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Building a Simple Herp Enclosure

How to build a simple enclosure for your reptile or amphibian.

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I am, in all likelihood, one of the top 10 or perhaps top 20, advocates of naturalistic terrariums on the face of this planet. I’ve written numerous articles and one book about building naturalistic terrariums for reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates, and I wholeheartedly believe that the long-term viability of any pet endeavor is increased when all the living and non-living elements of that species’ natural habitat are recreated in the home terrarium. That being said, I am also a big advocate of the Spartan terrarium. I’m talkin’ the basics here: security, lighting, heating, humidity, water and shelter. Just the facts, ma’am… Nothing but the facts.

Many commonly kept species of herps and inverts can be adequately housed in rubber totes, sometimes known as sweater boxes, which have a water dish, heat tape or an external heating pad affixed to the bottom, paper towel substrate and plenty of air-holes. Species like corn snakes (Pantherophis guttatus), California kingsnakes (Lampropeltis getulus ssp), many species of gecko, and certainly myriad species of boa, python and tarantula, can be housed under these basic conditions. In fact, African pixie frogs and Argentine horned frogs do great in Spartan tanks, so long as their water is always fresh and clean. I will also say that it has been my experience and observation that most species that do well in these conditions are nocturnal. Animals that require minimal ultraviolet lighting are better housed under these conditions than species who are devout baskers, such as bearded dragons, sungazers, plated lizards, etc. Likewise, staunchly arboreal animals, like the chameleons and arboreal snakes, need more to their habitat than just four walls, a lid, a water dish and a hide.


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If you do own a species that can thrive in a Spartan enclosure, and you do want to build such a cost-efficient home for your pet, then there are still some basic bases that must be covered. Let’s take a quick look at those.

1. Heating / thermocline. This is a must for all species of reptile. (It is slightly less important for amphibians, owing to their semi-permeable skins and low tolerance of UV radiation.) Establish a thermocline by placing multiple hides in the Spartan environment. Place one hide directly atop your environment’s heating apparatus and by placing another away from this heating device. That way, your pet may be safely hidden while hot or while cool. Your pet can always warm or cool itself at its leisure.

2. Security in hideaways. Snakes love to feel something touching them on all sides; they feel much safer from predators this way. Snug-fitting hides, therefore, are a must. Prefab hides of all kinds are available at your local pet shop or you may cut several lengths of PVC pipe and place them in your Spartan enclosure at a much lower cost. As long as your snake can curl up inside and feel secure, it’ll be happy.

3. Air Flow. Spartan sweater boxes must have ample air flow and oxygenation. This is especially important when it comes to tank hygiene. Poor air circulation can cause odor and toxin (ammonia from wastes, for example) build-up and this can be seriously detrimental to the psychological and physical wellbeing of your pet. Drilling plenty of air holes and ensuring plenty of air circulation is a big deal, folks.

4. Humidity. Maintaining ample humidity in a tank that has only newspaper or paper toweling for substrate is very difficult. If you notice the scales on your snake or lizard curling up at the edges, your pet is dehydrating. Humidity is too low. If your tank walls “sweat” on the inside or the tank smells funny, you have too much humidity build-up. Either scenario is bad. The level of humidity you chose to maintain in your Spartan tank will largely depend on the species you are housing. Obviously, dart frogs need higher humidity levels than do rosy boas.

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5. Lighting. This is a really hard one to satisfy. How do you supply ample UV lighting inside a shoebox sized tote if you have a species that requires it? Better think about this before you opt out of building a larger, more expensive naturalistic terrarium.

6. Water. Make sure your pet always has a constant supply of clean, fresh water. This is non-negotiable, except in the extremely rare case of a herp that spends too much time in its water dish (unobserved) and has contracted a skin disorder; such an animal must be watered by its keeper under strict terms of supervision until the condition is over. It has been my experience through the years that the majority of premature reptile, amphibian and invertebrate deaths are, in some way, related to improper methods of waters (including drowning and dehydration).

At the end of the day, I am a major advocate of fostering the best, most sustainable relationship possible between the herp-hobbyist and his or her chosen species of herp or invertebrate. I love reptiles and amphibians, and I love helping people find new and better ways to keep and maintain their scaly little friends. Thus, I will say this: if you own a herp or invert that can thrive in a Spartan enclosure built of a sweater box, heat tape, and a water dish and hide, then I wish you the very best in building this budget-friendly environment and keeping your pet healthy and safe in it. If, however, your pet requires more room, more vegetation and more lighting than such a Spartan enclosure can provide, then your duty as a responsible pet owner is clear. Do you research, my friends, and experiment around with a lot of tank designs and styles. I assure you, there is a style and size of terrarium out there that will satisfy your needs in terms of space and budget, and your pet’s needs in terms of naturalistic habitat, room to grow and ability to thrive. Good luck to you both!