Reptile Keeping For Beginners

Reptile Keeping For Beginners

In this article, we will briefly go over the basic requirements of most reptiles to give you a background knowledge on reptile keeping before researching the species you are interested in. A few subjects such as diet have been excluded due to the wide variance between species.



This is universal with almost all reptiles in captivity in the UK. Our climate does support many species of native reptiles from adders to slow worms, however the species commonly kept as pets are normally from much warmer climates and so additional heating is required. But it isn't a simple matter of keeping the vivarium by a radiator!

All reptiles are cold blooded and so they can not control their body temperature independent to their environment like we do. The only way they can have some control over their body temperature is to move from warm areas to cool areas and vice versa. So we need to provide a temperature gradient. This is done by heating only one side of the vivarium to create a hot spot and leaving the other side relatively cool. The temperatures necessary on the hot spot and the cool end will vary from species to species so this needs to be researched.



There are several methods that can be used for creating this temperature gradient in the vivarium. By far the most popular for beginner species is a basic heat mat. A heat mat is a thin electrical device that you can place under the vivarium or in some cases it may be suitable on the side of the vivarium (be sure to follow manufacturer's instructions). A heat mat would normally cover around a third of the floor space on one side of the vivarium. Heat mats are one of the lowest powered heating methods for reptiles and so are only suitable for species from more temperate regions like corn snakes.

The temperature of the heat mat can be controlled using an inexpensive piece of equipment called a mat stat (a type of thermostat suitable for heat mats). There are several brands of thermostat that are designed specifically for reptile heating equipment. A thermostat is also an important piece of safety equipment that prevents excessive heat build up on the hot side.

Another method of heating is with a spot bulb fitted to the ceiling of the vivarium that is controlled by a Dimming Thermostat. Dimming thermostats monitor the temperatures in the vivarium and reduce or increase the power being supplied to the bulb so as to regulate the temperature in the vivarium. This method can be far more powerful than a heat mat and can supply higher temperatures. Also, it can be used to create a basking spot which a heat mat can not do. In the wild, many reptiles will bask in the sun to warm themselves up and so this method of heating encourages natural behavior for many day active lizards like Bearded Dragons. A red spot bulb can also be used at night for most reptiles as most can not see the colour red.

Due to the very high surface temperatures of spot bulbs, a guard around the bulb is absolutely essential to prevent your reptile from getting burnt.

Another alternative is a Ceramic Bulb that emits only infra red and no visible light. This is ideal if you are keeping the vivarium in your bedroom so the light doesn't disturb you. It is also better suited for reptiles that require exceptionally high temperatures as Ceramic Bulbs come in power ratings up to 250w or even higher in some cases.

Ceramic bulbs can be controlled with a dimming thermostat, though a cheaper alternative is a Pulse Proportional Thermostat which is constantly turning the bulb on and off to maintain the required temperature. If a Pulse Proportional Thermostat were to be used with a spot bulb it would burn out the filament very quickly and you will be constantly replacing the bulb. Ceramic Bulbs on the other hand don't have this problem.

Again, the surface of the bulb can get exceptionally hot and so a guard around the bulb is essential!

Please fully research the requirements of the reptile you are interested in before deciding which heating method is best suited for you.



Many reptiles need specialist lighting. This is usually provided using fluorescent strip bulbs designed specifically for reptiles that emit a form of ultraviolet light called UVB, the most popular brand in the UK being Exo Terra's Repti Glos though there are many other brands available varying in price. Pretty much any day active lizard will require this form of lighting. It is very important because day active reptiles synthesize a vitamin called D3 using UVB light. Vitamin D3 is an essential vitamin that allows reptiles to metabolize the calcium in their food. Without it, they can not metabolize the calcium regardless how much is in their diet and so they will suffer from a crippling condition known as Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD) which can result in severe skeletal deformities and in worse case scenarios, death.

Normal fluorescent lights do not emit UVB and nor do common ultraviolet lights like "black lights." Always use a light that is designed to be used for reptiles. These bulbs also emit visible light, however they will only emit UVB for a period of around 6 months so regardless of whether the bulb is still emitting visible light after this time it will need replacing.

For maximum effect, the bulb should ideally be no more than six to ten inches away from the reptile, though the range is effectively doubled if you use a reflector. Try to position the bulb and arrange the vivarium so that your reptile will spend a large part of the day within range of the bulb i.e., when basking.

There are several types of UVB emitting fluorescent bulb. Repti Glos come in three types: 2%, 5%, and 10%. The percentage refers to how much of the light's spectrum is in the UVB range. 5% and 10% are the most popular though are suited for different types of reptiles. 5% bulbs are usually used with Rainforest and European species since the intensity of the sunlight in these areas is relatively low. 10% bulbs are usually used for desert species that spend a large part of their lives in direct sunlight.

Nocturnal reptiles like Leopard Geckos do not require any specialist lighting as they rarely venture out in daylight.

Please fully research the requirements of the reptile you are interested in before deciding which lighting system is best suited for you.



Humidity in the vivarium needs to be maintained to match the reptile's natural environment. Without the appropriate humidity your reptile will suffer from respiratory problems, and if the humidity is too low, may have problems shedding their skin. Average indoor humidity in the UK is around 30-50% so if your reptile requires humidity levels higher than this the tank will need to be sprayed with a mister to raise the humidity. An inexpensive device called a Hygrometer can be used to monitor the humidity levels in the vivarium.

Vivariums with higher humidity levels are more prone to mites and mold so be sure to remove any feces and dead food immediately.



There are several factors in choosing the right substrate. The main factor is the humidity. If your reptile requires a high humidity then you want to use a substrate that can hold moisture well. A few examples are Orchid Bark, Sphagnum Moss, Coconut Bedding and Komodo's Tropical Terrain.

There are a few other options for reptiles that do not require high levels of humidity, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Beech chips are one of the most popular though others include Bio Grass, Repti Maize, and Reptile Carpet.

The main problem with Beech chips (and indeed any substrate that is in particle form) is that there is a risk your reptile could accidentally swallow it while eating which can block the digestive system or cause serious internal damage. A safer alternative is Bio Grass which is basically compressed grass pellets. These pellets break down when wet and so can be easily passed through if swallowed. This is also true to a lesser extent with Repti Maize which is made out of kiln dried corn. When swallowed Repti Maize goes mushy around the outside and so is not so hard to pass through and less likely to cause internal damage like with beech chips. The main problem with using these kind of substrates is that they will disintegrate if they get wet which can be a nuisance around their water bowl. Of course all ingestion problems can be avoided if you use a substrate that isn't in particle form like Reptile Carpet which is a coarse felt like material you can use to line the bottom of the vivarium. This will eliminate the ingestion problem, though it will prevent lizards who like to dig into the substrate from doing so.

In some cases it may be more appropriate to feed your reptile outside of the vivarium.

Again, please fully research the reptile you are interested in to help you decide which substrate is most suitable.



Due to the specialist requirements of reptiles, not all species are suitable for beginners. A few that we would recommend for someone starting out in reptile keeping are Leopard Geckos, Crested Geckos, Bearded Dragons, Corn Snakes, Kingsnakes and Hermann's Tortoises. These species grow to a moderate size, are very hardy and usually have very good temperaments making them ideal beginner species.



By Mike W Hannon