Heating has to be one of the most important aspects of reptile husbandry. As exotherms, reptiles cannot make heat for themselves but rely on taking heat from their environment to adjust and maintain their internal body temperature. This temperature depends on the species, the time of day and the stage of food digestion. Reptiles have very limited ability to compensate for environmental temperatures above or below their optimum range and so it is vital that a reptile owner can provide correct, adequate heating for his pet. If a reptile’s temperature rises above or falls below the optimum range, this could result in disruption of normal metabolic activity and even death.
Types of Heating:
Basking Heat– this provides an overhead heat source, such as from a ceramic heater or an infrared lamp, and is particularly suitable for reptiles which spend a lot of time on branches or high in a cage. Ambient Heat– can be provided by thermo-tubes, such as those cylindrical heaters usually sold for cupboard heating or window demisting. They are extremely versatile, highly reliable, and can be used individually or in multiples for background heating of large reptile enclosures. Ambient heat can also be provided by radiant heat panels, which are designed for use on the ceiling or back wall. Ground Heat– for reptiles that spend a lot of time on the ground. These usually come in the shape of heat pads, heated hides, and in some cases, hot rocks (although these have some safety concerns)
With a bit of creative positioning, you can devise a variety of different heat sources for your pet. For example, a heat pad beneath a natural surface within the terrarium, such as a thin piece of shale, will provide a warm platform for your reptile to bask on; or a micro heater placed in a water container will provide a warm soak to assist in skin shedding.
Safety Tips to Keep in Mind:
Thermal Gradient– as the only way reptiles can adjust their body temperature is by having access to different environmental temperatures, it is vital that they have a choice of ground and air temperatures within their enclosure. This range of temperatures, from mild to hot, from one end of the terrarium to the other, is called a ‘thermal gradient’ and is usually in the region of 5 to 8 degrees difference, depending on the species of your pet. Thus, heating is usually only set up at one end of the terrarium or micro-climates can be set up by placing small multiple heaters in selected positions. In addition, it is essential to have vents in the enclosure to allow air to circulate. Electricity– all electrical fixtures and fittings are a potentially serious hazard and it is wise to always use a qualified electrician. Ask for fuses and circuit-breakers of the correct rating and install effective smoke detector alarms. Fire is one of the most serious risks – if you have pet reptiles that are especially strong and destructive (eg. tortoises), make sure that everything is bolted down firmly and that heating elements cannot be damaged or knocked over. Thermostat– it is advisable to use a thermostat to provide a reliable method of regulating temperatures within the enclosure. Overheating can be very dangerous to your pet. Most reptiles have a critical maximum internal temperature of between 34 to 36°C and if they are left at these temperatures without possibility of escape, death can occur very rapidly. In fact, in many species, if the core temperature rises above 28°C, they will cease to feed and will prepare to enter a state of aestivation. Note also that a temperature favoured by your pet may not be the best one for health or survival; for example, if allowed to, tortoises will bask under a heater all day, despite suffering serious metabolic side-effects. Thus, it is best to mimic nature, where temperatures are cyclic, peaking at midday and falling off towards evening. Thermometer– always double-check the thermostat indications and settings with a separate thermometer installed in the enclosure. Usually, one thermometer will be fixed alongside the thermostat and a second moved around the terrarium to check the thermal gradient. Ceramic Heaters– as these can become extremely hot in operation and likely to burn your pet severely on contact, make sure that they are installed and positioned with great care using the special heat-proof holders provided. Hot Rocks/Heat Pads– these are not favoured by many experienced reptile keepers as there have been cases of animals badly burning themselves on the imitation rocks with a built-in heating element. In addition, heat pads should be avoided as the sole heat source because they do not promote natural basking behaviour and can even seriously impair thermoregulatory behaviour in several species.
As with all exotic pets, reptiles require more specialist knowledge of their needs in order to keep them successfully. However, with good knowledge of their ideal environment and the potential hazards to their safety, an owner can be confident that he is providing his pet reptile with the best conditions for life in domestic situation.