Owning a reptile is a big responsibility and is very different from owning a bird or a mammalian pet. Reptiles have highly specific care requirements and it is essential to thoroughly research exactly what your chosen species will need to thrive before going ahead with a purchase or adoption. This article talks through the main aspects of reptile care and husbandry to consider if you are new to reptile-owning.
What enclosure will my reptile need?
Enclosure design will very much depend on the natural behaviours and wild habitat of the species of reptile that you are planning to acquire. Enclosures range from tortoise tables to vivaria, or tanks for some of the aquatic species such as terrapins.
The size and shape of the enclosure should take into account the natural behaviours of the species, for example, a climbing or arboreal (tree-dwelling) species such as many of the chameleon species will be suited to a tall, narrow enclosure, in comparison to ground-dwelling species such as tortoises which require an enclosure with more horizontal space.
The bedding substrate and enclosure features or furniture will also need to be considered in light of the species’ behaviour and natural habitat. Find out whether the species you intend to keep will need hiding places, basking areas, an area of water for swimming or bathing in, branches for climbing, or a suitable substrate to burrow in.
What should I feed my reptile?
This depends on the natural diet of the chosen species and the food types that are commercially available to us as pet owners.
Firstly, research what kind of eating habits are usual for the species you plan to keep, for example, are they naturally herbivorous, carnivorous, omnivorous or insectivorous? Based on this information, appropriate commercially available substitutes can then be decided upon. These may include a species-specific formulated food, fresh vegetation, live gut-loaded insects or defrosted frozen vertebrate prey such as day-old chicks or mice. Some individuals may benefit from dietary supplementation with additional vitamins and minerals.
It is also important to take into account the age of the animal, as some species have different dietary requirements depending on their stage of development. For example, young bearded dragons are mainly insectivorous, but will start to require increasing proportions of fresh greens and vegetables in addition to gut-loaded insect prey as they move into adulthood.
An appropriate frequency of feeding should also be determined and will differ from species to species, as well as by age, and can vary from multiple times a day to less than weekly, so it is important to know what is suitable for your chosen species.
What special environmental requirements do reptiles have?
Reptiles are ectothermic, meaning that they rely on the temperature of their environment to regulate their body temperature. For this reason, it is essential to maintain an appropriate environmental temperature range within their enclosure. This should be monitored using thermometers and controlled using a thermostat.
For most species, it is appropriate to create a temperature gradient within their enclosure. Keep it with one end of the enclosure warmed to the upper end of their ideal environmental temperature range and the other end maintained at the cooler end of the range. This allows the reptile to move between the areas as required. A separate thermometer at each end of the enclosure should be used to monitor this. The ideal environmental temperature ranges vary between different species, so it is important to research the ideal range for your chosen reptile.
Warmth can be provided in the form of heat lamps, mats or heated cables and care should be taken to prevent direct contact of the reptile with the heat source to avoid burns. This can be achieved by placing a guard around the heat source, or by positioning it out of reach of the animal.
Humidity relates to the percentage moisture content within the environment and can be measured using a hygrometer placed within the enclosure. The environmental humidity requirement varies depending on the humidity of the species’ natural habitat. For example, a species native to a rainforest environment will require a much higher humidity than a desert-dwelling species.
Correct humidity can be achieved by changing the size and location of the water source to encourage or discourage evaporation, and by misting the enclosure using a water spray if required. Different substrates can trap moisture more readily than others and this can also be used to affect the humidity.
Inappropriate humidity can lead to a variety of health problems including dehydration, scale rot, retained shed and respiratory disease.
Lighting requirements vary between species in a similar way to those of temperature and humidity. Consider whether your chosen species is nocturnal (active at night), diurnal (active in daytime) or crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk). Also, ask yourself whether they spend time basking and how long the day length is in their natural habitat.
In addition to the provision of visible light, the UVA and UVB light requirements of the species must be taken into account. An appropriate UV light source must be available and a UV meter should be used to measure the levels within the enclosure. Both the UV output of the lamp and the distance between the lamp and the reptile affect the amount of UV available to the animal. Deficient provision of UV light can lead to significant health issues, in particular metabolic bone disease (MBD). Uncorrected, this can lead to weakness, deformities and bone fractures.
It is worthwhile noting that many of the common health problems faced by pet reptiles are related to poor or inappropriate husbandry. Getting their care right from the start helps to give them the best chance of good health long-term.