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Husbandry (Caging) for Terrestrial and Arboreal Reptiles

By: Dr. Nancy Anderson

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Newspaper (black and white print) and butcher paper are ideal cage liners. They are non-toxic, inexpensive and disposable, and they have the considerable advantage of completely removing wastes from the cage. They also allow owners to see the amount and condition of feces and to estimate amounts of leftover food. Papers should be changed after defecation or soiling with food.

Artificial turf is a good alternative to newspaper and many people consider it to be more aesthetically pleasing. Change the turf as soon as it is soiled. Astroturf is best cleaned by washing it in dish soap and water, rinsing, soaking for 15 minutes in a one part bleach: 15 parts water solution, rinsing and then air drying. If possible, dry the turf in direct sunlight, as the ultraviolet rays from the sun have a natural antibacterial effect. In general, it requires two days to clean and dry turf completely, so you will need two to four "sets" of turf for your reptile cage, depending on the frequency of soiling. Be sure to trim off loose strings to prevent pet reptiles from mistakenly eating them.

Rabbit or guinea pig pellets and recycled paper bedding (made for pet reptiles) may be used for cage bedding for herbivorous reptiles if they are replaced frequently. If the bedding is mistakenly eaten, the pellets and paper will pass through the intestines without causing an obstruction. In fact, the pellet will provide additional nutritional value. These substrates work best for desert animals that produce smaller, dry feces. When these substrates become wet, they mold very quickly, often in less than 12 hours. Even with dry conditions, the pellets will eventually mold, so it is wise to change them completely at least every two weeks.

Large stone gravel and bark chips can also be used, but are less desirable because they can be eaten and will harbor bacteria, parasites, moisture and odor. They are more expensive to replace frequently. Large gravel can be washed, bleached, rinsed and sun dried, but this requires a lot of work. Food debris and feces need to be removed on a daily basis and the substrates need to be changed when soiled, about once a month.

Sand is recommended for desert species only. Non-desert species often become impacted with sand and defecate too frequently to keep the sand clean and dry. Also, when kept clean, sand provides a low humidity environment which is not suitable for animals from more moderate climates. Sand should be maintained similarly to large gravel.

Do not use kitty litter, corncobs or small gravel as cage substrate. These materials are often ingested causing intestinal impactions and are frequently associated with skin infections. Some people keep snakes on wood chips successfully, while others have experienced problems with their snakes becoming impacted. Avoid using wood chips that have high resins contents such as cedar and certain pines. Black walnut is also not recommended.

Light Cycles

Provide 10 to 14 hours of light and dark daily. Base the proportion of light to dark on seasonal variation in the animal's home range. Room light or regular light bulbs left on to heat cages overnight does not provide adequate darkness. If lights must be left on in a room during the night, completely cover the cage. Lack of a normal light cycle predisposes reptiles to disease.

Ultraviolet Light

Most herbivorous and insectivorous reptiles require ultraviolet light of a very specific wave length range (280 to 315 nm). The needed range and intensity is best provided by exposure to unfiltered sunlight, not passing through glass or plastic. Ideally, pet reptiles should be exposed to direct sunlight for one to two hours two to four times per week. If climatic conditions make this impossible, artificial lighting will be required.

Lights used for growing plants do NOT produce the correct wavelengths used by reptiles. You will need to purchase special lights made just for pet reptiles, which you can find at better pet stores. Although these bulbs will produce light that you can see for months, they only produce the correct wavelengths for approximately 4 months and need to be changes three times per year.

The intensity of these lights is much less than the sun, so reptiles need to be exposed for several hours each day. The strength of the light falls off extremely rapidly as the distance from the light increases, so basking sites should be located within 18 to 24 inches of the light. Contact with the light should be prevented. The longer the light fixture, the better the intensity, so one longer bulb is better than two shorter bulbs. Buy the longest light fixture that you can. Be sure to turn the ultraviolet light off at night.

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