Imagine you’re at a reptile expo for the first time, or maybe your kid dragged you to the pet store because they’ve been bugging you for a pet and you finally caved. As you shop, you second-guess yourself, remembering that you literally have no idea how to care for this kind of animal. Then it does something cute, or the kid tugs on your sleeve, reminding you that, “You promised!” And then the friendly voice of the sales associate reaches your ear — “We sell starter kits for (insert the name of an animal you’ve never heard of before today) over there for a great deal.”
Starter kit? Great deal? Done!
Depending on the contents of the kit, you might grab some reptile food and an accessory or two. Then you bring the animal home and set up the starter kit. That was easy, wasn’t it?
A month to a year later, your new pet is either sick or dead. What went wrong?
The scenario I just described is played out at reptile expos and in pet stores across the globe. Reptile kits hold the promise of hassle (aka research)-free exotic pet care, but they are too inadequate or even dangerous to live up to their claims. Even when new reptile owners do perform their own research outside of the included “care manual,” they end up spending a lot more to correct the problems caused by the very kit that was designed to save money and make their lives easier.
This article discusses top-selling commercial kits for 4 popular pet reptiles, including representation from each of the top reptile supply manufacturers: Zoo Med, Zilla, and Exo Terra.
Pricing info is primarily sourced from Amazon, and information about the kits’ contents is sourced from the manufacturers’ websites.
Before we proceed, let me clarify: There is no hate intended toward the manufacturers of these products. Each manufacturer offers other products that I actually quite like and recommend as among the top performers in their class. This article is only a critique of existing reptile kits.
Zoo Med Reptihabitat Adult Bearded Dragon Kit, $200
This is a very popular product for a very popular pet. I see first-time bearded dragon owners buying these all the time on the forums.
This kit includes:
- 36”x18”x18” glass aquarium with sliding screen top
- ReptiSand substrate
- Combo Repti Rock Food and water dishes
- Dual analog thermometer and humidity gauge
- ReptiSun 10.0 compact fluorescent
- Repti Basking Spot lamp, 100w
- Combo deep dome dual lamp fixture
- Bearded dragon care booklet
- Bearded dragon food sampler
- The tank is too small. The minimum recommended enclosure size for bearded dragon is at least 4’x2’x2′, or 120 gallons. Even a juvenile bearded dragon is likely to outgrow this enclosure by the time it’s one year old.
- The sand is fine. Natural sand is perfectly safe for use with a healthy bearded dragon — after all, their natural “substrate” in Central Australia is more or less a thick layer of just sand. For best results, you will need at least 4″ of this sand to allow for natural burrowing behavior.
- No objections to the food and water dishes; it’s actually pretty hard to do this bit wrong.
- Analog thermometers and humidity gauges are notoriously inaccurate.
- Compact fluorescent UVB bulbs have weak UVB output and have a narrow range of influence. A bearded dragon simply can’t get the UVB they need from a compact UVB.
- The Repti Basking Spot Lamp is alright. Some complain that these bulbs don’t very long, but that’s usually because they’re not being used correctly. However it’s true that these bulbs are very sensitive, so you may be happier with a halogen flood bulb from the hardware store.
- The deep dome dual lamp fixture is actually pretty great. It’s wasted on the compact UVB, but if you add another heat bulb, you get a nice large basking spot that enables your bearded dragon to warm its entire body at once.
- The care booklet is a good precaution because most people who buy these kits don’t do a lot (if any) research beforehand. It’s not the best info, but it’s a whole lot better than nothing.
- Commercial pellets tend to dehydrate reptiles, and since bearded dragons are already notoriously chronically dehydrated, this can be a problem. The instructions say to moisten the pellets, but a lot of people don’t read directions. The diets themselves are alright, but should not replace fresh vegetables and live insects.
Finally, this kit does not include a hide, basking platform, or other enrichment items necessary to a bearded dragons’ mental health and wellbeing.
How do we fix it?
- Replace the tank with a 4’x2’x2′ terrarium, preferably front-opening ($330).
- Keep the ReptiSand. You will need at least 3 more bags, though ($40).
- Keep the food and water dishes.
- Replace the analog gauge with a temp gun ($15).
- Replace compact fluorescent with a Reptisun 10.0 T5 HO 24” bulb ($30) and fixture ($60).
- Keep the spot lamp bulb, buy one more ($15), and grab a surge protector while you’re at it ($20).
- Keep the dual dome fixture.
- Read the care booklet, and then read through ReptiFiles’ bearded dragon care guide to double-check the info.
- Toss the pellets and replace with live insects and fresh dark leafy greens. Will also need calcium and multivitamin supplements to compensate ($20).
Finally, purchase the missing enrichment items:
- Hide ($10-20)
- Flagstones to create a raised basking platform ($10)
- Other accessories — hammock, logs, etc. ($40)
Boom, that $200 kit actually cost you ~$800. You wasted about $165, and then had to spend $635 more to actually provide acceptable husbandry for a bearded dragon. Contrary to popular belief, reptiles aren’t cheap pets, and bearded dragons are far from cheap.
Exo Terra Snake Starter Kit, $185
According to Exo Terra, this kit is recommended for use with corn snakes, milksnakes, kingsnakes, and ball pythons. We will be evaluating it as a corn snake kit, because corn snakes are one of the most common snakes on the market, and it wouldn’t be fair to do a ball python kit. (Long story short — no kit on the market comes close to adequate for a ball python.)
This kit includes:
- 24”x18”x12” front-opening glass terrarium
- Heat mat
- Reptile dome lamp
- Light bracket
- Reptile UVB100 compact fluorescent bulb
- Moss mat substrate (UK version uses Exo Terra snake bedding)
- Medium water dish
- Large reptile cave
- Informative care guide
- The terrarium will eventually need to be replaced. It will work well enough for a juvenile corn snakes, but it won’t be big enough for an adult. The nice thing about Exo Terra’s enclosures, though, is that they don’t need additional lid clamps for security.
- The heat mat is fine. It covers 1/3 of the terrarium’s base, so it’s fine for creating the necessary temperature gradient. However, there’s no thermostat, which means that any snake housed in this kit is in danger of getting severely burned. There is also no way of determining temperature or humidity (less important for corn snakes) in the enclosure.
- The dome lamp isn’t ideal. Generally speaking, coil bulbs perform best when placed laterally rather than vertically.
- The light bracket is fine. This is a good idea when you need to control the amount of UVB a reptile is receiving by adjusting the distance between the UVB bulb and the reptile. However, this should only be done with the assistance of a Solarmeter 6.5.
- The UVB bulb is a good idea with poor execution. And UVB is known to be beneficial for all reptiles, including crepuscular and nocturnal snakes. However, Exo Terra UVB bulbs are notoriously unreliable when used without a Solarmeter 6.5 to measure output. Furthermore, the Exo Terra UVB100 is a compact coil bulb, which means that it’s output is likely to be extra weak, and practically of no benefit at all considering that a significant portion of the UVB it does produce will get filtered out by the terrarium’s mesh top.
- The moss mat substrate is difficult to keep clean, making it a breeding ground for bacteria. It’s also lousy at holding any kind of humidity. The UK version of this kit is slightly better because it provides a loose aspen bedding, which allows a way for a corn snake to satisfy burrowing instincts. However, aspen may still be too dry for use in dry climates.
- The water dish is good, although depending on the size of the snake I would potentially make it larger to allow for soaking.
- The large reptile cave makes a good hide, although it may be too large for young or particularly small snakes to use it comfortably.
- Care guides are always good (except for when they’re not). It’s odd that Exo Terra provides a care guide for their generalized snake kit, but not the crested gecko kit.
How do we fix it?
- If the customer buys a juvenile corn snake or ball python, or a small species of kingsnake, the terrarium will be fine (for now). Eventually it will need to be replaced with something larger.
- Add a thermostat for the heat mat ($30).
- Replace the dome lamp with a 24″ Zoo Med T8 Reptisun fixture ($50).
- Toss the light bracket.
- Replace the compact UVB bulb with an 18″ Zoo Med T8 Reptisun 5.0 ($20).
- Replace the moss mat with aspen snake bedding or coconut fiber ($10).
- Keep the water dish.
- Keep the reptile cave.
- Keep the care guide, and read ReptiFiles’ corn snake care guide for more information.
I would advise adding another hide for the cool side ($10), some artificial foliage ($10-$20) and then at least one climbing branch (free if found outside and not made of pine/fir/cedar).
Instead of $185, you end up spending ~$315, a $130 difference. Overall, Exo Terra’s snake kit is reasonably suitable for housing a young corn snake, and frankly speaking, it could be a lot worse.
However, keep in mind that due to this kit’s tiny size, you will need to upgrade to a larger enclosure (at least 75 gallons, preferably 120) in the future, and that will require purchasing a lot of new equipment to go with it. To save money, it’s a smarter investment to simply set up an enclosure appropriate for an adult corn snake from the get-go.
Zoo Med 40 Gallon ReptiHabitat Tortoise Kit, $190
Like the snake kit, this kit is not recommended for a particular tortoise species. So we’re going to assume that the tortoise in question is a Russian tortoise, one of the most common tortoises found in pet stores.
This kit includes:
- 40 gallon glass aquarium with sliding screen top
- ReptiSun 10.0 UVB bulb 36”
- ReptiSun 36” terrarium hood
- Nocturnal infrared heat lamp
- Forest Floor bedding
- Dual analog thermometer and humidity gauge
- Natural grassland tortoise food
- Tortoise block
- Repti calcium without D3
- ReptiSafe water conditioner
- Reptivite with D3
- Guide to Tortoise Care Booklet
- Glass enclosures aren’t suitable housing for tortoises because invisible barriers stress them out and they won’t stop pacing. The size will work short-term for a young, small Russian tortoise, but 40 gallons is generally considered too small for an adult.
- Zoo Med’s Reptisun 10.0 UVB fluorescent tube is considered one of the best on the market.
- Good hood, too. Nothing wrong here.
- A night lamp is not necessary, and since tortoises are diurnal, a night light may disrupt sleep patterns.
- Forest Floor bedding is also known as cypress mulch, a good choice for Russian tortoises.
- Analog thermometers and humidity gauges are unreliable and inaccurate.
- Tortoises need a low-protein, high-fiber diet, and this food meets that requirement. Looking at the ingredients list, this is actually pretty decent tortoise food. It just needs to be moistened and supplemented with fresh vegetables.
- Tortoise blocks are good for preventing beak overgrowth, a common problem seen in pet tortoises. They also provide extra vitamins and minerals.
- Zoo Med Repti Calcium without D3 is a good supplement. It isn’t required for use with the pellets, but it is needed for occasional use with fresh greens.
- Reptisafe water conditioner is debatably beneficial, and possibly harmful.
- Reptivite with D3 is also a decent supplement, but it shouldn’t be used with the pelleted diet.
- Tortoise care varies slightly by species, so it’s not going to be completely accurate, but it’s still better than nothing.
This is definitely one of the better kits on the market. That being said, it’s still missing essential items like a hide, food dish, a large water dish for soaking, and enrichment items.
How do we fix it?
- Assuming this is for a juvenile Russian tortoise straight from the expo or pet store, the size of the tank should be fine — for now. Fix the invisible barrier problem by blacking out 3 sizes of the glass, as well as the first 4 inches from the bottom of the front panel.
- Keep the UVB bulb.
- Keep the fluorescent hood.
- Toss the night light.
- Keep the Forest Floor bedding.
- Replace the analog gauges with a digital probe thermometer and hygrometer combo device ($15).
- Keep the pellets. However, the main diet should come from fresh greens.
- Keep the tortoise block.
- Keep the calcium powder.
- Toss the water conditioner.
- Keep the multivitamin powder.
- Read the care booklet, then supplement what you learn from that with additional research specifically about Russian tortoises (or whatever species you’re using the kit with).
This kit only needs a few more things to make it perfect:
- Cave/hide large enough to accommodate the tortoise ($20)
- Food dish ($5)
- Large ramp-style water dish for soaking ($20)
- Misc décor for environmental enrichment ($40)
This $190 investment requires ~$95 worth of additional supplies ($265 total), but little is thrown out. (Unless you consider the aquarium to be a waste, which would need to be replaced by a larger tortoise table as soon as possible.) Still, this is definitely closer to what a commercial reptile kit should be.
Zilla Premium Aquatic Turtle Habitat Kit (40 Gallons), $218
In case you want to accuse me of using lesser-quality products to make my point, I decided to use Zilla’s “premium” turtle kit rather than the deluxe version. The most common aquatic turtle sold in pet stores is the red-eared slider, so that will be our benchmark here.
This kit includes:
- Chamfered front topless aquarium
- Mini heat and UVB light fixture
- Mini halogen bulb
- Mini compact fluorescent UVB bulb
- Light rail
- Basking platform filter
- Aquatic turtle food
- Reptile water conditioner
- Turtle Tank setup guide
- The 40 gallon tank can barely accommodate a juvenile red-eared slider. These are very active animals that can grow quite large (up to 12” shell length) and need lots of room to swim — the general rule is 10 gallons of water per inch of shell. The chamfered design is pretty, though.
- The mini heat and UVB light fixture is suitable for the bulbs included.
- The mini halogen bulb is likely too small. It may provide enough warmth for a basking spot, but it’s likely too small to create a large enough basking area for even a 4″ turtle.
- The mini compact fluorescent UVB bulb is too small for the enclosure. UVB shoud be available across at least half the length of the aquarium because UVB can penetrate water, and the turtle will still be able to enjoy benefits as it swims. Furthermore, Zilla brand UVB bulbs are notoriously weak and unreliable, potentially causing your turtle to develop MBD if you use this product.
- Admittedly, the light rail is a cool concept.
- The basking platform filter is likely too weak to be useful. The design is a cool idea, and quite attractive, but given that extremely powerful external canister filters are standard use among aquatic turtle owners, it’s most likely not powerful enough to handle the incredible messes that a turtle can make.
- Zilla’s aquatic turtle pellets are not recommended by leading aquatic turtle experts. Turtle pellets are an important part of a captive turtle’s diet — just not these pellets.
- Zilla’s water conditioner is probably better than nothing. It’s not recommended by experts for use with aquatic turtles, as there are better options out there.
- The turtle tank setup guide is nice to have, but likely insufficient.
I’m very concerned that there is no water heater on this list, as red-eared sliders need a water temperature between 75-85°F, which is generally higher than room temperature. Cold water can lead to health problems like respiratory infections.
How do we fix it?
- Replace the aquarium with a 100 gallon tank. Although the aquarium can arguably be used short-term for a young, 4″ turtle, the chamfered design actually makes the changes that need to be made to this setup impossible. So, unfortunately, the pretty tank needs to go. And if we’re replacing the tank, we may as well buy something that will likely be suitable for an average adult red-eared slider. Although there are less expensive, arguably less attractive options, if you’re stuck on the indoor aquarium idea, expect to pay about $900 for a 100 gallon tank. This figure does not include a mesh top for the lamps, which you will likely have to build yourself.
- Replace the light fixture with a large, 8.5″ ceramic-socket dome lamp. ($15)
- Replace the mini halogen with a ~90w PAR38 halogen flood heat bulb that can create a larger basking spot and work with the additional distance ($15).
- Replace the compact fluorescent UVB with a Zoo Med tube UVB. For a 100 gallon tank covered by mesh, a 34-36″ Zoo Med T5 HO 10.0 bulb ($25) and fixture ($50) will likely do the trick.
- Toss the light rail along with the tank. As cool as it is, it won’t work with the new tank.
- Replace the filter with something that will actually be able to handle the turtle’s muck — and the extra water volume. You’ll be looking at some of the most powerful filters on the market to meet this requirement, as a turtle filter needs to be able to handle at least 2-3x the amount of water in the tank. Expect to pay at least $250.
- Replace the Zilla turtle pellets with Omega One, Tetra ReptoMin, Zoo Med Natural, or Mazuri ($15). Note that fresh food should be the majority of an aquatic turtle’s diet.
- Replace the water conditioner with API or Seachem Prime ($10). You may also want a freshwater test kit.
- Toss the setup guide. We have tossed or replaced every single component of this enclosure, so there’s no point in keeping it. Instead, do your own research on aquatic turtle care from high-quality sources.
And that’s just the bare minimum! Add the following for the turtle’s physical and mental health:
- Add a water heater rated for about 100 gallons of water ($50).
- Install a (non-glass) thermometer for checking water temps ($5), and then buy a temp gun for monitoring the basking spot ($15).
- Add some live plants for the turtle to hide in and graze on ($40).
Your pretty $218 kit has turned into a ~$1,605 nightmare! It’s one thing to ante up that kind of money when you’ve prepared for it, but it’s quite another when you’ve bought a kit and then get blindsided by a hundred experienced turtle owners telling you that the whole thing needs to be replaced.
Zilla Desert Reptile Starter Kit 10 with Light and Heat, $66
I’m aware that I’ve ranted for long enough — you probably get the point by now. I wasn’t even going to include this kit for the sake of brevity, but then a reptile rescuer friend of mine posted a picture of two bearded dragons housed in this exact same kit. They both had developed MBD that had been caused because their owner didn’t do any research and relied on the kit instead.
*Heavy sigh* If you thought the Zoo Med bearded dragon kit was bad, spoiler alert: the Zilla Desert Reptile Starter Kit 10 is a terrible choice for any desert reptile. Although the name of this product does not specify an intended species, there is a picture of a leopard gecko on the package, and so we’ll use that as our reference.
This kit includes:
- 10 gallon glass aquarium with screen lid
- 2 reflective dome light fixtures
- White spot bulb
- Night black incandescent bulb
- Analog temperature/humidity gauge
- Brown terrarium liner
- Setup guide
This kit also comes with a nicely visible disclaimer: “Does not include UVB lighting which may be required for some desert-dwelling reptiles.”
- A 10 gallon tank is much too small for an adult leopard gecko, which require at least a 40 gallon for adequate housing. But if we grit our teeth and assume that this is for a juvenile leopard gecko less than 12 months old, it might work as temporary housing.
- The “dome” light fixtures are adequate. They’re not even domes — more like trumpets?
- The white spot bulb might work as a heat source, depending on how hot it gets. Leopard geckos need basking surface temperatures of 94-97°F.
- The night black incandescent bulb is unnecessary. Unless your room gets colder than 60°F at night, nighttime heating is overkill and potentially even harmful.
- Analog temperature and humidity gauges are notoriously inaccurate. This is basically useless.
- The terrarium liner/carpet is not great, considering that sand and/or soil mixes are affordable, perfectly safe, and more natural substrates for leopard geckos. Plus, delicate gecko claws can catch on the fibers, and reptile carpet tends to become a nasty breeding ground for harmful bacteria.
- The setup guide is likely as vague as the kit’s intention, but hey, at least Zilla’s giving their customers some kind of direction…?
In the end, this kit might work for meeting a leopard gecko’s needs in the short term, but there are some serious changes that need to be made to render this thing anywhere close to functional.
How do we fix it?
- Keep the aquarium and screen lid — for now. It will need to be upgraded to at least a 40 gallon breeder after the gecko turns 12 months old or gains its adult pattern.
- Keep the lamp “domes”. Although leopard geckos technically don’t “need” UVB to stay alive, they do need it to thrive. So add a 26w Zoo Med Compact Fluorescent Reptisun 5.0 UVB bulb ($25). If it doesn’t fit the fixture, you will need a new fixture, too.
- Keep the white spot bulb, and check the temperature of the basking spot. You will need a higher wattage bulb if the basking temperature is too warm, and a lamp dimmer if the basking temperature is too cool.
- Toss the night black incandescent bulb. Even if your room gets cooler than 60°F at night, you will need a lightless heat source like a ceramic heat emitter or deep heat projector, not a colored heat bulb.
- Replace the temperature/humidity gauge with a digital probe thermometer/hygrometer ($15).
- Replace the terrarium liner with paper towel ($5). I don’t usually condone paper towel substrates, but they can be useful for monitoring health in juvenile reptiles.
- Toss the setup guide and read ReptiFiles’ leopard gecko care guide instead.
Bare minimum, this kit requires the following additional purchases to make it suitable for a leopard gecko:
- 2 small hides ($10)
- Food dish and water bowl ($10)
- Calcium powder with low vitamin D3 ($10)
- Multivitamin powder ($10)
Additional decor is recommended, if you can make it fit in such a tiny space.
At the end of the day, a “super cheap” $66 leopard gecko kit becomes a ~$150 expense. While $150 isn’t horrible, consider that this is what is required to get this enclosure up to barely adequate standards, and that $150 will be essentially wasted when you have to replace most of this stuff to upgrade the gecko to an adequate adult enclosure.
If these kits are so bad, why do pet stores sell them?
For much the same reason why I started ReptiFiles. Most people don’t want to go through the trouble of researching a pet before buying it. By putting everything a customer needs in one place, both the pet store and the manufacturer profit.
Why are these kits so bad in the first place?
Brand-named kits are limited in the products that they can use because they must stay under the umbrella of their own brand, which isn’t always a good thing. No one brand excels in every category.
Why, then, would they use lower-quality items, even when that brand offers high-quality products in their catalog? I imagine that getting under a certain price point is likely a huge motivator. What are you more likely to buy on impulse — a compact $200 kit or an overflowing $500 behemoth?
All of these kits were found severely lacking in the area of enrichment items. I imagine that this is an effort on the manufacturer’s part to respect buyer’s personal taste in terrarium décor. It also significantly lowers the overall cost of the kit, as decor items can (in some ways) be the most expensive part of setting up a reptile enclosure. However I feel that this accidentally communicates to first-time reptile owners that their new pet doesn’t need those accessories. Also it’s worth considering that all of these kits are designed to fit conveniently inside the included enclosure.
Are reptile kits a bad idea?
No, actually they’re a great idea. Not everyone has the time/understanding/interest in learning everything there is to know about their reptile of choice. Kits can be an excellent safeguard to make sure that reptiles purchased by less-than-knowledgeable new owners will still receive adequate care.
As we have seen demonstrated 5 times over, limiting the items in a reptile kit to a single brand restricts the quality of care that can be offered. So I think kit-making is a task best left to small, independent pet shops with access to a variety of products across all brands.
Look for ReptiFiles-approved custom reptile kits, coming soon!
If you found this post helpful, don’t forget to share it with your friends!