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SHOWDOWN! What is the BEST Type of Reptile Enclosure?

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There are several types of reptile enclosure commonly used in today’s reptile industry:

Today I’m going to introduce you to each type of enclosure, what they’re good at, where they struggle, and how best to use them. And at the end, I will reveal the absolute BEST type of enclosure that you can house a reptile in.

In this article I am speaking from my own experience as well as the experiences of others. Spoiler alert: All of these enclosures can be used both poorly and well. But only one is the most conducive to excellent reptile husbandry.

Racks

enriched reptile racks with overhead heat, UVB, and ventilation
Source: PM Herps

Racks are vertical shelving units designed to accommodate as many animals as possible in a small amount of space. They are typically equipped with basic heating equipment such as heat tape and thermostats, and snug-fitting tubs are used to create escape-resistant enclosures.

Racks are all about efficiency, so a typical enclosure in the rack system is designed to be quick and easy to clean: a disposable substrate such as butcher paper or paper towel, food and/or water dishes, and a plastic hide box.

Pros

  • utilizes vertical space, minimizing the setup’s footprint
  • maximizes the number of reptiles that can be housed in a single room
  • cost-efficient to heat
  • retains humidity well
  • watertight
  • escape-resistant
  • easy to clean and maintain
  • inexpensive to set up

Cons

  • enclosure size is limited by the size of available tubs — max tub size is 175 quarts or 44 gallons
  • limited ventilation
  • temperature gradient is severely limited by limited ventilation and space
  • in case of thermostat failure, dozens of reptiles can die
  • not built to accommodate UVB or any type of supplementary lighting
  • limited space limits opportunity for creating an enriching environment
  • may produce VOCs (see Tubs section below)

The Rack And Tub system is best suited to use by breeders, who need to be able to house dozens, hundreds, or in some cases thousands of breeding stock and hatchlings as efficiently as possible.

Racks are also sometimes used by pet owners and collectors who are looking for a cheap, space-conserving method of keeping their reptiles, but ReptiFiles does not recommend this practice for anyone except breeders, and only then as short-term housing.

To mitigate the weaknesses of a rack system and help optimize it for best reptile husbandry, ReptiFiles recommends:

  • Avoid housing adult reptiles that require more than 40 gallons of space.
  • Modify the tubs to increase ventilation, either with a soldering iron or mesh.
  • Switch to open-top tubs and modified racks to accommodate halogen heating and UVB lighting for species that can’t climb out.
  • Install smart thermometers with alarms to catch overheating before it turns deadly.
  • Add simple, easy-to-clean or even disposable enrichment items to each tub.

Tubs

plastic tub reptile enclosure
Source: Hefty

Tubs (also known as RUBs in Europe) are opaque or translucent plastic storage containers that get repurposed into reptile enclosures. These are most often used within the aforementioned rack system, but they are also used as standalone enclosures. Tubs are typically heated via heat mat and have holes poked in them with a soldering iron for ventilation.

Outside of the rack system, standalone tubs tend to be less sterile. They typically contain some kind of substrate, food/water bowls, and a hide box, as well as one or two décor/enrichment items such as low climbing branches and artificial foliage. Standalone tubs’ size are also not limited by racks, so they can be as large as 54”L x 22”W x15”H, or a 65 gallon capacity.

Pros

  • cheap
  • readily available
  • lightweight
  • watertight
  • holds heat and humidity well
  • fairly escape-proof
  • opaque or near-opaque walls
  • easy to clean and maintain

Cons

  • amount of available space is limited by the size of tub that you can find
  • can be difficult to create a diverse temperature gradient
  • only heating option (without modification) is a heat pad or heat tape
  • UVB lighting can be difficult or even impossible to set up, depending on the occupant
  • ventilation is highly limited
  • limited viewing
  • not very attractive
  • may produce VOCs

Tubs are often used as a budget option when the keeper doesn’t have enough money to provide a proper enclosure (ex: impulse buys from an expo or unexpected rescues). These can be acceptable as temporary housing as long as they meet the basic needs of the animal and are temporary, due to the abovementioned restrictions.

To mitigate the weaknesses of a tub and help optimize it for best reptile husbandry, ReptiFiles recommends:

  • Do not use a tub smaller than the minimum requirement for the species.
  • If escape is not a concern, leave the top open to accommodate halogen heating and UVB lighting.
  • If escape is a concern, use a soldering iron to create ventilation holes in the lid and walls.
  • Mimic wild conditions as much as is possible with naturalistic substrate, appropriate hiding places, and décor/environmental enrichment.
VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are a particular concern when using plastic tubs to house reptiles. These tubs are most commonly made from polypropylene, polyethylene, or polycarbonate, which plastics are known to out-gas toxic chemicals when heated. Exactly which chemicals may be produced at the temperatures required for heating captive reptiles has yet to be determined, but it is something to be aware of, especially since tubs are very poorly ventilated in typical application. 
 
In humans, particularly sensitive populations like the elderly, VOCs are a concern because they have been linked to respiratory issues. VOCs are also known to harm pet birds, which have *very* sensitive respiratory tracts and are so evolutionarily similar to reptiles that some have proposed reclassifying birds as reptiles. This means that VOCs are also a concern in reptile husbandry. It is hypothesized that consistent exposure may depress a reptile’s immune system and cause illness in captive reptiles, as well as lead to a shortened lifespan.

Aquariums

glass aquarium reptile tank
Source: Reptile Rapture

Aquariums are top-opening glass containers most commonly used for housing pet fish, but they are also used for housing pet reptiles. Aquariums converted for reptile use usually come with a screen top.

Pros

  • readily available
  • facilitate overhead heating and lighting
  • facilitate a diverse temperature gradient in a relatively small space
  • well ventilated
  • watertight
  • easy viewing
  • fairly attractive
  • easy to clean

Cons

  • heavy
  • only available up to ~75 gallons (48”x18”x21”) commonly
  • vulnerable to escapes
  • doesn’t hold heat or humidity well without modification
  • transparent walls can stress the occupant
  • accessible via the top only, which can make occupants more defensive
  • shatters into sharp shards if damaged

The ideal application of an aquarium is housing small aquatic turtles, as these are one of the few enclosures on this list that are both large and watertight enough to fit their primarily aquatic lifestyle. However, even aquariums require some modification to perfectly suit a turtle’s husbandry requirements, and there are arguments that a custom-built pond is a more appropriate enclosure for housing turtles (not discussed here).

To mitigate the weaknesses of an aquarium and help optimize it for best reptile husbandry, we advise:

  • Do not use an aquarium smaller than the minimum requirement for the species.
  • Utilize halogen heating and fluorescent UVB lighting as recommended for the species.
  • Use construction paper or any opaque material to “black out” the sides and back.
  • If housing a snake, secure the lid to discourage escape with lid locks or clamps.
  • Place in a secure location where falls are very unlikely.
  • Mimic wild conditions as much as possible with naturalistic substrate, appropriate hiding places, and décor/environmental enrichment.

Terrariums

Terrariums are front-opening enclosures built specifically for reptiles. They are available in a variety of materials (primarily glass, wood, or PVC) and can be built to almost any size or shape, with sliding or swinging doors made of acrylic or glass.

Glass

exo terra glass reptile terrarium

Source: Exo Terra

  • Pros
    • front-facing doors make for easy access
    • facilitate overhead heating and lighting
    • facilitate a diverse temperature gradient in a relatively small space
    • well ventilated
    • highly escape-resistant
    • fairly watertight
    • easy viewing
    • very attractive
    • easy to clean
  • Cons
    • heavy
    • expensive
    • doesn’t hold heat or humidity well without modification
    • transparent walls can stress the occupant
    • not stackable
    • shatters into sharp shards if damaged
    • only available up to 48”L x 24”W x 24”H for terrestrial or 36”L x 18”W x 36”H for arboreal

Because of their weight, size limitations, and high aesthetic value, glass terrariums can be great for housing small- to medium-sized terrestrial or arboreal reptiles, particularly display animals.

To mitigate the weaknesses of a glass terrarium and help optimize it for best reptile husbandry, we advise:

  • Do not use a terrarium smaller than the minimum requirement for the species.
  • Utilize halogen heating and fluorescent UVB lighting as recommended for the species.
  • Use construction paper or any opaque material to “black out” the sides and back.
  • Place in a secure location where falls are very unlikely.
  • Mimic wild conditions as much as possible with naturalistic substrate, appropriate hiding places, and décor/environmental enrichment.

Wood

Zen Habitats 4x2x2 Reptile Enclosure with PVC Panels

Source: Zen Habitats

  • Pros
    • inexpensive
    • lightweight
    • front-facing doors enable easy access
    • facilitates overhead heating and lighting
    • retains heat and humidity fairly well
    • escape-resistant
    • easy to customize
    • can be built to stack
    • can be built to just about any size
  • Cons
    • may not be well ventilated
    • may retain too much heat, impairing the thermal gradient
    • may begin to rot in the presence of standing water or high humidity
    • attractiveness varies depending on design and type of wood
    • flammable

Because wood is an inexpensive and readily available material, most DIY-style reptile enclosures are made of wood. Wood is also a very popular enclosure material in Europe! Aside from being affordable, wood’s DIY value also means that they are easy to customize to the needs of the occupant in the design process. Wood terrariums can be great for housing terrestrial or arboreal reptiles of any size, provided that the construction supports the size of the enclosure.

To mitigate the weaknesses of a wood terrarium and help optimize it for best reptile husbandry, ReptiFiles recommends:

  • Do not use a terrarium smaller than the minimum requirement for the species.
  • Use hardwood lumber only.
  • Seal with several coats of nontoxic wood sealant.
  • Include generous ventilation holes or a mesh top in the design.
  • Make accommodations for halogen heating and fluorescent UVB lighting as recommended for the species.
  • If the reptile may come in contact with the heat bulb, install a wire bulb cage.
  • Mimic wild conditions as much as possible with naturalistic substrate, appropriate hiding places, and décor/environmental enrichment.
  • Take extra fire safety precautions.

PVC

  • Pros
    • front-facing doors enable easy access
    • lightweight
    • durable
    • escape-resistant
    • easy to customize
    • available in a wide variety of sizes
    • resists humidity and leakage well
    • facilitates overhead heating and lighting
    • retains heat and humidity very well
    • generally stackable
    • easy to clean and maintain
  • Cons
    • higher-end enclosures can be expensive
    • often not well ventilated
    • can hold heat too well, impairing the thermal gradient
    • can lose its shape if not placed on a flat surface

Like wood, the benefit of PVC is that it’s a strong, fairly durable material that is conducive to both larger builds and customization. Because of these features, PVC terrariums can be great for housing terrestrial or arboreal reptiles of any size, provided that the construction supports the size of the enclosure.

To mitigate the weaknesses of a PVC terrarium and help optimize it for best reptile husbandry, ReptiFiles recommends:

  • Do not use a terrarium smaller than the minimum requirement for the species.
  • Add a generous number of ventilation holes, or choose a design with a mesh top.
  • Make accommodations for halogen heating and fluorescent UVB lighting as recommended for the species.
  • If the reptile may come in contact with the heat bulb, install a wire bulb cage.
  • Mimic wild conditions as much as possible with naturalistic substrate, appropriate hiding places, and décor/environmental enrichment.
  • Place on a flat surface.
Some people have expressed concern about VOC (volatile organic compound) out-gassing with PVC enclosures, as PVC as a general material is known to out-gas. However, most PVC reptile enclosures are made with closed-cell PVC foamboard, which is very different from traditional PVC. This material demonstrates excellent weather and heat resistance, and aside from being more durable, also out-gasses far less, if at all. Current evidence indicates that this material is perfectly safe for use with housing animals.

Grow Tents

vivosun grow tent reptile enclosure
Source: Vivosun

Grow tents are used for growing plants more effectively indoors, and are most well known these days for their use in indoor cannabis farming. However, some reptile hobbyists repurpose them as a reptile enclosure.

Pros

  • inexpensive
  • lightweight
  • retains heat and humidity well
  • can be modified to accommodate overhead heating and UVB
  • opaque walls
  • available up to 20’L x 10’W x 8’H

Cons

  • unattractive
  • very limited viewing
  • limited ventilation
  • susceptible to overheating
  • not escape-proof
  • not very durable
  • can be leaky
  • reflective inner lining may be bad for reptile eyes

With such a large variety of sizing options, with the right modifications, grow tents can make affordable and spacious enclosures for a small-, medium-, and large-sized terrestrial or arboreal reptiles. Due to concerns pertaining to escape, this style of enclosure is not recommended for snakes.

To mitigate the weaknesses of a grow tent enclosure and help optimize it for best reptile husbandry, ReptiFiles recommends:

  • Do not use a grow tent smaller than the minimum requirement for the species.
  • Set up a grow tent ventilation system, covering the openings tightly with mesh and duct tape to prevent escape.
  • Close off all potential escape routes.
  • Make accommodations for halogen heating and fluorescent UVB lighting as recommended for the species.
  • Test the heating system rigorously for overheating and proper temperature gradient before adding the reptile.
  • Paint the reflective inner walls with a non-toxic, matte paint of choice to reduce glare.
  • If the reptile may come in contact with the heat bulb, install a wire bulb cage.
  • Mimic wild conditions as much as possible with naturalistic substrate, appropriate hiding places, and décor/environmental enrichment.
  • Line the inner walls with a hard material (ex: bamboo or reed fencing) to prevent tearing.
  • Line the floor with a flame-resistant tarp and set up on a waterproof surface.
  • Replace front of tent with clear vinyl to be able to check on the reptile at a glance.

Screen Cages

DragonStrand chameleon enclosure
Source: Dragon Strand

Screen cages are vertically-oriented reptile enclosures that emphasize height, with mesh walls. This is an example of an enclosure that was developed to meet the unique needs of a specific group of reptiles, namely chameleons in this case. Chameleons require plenty of climbing room, a warm basking area, cool air, lots of water, and lots of ventilation in their husbandry.

Pros

  • inexpensive
  • extremely lightweight
  • easy access from the front
  • very well ventilated
  • facilitates overhead heating and lighting
  • escape-resistant

Cons

  • difficulty retaining heat or humidity
  • leaky
  • somewhat obstructs viewing
  • limited availability of sizes available commercially
  • can be difficult to disinfect

Although screen cages are most commonly used for chameleons, they are also well suited for housing other small- to medium-sized arboreal reptiles with similar needs.

To mitigate the weaknesses of a screen cage and optimize it for best reptile husbandry, ReptiFiles recommends:

  • Do not use a cage smaller than the minimum requirement for the species.
  • Make accommodations for halogen heating and fluorescent UVB lighting as recommended for the species.
  • Install a good hydration system such as automatic misters and foggers, preferably regulated by timers and a humidistat.
  • Set up an efficient drainage system for excess water.
  • Mimic wild conditions as much as possible with naturalistic substrate, appropriate hiding places, and décor/environmental enrichment.

Tortoise Tables

vivexotic uk tortoise table
Source: Internet Reptile

The tortoise table is a enclosure (typically made with wood) that emphasizes floor space, with low walls, no ceiling, and is often raised off the floor via legs like a dining table. This is another enclosure that was developed to meet the unique needs of a specific group of reptiles, as tortoises are very limited in their climbing ability and become agitated to the point of obsession when confronted with transparent barriers.

Pros

  • affordable
  • easy access
  • high ventilation
  • opaque walls
  • lots of available floor space
  • facilitates overhead heating and lighting

Cons

  • generally not commercially available in the US
  • does not retain heat or humidity well
  • can be difficult to disinfect
  • wood is flammable
  • may begin to rot in the presence of standing water or high humidity
  • attractiveness varies depending on design and type of wood

The ideal application of a tortoise table is to use it for housing small- to medium-sized tortoises and box turtles. However, depending on the size and height of the walls, they can potentially be used for any terrestrial reptile for which climbing is not a concern.

To mitigate the weaknesses of a tortoise table and help optimize it for best reptile husbandry, ReptiFiles recommends:

  • Do not use a table smaller than the minimum requirement for the species.
  • Seal the wood well with several coats of a VOC-free wood sealant.
  • Hang halogen heating and UVB lighting from the ceiling, zoo-style.
  • Make extra fire safety precautions.
  • Mimic wild conditions as much as is possible with naturalistic substrate, appropriate hiding places, and décor/environmental enrichment.
  • Take advantage of the DIY aspect to customize it perfectly to your reptile’s needs.

Furniture Conversions

curio cabinet reptile enclosure

Furniture conversions are reptile enclosures that have been made from human furniture such as entertainment centers, bookcases, and coffee tables.

Pros

  • very attractive
  • customizable

Cons

  • heavy
  • access can be difficult
  • size is limited by the furniture
  • limited ventilation
  • will rot in the presence of water if not sealed properly
  • can be difficult to disinfect

The ideal application of a furniture conversion is for small- to medium-sized reptiles that do not stress easily and don’t mind the extra noise and chaos that can come with being housed in a piece of furniture. It also tends to be a project best left to those who are fairly handy, as furniture conversions can be complex, frustrating, and are often more trouble than they are worth.

To mitigate the weaknesses of a furniture conversion-style enclosure and help optimize it for best reptile husbandry, ReptiFiles recommends:

  • Measure the dimensions carefully and do not use a space smaller than the minimum requirement for the species.
  • Seal the material well with several coats of VOC-free sealant.
  • Include generous ventilation holes or a mesh top in the design.
  • Make accommodations for halogen heating and fluorescent UVB lighting as recommended for the species.
  • Take extra fire safety precautions.
  • If the reptile may come in contact with the heat bulb, install a wire bulb cage.
  • Mimic wild conditions as much as possible with naturalistic substrate, appropriate hiding places, and décor/environmental enrichment.

What is the Best Reptile Enclosure?

Alright, now that we’ve been over 10 different types of reptile enclosure, it’s finally time for the moment everyone’s been waiting for: the hands-down BEST enclosure you can have for your reptile.

Ready?

The absolute best reptile enclosure is….

 

 

Whatever fits all 5 Provisions of Animal Welfare.

 

After “If You’re Not a Reptile Breeder, Then Stop Acting Like One!⁠” was published last week, there were many comments on the article from people who argued that there’s no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” approach to reptile housing. And I absolutely agree with them—it’s impossible! Reptiles are simply too diverse a group of animals.

However — while there is no one “perfect” type of reptile enclosure that will meet the needs of any reptile, reptiles have plenty in common, too. And as such there are some basic rules or standards that we need to keep in mind as we design their housing:

  • The 5 Provisions (as far as they can be applied to reptile housing):
    • Provide conditions that mimic the animal’s natural habitat as closely as possible.
    • Provide equipment that fosters excellent health (ex: good muscle tone and organ function).
    • Provide sufficient space and appropriate décor to encourage wild-like behaviors.
    • Provide opportunities for the reptile to feel secure and comfortable in its environment.
  • Ectothermy. Reptiles are ectotherms (aka “cold-blooded”). They require an external source of heat and a specific range of temperatures for healthy metabolism and function. Because they cannot internally regulate their body temperature, their environment must also offer a wide gradient of hot, warm, and cool temperatures for external regulation according to the animal’s needs.
  • Halogen heating. Halogen heat bulbs are the best technology we have for replicating the Sun’s heat. No other popular reptile heating method has proven to be as effective in providing strong infrared energy to reptile tissues, as it supplies lots of the beneficial Infrared-A and -B wavelengths, and helps create Infrared-C. Among the many benefits of IRA and IRB for reptiles is the facilitation of metabolic reactions and tissue healing.
  • High-quality, appropriate UVB lighting. As far as experts have been able to tell, ALL reptiles benefit from exposure to UVA and UVB wavelengths and regularly utilize it in the wild. Although most people associate UVB with vitamin D synthesis and MBD prevention in reptiles, the benefits go far beyond that: strengthening and disinfecting skin, modulating immune response in the skin, and stimulating beta endorphin production—to name a few.  
  • Water. Like all life on this planet, reptiles are inextricably dependent on water, from the most arid desert species that get most of their water from food, to the ones that spend most of their lives swimming in it. In animal physiology, water plays many roles, including transporting nutrients and hormones, facilitating metabolic reactions, and promoting healthy digestion.

That being said, some enclosures do make it easier to meet these standards than others, as some require significant modification while others require fairly little. If I have to pick just one style of enclosure to hold up as the “default standard” of good reptile husbandry (and that’s the whole purpose of this article, right?), I’d have to say that the best all-around reptile enclosure is the terrarium, due to a long list of benefits, a short list of drawbacks, and excellent versatility.

Do Certain Types of Reptile Enclosures Work Better with Certain Species?

The answer is a limited yes—certain types of reptile enclosures are definitely better suited for some species over others. Turtles and tortoises are the best examples here, as they have such a specialized set of needs that only one type of indoor enclosure will really work for them; an aquarium for aquatic turtles, and a tortoise table for tortoises and box turtles.

But snakes and lizards can be happily housed in a variety of different types of enclosures, as long as the enclosure fully meets the individual species’ specific husbandry requirements.

Another common theme that I noticed after publishing Paul Barclay’s article last week was this argument: “Yeah, generally I’m not a fan of racks and tubs. But you’ve got to admit that racks provide optimal housing for other species, like ball pythons.”

Ah, yes….the old ball python argument.

Ball pythons are the poster child for justifying rack and tub housing. Because they’re one of the most commonly kept species in the US reptile industry, and are at the center of the American morph breeding hobby, there is a lot of folklore, pseudoscience, and general misinformation surrounding their husbandry. The most popular ball python groups on Facebook are positively fanatical about the way they enforce their misinformed approach to husbandry.

Common myths about ball python care include the following:

  • Any kind of light in their enclosure is intensely stressful and hurts their eyes.
  • They don’t benefit from UVB.
  • Large enclosures stress them out.
  • Wild ball pythons live in termite mounds and almost never emerge from their burrows.
  • They’re clumsy climbers and shouldn’t be given any kind of climbing object because they’ll fall and hurt themselves.
  • They need to eat every 7-14 days.
  • Fasting is unnatural and a bad sign.

I could devote an entire separate article to explaining why these statements are myths, not facts. Fortunately, Francis Cosquieri has already done that for me in his paper, “Dispelling Python regius Myths.” There’s a link at the end of this article and I highly recommend giving it a read.

Meanwhile, here’s some actual facts about ball pythons:

  • Light is important to helping to regulate the day/night cycle and associated hormonal rhythms.
  • They do benefit from UVB.
  • Large enclosures, properly set up, facilitate better physical health and do not stress them out.
  • Wild ball pythons live in a variety of places, and while they like using animal burrows as their home base, they regularly leave those burrows to find food and mates.
  • They regularly climb in the wild, particularly males, and if a ball python seems clumsy in captivity, it’s because it needs more opportunities to climb and exercise to develop its muscles.
  • Eating frequently is very bad for their health—ball pythons’ bodies are specifically adapted to get meals only rarely, and adult ball pythons should be fed roughly once every 4-8 weeks.
  • Fasting is a perfectly natural behavior and is healthy as long as it is not accompanied by real symptoms of ill health, like significant weight loss.

To summarize: racks and tubs do not, in fact, provide “optimal” housing for ball pythons, and would require modification beyond recognition to become so.

Conclusion

While some types of reptile enclosures are certainly better than others, ultimately the enclosure itself does not define good husbandry; it’s how you use it. Also, remember: excellent reptile husbandry is an individual journey—the most important thing is that you never stop striving for better.

ball python reptile terrarium

References

2 Comments

  1. Good point! According to infrared research by Roman Muryn (I highly recommend reading his article, “Next level heating: Why infrared wavelengths matter” if you ever get a chance) as well as research by Dr. Frances Baines, halogen heat bulbs actually mimic the sun better than the Deep Heat Projector because aside from also providing Infrared-A and -B wavelengths, halogen bulbs also provide visible light and a small amount of UVA. The DHP only offers Infrared-A, -B, and -C. It’s a great product, but really it’s just an upgraded ceramic heat emitter. If you want high-quality daytime heating, halogen is the way to go.

  2. You mentioned that halogen lights replicate the wild the most out of all of the light options, but what about the Arcadia deep heat projector? They specifically made it to replicate the infrared rays the sun produces. I recommend you check it out and possibly try it out. I also would like to mention that I really like this article and am looking forward to more in the future.

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