How to create the perfect reptile setup
How do I know which enclosure to choose?
How big is your reptile and how big will it grow?
The first step before bringing home your new reptile is deciding on the enclosure type and size. Vivariums and terrariums suit almost every pet reptile species, from hermit crabs to giant arboreal boas. Choosing the right size is essential for its happiness and health. Your new pet needs enough room to maintain the right temperature gradient, provide enrichment and exercise.
Other examples include tortoise tables, which are specific to tortoise-keeping and are open-topped, providing great ventilation which is extremely important for respiratory infection-prone tortoises, plastic/acrylic box enclosures, which are a great choice for many invertebrates, and mesh terrariums, ideal for those species requiring good ventilation, such as many Chameleons.
You may also wish to skip all of the hassles and consider looking at reptile starter kits, which are usually species-specific and include everything you need to get started, including the vivarium/terrarium, heating, lighting, substrate and accessories with easy setup instructions.
Is your reptile arboreal or terrestrial?
Arboreal animals spend the majority of their time in trees or canopies, whereas terrestrial animals like to keep their feet firmly on the ground. Some animals are also considered to be semi-arboreal, which means although they are mostly terrestrial, they can often be found climbing up or resting on low branches.
If your reptile is arboreal, you will need to provide them with an enclosure that is vertically orientated, such as an arboreal vivarium, or a tall glass terrarium, whereas if they are terrestrial they will be happy with a shallower enclosure with a larger footprint, such as a terrestrial vivarium or shallow glass terrarium. Semi-arboreal habitats should be a happy medium between the two, a little height, but also a decent-sized footprint.
Does your reptile require a humid or arid environment?
For rainforest reptiles and amphibians, such as Crested geckos or Dart frogs, you will need to create an environment that maintains high humidity. For this, glass or PVC enclosures work the best, as wooden vivariums are likely to become warped or damaged over time in the consistent moisture. The same goes for semi-aquatic enclosures that encompass a water feature, the deep, watertight bottoms of glass reptile terrariums provide the perfect opportunity to produce this.
If you are planning to get a desert reptile, like a Bearded dragon or Leopard gecko, you may wish to choose a wooden vivarium, as wood is a much better insulator than glass or PVC and tends to work better to hold in the hot, dry heat required by these species. Glass or PVC enclosures can still work, however, but may need a little more attention to heating.
Will you be adding to your collection?
Many reptile keepers consider the exotic pet hobby to be addictive and often expand on their collection quite quickly. If you think you might add to your collection, it may be worth considering a vivarium stack set-up, which can be placed on top of each other to house multiple reptiles.
Consider a cabinet with your tank, they help make it a real showpiece, whilst also providing some essential space storage for your feeding and cleaning equipment.
How do I set up my new reptile enclosure?
Do I need a heat source?
When considering whether a heat source is required, the most important consideration is the natural habitat of the reptile you plan to keep. Reptiles are ectothermic, and cannot control their internal body temperature without the help of external heat sources. As every animal has spent millions of years evolving and adapting to their native environments, their captive environments need to replicate the same temperatures found in their native habitat.
Almost every reptile will require a heat source of some sort, whether this is to provide a hot, dry 40°C (104°F) for a Bearded dragon, or an ambient 28°C (82°F) for a Crested gecko. In the larger enclosure sizes for most reptiles, overhead heating systems are the only way to create a proper thermogradient from one end of the enclosure to the other, for example, a basking lamp or ceramic heater.
In some smaller set-ups that require less intense heat, such as those for Dart frogs or Invertebrates, a heat mat attached to the back or side of the enclosure will often suffice, but if you have a particularly cold home, this may still not be enough and you may still need to consider an overhead source.
It is of utmost importance that any heat source is regulated by a compatible thermostat, firstly to prevent overheating and keep the temperature within a safe range, but secondly to ensure that the most optimum temperature for your animal is maintained at all times. For heat mats, simple on/off thermostats work well, whereas, for basking lamps, dimming thermostats are required and finally, for ceramic heaters, you can choose either an on/off thermostat, or a more precise pulse proportional thermostat.
It is also important to monitor your heating equipment with an accurate thermometer or two, to ensure your heating equipment, particularly your thermostat is free from faults, but also to ensure the optimum temperature range for your chosen reptile is maintained.
Do I need a light source?
All exotic pets will benefit from high-quality lighting, even if this is only an LED light to tell them whether it is daytime or nighttime, ensuring they can maintain the circadian rhythms associated with their natural behaviour patterns.
Reptiles and Amphibians, in particular, can benefit from lighting in other ways, and for many, it is an essential part of keeping them. This needs to be a UVB bulb, and is to enable them to metabolise vitamin D3, which in turn, helps them to properly assimilate the calcium provided in their diet and prevent serious health conditions such as metabolic bone disease (MBD).
The strength of the UVB light required will depend on the animal you plan to keep and also the distance between the animal's highest basking point and the light fixture itself, which is termed the minimum safe distance. It is important to research the animal you plan to keep and the UVI (UV Index) they require to help you decide which UV to purchase for them.
The main UVB lights available include compact UV bulbs, T8 tubes, T5 tubes and UV kits, for more information on each of these, why not check out our help guide on UV light bulbs and how to set them up.
Will I need to provide additional humidity?
This ultimately depends on which reptile you plan to keep, desert reptiles will not require any additional humidity, whereas rainforest reptiles often will. This is usually done by misting the enclosure a few times a day with a handheld spray bottle, but can also be done using a fogger or rain system. It is important to use an accurate hygrometer to monitor humidity levels and increase them as required to fit within the optimal range for your chosen species.
Which substrate should I choose?
Again, this is all about replicating your animal's native habitat. For desert reptiles, we recommend sandy substrate, whereas, for rainforest reptiles, we recommend moisture-retaining, soil-based substrate topped with moss.
It is also important to consider whether you will wish to add live plants, as many standard reptile substrates do not provide a good growing medium for plants, however, alternatives exist, such as Arcadia EarthMix for tropical set-ups, or Arcadia EarthMix Arid for desert set-ups.
How do I decorate my enclosure?
Does decor provide a function?
Decorating a reptile enclosure is hands down the most exciting part, allowing you to get really creative and have a lot of fun. This doesn't, however, mean you can just decorate the enclosure with whatever you want, wherever you want, you still need to consider the needs of your reptile, as many decor pieces are functional whilst also being aesthetically pleasing.
How do I decorate an arboreal enclosure?
Arboreal reptiles will require lots of branches and vines, positioned in a way that allows them to utilise all of the vertical space their enclosure provides them with. Many will also need lots of foliage from either real or fake plants around the vines and branches, to simulate being in a tree-top canopy and provide them with covered areas where they can hide away and feel safe.
Many arboreal reptiles will also not drink from a ground-level water dish, as they naturally avoid spending too much time on the ground for fear of predation. In these instances, it is important to consider providing an elevated water source, for example, a decorative reptile waterfall, or even specific plants such as bromeliads that should always have a little water reservoir in their cups.
How do I decorate a terrestrial enclosure?
Terrestrial reptiles will not benefit from the same type of decor as arboreal reptiles, although they will still, for the most part, enjoy some lower branches to climb and plenty of foliage coming from the ground. Most terrestrial reptiles will also benefit from cover in the form of at least two hiding caves (one at each end of the enclosure), to provide them with a safe space at either end of the thermogradient, and a water dish for hydration.
If you're not sure, consult an expert. At Swell Reptiles, we have experts on hand to offer advice by phone, email or social media, so feel free to get in touch. We're always happy to point you in the right direction, and love to hear from you.
Consider taking a look at our reptile starter kits. Our experts have already done the hard work for you and put together species-specific kits for the most popular pet reptiles, that include everything you need to get started with your new reptile setup.