Is My Reptile Warm Enough? August 2013

By Jonathan Rheins

In the world of pets, reptiles are very different from your everyday cat or dog. Your furry pets have the ability, like us, to regulate our body temperature internally, and keep it a constant and healthy level. Reptiles of course don’t have this ability. They are often referred to as cold-blooded, a term that is both inaccurate and rather unacceptable. The aforementioned term tends to spark negative connotations regarding these animals, as “cold-blooded” is so often associated with cruelty or evil.

The trend now in scientific literature is to identify these animals as what they truly are, which is poikilothermic ectotherms. These words are often used to describe reptiles interchangeably, although their exact definitions do differ slightly. Poikilothermic literally translates from Greek to mean “variable temperature.” In other words, poikilotherms are any animals that have a variable body temperature. Although a healthy human may have a body temperature of 98.6 plus or minus a few tenths of a degree, we are not considered poikilotherms. Rather poikilotherms are animals that not only have an inconsistent body temperature, but also one capable of massive highs and lows without harming the organism.
A basking Blue Tongue Skink

Now that we understand that aspect of reptilian physiology it is somewhat easier to understand the vital importance of providing captive reptiles with an acceptable range of environmental temperatures. The key word in the above phrase is “range.” Maintaining any reptile or amphibian at a constant temperature is neither healthy or natural. Instead we should strive to provide a thermal range, or gradient, for our pets so that they may choose the correct temperature for their specific needs at any given time. In the wild, reptiles are constantly moving around searching for microclimates within their environment that meet their needs. Aquatic turtles are a good example. On a sunny day, a turtle may haul itself onto a warm rock or log, and when it reaches its preferred body temperature, slips back into the water to cool down. A given animal may go through this series of behaviors literally dozens of times a day. Although I used turtles in my example, the same holds true for snakes, lizards, and amphibians (although to a lesser degree).

For any given species, a little research should quickly yield a set of vital temperatures that you should learn and love. One of these is the ambient temperature required by your species. This is essentially the background temperature, and additionally functions as the cooler temperature that you will eventually use in creating your gradient. The other temperature typically given is that of the basking spot. This is the temperature you want to achieve in the warmest spot in the cage. The basking temperature is usually limited to one or two local areas within the enclosure where the reptile can bask as needed to raise its body temperature.

As an example lets look at a popular species, the bearded dragon, Pogona vitticeps. Individual sources will vary, and the age of your pet and size of enclosure ultimately come into play when developing a proper gradient. Nonetheless, lets assume that beardeds require an ambient temperature of 78-82 degrees with a basking spot of approximately 110 degrees. This can simply be interpreted as: make cage 80 degrees with a localized basking spot of 110. The concept is fairly simple when you break it down.

Understanding the physiology and mechanisms behind reptilian thermoregulatory behavior is a large part of the battle. We are fortunate to live in a time where reptile keeping has become mainstream enough to allow the average consumer access to a wide variety of reptile care supplies. Therefore, the educated hobbyist can easily find and purchase any number of heating devices designed specifically for reptile use with which to provide a proper thermal gradient for their pets.

Reptiles like this Panther Chameleon cannot thrive without the proper temperatures.

The first and perhaps most important tool you can have when keeping reptiles is a high quality thermometer. Standard adhesive strip thermometers are very reasonably priced, and can provide the keeper with ambient temperature information at a glance. Analog thermometers are another option. Though slightly more expensive, the cost is offset by increased accuracy and precision, as well as the ability to move the device throughout the cage.

I typically recommend at least two thermometers per cage, or one easily movable one. One thermometer should be placed in the warmest spot in the enclosure (the basking spot).

This thermometer should allow the keeper to ensure that the basking spot does not exceed the safe level for the species being kept. The second thermometer should be placed away from the basking zone, typically on the far end of the cage. Utilizing this arrangement of one thermometer at both the hottest and coolest parts of the cage makes monitoring the gradient simple, and adjustment easy.

When designing your reptiles enclosure, keep the concept of the thermal gradient in mind. Placing the basking spot in the center of your cage will likely result in the entire cage remaining too warm. Instead, aim to have one side of the cage warm, and the other cooler. If you set up your enclosure this way, and have a properly temped basking spot, you will automatically have a gradient. The further away from the heat source that the animal travels, the cooler it will become. In very large or elaborate set-ups it may become necessary to have multiple basking spots. This is perfectly acceptable so long as cooler zones within the enclosure are still provided.

Using heat lights can encourage perching reptiles, like this Green Tree Python, to bask where you can see them.

There is a huge variety of heating bulbs, elements, pads, panels, and rocks available for keeping your pets warm. Heat bulbs, ceramic heat emitters, and heating pads are by far the most popular, so they will each be discussed briefly in turn, as a working knowledge of these items will help you choose the appropriate equipment for your specific situation.

Bulbs are the most popular method, and different types exist to serve specific purposes. Somereptile bulbs emit heat in a wide wash of light, similar to a standard household bulb. Other so-called “spot” bulbs are designed to focus the heat and light onto a smaller more concentrated area. Additionally, both spot and flood-type bulbs are available in red, effectively creating an infra-red heating device. The light emitted by these bulbs looks red to us, while it is likely that your reptiles do not see any light at all. The main advantage to red bulbs is that they can remain on at night without disrupting the animals natural day/night cycle (assuming supplemental lighting is used during normal daylight hours).

Ceramic heat emitters are yet another option for heating reptiles from above. Similar in form and function to a light bulb, these devices are essentially a solid ceramic heat element available in a variety of wattages to fit any need, They screw into any standard porcelain light fixture and produce an intense amount of heat compared to bulbs of similar wattage. Among the advantages of ceramic heat emitters is the total absence of light that they produce and their longevity. Properly used elements should easily last 5 to 7 years without problems.

A happily basking Texas Map Turtle

Heat pads are a common tool for snake owners due to the terrestrial habits of many snake species. Heat pads are usually, but not always, self adhesive and attach to the outside bottom of any glass terrarium. Individual models will vary, but on average you can expect the substrate temperature above the pad to be about 10 degrees above room temperature. In some situations a heat pad alone provides adequate heat, however do not be discouraged if you end up using both a pad and a light or ceramic element to properly warm your enclosure.

There is one more vital piece of advice that I would like to share with you. Having kept a wide variety of reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates myself over the years, I have adopted a unique and reliable philosophy regarding reptile behavior. As I said earlier, having an accurate thermometer in your cage is very, very important as it is very difficult for us as humans to detect slight temperature variations. Yet in my opinion, the most accurate thermometer that you have at your disposal is the animal itself.

Just as no two humans are exactly alike, nor are any two reptiles. Due to the uniqueness of each animal, carefully observing your pets is the best way to see if they are happy. Yes, within a given species of animal the needs will be quite similar, and as such are generalized accurately in care books. Nonetheless, individual variances do occur, and you should be open to making changes accordingly.

If your reptile is always in its basking spot, day and night, and never budges, chances are that it is too cold in the enclosure, and your pet is trying desperately to warm up. On the other end of the spectrum, there is the hypothetical situation where your reptile spends all day trying to claw through the glass on the cooler end of the tank, almost as if it were being chased. This would be indicative of temperatures that are too hot.

Some reptiles, like this Pygmy Leaf Chameleon, don’t actually like high temperatures in their cage.

Keep in mind that these behaviors may be part of your pets normal activity if it happens only occasionally. You needn?t worry until the above mentioned scenarios become chronic, or are accompanied by anorexia or other signs of illness.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to share with you my thoughts and opinions in regards to keeping your reptiles warm and happy this winter. Please keep in mind that animals are unpredictable, and when dealing with them nothing is written in stone. We are all still in a learning stage when it comes to perfecting reptile-keeping and we all need to work together to allow our hobby to progress. All of the above is based on my personal experience and opinions, and is in no way intended to be the last word on the subject. If you ever find yourself in doubt about your animals health or well being, feel free to contact us or your local expert.

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