Understanding the Reptile Environment: Providing the Essentials to Minimize Problems
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2015
M. Mitchell, DVM, MS, PhD, DECZM (Herpetology)
University of Illinois, Urbana, IL, USA

Herpetoculture is a popular hobby worldwide. Over the past several decades, this hobby has led in popularity and growth in many segments of the pet trade. Initially, the popularity of the hobby appeared to be surrounded by the acquisition of unique and rare species. Over time, however, the interests of herpetoculturists turned to the development of captive breeding programs. Today, captive breeding is still an important part of the hobby, although there are also a large number of individuals that maintain "pet" collections of animals as small as one animal and up to and over dozens of animals.

In the early years of herpetoculture, possession of the animal appeared to be more important than the longevity of the animal. Inadequate enclosures, sources for heat, and diets, among other things, were common place. Over time, there appears to have been an increased interest in determining what reptiles need to survive in captivity. This movement has led to increased interest in identifying new and improved diets, improved methods of providing lighting that more closely mimics natural sunlight, and new and improved vivarium systems. Even with all of these improvements, however, herpetoculture remains a field with much to improve on.

The most important aspect of husbandry to consider for captive reptiles is environmental temperature. This serves as the foundation for all other things. A reptile not provided an environmental temperature that is suitable for it will have a decreased metabolism. This reduction in metabolism will affect many other systems, including the immune system and gastrointestinal system. Many of these changes become apparent clinically in the form of animals with reduced appetites, persistent infections, and general poor-doing. With over 9,000 species, it is important to recognize that it is easier to identify general temperature ranges based on the areas reptiles are native too versus trying to consider it by species. Most temperate species thrive in environmental temperatures between 25–31°C (78–88°F), while tropical and desert (arid) species prefer 28–33°C (82–92°F) and 29–35°C (84–95°F), respectively. A basking area that is 5–10°F warmer than the high end of the range should be also provided. This heat should only be provided for 12 hours a day to match a normal photoperiod (or up to 14–15 hours for breeding purposes).

Another area of captive reptile husbandry that has received a significant amount of attention in recent years is lighting. The majority of the discussions have been related to "full spectrum" lighting. This is a term that has been used in many different ways, most being incorrect. The basic premise behind this lighting system is that it provides the essential spectrums of ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light required by captive animals, mimicking natural exposure to the sun. Very few lighting types provide true "full spectrum" light. Most light bulbs only produce one or two of these different forms of light. Because all three components of natural light are important, attempts to provide all three should be made. This can generally be done using no more than 2 (fluorescent and incandescent) types of bulbs. Because the majority of captive reptiles are being housed indoors, it is important that they are provided lighting that mimics natural light. In addition to the provision of light, the amount of light provided in captivity should also mimic natural patterns. Photoperiods in the wild are generally between 12–15 hours a day, depending on season.

To have success with reptiles in captivity, it is important that we make recommendations to our clients that can ensure their long term success with their pets/breeding animals. The purpose of this presentation is to provide attendees an overview of the different husbandry methods used to successfully manage captive reptiles.


References are available upon request.


Speaker Information
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M. Mitchell, DVM, MS, PhD, DECZM (Herpetology)
University of Illinois
Urbana-Champaign, IL, USA

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