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Since there exists thousands of species within the Reptilia class, it is impossible to give comprehensive care guidelines for such a diverse group. In spite of this diversity, reptiles do share some common features, and we have provided guidelines to help with their husbandry.


The class Reptilia includes insectivores, carnivores, herbivores and omnivores. Some species are dietary specialists while others are generalists. As such, it is not possible to give very specific guidelines. Some reptiles can be kept on a packaged diet. Zeigler Monster Diets are available for bearded dragons, green iguanas, aquatic turtles and land tortoises. These are formulated as complete diets, and should not be diluted with other foods. For reptiles that cannot be fed on a complete diet, include as much variety in the diet as possible, and use a vitamin/mineral supplement. Herbivores should be given a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. For most species, the majority of the diet can be dark green leafy vegetables, with most of the balance made up of finely chopped veggies such as squash, zucchini, carrots, beans, peas, etc. A small part of their diet can be made up of fruits, but most reptiles should not receive much fruit. A vitamin/mineral supplement may be required, especially for juveniles. Again, make sure to research the exact needs of the species that you are working with.

Insectivores will usually have a diet that is predominantly crickets and mealworms. It's great if you can provide more variety, but don't overdo it with waxworms or other fatty worms, as this can lead to obesity and a host of related health problems. The insects should be gut-loaded on a high-calcium cricket diet, such as Zeigler Monster Cricket Diet. The insects should also receive veggies as a water source. Most importantly, you will need to use a vitamin/mineral supplement. You should use a vitamin/mineral supplement several times a week for juveniles, and about once a week for adults. This is a general guideline, and will vary depending upon which supplement and which species of reptiles you are working with. Some insectivores are dietary specialists. Most of these, such as horned lizards which feed on ants, are not appropriate pets for beginning hobbyists.

Carnivores are the easiest reptiles to feed, as they will feed on whole prey items. Snakes, which feed on whole rodents, either live or frozen and thawed, do not need any supplements. Many large lizards are also carnivores that feed on whole prey items. However, make sure that you really know the natural diet of the species. For example, many monitors will feed on mice as juveniles but they are naturally insectivores at this age; this can lead to obesity and other health problems. Some carnivorous reptiles are specialized feeders on non-mammals, such as toads, frogs, fish, slugs, etc. You will have to research the specific needs of these species.

Omnivorous reptiles should be offered both an herbivorous salad mixture and gut-loaded insects. Some omnivores are primarily herbivores that eat a few insects, while others are primarily insectivores that eat a few veggies. Make sure that research the exact requirements of the species you are working with. Most juvenile turtles and lizards should be fed daily. Adults should be fed two to three times per week. Juvenile snakes should be fed once or twice a week, with adults feeding every seven to ten days. Snakes with a higher metabolism, such as garter snakes, will need to be fed more often.

Most reptiles should always be provided with clean water. Additionally, some lizards do not readily drink from bowls and should be misted several times a day to ensure they are well hydrated. Certain desert species may be exceptions, as they can be stressed by high humidity. If you live in a climate with high humidity you may want to offer water once or twice a week for some desert species, such as rosy boas.


The general rule of reptile housing is that you cannot provide too much room for your reptiles. If you think your pet might possibly be cramped then it probably is. The only exception involves keeping juvenile snakes, where they may feel insecure in a large cage, especially if you do not provide enough hiding spaces. Also, some insect feeding lizards may have a hard time finding enough prey items in a very large enclosure, so they may have to be fed at feeding stations.

Be familiar with the natural history of the species you are keeping. A terrestrial gecko is not going to appreciate a tall cage, while an arboreal tree boa must provided with room to climb. Increase the cage size if you keep multiple reptiles in the same enclosure. In many species males are incompatible. In some species males will harass females if they are housed together. In many social species females will work out a social hierarchy. Be certain to provide enough space if you keep multiple animals together. It is generally not recommended to keep different species of reptiles in the same cage unless you are an advanced hobbyist and really understand their requirements.

Required Equipment

A screen lid is essential. This is not only to keep reptiles in their cage, but to keep dogs, cats and children out of the cage. Certain species that require higher humidity may need part of the lid covered with glass or plastic to raise the humidity.

Reptiles should be kept on a day/night cycle approximating their natural environment. For most species ten to twelve hours of daylight is appropriate. A timer is helpful to keep them on a regular cycle. They are not too particular about this, but it is stressful for them to have their lights on all night long. Basking reptiles should be provided with full-spectrum lighting. There are numerous brands of full-spectrum lights available. Your local pet retailer should be able to guide you in this purchase. Try to choose a bulb that provides some UVB radiation.

Reptiles' temperature needs are extremely diverse. Many people assume all reptiles need to be hot, but this is not the case. Alpine species or species from Northern climes will quickly expire if kept too hot. It is very important that you research the temperature requirements of the species that you are working with. Appropriate temperatures are critical for several important reasons. Your animal will thermoregulate to it's preferred optimum body temperature. This is essential for digestion, and in fact many reptiles will regurgitate if they are kept too cool. Even more importantly, the preferred optimum body temperature is essential for proper immune function. Reptile's immune function decreases exponentially if they are kept too cool or too hot.

The most critical thing to provide for your reptile is a thermal gradient. It is not appropriate to simply provide one hot spot with the rest of the cage cool, as with a hot rock. An under-tank heating pad will diffuse the heat across the glass and through the substrate, creating a gradient from warm to cool. A focused heat lamp will also do the same thing. Providing a heat gradient allows the reptile to choose the temperature that it wants to be at. Your reptile will choose it's preferred optimum body temperature. A large cage with good ventilation is critical to providing a good heat gradient.

Read your animals to determine if you have created a good heat gradient. If they are always under the heat lamp, it may be too cool. If they are always as far away from the heat as possible, it is probably too hot.

A night time temperature drop is natural for reptiles. Most species can cool off at night as long as they get warm enough during the day. If you use a heat lamp on a natural day/night cycle, monitor the temperature overnight and if it does get too cool you may have to provide supplemental heating, either with a heating pad or with a red bulb (which reptiles do not see). It is not appropriate to leave a heat lamp on all night long. Finally, provide multiple hot spots if multiple reptiles are kept in the same enclosure. A single dominant animal may keep subdominant animals out of the hot spot.

Make sure that you choose cage furnishings appropriate to the species that you are keeping. Cage furnishings include rocks, branches, live or artificial plants, hide boxes, PVC tubes, etc. Cage furnishings serve multiple purposes. They should create hiding spots, visual barriers and basking sites. Remember to provide multiple hide spots and basking spots for cages with multiple reptiles. Also, provide hide spots in heated and unheated parts of the cage. You don't want to force your animal to have to choose between thermal comfort and psychological comfort.


It is impossible to make general guidelines regarding substrate. You must understand the needs of the species that you are working with first. Burrowing species should be provided with a particulate substrate. Terrestrial or arboreal species can be kept on a particulate substrate or on a non-particulate substrate such as newspaper or cage carpet. Sand, whether calcium or silica based, can be used as a substrate for many reptiles. It is generally inert, but some types, especially unprocessed calcium sands, can desiccate reptiles. Impactions from sand ingestion are rare, but they do occur. Impactions often occur due to nutritional deficiencies, as many reptiles will intentionally ingest substrate if they have any sort of vitamin or mineral deficiency. Also make sure that you feed your pet in a bowl if at all possible. This will reduce the likelihood of accidental ingestion.

Bark or mulch is another widely used substrate. It is most appropriate for animals that need a higher humidity, as it does retain moisture. It can also be an impaction risk, but if you use a particle size too large to be ingested there is little risk. The same guidelines for reducing sand impactions also applies to bark. Pine shavings and aspen bedding are often used as substrates for snakes. These are generally appropriate. Avoid shavings that still have a strong smell of resin. Also, do not use cedar shavings as these are toxic to reptiles. Corn cob should also be avoided as this is a serious impaction risk.

Newspaper is an ideal substrate for many species, but it is not aesthetically pleasing. Cage carpets offer many of the same benefits. Make sure that there are no loose threads on the edge of the carpet, as they may be ingested or may become wrapped around feet or toes. In any case, the substrate should be spot cleaned and/or replaced on a regular basis. Many health problems stem from unclean housing. Ideally, you should clean the substrate daily.

Herpetoculturist Library Series
Advanced Vivarium Systems
Most authored or co-authored by Philippe de Vosjoli
Barron's Reptile Series
Barron's Educational Series, Inc
Most authored or co-authored by R.D. and Patricia Bartlett

For many natural history and reptile related references, check with www.zoobooksales.com. For help in finding a reptile veterinarian, check with the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians, at www.arav.org.


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