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Herpetoculture has progressed significantly in the last 15 years. This is mainly due to an increase in available species within the hobby which has increased our active participant numbers. The knock on effect of a growing industry is that companies spend more time and money researching and retailing equipment that is far superior to the equipment used even a decade ago.

Unfortunately with all the new equipment available, it is all to easy to forget our roots and really improve on our skills as we progress through the hobby.


As a start to this article I thought it would be nice to clarify exactly what a vivarium is. While the word itself is very common it isn't always known exactly what it is. There are 3 main types of contained animal enclosures, these are listed below with a simple explanation as to what each one is for:

  • Aquarium: This is an enclosure purely for water born life with no land area provided.
  • Terrarium: This enclosure is the opposite of the above with no water area provided.
  • Vivarium: This enclosure covers both the above providing both an aquatic environment as well as a land based environment.

From the above you can see that while in the UK the word vivarium is often used when describing our enclosures this is actually incorrect. What we generally use are terrariums. However, to avoid confusion, I will be referring to the typical caging systems as enclosures throughout the course of this article.

While for many experienced keepers the act of setting up an enclosure for a new acquisition has become a matter of habit with little to no new thought going into the process. It should be noted that this is one of the areas we as keepers (new and old) should be looking towards with great interest.

At first glance we can run through a basic set up in a few lines, as follows:

  • Set the right hot spot – place the heat source with the thermostat cable and and adjust the dial to the required temperature.
  • Create a heat gradient – place the heat source at one end of the enclosure.
  • Ensure the snake has comfort – place two hides in the enclosure, one at each end.
  • Create the right humidity – either place the water bowl on the heat source and or provide a damp hide box.
  • Create light cycle – If needed, add lighting to enclosure to fulfil any U.V. Requirements. Ensure no light is on for more than a 12hr period.

That short paragraph pretty much sums up setting up a snakes basic enclosure no matter what the species or the size of the animal.

This article will cover the basics and look deeper into all the aspects of the enclosure including substrates, lighting, enclosure materials, décor and ways to change different aspects to cater for the more specific needs of the whole range of species.

A logical place to start would be enclosure materials. Each different material has it's own set of pro's and cons, it is up to you as a keeper to decide which is the best material for the species you are looking to keep.

Material

Glass

Wood

Description

Once the most common material used throughout the hobby this has given way to other materials over the last few years.
The main reasons this material were popular include the fact that with very little alteration work a fish tank can be modified to create an enclosure structure and they were readily available in a wide range of sizes and shapes. Due to the very nature of the usual requirements for these tanks, as long as the lid of the enclosure is secured properly it is also superb for retaining humidity.

Unfortunately glass is a very temperamental material and as such if heated rapidly from a cool state is prone to cracking. This is down to the brittle nature of glass, another problem using it as a enclosure as once a side has broken the entire unit often needs to be replaced. Glass is also a very poor medium for retaining heat and as such it can be difficult to obtain a sufficient heat gradient. There is also the problem that while it is completely water proof it does not allow for a good rate of air exchange so the air inside the enclosure can quickly become stale and a perfect breeding ground for mould when a tropical species requiring high humidity is using the enclosure.

This material has become the weapon of choice for the majority of hobbiests and professionals throughout the world.
While you can buy many “off the shelf” wooden enclosures in a whole range of sizes you can also build your own with minimal time and skills. The most common form of wooden enclosure available are those created using melamine faced chipboard. The melamine facing on the board provides a water resistant material that requires no painting or treating and is widely available in a range of colours. This simply leaves the edges and joints to be sealed.
Other forms include ply wood or simple timber. Both of these forms need to be sealed with a non-toxic varnish or sealant to ensure that the wood does not rot. When looking for a sealant it is best to look for something safe to use in an aquatic environment so yacht varnish is popular. A more hard wearing alternative is also available in the form of water based polyurethane resins.

While wooden enclosures are very popular and easily acquired they too have several downfalls. The main problems associated with this material are rotting and weight. Despite our best efforts wooden enclosures often have a limited shelf life as the sealants degrade and water gains access to the wood causing rotting. This means that in a matter of time from as little as 6 months up to 3 or 4 years the enclosure will usually need replacing. The weight of the material is also a problem. A 4x2x2 foot enclosure constructed out of 12mm wood has a considerable weight that has to be considered when placing and moving the unit.

Suitable species

Temperate animals requiring little to no supplemental heat. It would also be beneficial to choose animals that require only low humidity in order to reduce mould growth.

Due to the nature of this material almost every land based reptile can be suitably housed in a enclosure made from wood.

Material

Plastics

Metal

Description

A relative newcomer to the scene, plastic enclosures are proving to be gaining in popularity.
These units are usually formed specifically for reptiles using injection moulding techniques. They are much thinner than wooden enclosures needing less than half the thickness to produce a stable unit. This means that they are usually the lightest form of enclosure available on the market. As plastic is completely waterproof they are also great for tropical species and as vents are usually incorporated into the design allowing constant airflow mould does not grow so easily. This also means that they do not rot and are usually bought to last.

They do however suffer from two very significant problems, warping and cost. As plastic has a low melting point they become more susceptible to warping after prolonged use with serious examples so badly warped that doors no longer fit. Cost is also a major issue. The injection moulding process itself is expensive with moulds costing many thousands, this is then passed on to the customer.

In the form of mesh, this is often the material of choice for those who keep native animals or those that are able to cope safely with the weather system in that area.
Although hard for many keepers from the UK to accept, this material is perfectly acceptable as long as certain rules are applied. One of these is that only plastic coated wire mesh should be used as this isn't as harsh on the scales as bare metal, the other main one is that all sharp edges must be secured away or removed for the safety of the animal.

Suitable species

The species most suited to this material enclosure would include those animals requiring a higher humidity and lower temperature.

Due to the inability to hold heat or humidity this material is only suitable for native species or those from a similar climate.

 

Once we have chosen the best material and acquired the enclosure for our snake then we need to look at the natural environment in which the animal resides. This can give us clues on which substrate types we need to look at.

In the hobby today we are not short of differing substrate types with many of the major companies distributing various products designed to best suit the different habitats found around the world.

There are three main types of habitat to consider:

Type

Description

Desert.

Reptiles from this type of area typically prefer a completely dry substrate. Substrates such as sand or smaller crushed corn kernels are available. There is a concern however, within certain groups throughout the hobby, that these may promote a higher chance of impaction when feeding takes place within the enclosure. If you are concerned about this then a more neutral substrate such as newspaper could be used. If you have a light coloured snake or worry about the ink causing the snake damage then you could look towards kitchen or other thin paper as a substrate. The paper used to wrap fish and chips in the UK can be bought either directly from the restaurant or from wholesale companies in bulk packs, this should be available in some form or another in most countries.

Temperate.

Reptiles from this area type are happy with a substrate that is neither completely dry or completely wet but do have significant periods of both. This area is the most commonly catered for by reptilian companies. As such there are a wide array of options for you to consider. One of the most common supplied and used by shops in the UK is beech wood chips although many hobbiests move away from this over time. Gaining in popularity throughout the world, another popular substrate is aspen. This material is shredded rather than chipped and tends to be softer to the touch as well as forming a more stable/solid "carpet" on the floor of the enclosure.
When looking for suitable substrates for snakes from these areas it is prudent to look towards stockists for other animals. As an example, horse equipment suppliers usually have a wide range of substrates and feeds that are actually good for reptiles as well. There is no reason why you can't mix substrate types. When done with planning this can lead to a more natural looking enclosure as a bye product of catering for the needs of your captive.

 

Tropical.

Reptiles from this type of area are subjected to heavy rains and constant humidity, both in the air and on the ground and décor.
For snakes from these areas a substrate capable of holding water must be chosen in order to provide a slower release enabling constant humidity. Although not as commonly catered for as temperate areas you are still not short of options. The three most commonly used are orchid bark, sphagnum moss and coconut husk. All of which can be bought either packaged for the reptile hobby or from a garden centre packaged for gardeners at a much lower cost. When using products not specifically packaged for reptiles however it is important to check there have been no additives added that will be toxic to your snake.

While I have only glossed over possible substrates it is important to note that the options are almost limitless. An article on this subject alone could easily be pages long and still not cover the different mediums available. I would suggest that if you are unsure if a product is suitable to use then it probably isn't. It is always worth asking fellow experienced animal keepers though, as someone, somewhere will have thought the same thing and might have tried it themselves.

The next step for us to take involves choosing the right décor for the snake that will live in the enclosure. Again, we need to look at the natural lifestyle in order to best choose the basic layout we are looking for.
There are four main types to consider:

Arboreal.
These animals spend most if not all of there time in the trees. As such the décor should reflect this with plenty of elevated branches all within a short distance of each other to allow for continuous movement without touching the floor. They should also allow enough space for the animal to sit comfortably on the branches.
If you are looking to achieve a natural looking set-up then choose the branch materials carefully. Certain types of wood are toxic so as a rule of thumb choose a fruit tree wood as these are safe. If you would rather use something more easily sterilised and cleaned then plastic pipes and tubing can be used. Simply go over the tubing in areas with a blow torch to scorch and burn it slightly. The effect is surprisingly realistic and will produce a branch structure that will not rot or degrade with humidity.

Semi-arboreal.
These animals generally live in low lying bushes and trees yet raised up from the floor or spend as much time in the branches as they do on the floor. As such the décor should comprise of smaller, elevated branches (strong enough to support the animals movements) along with suitable floor based décor such as logs or cork bark for tropical species, rocks for desert species and a mix for temperate species.

Terrestrial.
Although these animals live primarily on the ground surface they are generally happy to move in the tree line occasionally. As such while the primary focus should be on ground based items such as rocks and logs we should also provide a few wider branches to enable easy movement off the floor should it be required. In addition to the rocks and logs it is also worth providing small plants (either fake or live) such as grasses or shrubs dependant on the animals origins.

Sub-terrestrial.
As the name suggests, these animals live primarily under the surface of the earth away from the sun. These animals are often over looked by many when it comes to décor. For these animals we should be looking to either fully or partly submerge the same rocks and logs we would use for terrestrial species. It also helps to have groups of décor such as rocks in an area to provide a secure place for the animal to surface.

 

All the larger reptile product distributing companies have a wide selection of different décors available but it is always prudent to look elsewhere while doing your research. Other ideal places to look include aquatic suppliers and florists. Both stock, or have access to, a wide range of alternative products that are just as suitable for reptiles and often are less expensive.

When using wood products for either the substrate or décor it is important to use a wood that has no noticeable smell. Woods such as cedar and pine are toxic with a cumulative effect due to the chemicals (phenols) within the resin.

Our enclosure should now at least look appropriate, despite actually being useless in terms of being a suitable enclosure.
To rectify this we need to look at heating and methods of regulating the heat in order to provide both a suitable basking area and sufficient thermo-gradient.

There are many ways of heating an enclosure with the most common listed below.

Heat mats.
Due to the wide array of manufacturers, sizes and power ratings this is likely to be the most common form of heating used today. They are gaining popularity again in the USA thanks to products such as Flex watt (a roll of heat mat that can be cut and terminated to exactly the required size – due to safety restrictions, this product is illegal to use in the UK) and a renewed interest in "UTH" or Under Tank Heating.
It is advisable that this form of heating is not placed in direct contact with the animal. Many keepers simply place one of these under the substrate inside the enclosure, unfortunately on several occasions this has led to severe burn injuries due to the heat detecting abilities of reptiles. I would advise placing the mat on the underside of the enclosure on the outside. Fears that the mat will not produce enough heat to penetrate the enclosure and the substrate are often miss-placed however if this is so there is an easy answer. Place a sheet of polystyrene under the enclosure and sandwich the mat between them. This has the effect of insulating the bottom of the mat and reflecting more heat in the natural upwards direction (heat always travels upwards in preference).
The important information to note on heat mats is that while the available power ratings are limitless the protective covering restricts these from being overly strong. Most commonly encased in a form of plastic which naturally has a low melting point you will be unable to find a high powered heat mat. It has also been noted that the printed mats are more likely to have catastrophic failure than the other types available, as such I would recommend avoiding printed forms of heat mats. There use to is generally restricted to smaller enclosures or larger units as part of a collection of differing heating methods.

Ceramic bulbs.
The popularity of this form of heating comes and goes constantly. Like power plates, they are usually employed as a form of heating for larger enclosures. Almost every reptile product distributor has a range of these available, all based around the same theme. They are exactly as the name suggests, a bulb that is made from ceramic rather than glass and can be found in wattages ranging from 50 watts up to around 300 watts. When looking for alternatives to reptile specific products for these it is worth checking electronic dealers as again they will usually have a wider range of power ratings and the price will be less.
While it is possible to connect these to a standard light fitting (they generally come with a screw rather than a bayonet fitting) it is not advisable. Due to the extreme heat involved it rarely takes long for the bulb holder to become damaged. More worryingly the cable often starts to melt, which in turn can lead to a short or even a fire. As such using a heat rated cable and the proper fittings is recommended at all times.

Heat cables.
While more commonly used for racking systems and incubators, heat cable can be used to heat enclosures if required. There are several companies producing a range of cable designed for use within the reptile hobby. It is usually advisable to note however that these products originate in the horticulture world and as such garden heat cables are often just as, if not more, capable and cheaper than specific reptile products. You will certainly find a wider range of lengths and power ratings available from garden equipment stockists.

Spot lighting.
Not an uncommon form of heating but not ideal. This form relies on constant lighting being provided in the enclosure. Although a wide range of colours can be found (the most common for this use being reds and blues) I still find that this is an eyesore from a keepers perspective. It also means that the lighting system is active 24hrs daily, which is not recommended.

Heat/Power Plates.
Older power plates have long since been deemed unsafe and are no longer available to buy as new. There are still many in circulation however and newer, safer products have also entered the market. Surprisingly these are often just a form of heat mat which has been given a new casing capable of withstanding much higher temperatures. As such they are capable of heating much larger areas and providing a far larger basking area than other heating methods.

There are other forms available and in use such as oil filled radiators but these are far less common and unlikely to be used in smaller set ups (i.e. less than 16 square feet).
There is also one other form of heater widely available on the reptile market. The "heat rock". While these were originally a dangerous product to use, leading to horrific burns on animals that sit on them unable to detect the rapid heat exchange, they are now much safer with built in thermostats. That said, it is worth noting they are still very hard to control and as such I can not advise their use as the sole form of heating an enclosure.

No matter which form of heating you choose there is one rule constant throughout. At no point must the animal be able to make contact with the heater. As usual there are many pre-made guards available designed to fit specific heaters. It is also possible to make a simple yet effective guard yourself with some wire mesh.

The heating situation is more complex than the others in that there is more than one piece of equipment to think about before the consideration of placement. The next one to consider is the heater control, or thermostat.
It is at this point we usually fall directly into the mercy of specifically designed reptile products. Standard types include:

Type

Description

Mat stat.

The simplest of the three. This is designed simply to turn the heater on or off depending on what is required. Often the dials for these are lacking in temperature readings, instead you use a thermometer to judge what is the best place to have the dial set. As the name suggests it is best used with heat mats and similar products.

Dimmer stat.

This regulates the heat by gradually increasing (or decreasing) the power supply to the heater until the required temperature is found. While many do come with temperature settings it is always worthwhile confirming that this is accurate using a thermometer.
These are best used with bulbs and lighting forms of heating as the others cause a flickering effect.

Pulse stat.

These send a constant stream of power pulses to the heater, increasing (or decreasing) in strength and frequency dependant on the temperature requirements. Again confirmation that the temperature settings are accurate is recommended. They are best used with forms of heating other than lighting as they can burn out the filaments on light bulbs quickly.

As well as these 3 main types you can also get various other equipment designed to regulate the heat supply. Some allow for a temperature drop on a night (either at a set time or when lights go out), some switch on fans when it is too hot and others can be programmed to set specific temperatures at different times over a period of days and weeks.

The key to using all of these heater controls correctly is suitable probe placement. All come with a probe through which the thermostat can assess whether it needs to be on or off. Many keepers make the mistake of placing the probe on the heater or out of sight away from the place they are interested in. At all times remember that the thermostat will not work properly unless you have the probe placed directly at the location you wish to regulate. For example, at the basking spot and on the surface of the substrate (where the animal will lay) is ideal.

It is possible to form a crude thermostat out of products not designed for the reptile market using a double light dimmer switch for a house and a thermometer to check the temperatures. However this is very fiddly, requires frequent minute adjustments until it is set correctly and often more time and hassle than it is worth. As they are not designed for precise working it is hard to get them to work as you would wish and while I have tried it myself out of curiosity I can honestly say I will not do so again.
The next step is to create two very important features. The enclosure inhabitant needs to be able to thermoregulate and bask when ever it chooses.
The easiest way to achieve these is to start with the basking spot:
Placing the heater at one extreme (i.e. not in the middle or somewhere around there) end of the enclosure (we will use the left hand side as an example) and either focussing the heat directly up or down (dependant on heater choice) with the thermostat probe on the surface of the substrate will create a hot spot within the enclosure that the animal can use to bask. It is important that this area is not devoid of décor as the animal needs to feel it can bask in safety otherwise it will not use this area.
Even if the animal is nocturnal or sub-terrestrial it will still need a basking spot because even they will find places of residual heat during the night or come close to the surface in certain areas to bask during the day.

More often than not the excess heat will create a sufficient gradient of heat that drops as it moves towards the right hand side of the enclosure. While many care sheets and books will give you various temperatures to aim for in different places within the enclosure it is the basking temperature that you must pay the closest attention to. As long as the animal has the ability to bask and raise its temperature to the correct temperature and then go to the other end of the enclosure to have it reduce then you have done your job correctly.
If however you find that the "cold" end of the enclosure is not more than 5-10ºc (as a bare minimum) cooler than your hot end you need to make some alterations. Rather than sacrifice heat you must find a way to increase the colder air flow. You can either add more vents at the cool end (at both the top and bottom to increase hot and cold air flow) or add a thermostatically controlled fan – maybe even a combination of the two.

As with many other areas of setting up an enclosure, there is no reason you can not mix the types of heaters you use. Perhaps use a ceramic bulb to create a focussed basking spot during the day with a heat mat or cable creating a soft basic ambient heat on a night. Both could be controlled using a timer.
No matter how you go about it you must always ensure that the heater can not be directly touched and at all times is on a thermostat. Check the thermostat for a power rating and ensure it is greater than the power rating for the heater you are using. If more than one heater is installed they must be on their own thermostats.

Lighting
Lighting is a common addition but one that is generally only glossed over. The first thing to note here is that light is produced by heating a filament, as such bulbs (no matter what shape or size) all produce heat. As with any form of heating this needs to be guarded so the animal can not make contact with either the bulb or the associated fittings within the enclosure. Ideally it should be placed in the same location as the basking spot heater as they will both be on during the day so any heat radiating from the bulb will be compensated for by the heater thermostat.
Light cycles are very important. At no point should the light be on for a full 24 hour period. This can cause large amounts of stress to the animal, in much the same way as it does for us. Instead you should follow the patterns of the sun with longer 12 hour cycles during the summer months, over the course of the autumnal period the time that the lighting is on should be gradually reduced. The winter period should see the lighting only on for 8 hours and is turned off during the remaining 16 hours. The automatic switching on and off of lighting can be created using a timer.
If you so wish you could replicate not only the seasonal shift but the daily patterns as well. To do this you need 3 light bulbs and timers. The first (a very low wattage) comes on at the start of your lighting period and runs for 30 minutes alone. At the 30 minute point a second bulb (higher wattage) turns on increasing the light intensity within the enclosure for a further 30 minutes. At which point the final bulb (the highest wattage) comes on and provides the normal lighting level for the daylight period. On an evening when the lights are to turn off they go out in a reverse order. This replicates a natural dawn and dusk period that can be very effective for a display enclosure.
There are currently many questions overhanging the lighting situation. Whether certain frequencies are beneficial, damaging or neither will continue to be asked for some time yet. No matter what the out come of these questions it is always prudent to remember that snakes, by their very nature are not outwardly social beasts. As such they will always prefer to hide away from prying eyes. For that reason we must ensure that the hides provided not only shelter the animal from our direct sight but from direct light sources as well.

The only enclosure requirement left for us to consider is water provision. This covers humidity, drinking and bathing water.
It is possible for us to cover all aspects in one act if needed but it is better if you can initially tackle them as separate issues.
Again we need to look at the natural areas from which the animal comes from:

Desert.
Desert dwelling species are highly unlikely to utilise a bathing pool. For these species a small bowl for drinking water is all that is required. Due to the nature of these animals though they may go several days without drinking before taking on large quantities to keep them going for another period without water. In this case it is important to change the water on a regular basis, ensuring that the water does not go stale. As the humidity requirements for such species are so low it is advisable that the water bowl is placed in the cool end in order to reduce the speed at which it evaporates.

Temperate.
While not especially humid this type of area does have a higher humidity than a desert area. As such a bowl large enough for the animal to bath in may well be used. If the bowl is placed towards the centre of the enclosure (closer to either end depending on the level of humidity needed) it will evaporate at a faster rate allowing the atmosphere to have a higher humidity level. You may also look to place a smaller bowl in the cool end purely for drinking as some species avoid larger expanses of water through fear of predation. These will need to be checked less frequently to ensure they have not been emptied either through drinking or evaporation.

Tropical.
Typically these areas have very high humidity which needs to be replicated in order to ensure that the animal sheds its skin properly. To do this larger quantities of water are needed. A large bathing pool placed in the hot end of the enclosure will evaporate quickly providing both the humidity required and a place for the animal to "cool" off.
A larger bowl can also be placed in the cool end for drinking water as these animals typically take on much more water than those from other areas. If you are unable to place a bathing pool in the hot end of the enclosure or you find that not enough humidity is created then it may be necessary to spray the enclosure when needed. A plant sprayer is normally perfect for this job. The water bowls must be checked daily or every other day in this type of enclosure to ensure that they do not evaporate leaving the inhabitant with no drinking water and a constantly decreasing humidity.

More and more I am hearing people comment on the safety of tap water for the reptiles we keep. I also often hear about various additives for the water that we provide.
As it stands now, it is perfectly safe to use water direct from the tap within the UK. There is no requirement to use bottled water or additives for healthy animals. If you are concerned however there are some basic steps you can take. These include running the water through a purifier, letting it stand for 24 hours before using or simply using bottled still spring water.
On the note of vitamin additives, it is best to consult with your vet or more experienced keepers as to the pro's and cons of using the various products available. Some may be genuinely beneficial while others are simply “optional extras”. Often they are supplements designed to eliminate the shortfall in dietary or general husbandry standards. As such they should not be needed for healthy, well kept animals.

That concludes the basic requirements for setting up an enclosure for most snakes. After following each of the steps outlined in this article you will have an enclosure set up and running capable of providing a snake with a “happy home”. It is advisable that you have the enclosure completed and running for around a week before introducing the animal in order to ensure everything is working correctly.

From this point onwards anything else you add will be completely optional and for your benefit rather than for your animal. It is important to remember that, often hobbiests get caught up worrying about the extra bits and forget about the important aspects.

I leave you with the thought that a reptile enclosure can be as simple or as detailed as you wish to make it, with that comes varying cost. When shopping for equipment, it always pays to speak to fellow keepers and to research which products can be found under different labels aimed at different markets.

This site has information on the following genera of Ratsnakes ... Spilotes, Spalerosophis, Ptyas, Zamenis, Elaphe, Rhinechis, Senticolis, Pseudelaphe, Pantherophis, Bogertophis, Orthriophis, Gonyosoma, Oreocryptophis, Oocatochus, Euprepiophis, Coelognathus, Archelaphe