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Husbandry (Caging) for Terrestrial and Arboreal Reptiles

By: Dr. Nancy Anderson

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A great deal of thought must go into a reptile's captive environment. You must consider the size and shape of the enclosure as well as the materials from which the enclosure will be constructed.

Cages need to be escape proof, non-abrasive and easy to disinfect. They should also be well insulated and roomy. Aquariums, plastic sweater boxes and plastic tubs can work well for small reptiles. Larger species such as adult green iguanas, large boas or pythons, and large tortoises usually require custom made cages ranging from closet size to room size.

Custom cages can be home made using polyurethane sealed wood and glass/plexiglas. Non-sealed wood is not recommended for caging because it is impossible to disinfect and will harbor bacteria, odor and parasites. Before being used, cages should be aired out for at least one week to remove polyurethane fumes. Some companies specialize in building custom pet reptile cages in people's homes. Many of these companies use fiberglass enclosures and can make the enclosure as complex as you wish by controlling lighting intensity, humidity, temperature cycle and even rainfall.

Cage wall surfaces should be smooth to prevent damage to your reptile's nose and skin. You can add a rough branch or stone to the enclosure to aid in shedding. All reptiles need places to hide, and having a "safe zone" reduces stress and prevents cage pacing. Provide enough hiding places so that each animal has his own place to hide.

Cage furniture should be constructed of non-porous material like plastic, metal, glazed ceramic or polyurethane sealed wood, so it can be disinfected. Or it can be disposable, such as clay flower pots, branches and rocks. You can choose from the many commercial products available. Plastic ice cream containers with holes cut in the side, plastic pots and plastic plants also work well. For animals requiring higher humidity, containers can be filled with damp, clean sphagnum moss. The moss should be changed approximately every 2 to 3 weeks to prevent buildup of bacteria and wastes.

The cage should also include structures to stimulate physical activity. These should be sturdy so that your reptile cannot fall. It is easiest to clean the cage if these structures are removable. Large structures also provide visual security so that cage mates can hide from each other if necessary.

Furniture for Arboreal Reptiles

The cage space for arboreal reptiles needs to be vertically oriented, which means higher than it is wide. It should include objects for climbing, but do not place these structures over food or water bowls to prevent contamination with feces or food. It is best to mount food and water dishes in the climbing structure. In general, willow, birch, beech, ficus and fruit trees provide non-toxic branches.

Size

Reptiles require adequate space to be healthy. The following are minimum size recommendations, but the general rule is the more space the better. Snakes need room to stretch out at least two thirds their entire body length. Tortoises require at least three times their body area. Supply at least 6 square inches of cage space per inch body length in lizards. Double or triple space requirements when adding additional cage mates.

Cage Density

Plenty of space and visual security is essential when housing more than one animal in an enclosure. Signs of inadequate cage space are cage mate aggression, disease, high parasite loads, starvation, dehydration and cannibalism. Some animals naturally prey on cage mates, so these animals should be housed alone.

Do not mix species. Doing so is often disastrous because organisms that do not cause overt disease in one group of animals may be deadly for another. For example, amoebiasis doesn't usually cause significant disease in turtles, but often kills snakes.

Quarantine

Quarantine all new animals for at least 90 days. Ideally, they should be quarantined in a separate building, but if this is not possible, quarantine animals in separate rooms. In addition, take these precautions:

  • Make sure that the air supply from the quarantine room does not enter rooms where the rest of the reptiles are housed.

  • Feed and clean new animals last and make sure that clothes do not become contaminated. You may wish to have a separate pair of shoes and a smock to use in the quarantine room.

  • Dispose of wastes and wash hands thoroughly.

  • Clean and disinfect food and water dishes in a separate area.

  • Have new reptiles tested for parasites and infectious disease by a reptile veterinarian before placing them in the main collection.

    Sanitation

    Reptiles rarely come in contact with their feces or spoiled food in the wild. In captivity, the goal is to minimize this contact and the chance of spreading disease when it occurs. The most important part of cleaning is removal of fecal material, urates and left over food. This can be as simple as removing a piece of newspaper or as time consuming as scrubbing stones. Only after the gross debris is removed can disinfectants destroy microbes that cannot be killed with soap and water alone. Disinfection is not a substitute for cleaning. The best cleaning solution is dish soap and water.

    Diluted bleach (1 part bleach to 15 parts water) is an inexpensive, safe and effective disinfectant for use around reptiles. It works best if allowed to remain on the surface for 15 minutes before being rinsed. Thorough air drying the disinfected items decreases the likelihood of microbes survival. Bleach does not work in organic debris, so it is important to clean with soap and water first. Chlorhexidine and Roccal® are disinfectants that are safe to use with reptiles. Phenolic cleaners such as Pine-Sol® and Lysol® can be toxic to reptiles and should be avoided.

    Non-sealed and porous surfaces cannot be disinfected thoroughly. Therefore, if a disease outbreak occurs, discard items such as wood, pottery, artificial turf and bedding. Never transfer these items from one group of animals to another.

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