic. Many reptile shops or breeders produce and sell animals of superb quality. Sadly however,there are just as many outlets selling poor quality, sickly, underage and underweight specimens. Purchasing one of these unfortunate animals can result in a lot of expense and heartache. This is certainly not what you want for your introduction to reptile keeping.
It is much safer to purchase your animal from either a reputable reptile shop or, from a recognised breeder of quality animals. Again research will help you identify the better shops or breeders. Visit the various Internet reptile groups and forums and read the reviews of keepers who have used these outlets. Speak with other keepers, they will often point you in the direction of good outlets and advise you which to avoid.
What do I look for when choosing a reptile ?
When selecting your reptile the first thing to look at is the conditions in which it is housed. If its accommodation is heavily soiled and in an obvious state of neglect, I would urge you to walk away and visit another source of sale. If there are any ‘poops’ in the vivarium housing the animal you are looking to purchase have a look at them. If there is any indication of loose watery stool, undigested insect or blood I would again urge you to abandon the purchase.
If you are satisfied that the animal has received a good level of care, then the focus should be on the animal itself. Its eyes should be clear and bright, its nostrils clear and dry. If it shows discharge from its eyes or nostrils there could be serious underlying health problems. Its skin should be intact with no evidence of lesions or sores. Pay careful attention to its toes. They should be intact with no evidence of stuck shed constricting the toes. Is the animal a good weight for its age ? A healthy animal should have a fullness to its tail and body. If its ribs are excessively prominent or its limbs look deformed and its joints appear rubbery, again, I would advise you to walk away.
Talk to the breeder or person selling the reptile. Do they seem more interested in the future welfare of the animal or the sale ? Are they open about answering your questions ? Will they offer you after sales support and guidance ?
Many breeders will allow you to look at their collection including viewing the parents of the animal you are interested in. Our premises are not open to the general public and most of our sales will involve delivery of the animal via a specialist DEFRA licenced courier. If however you travel to collect an animal from us in person we will welcome to look around our facility and animals.
We take great pride in our animals and would love to let you see our setup and the way our animals are housed and cared for.
We think it is of great value to the would be purchaser to look at their chosen reptiles parents. This gives them opportunity to see the ‘adult’ version of their chosen animal. I would be cautious of anyone who is reluctant or evasive to answer questions and to allow you to see their setup.
We must point out though, there is a justifiable element of caution when people have collections of valuable reptiles. In some instances people are reluctant to show people their collection for obvious security reasons. Sadly there has been a number of incidents where collections have been stolen and instances of unwanted attention from animal rights organisations. This has resulted in many breeders becoming extremely cautious in regards to allowing strangers access to their collection. There is however a difference between being evasive and being cautious. Hopefully you will develop a rapport between yourself and the breeder who will then be more than willing to help you throughout the purchase of your animal.
Please remember that the old adage ‘it seems too good to be true’ in many instances of absolute bargain prices is sadly very right. If your careful and responsible, there are real bargains to be had amongst the hundreds of reptiles offered for sale. However there are also many so called bargains that result in considerable expense and heartache in efforts to restore an unwell reptile back to health.
Any reptile, no matter who or where you purchase it from should be subjected to a minimum of 3 months quarantine from any other reptiles. This means housing the animal alone, where possible using disposable equipment or equipment that can be sterilised separately from any other reptile equipment. Animals in quarantine should be attended to after any other reptiles in the collection. Rigorous hand disinfection is essential after any contact with the quarantined reptile or its equipment.
It may seem odd to raise the subject of salmonella when discussing the basics of reptile care. However salmonella is a pathogen that is sometimes found in the gut of reptiles. There is a very slight risk of humans contracting salmonella from reptiles. This risk can be eliminated with common sense basic hygiene measures.
However the risk of transmission of salmonella to those in contact with the reptile should not be ignored. Very young children, the elderly, those who are immuno compromised, pregnant or breast feeding should avoid contact with reptiles.
Anyone handling reptiles or anything the reptile has been in contact with should ensure their hands are thoroughly washed and disinfected as soon as they have finished with the animal. Eating and drinking whilst handling reptiles obviously increases the risk of becoming infected with salmonella and should be avoided.
Please don’t let the risk of salmonella put you off owning a reptile. Of the 17,250 confirmed cases of Salmonella in the UK in 1999 only 7 were linked with reptiles.
With sensible precautions and rigid hygiene the risk from even a salmonella positive animal is very minimal. It is argued that you are at as much risk from stroking a cat or dog. In fact, you are at more risk of contracting toxoplasmosis from a cat or being bitten by a dog than you are of contracting salmonella from your pet reptile.
Being aware of the risk and the strategies to prevent transmission of salmonella from your reptile to yourself or others should ensure you enjoy years and years of problem free reptile keeping. Keep the alcohol hand rub next to the vivarium and it will soon become second nature to disinfect your hands after handling your reptile.
We hope this basic guide has been a help to you in preparation for your reptile ownership.
Reptile keeping is becoming more and more popular within the UK. They can be fascinating animals who bring their owners many years of pleasure. If you are new to owning reptiles, Grinning Gecko & Smirks wish you every success and happiness with your new reptilian friend.
Please dont hesitate to contact us via either the Guestbook, Email or Facebook if you want any further help or advice. If we dont know the answer from our own level of knowledge and experience we are confident that from within our large number of highly experienced keeper friends we can put you in touch with someone who can help you.
Please be a responsible and caring reptile keeper and share the joys of reptile ownership as far and widely as you can. The reptile keeping hobby is increasingly in the 'public eye'. Sadly there have been a small number of very negative reptile related incidents that have cast a shadow on the hobby. The majority of keepers are extremely dedicated and caring towards their animals and we hope you will join their ranks.
Together we can portray a positive image of reptile keeping and correct the misconceptions held against the hobby. Most of all though, please remember you have a legal and moral duty of care towards your animal. They are totally dependent on you and if you are a genuine caring keeper Im sure you will want nothing but the best for them.
A final note of caution. Reptile keeping can be very addictive!!! We started out with 3 Leopard Geckos. We now have around 80 permanent members of the leopard gecko collection. At the height of the breeding season that number is increased by hatchlings to A LOT !!! Then we have the other species of reptile within the collection, total number…...whose counting ? Addictive, educational, fascinating, wonderful and lovable reptiles !!!. We wouldn’t and couldn’t be without them.
Best wishes and good luck
The Grinning Gecko Gang