Uromastyx geyri, displaying a brilliant orange coloration

Beginner's Guide to Reptiles


Few types of animals can evoke such divisive reactions as reptiles. Those who dislike reptiles often don't just feel dislike but also fear, loathing, and hatred. On the other side, there are many who love everything about reptiles and develop close bonds and boundless fascination with them. With more than 10,000 species, there is an amazing diversity in reptiles, from geckos and chameleons that grow no more than an inch in length to crocodiles and snakes that can grow more than twenty feet in length. With this much variation in individual species, there is no one formula you can apply to them all when considering how to keep them, but there are common needs you can use as a starting point when learning about their care.

As with any new pet decision, it is imperative to research and carefully consider what you are getting into before bringing any animal home.


One of the defining characteristics of reptiles is that they are cold-blooded, meaning they cannot regulate their own body temperature and require access to appropriate environmental temperatures. The temperature of a reptile's environment impacts virtually all parts of its biology. If their environment gets too cool, their metabolism and body functions slow down. If it gets too warm, there is no internal mechanism for cooling down and they will soon overheat. When a reptile is forced to live outside of its ideal temperature range, it will quickly become stressed, opening the door to a number of health problems and diseases. Of course, if the temperature goes too far from its ideal range (on either side), it will die. This reliance on finding the ideal balance is perhaps the most vital consideration in keeping a reptile.

In order to regulate their body temperatures, reptiles will use a variety of environmental features to find where is just right. When the reptile wants to warm up (such as after eating when higher temperatures will drive faster and more efficient digestion), they will often find a spot in the sun that is warmer than the surrounding areas. This is why you can often see snakes basking on rocks or roads and turtles on logs. Conversely, when they want to cool down they will often find a shaded area such as under a fallen log or in a hole to escape the heat. When keeping reptiles, you should provide a range of temperatures so that they can find what is most comfortable for them at that moment.

Reptiles come from a wide range of different habitats, and you must consider their natural environment when designing their enclosure. For example, chameleons from the mountains of Africa will need relatively cool conditions (such as ambient temperatures in the low 70's and basking temperatures in the low to mid 80's) while Uromastyx species should be given basking spots as warm as 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

A flying gecko (Ptychozoon lionotum) from Southeast Asia. As you would expect, these require an arboreal setup in which they can climb.


You can find reptiles in deserts and rainforests, living in trees or on the ground, and living fully aquatic or terrestrial lives. When designing your reptile's housing, you must take this into account. Fortunately, many of the best beginner reptiles such as ball pythons, leopard geckos, and bearded dragons are terrestrial in nature, allowing for some common area from which you can start planning their enclosure. For most terrestrial animals, you want to set up their housing to give them plenty of surface area on the ground. Choosing a short and wide "breeder" tank is much preferred over a taller style with less floor space. Most terrestrial reptiles like having the security of a place to hide, and you should always provide at least one hide. Depending on the size of the animal, this could be half of a coconut shell, a cork bark tube hide, one of the many commercially available artificial hides, or a DIY hide made out of something lying around your house such as a plastic shoe box or food storage container.

Many reptiles, such as chameleons, a number of geckos, and certain snake species, are mostly or completely arboreal, meaning they spend their entire lives living in trees and bushes, off of the ground. For these reptiles, choose an enclosure that gives more vertical room than floor space. Give them plenty of surfaces to climb on such as plants, vines, cork bark, and textured backgrounds. While they will spend a fair amount of time on these vertical surfaces, it is also good to give them some horizontal surfaces they can rest on. Also make sure there are plenty of leafy areas (whether from real or artificial plants) as most arboreal reptiles will utilize the leaves for cover, keeping them from becoming overly stressed.

A few reptiles (primarily, but not exclusively, turtles) will spend most or all of their lives living underwater and will need a highly specialized aquatic setup in order to keep. Aquariums with powerful filtration are the most common housing method for these reptiles. Depending on the size of the reptile being kept, it may even become necessary to provide them with an artificial pond or kiddy pool. Keep in mind that most reptiles produce considerably more waste than other aquatic animals (such as fish), so they will need more water volume, stronger filtration, and frequent large water changes.

With all of these different housing methods, you want to ensure there is enough space that an appropriate heating gradient can be formed. If you try to use too strong of a heat source for too small of an enclosure, you will only end up heating (and possibly overheating) the entire cage, offering no retreat to cooler temperatures. For a terrestrial cage, you want one end to stay at the ideal basking temperature while the other end is considerably cooler. For an arboreal cage, you want the top of the cage to be significantly warmer than the bottom. Aquatic species should have basking sites above the water line where they can warm themselves.

Leopard Geckos (Eublepharis macularius) is a fantastic beginner reptile with fairly simple care requirements.


Perhaps the most controversial topic in all of reptile keeping is choosing what substrate to use. There are two main groups that people fall into when choosing substrate. The first group are those keepers who prefer naturalistic setups that are aesthetically pleasing and seek to reproduce the natural environment where their reptiles are most comfortable. The other group prefers minimalistic and utilitarian setups that seek to simplify the care of the animal and strip out any features that may cause problems.

Those who prefer naturalistic setups generally prefer substrates that mimic the ground. These include various types of sand, potting soil, coconut fiber beddings, and many other natural looking substrates. There are even those who experiment with different formulations of mixing multiple types of substrate into one "perfect" recipe. There are a number of advantages going the naturalistic route including allowing animals who want to dig or burrow the ability to do so and being able hold a significant amount of moisture in the substrate to help raise the humidity of the environment for those species that need the higher humidity. Being in a familiar environment can also reduce stress in many reptiles. However, naturalistic enclosures are not without risk as many reptiles have become impacted from ingesting the substrate and there is a risk of physical injury from natural decorations.

Those who go the more minimalistic route will use artificial beddings such as newspaper, reptile carpet (or AstroTurf from the home improvement store), or tile. These beddings are typically cheap and easy to clean or replace while minimizing or completely removing any risk of impaction and safe hides can be constructed from objects that are cheaply available or even lying around the house. There are also downfalls to this method. Printed newspaper can bleed ink when it gets wet and unprinted newspaper can be hard to come by in some areas. Certain species' claws can get stuck in the fibers of reptile carpet and many of these substrates do a poor job of holding heat to create a thermal gradient.

Every substrate has advantages and disadvantages and choosing which one to use can be a balancing act of weighing the risks and benefits. There are always ways of overcoming the negatives of a substrate such as removing the animal to another substrate-free container for feeding in order to reduce the risk of impaction. Using strategically placed heat pads or heat tape can improve the thermal gradient in a cage with paper bedding. What kind of substrate you choose depends on your preferences as a keeper as well as the specific needs of the animal you are keeping.


There is a huge range of diets you must consider when looking at a reptile. Certain reptiles such as iguanas and some turtles are fully vegetarian. Some turtles should mostly eat grasses and weeds, which will require specially growing certain plants for them, allowing them to graze outside, or purchasing various types of hays to feed them (or, ideally, a combination of all of the above). Many lizards are insectivorous and will need a steady diet of feeder insects. Most snakes are strictly carnivorous and must be fed whole vertebrate prey (such as mice or rats). Some reptiles may need a little bit of everything. You need to be able and willing to provide the appropriate food for whatever reptile you are purchasing before you get it.

For certain animals, it can be a great idea to give them a separate feeding area. For example, if you are concerned about your animal ingesting substrate, this can one way to reduce that risk. For many snakes, this is a great method of preventing them from associating your hand coming into their cage with it being time to eat and potentially trying to bite your hand. Simply put the food in a different container before putting the reptile in there.

Water and Humidity

Some reptiles need very little supplemental water (getting most of the required moisture from its food) while others need long, heavy mistings multiple times each day. For most terrestrial (and many arboreal) animals, constant access to a bowl of clean water should be provided so that they have the option to drink when they want. Many reptiles, such as a number of snakes, certain monitors, and water dragons, will also want to periodically soak or even swim in their water. The size of the water bowl needed will depend on a number of factors including the size of the reptile and whether they are going to just be drinking from it or if they will soak in it as well.

Some arboreal reptiles, most notably chameleons, will refuse to ever drink from a bowl of water. In order to keep these reptiles hydrated, you need to simulate rain falling. This can be achieved by dripping water from a cup with a pinhole in the bottom, using a hand-pumped pressurized spray bottle, or setting up a computer controlled automatic misting system. Whichever method you choose, make sure to be supplying enough water to keep your animal adequately hydrated.

In addition to drinking water, you need to keep in mind the natural humidity of the habitats your reptiles come from. Desert dwellers will have less need of supplemental humidity than those species who naturally inhabit rainforests. For those reptiles who may only occasionally need some extra humidity, many keepers have success offering a hide containing moist moss that will trap extra moisture into a confined area. For species that need constantly high elevation, utilizing some sort of substrate which can absorb water and slowly lets it evaporate (such as potting soil, moss, or coconut fiber) can raise the humidity in the enclosure, particularly if most (but not all) of the ventilation is cut off. Generally speaking, the more you reduce the ventilation in an enclosure, the higher the humidity you can achieve.

One special case to note is that most chameleons require very high humidity as well as a lot of ventilation. Most chameleon keepers will use cages with screen or mesh sides to keep the ventilation as high as possible which then requires extra diligent attention be paid to ensuring frequent misting sessions are performed.


When preparing to get a new reptile, make sure you do plenty of research so you know the details of how to properly care for that animal. Think about whether or not you can provide these necessities before you bring that animal home. Things to consider are:

  • Maximum size of the animal and what size enclosure will you need for that animal – Many reptiles are fine with relatively small enclosures, while other may need an entire room (or even your whole back yard) converted into a habitat for them. A Sulcata Tortoise that will grow to be would not be a good option for somebody living in a fifth floor apartment.
  • What are the temperature requirements for that animal – If you live in an exceptionally cold or hot environment, you may have difficulty keeping your animal's enclosure within the necessary temperature range.
  • What kind of enclosure does that animal need – Depending on the species, this could be as easy as a small plastic box, or it may be significantly more complicated. Do you have the room and budget for a large aquarium for an aquatic turtle?
  • What does this animal eat, and are you able and willing to provide it – If you can't stand the idea of giving a live rodent to a snake and you refuse to thaw out and handle a frozen one, you probably shouldn't get a snake. Some reptiles have enormous appetites and require constantly buying groceries in order to feed, which can require a large amount of money and time.
  • How much water does this animal need – Many common reptiles don't require that much water, but there are certain reptiles that will require an indoor pool or pond to take care of. Can you provide regular mistings several times a day for the species that need it?

Sulcata (or Spur-Thighed) Tortoises (Geochelone sulcata) are beatiful and hardy, but they have the potential to live more than 100 years, grow to have a shell length of more than four feet, and weigh more than 200 pounds.