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You are here: myPetSmart.com > Care Guides > Reptile Habitat Setup Guide

Reptile Habitat Setup Guide

reptile habitat guide

Reptile Habitat Set Up Guide

Did you know? Reptiles are ectothermic, meaning they depend on heat from their environment to warm themselves. Heat is essential for many health reasons including appetite stimulation and digestion of food. Reptile terrariums are designed with a cool side and a warm side to allow pets to regulate their body temperatures. Without a proper habitat set-up, serious side effects, including potential death of your pet may occur.

Step 1Habitat Types

There are four basic types of reptile habitats: desert, temperate, tropical and semi-aquatic. The
categories are based on average temperature and humidity levels in the natural environment.

For example, desert animals generally are from very warm and dry climates, where as tropical
animals originate from areas with more moderate temperatures and more humid environments.

The chart below identifies the basic differences between the habitat types. For specific details
on a given pet, review the Care Guide specific to that pet.


65-85° F 

(18-29° C)

90-110° F

(32-43° C)


65-85° F

(18-29° C)

90-100° F

(32-38° C)


70-85° F

(21-29° C)

85-95° F

(29-35° C)


60-75° F

(16-24° C)

80-95° F

(27-35° C)



Some tropical pets may also be defined as arboreal indicating that they are avid climbers and benefit from taller enclosures with adequate climbing space.

Home environments are recreated by the use of heat elements, specific lighting, substrates, decor and terrarium shape. Heating and lighting are discussed in more detail in the Heating and
Lighting Guide.

Step 2Habitat Basics

• Terrariums should only be placed on surfaces that are stable enough to support the weight of completed terrariums. Specially made stands are reinforced to support this weight.

• Terrariums should be placed out of direct sunlight and in a low-traffic area, free of large temperature variations and drafts.

• Electrical outlets should be easily accessible for plugging in lighting and heating elements.

• Terrariums should never be placed in kitchens, or other areas where food and drinks are prepared, to prevent cross contamination.

Step 3Terrarium Types

Shape and Size
• There are two common habitat shapes, long and tall. As a general rule, land-dwelling reptiles benefit from a longer terrarium which provides greater land surface area where as reptiles that like to climb (also known as arboreal reptiles) benefit from taller enclosures.

• It is important that pets be provided with a habitat large enough to support their size. Since many reptiles grow quickly, it is often best to purchase a habitat with their adult size in mind.

Terrarium Features
• Habitats may open from the top (usually with a sliding, screened lid) or from the front (glass doors). Front-opening doors allow for easy access and maintenance of the habitat, although for animals that are quick and escape easily, the front opening doors may not be the best choice.

Terrarium Kits
• Habitats may be purchased individually or as part of a kit. For habitats that are purchased individually, lighting and heating elements will need to be purchased separately.

Substrate and Decor

While substrate and decor provide interesting detail to the habitat they are also essential to the care of your pet.

• Substrate materials help anchor habitat decor, allow animals to burrow and help to collect waste. They also provide a more natural environment for your pet and function to help control the humidity levels within a habitat.

• Common substrates include: calcium sand for desert habitats; coconut fiber/bark for tropical
habitats, and aspen for temperate habitats.

• Many reptiles need to be able to regulate the amount of heat and light provided to them and
benefit from hiding areas and branches to shield them. Hiding areas should be placed on the cool
side of the habitat.

• Basking areas are the hottest point in the habitat and are created by the use of heat lamps as
well as decor to elevate your pet closer to the heat source.

• Habitats can be furnished with either live (ensure plants are safe for your pet) or artificial plants.

• Water bowls and soaking dishes help maintain humidity levels within the habitat and are critical in preventing dehydration in your pet.

• Food bowls for reptiles that eat worms, vegetables or fruit help keep the food contained and help prevent accidental ingestion of the substrate by your pet.