There are over 6,000 species of reptiles, these vary in size, shape, diet, and care. They can range from the 4 legged to the no legged, from those with shells of both hard and soft, and even those that can change color based on their situation and stress level. Because of this, their requirements as pets can vary depending on what species we are talking about. I know the thought of all these different species can sound daunting but there are a lot of similarities that we can discuss here to spur a new reptile enthusiast or help an existing reptile parent on the right track. For more specific species questions please contact your exotic veterinarian, we are always ready to discuss options in husbandry. There are 3 main components to a reptile’s husbandry; heat, humidity or water regulation, and the substrate or environment created in their enclosure.
Regulating a Reptile’s Body Temperature
All species of reptiles have a Preferred Optimum Temperature Range (POTR) at which they are physically and medically at their best. As cold-blooded species, reptiles rely on external heat sources for thermoregulation. Being in their POTR effects a reptile in all aspects of their daily life. It can affect their appetite in that the cooler they are the lower their metabolism will be. A pet with a lower metabolism doesn’t need as high of a calorie intake to continue their daily function. It will also affect their immune system, studies have shown that maximum immune response occurs when reptiles are within their POTR. This means they are better at fighting infection when at their optimum temperature. Just as temperature affects their metabolism it also affects their activity level, so if a reptile seems lethargic it could often just be that it lacks the appropriate heat source. A good rule of thumb for most species is to maintain a hot spot in the enclosure that is near the upper end of the POTR (generally in the upper 80 to 90 degrees for most species). We recommend avoiding hot rocks or other heat sources that the pet can touch as they can lead to dermal burns. Another misconception is that reptiles only need heat during the day, often the POTR for the evening is only 5-10 degrees cooler than their day temp which would put it at approximately 70-80 degrees.
Humidity & Water Regulation for Reptiles
Humidity and water regulation have different meanings for different species. Humidity can be one of the more difficult things to maintain when it comes to reptile husbandry. One way is with a humidity box made out of plastic with moist moss such as sphagnum and a small opening cut into the lid. One thing to make sure is that we do not compromise ventilation with out control of humidity. If ventilation is restricted the stagnant air can lead to the growth of fungi and bacteria leading to infection. Some species such as chameleons can benefit from a vaporizer or humidifier used either directly or indirectly with the enclosure.
Caring for Your Reptile: Proper Substrates
The last, but quite possibly the most important, factor in keeping a captive reptile is the substrate used. Substrate is the material used at the bottom and within the enclosure. Some examples of appropriate substrate are shredded newspaper, cypress wood chips, large and small stones (as long as they are too large to be eaten), and shredded coconut shells. Many of these substrates can also help achieve appropriate humidity levels as well. One big point is to make sure your reptile is not eating the substrate as this could lead to a blockage.
For many, this has just scratched the surface of reptile husbandry and care but starting with a basic understanding of how to house your reptiles is key to keeping them happy and healthy. So many of the problems and illnesses we see with reptiles are due to poor or inadequate husbandry or diet. Always remember where a reptile is originally from, whether they are arboreal, terrestrial, or aquatic can give you a lot of insight into how they should be housed and cared for. Although not all reptiles “like” to be handled there are many that as long as the encounter is kept stress free can enjoy being handled. Reptiles can have a personality all their own and learning the personality of each is as much a part of taking care of them as cleaning the enclosure.