HEATING REPTILE ENCLOSURES
Gibbons, DVM ABVP
Avian and Reptile
One of the most important
aspects of reptile care is temperature maintenance. Although
reptiles are commonly thought to be “cold blooded”, a study of
iguanas in the South American rainforest found that daily body
temperatures often exceed 100 degrees. These lizards climb trees
to bask in the heat of the sun and warm their bodies.
Every reptile species, however, encounters a unique
temperature gradient in nature. For proper health in captivity,
that gradient must be artificially simulated. Start by learning
the specific needs of a species by purchasing books from the pet
store, searching the Internet, or consulting with a reptile
get at least two accurate thermometers to measure your
environmental temperature gradient.
Finally, set up a system that supplies the proper heat for
Many options are now available to provide heat for
reptiles. No single device is perfect, and I recommend different
ones in different situations. Use one of the thermometers to
monitor the coolest part of the enclosure. A primary heat source
should heat the whole enclosure to the lower end of the species
preferred range. Then, if needed, a secondary heat source may be
used to raise the temperature of the basking spot.
Use thermostats to regulate each heating source.
Primary heating devices include heat tape, under-the-tank mats,
incandescent bulbs, ceramic heat emitters, flood lamps, and space
heaters. These heat sources can be dangerous if used incorrectly,
and the manufacturer’s recommendations must be followed. For
example, light bulbs larger than 60 watts require a porcelain
based fixture. Similarly, under-tank-heaters cannot be
placed inside the tank, or they will cause severe burns. For
extremely large enclosures such as closets, rooms, and
greenhouses, radiant or forced air space heaters may be needed.
If the heater uses gas, it is essential to monitor carbon monoxide
levels. Rock heaters (“hot rocks” or “sizzle stones”) are
not appropriate for use inside reptile enclosures. These
devices do not adequately heat the air around them, and frequently
inflict severe burns in the animals they were keeping warm.
Heating the entire enclosure may be difficult unless the
whole room is warm enough. Often,
a heat source is rated by how many degrees it can heat the
enclosure above ambient temperature.
The primary heat source must respond to changes that occur
in the home with varying seasons.
A change in the wattage of a bulb, use of a rheostat, or
incorporation of a thermostat may be necessary to maintain the low
end of a reptile’s safe range.
A secondary heat source might be needed to provide the
upper end of the temperature gradient. The basking site provides
heat necessary to activate digestive enzymes and stimulate the
immune system. Most herpetoculturists use some type of overhead
system, imitating the sun. Use
the second thermometer at this site to ensure adequate and safe
Timers are useful to regulate the secondary heat source. If
an incandescent bulb that emits bright light is used, the timer
allows shutoff for darkness. A
basking spot may not be necessary at night for some species, since
in the wild, temperatures can drop dramatically after sundown.
However, if secondary heat is still needed during darkness,
a blue, red, or ceramic bulb may be used.
Every setup is different, so the devices used to provide
heat will vary according to the size of the enclosure, the species
of animal, and the ambient room temperature. Be prepared to
fine-tune your system as the seasons change. Constant monitoring
is needed to ensure that the heat sources are providing your
reptile with its preferred optimum temperature gradient.
Please call us if you have any