Helpful Husbandry & Reptile FAQS
What You Need to Know About Reptile Enrichment
What You Need to Know About Reptile Enrichment
Written by Mariah Healey, ReptiFiles.com
You may have started seeing a new word lately in your reptile-related Facebook groups and YouTube channels: “enrichment”. If you don’t know what this means, then you probably feel a little lost in these discussions. So let’s start from the beginning:
What is enrichment?
Enrichment is the strategic use of items and activities to stimulate a captive animal to engage in natural behaviors.
Enrichment is common practice in high-quality zoos and similar institutions — although guests often see enrichment items as “toys” for the animals, they actually have a higher function: increasing the animals’ quality of life in captivity. How does that work? Simple: Animals have instincts which pre-program them to pursue certain behaviors. When they are free to express these behaviors, they have an outlet for excess energy and get to be, well, an animal. When they are unable to express these behaviors, they become frustrated and their mental health declines. Expressing natural behaviors is so important that David Mellor lists it among the five provisions of animal welfare.
Enrichment is most often thought of as important for “higher” animals like birds and mammals, but scientific evidence shows that even “simpler” animals like reptiles can benefit significantly from the addition of enrichment to their routine. Zoo practices often influence the exotic animal hobby, so it should come as no surprise that enrichment is starting to become a thing among progressive American reptile keepers.
If anything, it’s been a long time coming. When reptiles have regular access to enrichment, keepers start to see benefits like:
- Fewer vices and behavioral problems
- Increased alertness, engagement, and curiosity
- Increased resilience to stress
- Better body condition
- Increased intelligence
- Strengthened bond between animal and keeper
How do you provide enrichment for a reptile?
Enrichment ideas can be divided into two broad categories: environmental enrichment and enrichment activities.
Environmental enrichment encourages natural behavior through species-appropriate enclosure design that promotes freedom of choice and sensory stimulation.
Enrichment activities encourage natural behavior through presenting challenges. Animal training is also a form of active enrichment.
For best results, both types of enrichment should be present in your reptile’s routine. The greater diversity of enrichment you can provide, the greater the benefit will be for your reptile.
Environmental Enrichment Ideas:
- Climbing logs/branches and ledges
- Variety of hiding places
- Varied diet
- Loose, naturalistic substrate for digging/burrowing
- Rearrange furniture
- Move the food or water dish
- Place food and water dishes in separate areas of the enclosure
- Live, edible plants
- Shell brush station
- Cohabitation (for social species only)
Enrichment Activity Ideas:
- Puzzle feeder
- Live prey
- Hanging greens
- Multiple feeding stations
- Holey ball
- Scent trail
- Hidden food
- Foreign object in enclosure
- Tong feeding
- Target training
- Supervised free roaming
This is not the limit of what you can do to enrich your reptile’s life. For more ideas, consider the natural behaviors that your reptile would pursue in the wild, and ask yourself how you can facilitate that behavior in captivity. This will likely take some research into the species’ natural history – field guides and iNaturalist.org can be a great sources of inspiration! For example, if you have a pet ball python, some research will tell you that they are known to hunt in trees. An activity you can try, then, is putting the snake’s food on a branch for it to find.
Of course, not all of these ideas may be appropriate for your particular reptile. For example, if you have a green tree python, providing a “burrowable” substrate is going to be less beneficial than it would be for a hognose snake.
Don’t forget safety!
Before trying a certain form of enrichment, ask yourself: is this an “appropriate” challenge for my pet? Is it safe? Here’s a basic checklist to help you decide:
- Is this challenge appropriate for my pet’s capabilities?
- Can my pet potentially get trapped in the enrichment item?
- Can the enrichment item get stuck in my pet’s mouth?
- Can my pet potentially hang itself from the item?
- Is there an ingestion or choking hazard?
- Could my pet potentially get injured by this item?
- Can this item be used to escape from the enclosure?
- Could this activity make my pet sick?
- Is this item toxic or irritating in any way?
Why did you get your reptile? Unlike dogs, cats, horses, birds, etc., you don’t get a pet reptile to play with it — you get it because you find them interesting simply for what they are. When kept in minimalistic, unenriched enclosures, reptiles are unable to express the behaviors that make them so fascinating to us in the first place. For example, are ball pythons widely considered “pet rocks” simply because they’re commonly kept in tiny, barren enclosures?
Keep in mind that your attempts at enrichment may not get results at first. You have to keep at it, consistently present new challenges, but also stay within the range of your pet’s current capabilities. That may be fairly limited at first, but they will grow.
Enrichment isn’t a one-time thing. It shouldn’t even be particularly special. Enrichment is simply part of keeping your pet reptile happy and healthy – just like dogs need walks, chew toys, and human interaction, reptiles need enrichment too.
If you’re looking for more information on how to enhance your reptile’s quality of life with enrichment, start with these sources:
- Zoo Snippets
- Lori Torrini on YouTube
- ReptiFiles: Expanding on the 5 Freedoms of Animal Welfare
- Animal Welfare Institute: Environmental Enrichment: A Review
- Josh Halter
- Tags: enrichment
Photoperiod is Important to Your Pet Reptile — Here’s Why
Photoperiod is Important to Your Pet Reptile — Here’s Why
The Bio Dude – December 2020
Written by Mariah Healey, ReptiFiles
Reptiles are incredibly attuned to and dependent on the conditions of their natural habitat: temperatures, humidity, landscape, etc. So, one of the goals of keeping reptiles is replicating that habitat as closely as possible.
Here’s the thing, though: nature isn’t static — it’s dynamic. Nature is constantly in flux, from changes in the weather to changes in the landscape itself. But it also has some predictable cycles. For example, over the course of one year, a certain area will experience a dry season and a wet season, rise and fall in temperature, and increase and decrease in day length.
One of the ways you can replicate these natural cycles is by paying attention to and fine-tuning your reptile’s photoperiod.
What is photoperiod?
Photoperiod is the amount of light received per day, usually from sunrise to sunset — in other words, it’s the length of a day
How photoperiod affects reptiles
In nature, heat, UVA, UVB, and visible light all come from one source: the sun. For reptiles, the appearance of the sun means warmth and UVB. Diurnal and nocturnal reptiles alike structure their entire lives around the presence or absence of the sun respective to their ecological niches.
These daily and yearly fluctuations in light are so reliable that they provide a calendar for reptiles to set their internal clocks to. This “internal clock” is actually hormones. Hormones regulate most bodily processes, including determining when it’s time to mate and when it’s time to sleep. Because hormone levels are so closely tied to environmental factors like photoperiod, something as simple as how long you leave the lights on can determine success or failure in a breeding project.
Mader’s Reptile Medicine & Surgery (2006) warns that, “in general, day length and temperature should be decreased during the winter months. Failure to do so often results in reproductive failures or disease in many reptiles. Present hypothesis shows that inappropriate photoperiod and temperature fluctuations result in repeated reproductive failure.”
Paying attention to photoperiod isn’t just for breeders, however. Reproductive rhythms seem to be closely tied to immune function, and furthermore, inappropriate photoperiod is speculated to contribute to obesity.
How to determine your reptile’s ideal photoperiod
It’s not good enough to simply turn on your reptile’s lights when you wake up and turn them off when you go to sleep. Even if you sync your reptile’s lights to local sunrise and sunset times, that’s better, but still not there. Different parts of the world have different day lengths and annual cycles, and that influenced your reptile’s biology over the course of evolution. In other words, the local cycles of its “hometown” are hardwired into your pet’s DNA.
To determine your reptile’s ideal photoperiod, head to iNaturalist.org and find a wild observation of a live, healthy member of your reptile’s species that is roughly in the middle of its distribution range.
Note the location, then plug that city in to TimeandDate.com or a similar site to find local sunrise and sunset data for the current date. Note that if you live in the northern hemisphere but your reptile is from the southern hemisphere, you will need find the equivalent date in your current season to determine how many hours of light your reptile should be getting right now. For example, if it’s November 27th, then it’s Autumn in the northern hemisphere, but Spring in the southern hemisphere, so you’ll need to look at the sunrise and sunset data for June 27th. This is because reptiles tend to react to local barometric pressure, and barometric pressure changes with the seasons.
You will need to update this every so often to actually create a cycle for your reptile to benefit from. You don’t have to update the day length every day, but once a week to twice a month should be enough to yield benefits.
Make sure to turn on all daytime lights and heat sources at the same time – they all happen at the same time in nature, so it’s best to keep them together in your reptile’s enclosure.
Meet digital timers, your new best friend
If you don’t want to race to your reptile’s enclosure every time you need to turn the lights on or off, then you’ll need some help. Digital timers are the perfect way to control your reptile’s photoperiod by programming lights to turn on or off at a specified time. You can use a standard digital outlet timer like the GE 7-Day Programmable Power Strip, or you can use a smart plug like the Kasa Smart Plug, which can be programmed via your phone.
Sometimes lamps come with built-in timers, like the Fluval Plant Spectrum Bluetooth LED lighting system. This has an integrated timer and is capable of providing a full 24-hour light cycle and customizable color spectrum for different times of day. However, it doesn’t seem to be able to auto-regulate itself based on a given location.
As of yet, we’re still waiting on technology that will time lights according to a given set of coordinates. Hopefully that option becomes available in the hobby soon!
Once you have the basics taken care of, turn your attention to the finer points of reptile husbandry, such as photoperiod. A reptile’s health is often directly connected to the conditions it lives in, so refining your approach to husbandry will help your pet enjoy better overall wellbeing.
- Josh Halter
What do I need to know before getting my first reptile?
What to Know Before Getting Your First Reptile
Reptiles are likely to be unlikely any other pet you’ve ever had. They’re not warm-blooded, they don’t have fur, they can’t roam your house, they don’t eat kibble, and they don’t even like to be petted in most cases. In other words, a reptile’s needs are likely to be very foreign from your previous experiences. Although this means you will need to do lots of research before taking the plunge, here are nine considerations to get you started.
Don’t Trust What the Pet Store Tells You
You wouldn’t ask a grocery store employee for help with a recipe, or a home improvement store employee for advice on a renovation, so why expect pet store employees to be experts on reptile care?
Most pet stores sell a wide variety of animals: dogs, cats, ferrets, hamsters, canaries, parakeets, lizards, snakes, turtles, frogs, toads, goldfish, bettas, tarantulas, scorpions — you get the idea. It’s a lot to keep track of, and often pet store employees are minimally trained (if at all) on the care for each one, relying on outdated materials. What pet store employees are trained how to do, however, is sell product. When you rely on pet store employees’ “expertise” you are likely to be talked into wasting your money on products that you don’t actually need, and may even be harmful to your new pet.
Instead, do your own research on the products that you will need.
Avoid Pet Store Starter Kits
One product that pet store employees will likely try to convince you to buy is a starter kit. These kits are a great idea in theory, but in application they usually come up lacking. Although they are advertised as starter kits, they’re usually incomplete, and may be missing components that are essential to a reptile’s health and wellbeing.
That’s generally the case with reptile kits from the biggest brands, as they’re designed for an alluring price tag rather than reptile welfare. However, kits created by experts like The Bio Dude can actually be very helpful in getting your pet’s terrarium off to the right start.
Reptiles Aren’t Cheap Pets
Many prospective reptile owners make the mistake of thinking, “It’s just a snake/lizard/turtle — how expensive could it be?”
As it turns out, they can be very expensive. At the very least, they’re definitely not cheap.
Aside from the cost of the animal itself, there’s a lot of equipment that goes into creating an appropriate captive environment that meets your reptile’s unique needs: the terrarium, heat lamp, UVB, full-spectrum lighting, digital thermometers and hygrometers, a spray bottle, substrate, hideouts…and that’s before you factor in enrichment items!
Are there ways to reduce the cost of setting up a reptile terrarium without reducing your pet’s quality of life? Absolutely. But you should still expect to shell out at least a few hundred dollars on an appropriate setup.
Different Species Have Different Needs
As you might have gathered at this point, reptiles aren’t simple pets. Actually, they’re quite complicated. And another thing that makes them complicated is the fact that there are thousands of different species. They’re not like dogs/cats/rabbits/horses/etc., where there’s lots of different breeds, but they all require more or less the same care.
As exotic animals, different reptile species can have vastly different needs. Some like high temperatures, whereas others like it cool. Some like lots of humidity, while others need dry conditions. Some like to climb, while others like to stay on the ground. Some eat whole prey, while others need a vegetarian diet. This means you will need to thoroughly research and accommodate the needs of the specific type of reptile you wish to keep.
Your First Goal is to Replicate Their Natural Habitat
A big part of meeting your reptile’s needs is replicating its natural habitat. Reptiles have evolved over the course of millions of years to thrive within a very specific environment. Take them out of that environment, and they will fail to thrive, possibly even die. So it’s a reptile owner’s responsibility to replicate the conditions of their pet’s natural habitat as thoroughly as possible. This means studying photos and videos of the reptile’s habitat, and paying close attention to parameters such as temperature, humidity, UVB strength, diet, and décor.
The best ways to replicate a reptile’s natural habitat are through naturalistic and bioactive setups. A naturalistic setup looks like the target reptile’s natural environment, but may use artificial plants instead of live, and the substrate still needs to be completely replaced on a regular basis to maintain good hygiene. A bioactive setup also looks like the target reptile’s natural environment, but it requires creating a functional micro-ecosystem, complete with beneficial microbes, healthy soil, live plants, and appropriate moisture.
In replicating your reptile’s natural habitat, it’s also important to provide your reptile with as much space as possible. Many reptile species that are common in captivity have vast wild territories, and when they are provided with a generous, well-set up enclosure, they will happily use every inch of it.
One of the Best Ways to Save Money is By Building Your Own Enclosure
The enclosure is one of the biggest expenses of setting up for a pet reptile. And the bigger the enclosure, the more it will cost. Building your own enclosure enables you to save money without causing your pet reptile to suffer from less space to exercise and explore.
When building a reptile enclosure, here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Use a front-opening design for easier access.
- Avoid melamine, as it’s heavy and tends to rot from the inside out.
- If using wood lumber, seal it with several coats of waterproofing agent (preferably VOC-free), and seal the corners with 100% silicone.
- Glass is heavy and brittle, but otherwise durable. Acrylic is lightweight, but scratches easily.
- Don’t forget to build in plenty of ventilation. Constructing the enclosure with a mesh top allows for better airflow and heat dissipation for desert enclosures, while just placing vents on the sides helps maintain higher humidity.
Thermometer and Hygrometers Are Your Friends
Each type of reptile needs a specific range of temperatures and humidity within its enclosure, not just the presence or absence of heat/moisture. The best way to make sure your temperatures and humidity levels are appropriate for your specific pet reptile is to keep track of them with thermometers and hygrometers.
Analog gauges are not accurate enough to provide reliable information about your pet’s environment. Instead, it’s best to use a digital probe thermometer and/or infrared thermometer for monitoring basking and cool zone temperatures, and a digital probe hygrometer for monitoring humidity levels. Probes should be placed in the areas where you want readings.
While we’re on the topic, don’t underestimate the importance of a good lamp timer. This is more convenient for you as the keeper, and also enables you to create a consistent day/night cycle.
Use UVB Properly
The topic of UVB can become complex, but it’s important to know the basics so you are using it properly. When not used properly, UVB lighting can become essentially useless. For an explanation on what UVB is and why reptiles need it, read this article from The Bio Dude’s blog: Introduction to UVB, part 1: What is UVB, and Why is it Important to Reptile Husbandry?
When setting up UVB for your reptile, pay attention to bulb strength, bulb type, brand, fixture type, and potential obstructions:
- Bulb strength: Pay attention to percentage of UVB output, not wattage. Different reptiles need exposure to different strengths of UVB to be healthy.
- Bulb type: UVB bulbs can be compact coil, T5 HO, T8, or mercury vapor. While each has a specific intended use, generally speaking, T5 HO bulbs are your best bet.
- Bulb length: As a general rule, terrestrial enclosures should have a UVB bulb half the length of the enclosure, and arboreal enclosures should have UVB spanning the full length.
- Brand: Zoo Med and Arcadia have the most reliable and top-performing UVB bulbs in the USA.
- Fixture: UVB bulbs should be housed in a reflective fixture, preferably with a mirror polish. Not using a reflective fixture may save some money, but you will end up wasting ~50% of the bulb’s output.
- Obstructions: Terrarium mesh blocks 30-40% of UVB output.
If you know the appropriate basking UVI (UV Index) for your reptile and can buy or borrow a Solarmeter 6.5, that will go a long way toward helping you choose and install your UVB bulb correctly.
They Need to Visit the Vet Regularly
Just like other pets, pet reptiles should see the vet at least once a year for a general checkup and deworming. Make sure to take your pet to a reptile-specific vet, and they will help keep an eye on your pet’s health, especially since reptiles can be very sneaky about when they’re feeling unwell.
And of course, whenever you have a concern about your reptile’s health, don’t ask the internet for advice — make an appointment with a medical professional.
Reptiles are complex pets with unique needs, but the things that make them unique are what make them so cool! Keeping reptiles gives you an unparalleled opportunity to cultivate a slice of nature in your home. Accept, love, and accommodate your reptile for what it is, and you will find great satisfaction in these incredible pets.
- Josh Halter
Reptile Vision: What you need to know and how it pertains to your husbandry
What Reptile Keepers Need to Know About Reptile Vision
Written by Mariah Healey for The Bio Dude
As a major sense, we depend on our eyes a lot. Our eyes help determine when we feel awake and when we feel sleepy. They help us choose what to eat. They also enable us to recognize friends from a distance. And that’s just a few examples. It’s safe to say that for those of us who can see, vision plays a significant role in how we perceive and interact with the world around us.
Vision is a major sense for reptiles, too. Although some believe that reptiles have relatively poor vision compared to humans, the truth is that reptiles arguably have better vision than humans do. Here’s a quick rundown of how reptile vision works, how vision affects how they perceive and interact with the world, and how this knowledge affects how we need to be caring for reptiles in captivity.
The Reptile Eye
Reptilian eyes are generally similar to other vertebrates. Each eye is a sphere filled with fluid (aqueous humor and vitreous humor) to keep it from collapsing. The outside wall of the eyeball is called the sclera. The inside surface of the sclera is lined with a heavily pigmented sensory layer called the retina. The outside surface of the sclera is covered in a transparent layer called the cornea, which also covers a round hole in the sclera, the pupil. The size of the pupil is governed by a set of pigmented muscles surrounding the pupil, called the iris. Behind the iris and pupil is the lens, which is what all light passes through before reaching the retina.
Snakes, geckos, and other eyelid-less reptiles have an additional covering over their eye called a spectacle. This scale acts as a transparent eyelid and is replaced every time the animal sheds its skin.
The retina has two main types of photoreceptor (light-receiving) cells: rods and cones.
Rods contain a single photo-sensitive pigment and don’t distinguish colors. However, they are very sensitive to light and help in perceiving motion. Nocturnal reptiles generally have more rods than cones.
Reptile cones generally contain colored drops of oil, and different types of cones are attuned to different colors. The different pigmented oils act as miniature lenses, channeling and filtering light depending on which wavelength they’re attuned to. However, they only function above a certain level of light. Diurnal reptiles generally have more cones than rods.
Like humans and other mammals, lizards change the shape of their lens to focus on nearby or distant objects. Snakes, on the other hand, move their lens forward or backward, which is similar to have cameras focus.
Speaking of snakes, snakes don’t actually have colored drops of oil in their cones. Instead, many of them have an amber-tinted lens, which plays a similar role.
Reptiles usually have round or vertical (slit) pupils, although a few of them have horizontal pupils. Turtles and most lizards have round pupils. Snakes can have either round or vertical pupils. Crocodilians and geckos have vertical pupils.
Generally speaking, nocturnal reptiles tend to have vertical pupils, and diurnal reptiles tend to have round pupils.
The Parietal “Eye”
Some lizards actually have 3 eyes! The third eye is known as the parietal eye, and is located on the top of the head halfway between the other eyes. This “eye” is only an eye in a very basic sense: it has a lens and a retina, and it connects to the pineal body of the brain. This eye can’t form images or differentiate color, but it senses light and darkness, and plays a role in thermoregulation, hormone production, and the amount of time that a lizard spends basking in the sun.
The Pit Organ
Pit vipers, boas, and pythons have a pit organ, which enables them to see the infrared (heat) wavelengths that are invisible to humans. Pit vipers have heat pits on either side of the head, between the nostril and the eye. Boas and pythons have labial pits which are placed among the labial (lip) and/or rostral (snout) scales.
However, research shows that many pitless snakes also have the ability to detect infrared.
What Can Reptiles See?
Reptiles can see color. Most reptiles are tetrachromats, which means they have 4 types of cones (humans only have 3 – red, green, and blue). This means that they can see the entire rainbow that humans can see, and more. However, certain species of geckos are known to lack the red-sensitive cone, which makes them red-green colorblind, which works the same as in humans with the same condition. Reptiles that have fourth cone allows them to see UVA light.
Some reptiles can see UVA. UVA is a spectrum of ultraviolet that is invisible to humans, but is perceived as an “expansion pack” on the rainbow for reptiles that can perceive it. This expanded rainbow is speculated to drastically change the way that reptiles see the world in the presence of UVA, and reptiles that don’t typically have UVA lighting in their enclosure have been known to “freak out” when taken outside, where the world is flooded with UVA. It can play a role in identifying food, recognizing other members of their species, identifying good basking sites
Some reptiles can see very well at night. With lots of light-sensitive rod cells in their retina and/or a vertical pupil that can expand to cover almost the entire eye in dark conditions, nocturnal reptiles can see just as well in total darkness as humans can see during the day — they can even see color! In studies they have shown the ability to be able to distinguish blues from browns in extremely dim light where humans are unable to perceive color.
Some snakes can see heat — and they see it well. This ability is assumed to have evolved to to assist in hunting warm-blooded prey (ex: mammals, birds), as those that prey primarily on cold-blooded creatures (lizards, other snakes, fish, insects) don’t seem to have a pit organ. The pit organ is extremely sensitive to tiny changes in temperature, or the amount of infrared radiation — they can distinguish changes as small as 0.001°C! It is speculated that these snakes can “see” their surrounding just as well with infrared as they can optically, although in the presence of light, their vision is likely a combination of images from infrared, visual light, and (where relevant) UVA perception.
Reptiles can see well. Many diurnal reptile species are known to have high visual acuity. Many diurnal lizards have a fovea centralis, which is a depression in the retina that makes acute vision possible. Certain diurnal snakes are known to rely on their vision for hunting, rather than infrared or scent, and have demonstrated the ability to track distant objects.
What Does This Mean for Reptiles in Captivity?
It’s important to provide a day-night cycle. Even without a parietal eye, significant changes in light levels affect the amount of melatonin that reptile produce, which in turn helps govern their circadian rhythm. Even something as small as providing a halogen heat lamp for basking that turns off at night can make a difference. However, diurnal species are often reported to have higher energy levels, better appetite, and all-around more natural behavior when more light is provided, such as from a very bright 6500K fluorescent or LED lamp.
UVA should be provided as part of the lighting setup. The good news is that all UVB bulbs also emit UVA. The bad news is that UVA-emitting daylight bulbs are not yet readily available in the US. This means that it is extra important to install a UVA/UVB bulb of appropriate strength and high-quality manufacture as part of reptile enclosures, which will facilitate both full-color vision and vitamin D3 synthesis.
Frozen feeder birds and rodents should be warmed to 98-107°F during the process of thawing in warm water (you can use a temp gun to check). Average mouse body temperature is 98-100°F. Average chicken body temperature is 103-107°F. Warming thawed prey items to this temperature helps snakes better recognize food, resulting in better feeding responses and fewer accidents where the snake bites the human instead of the prey.
Color can be used to help train reptiles. Different species are attracted to different colors — for example, Sudan plated lizards seem to have a preference for red, while chuckwallas seem to have a preference for yellow. Herbivorous reptiles are highly attuned to the color green. Some have observed that snakes may prefer blue and green over other colors. This can be helpful for choosing the color of a training target.
Reptiles are just as dependent on their sense of vision as humans are — and quite possibly more! When we ignore the unique way that they perceive the world, we reduce their quality of life in captivity and miss out on an opportunity to enable them to exercise natural behaviors as part of overall welfare.
Baines, F. M. (2013, March 6). Reptile Lighting Information. Reptiles Magazine. https://www.reptilesmagazine.com/reptile-lighting-information/
Mader, D. R. (2006). Reptile Medicine and Surgery (2nd ed., pp. 51, 66). W B Saunders Company.
Pough, F. H. (2015). Herpetology (4th ed., pp. 110–114). Sinauer Associates.
Simões, B. F., Sampaio, F. L., Douglas, R. H., Kodandaramaiah, U., Casewell, N. R., Harrison, R. A., Hart, N. S., Partridge, J. C., Hunt, D. M., & Gower, D. J. (2016). Visual Pigments, Ocular Filters and the Evolution of Snake Vision. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 10, 2483–2495. https://doi.org/10.1093/molbev/msw148
Vitt, L. J., & Caldwell, J. P. (2013). Herpetology (4th ed., pp. 69–70). Academic Press.
- Josh Halter
7 ways to keep your herp healthy!
7 Ways to Keep Your Reptile Healthy
Written by Mariah Healey for The Bio Dude
One of the primary goals of a responsible pet owner is to do everything they can to keep their pet healthy. However, exactly what it takes to do that can get a little fuzzy, especially with reptiles. Here are seven things that you can do to help make sure that your pet reptile enjoys optimum health in your care.
1) Keep Them at the Right Temperatures
Warm-blooded animals like humans have bodies that automatically stay at the temperature it needs to function properly. However, as cold-blooded animals, reptiles depend on their environment to provide the heat energy that their bodies need. Furthermore, each species of reptile has its own Preferred Optimum Temperature Range (POTR), or the range of temperatures that it needs in its environment to regulate its body temperature effectively.
At the high end of the POTR, you have basking temperature, which is the hottest temperature that a reptile needs to be able to access. At the low end of POTR, you have the cool zone temperature, which is important to provide so the reptile can cool down as needed.
To keep your reptile at the right temperatures, you don’t only need to know what temperatures they need — you need to make sure that you are measuring temperature correctly. Digital probe thermometers and infrared thermometers (temperature guns) are your best bet for accurately measuring the temperatures in your enclosure. Analog gauges, LCD tape, and other devices are generally not reliable, especially for measuring basking temperature.
Although reptiles are dependent on the heat energy they gain via basking, it is not healthy for a reptile to spend most of its time basking. This can indicate that your basking temps are too low or that your reptile is sick. Generally speaking, reptiles should spend most of their time in the cooler areas of the enclosure, with only occasional trips to the basking area.
2) Keep Them at the Right Humidity
Every animal on Earth needs water, and part of meeting a reptile’s water needs requires taking humidity into consideration. For reptiles, humidity plays a crucial role in respiratory health, shedding, and overall hydration.
As with temperature, different reptile species have different humidity needs based on the conditions of the native habitat. And again, as with temperature, it’s important to provide a range of humidity levels within your reptile’s enclosure. Humidity is naturally higher in the cool zone and lower in the basking area. It also tends to be lower in the higher regions of the enclosure and higher in the lower regions. This means that you should target the high end of your reptile’s preferred humidity levels in the cool, low area of your enclosure.
Make sure you’re measuring humidity with the right tools. Use a digital probe hygrometer or psychrometer — avoid relying on analog gauges, which are not very accurate. To get an idea of the highest humidity levels in the enclosure, take your reading in the cool zone, close to the substrate for terrestrial species and among the lowest vines/branches for arboreal species.
Keep in mind that humidity naturally rises at night and drops during the day. This is a natural cycle and should not be something to really worry about. As a general rule, pay greatest attention to humidity levels during the period when your reptile is awake. Also, don’t obsess over keeping humidity the same 24/7 – this is unnatural and can cause illness. Pay more attention to the average humidity.
Most people increase humidity via misting. Pressure sprayers are great for routine misting, but if you have multiple enclosures, you may want to consider an automatic misting system to make things easier. Foggers can be used, but they should only be used with distilled water at night, as they can make reptiles sick or even dangerously increase ambient temps if used during the day, and tap water can clog the system. Also bear in mind that you will need to disinfect the fogger regularly to keep bacteria in check, which can make your reptile sick.
Actually needing to decrease humidity is rare, but if that’s the case for you, it helps to increase air flow by adding a small fan or two to the enclosure.
3) Give Them the Right Lighting
Some reptiles can live without UVB, while others will die without it. However, using UVB lighting appropriately is best practice for housing all reptile species. When properly used, UVB lighting enables reptiles to produce exactly the amount of D3 that their bodies need (supplementary D3 often isn’t enough), strengthens immune function, facilitates more successful reproduction, and other benefits. UVB bulbs also produce UVA light, which is important for reptiles’ psychological wellbeing.
To use UVB properly, first you need to know the maximum amount of UVB that your reptile’s species needs, which is measured in UVI. You can get this information from resources like the Arcadia Lighting Guide and the UV Tool. This is the UVB strength that you will need in your reptile’s basking area, which should be closest to the UVB lamp.
Once you have this information, you need to choose a UVB bulb and fixture. Consider the bulb’s manufacturer as well as its strength rating, type of bulb, distance between the bulb and reptile, the presence of mesh, and what type of fixture will be housing the bulb.
- Arcadia and Zoo Med have the best UVB bulbs in the US.
- Mesh obstruction reduces UVB output by 30-40%.
- UVB radiation gets weaker further away from its source.
- Using a fluorescent lamp fixture without a reflector wastes ~50% of UVB output.
- T5 HO UVB bulbs are stronger than T8 bulbs.
- UVB bulbs must be replaced every 12 months to maintain performance.
It’s usually helpful to read the instructions for use included with the bulbs. If at all possible, investing in a Solarmeter 6.5 (which measures UVB output) is strongly recommended.
Aside from UVB, many diurnal species benefit from additional 6500K full-spectrum daylight lighting, whether LED or T5 HO fluorescent. The bright light is good for their mental health and has been observed to stimulate activity and appetite.
Nighttime lighting (such as red bulbs) is unnecessary. Nocturnal reptiles can see just fine without the help, and nighttime lighting may interfere with reptiles’ circadian rhythm regardless of when they are awake.
4) Pay Attention to Nutrition
Different reptile species need to eat different kinds of food in order to get the nutrients that their bodies need in a way that they can digest. Generally speaking, there are four primary types:
- Herbivores — eat primarily plants.
- Insectivores — eat primarily insects.
- Carnivores — eat primarily flesh from whole prey, as well as eggs.
- Omnivores — eat both plant and animal matter. Ratio of plant- to animal-based food in the diet varies from species to species.
Familiarize yourself with the kind of food that your reptile’s species eats, then strive to provide as much variety within that category as possible. Variety is the key to balanced nutrition, whether you have a snake or tortoise.
Dietary supplements are an essential part of a captive reptile’s diet, but they must be used appropriately. Generally speaking, you will need a calcium powder supplement and a multivitamin powder supplement.
- Calcium: If UVB is provided, use a calcium powder with low levels of D3 or none at all. If UVB is not provided, use a calcium powder with high levels of D3. Calcium powder should be dusted on insects and incomplete protein sources like meat or de-shelled eggs. Generally it shouldn’t be dusted on salads unless you are caring for an herbivore.
- Multivitamin: These supplements are typically very concentrated, so only a small amount is necessary. Dose according to known best practice for your reptile’s species, or when in doubt, according to the product label.
Top reptile supplements in the US include those manufactured by Arcadia, Repashy, and Sticky Tongue Farms.
5) Give Them Opportunities to Exercise
Physical fitness is correlated with good health. Physically-fit reptiles without excessive amounts of body fat have better muscle tone, better organ function, and are better able to thermoregulate, which provides associated health benefits. One of the best ways to make sure your reptile is getting enough exercise is to provide a large enough enclosure for them to be able to stretch out and run/slither/climb around as desired. Reptiles have large territories in the wild — much larger than even generous enclosures in captivity — so there’s no such thing as an enclosure that is “too big”, only an enclosure that hasn’t been set up properly.
Of course, a huge enclosure with nothing inside of it is boring. Encourage your reptile to move around and utilize the space with environmental enrichment items such as a deep, burrowable substrate layer, ledges, textured backgrounds, lattices, branches, vines, etc. The idea is to encourage your reptile to exercise natural behaviors, so study up on what your reptile does in the wild (climb, dig, etc.) and set up its enclosure in a way that facilitates those behaviors.
Finally, if your reptile is comfortable with it, handling can be a good way to present your reptile with unique exercise and enrichment opportunities. Don’t be afraid to get creative, but keep it within the species’ limits, and make sure that the reptile is appropriately supervised and is not being stressed by the activity.
6) Practice Good Hygiene
This one should be a no-brainer. Practicing good hygiene is essential to reducing the pathogens present in your reptile’s environment, and therefore helps keep your reptile healthy. Here are some basic tips to make part of your routine:
- Provide fresh water daily.
- Keep the water and food bowls clean, and disinfect weekly.
- Wash or sanitize your hands before and after handling.
- Spot-clean to remove feces, urate, contaminated substrate, and uneaten food daily.
- Replace non-bioactive substrate every 3 months or more frequently if necessary.
- Perform regular, appropriate maintenance on bioactive substrates.
- Sterilize new décor items before adding them to an enclosure.
- Quarantine new reptiles, preferably in a separate room from others.
7) Take Them to the Vet
Of course, how can you stay healthy if you don’t see a doctor regularly? Make a habit of bringing your pet reptile to the vet once or twice a year for routine examination and potential deworming — one way to do this is to schedule the next visit after each appointment. It’s also important to bring your reptile to the vet whenever you suspect that something’s wrong. Don’t risk your reptile’s health by asking non-experts online.
If money is a concern, resources like pet insurance and CareCredit can make vet bills more manageable.
Most health complaints in pet reptiles can be traced to husbandry issues. While it’s still important to take your pet to an experienced reptile veterinarian for examination if you suspect that something is wrong, double-checking your husbandry parameters and making corrections where needed is one of the best ways to ensure long-term health for your reptile.
- Josh Halter
The Quick List of Edible Plants for Your Bioactive Terrarium
The Quick List of Edible Plants for Your Bioactive Terrarium
Plants are a big part of creating a successful, healthy, thriving bioactive enclosure for your pet. In the wild, they play a variety of important roles in their local ecosystems, such as filtering the air and water, producing oxygen, aerating and enriching the soil, and providing food for animals. Without living plants, you don’t really have a truly bioactive environment.
When you have a pet herbivore or omnivore (bearded dragon, uromastyx, tortoise, etc.), you need to be careful about the kinds of plants that you place in their enclosure. Their appetite is triggered by the color green, and it’s likely that they’ll take an experimental bite or two — if not eat the whole plant! Even if your pet is an insectivore (ex: leopard gecko), they can still be affected by the plants in their enclosure because CUC and loose feeder insects may munch on those plants. If your insectivorous pet eats one of those bugs, they’re eating a bit of the plants they eat, too.
Fortunately, there’s lots of plants that are safe for reptiles to eat, whether directly or indirectly. Here’s a quick list of some of the most popular, easily-found plants to consider for your bioactive setup.
Cacti & Succulents
These are plants with low water needs and a high heat tolerance. Exceptionally low-maintenance as houseplants, and great for desert reptile enclosures.
- Agave (Agave spp.)
- Aloe (Aloe spp.)
- Broadleaf Stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium)
- Gasteria (Gasteria spp.)
- Haworthia (Haworthia spp.)
- Heartleaf Iceplant (Aptenia cordifolia)
- Hens and Chicks (Echeveria spp.)
- House Leek (Sempervivum spp.)
- Jade Plant (Crassula ovata, C. argentea, C. portulacea)
- Mother of Pearl Plant (Graptopetalum paraguayense, Sedum weinbergii, Echeveria weinbergii)
- Sedum (Sedum spp. — exception: Sedum acre)
- Yucca (Yucca spp.)
Grasses have a range of care needs, but generally like a lot of light. What’s nice about grasses is that they have a lovely natural appearance and can be included in a variety of different types of habitats.
- Alfalfa (Medicago sativa)
- Barley Grass (Hordeum spp.)
- Carex (Carex spp.)
- Couch Grass (Elymus repens)
- Fescue (Festuca spp.)
- Millet (Panicum miliaceum)
- Oat Grass (Avena spp.)
- Rye Grass (Lolium perenne)
- Timothy (Phleum pratense)
- Wheat Grass (Triticum spp.)
Flowers aren’t just for outside or keeping in a vase — you can grow them in your pet’s enclosure, too! Having plants that consistently flower in your enclosure is a reliable sign that you’re doing something right.
- African Violet (Saintpaulia)
- Alyssum (Alyssum maritimum)
- Aster (Aster spp.)
- Astilbe (Astilbe spp.)
- Balloon Flower (Platycodon grandiflorus)
- Bell Flower (Campanula spp.)
- Bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis, Calystegia sepium)
- Bristly Oxtongue (Pricris echiodes, Helminthotheca echioides, Helmintia echioides)
- California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
- Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
- Clover (Trifolium spp.)
- Coral Bells (Heuchera spp.)
- Coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.)
- Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus)
- Cosmos (Cosmos spp.)
- Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
- Daylily (Hemerocallis)
- Deadnettle (Lamium purpureum)
- Evening Primrose (Oenothera spp.)
- Geranium (Geranium spp.)
- Hawkbit (Leontodon spp.)
- Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule)
- Hosta (Hosta spp.)
- Jasmine (Jasminum spp.)
- Lungwort (Pulmonaria spp.)
- Mallow (Malva spp.)
- Marigold (Calendula spp.)
- Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
- Ox-eye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)
- Pansy (Viola tricolor hortensis)
- Petunia (Petunia spp.)
- Phlox (Phlox spp.)
- Pinks (Dianthus spp.)
- Pink Purslane (Claytonia sibririca)
- Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber)
- Salvia (Salvia spp.)
- Sea Holly (Eryngium spp.)
- Snap Dragon (Antirrhinum spp.)
- Speedwell (Veronica spp.)
- Violet (Viola spp.)
- Zinnia (Zinnia spp.)
These plants tend to have higher water needs (with some exceptions), and they’re easy to find because they’re popular houseplants or garden plants.
- Air Plant (Tillandsia)
- Bamboo (Fargesia spp., Phyllostachys spp.)
- Boston Fern (Nephrolepsis exaltata)
- Bromeliad (Bromeliodeae)
- Coleus (Plectranthus spp.)
- Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia)
- Dracaena (Dracaena spp.)
- Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla spp.)
- Oak Leaf Ivy (Cissus rhombifolia)
- Pilea (Pilea cadierei, P. spruceana)
- Polka Dot Plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya)
- Prayer Plant (Maranta leuconeura, Calathea spp.)
- Snake Plant (Sansevieria spp.)
- Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
- Wandering Jew (Tradescantia fluminensis, T. zebrina)
Herbs and Vegetables
Herbs and vegetables tend to need more water than most of the other options on this list, so keep that in mind. The herbs and vegetable plants on this list are safe, but don’t assume that all fruits and vegetables that are safe for humans to eat are also safe for your pet.
- Arugula (Eruca sativa, E. vesicaria)
- Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)
- Basil (Ocium basilicum)
- Carrot (Daucus carota sativus)
- Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum)
- Cress (Brassicus hirta, B. napus)
- Dill (Anethum graveolens)
- Garden Lettuce (Lactuca sativa)
- Kale (Brassica oleracea)
- Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
- Marjoram (Origanum majorana)
- Mint (Mentha sachalinesis, M. spicata, M. sauveolens)
- Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
- Squash (Curcurbita spp.)
- Thyme (Thymus ssp.)
- Watercress (Nasturtium officinale)
- Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca)
Don’t just walk into the plant nursery and grab the first plants that appeal to you. Pay attention to each plant’s needs for light and water, heat tolerance, and how tall they can be expected to grow. This is information that can usually easily be found on the plant’s identification tag or information card, and if not there, a quick Google search will answer your questions. If you’re not sure whether a plant is edible for reptiles, The Tortoise Table is a fantastic quick reference. If you can’t find it there, Google may once again be helpful, but when in doubt, don’t take the risk and use a different plant in your pet’s terrarium.
Pro Tip: Before placing new plants in your bioactive enclosure, give the leaves and roots a thorough rinse in cool water. If at all possible, repot with clean, organic soil and let sit for at least a month to purge chemical residues and any potential pests.
Thank you Mariah, from Reptifiles.com for such a great informative article.