All About Reptile Cages, Tanks, Tubs and Enclosures - Updated

Select 3 PVC reptile Enclosure

"The Vivarium itself is as vital to the correct provision of an animal as is the provision of the pertinent heating and lighting systems. These are not just boxes in which an animal is living, but rather they are a core part of the technology needed to ensure high levels of health and well being. Therefore, choosing the right type and size of vivarium, then installing the correct decoration or naturalistic habitat alongside the correct electronics is as of vital importance to overall health and well being as every other part of the system."

John Courteney-Smith MRSB, Head of Science and Innovation at Arcadia Reptile

A Brief History 

Not that long ago if you wanted a reptile cage, you needed to build it yourself. As reptile breeding in the USA became more popular, some breeders began housing larger and larger collections and then along came breeder racks where dozens of reptiles, usually snakes, could be housed vertically to save space and increase efficiencies in keeping their reptiles.

Not that long ago if you wanted a reptile cage, you needed to build it yourself.

Those with larger snakes first developed the use of various acrylics and plastics like ABS and PVC for larger enclosures that could be stacked and heated by temperature controlled rooms and heat tape for a "hot spot". 

Soon came glass tanks for reptiles as they made their way into mainstream pet stores. These glass tanks were made in identical dimensions as fish tanks as they were basically the exact same thing. Sadly, in some cases still today pets stores will sell fish tanks that are labeled and sold for reptiles.

While reptiles today as pets are continually growing in popularity, some brands like Exo Terra have in recent years introduced front opening terrariums with adjustable ventilation that is better for the reptiles care however, they are still made from glass and are still quite small and not at all suitable for many popular pet reptiles species. 

Meanwhile, in Europe, Australia and other parts of the world, commercial vivariums made from melamine and other laminated woods have been sold in pet stores as an alternative to glass tanks for some time. In the USA however, these larger enclosures are yet to make it into the larger pet store chains.

Materials Used For Reptile Cages

As new materials have been used over the years to make reptile cages, various trends have emerged within the industry. Some of these materials have gained popularity because of their features and how these features benefit the housing and ongoing care of pet reptiles. Unfortunately, some materials are still used due to their low cost while ignoring the negative impacts on the care of the pets themselves.

Glass: Basically most glass "tanks" are just fish tanks that large commercial suppliers make for the big pet store chains as they are cheap and sell very well at consumer price points (example: $1 per gallon sales are common). The standard sizes (10 gallon, 20 gallon, 40 gallon) are derived from the aquarium industry and have been transitioned into the reptile industry based on convenience for the manufacturer, not what's best for the reptiles care.

Exceptions are brands like Exo Terra who have introduced new front opening designs, larger sizes etc. which has improved glass tanks for keeping some smaller reptiles.

Pros - Cheap and widely available. Suitable for some smaller reptiles and amphibians. Will hold water and high humidity well.

Cons - Poor insulation and heat retention. Too much visibility causes many reptile species stress and anxiety. Both reflective and transparent sides can cause injuries. Only widely available in small sizes. Get expensive when properly sized for reptiles. Will break if dropped.  

Summary: Best for fish, amphibians and some smaller reptiles. Not suitable for many reptile species.

Mesh Screens: Very popular for keeping species like chameleons, mesh screen enclosures are inexpensive and readily sold on most pet stores in the USA. 

Pros - Cheap and easy to assemble. Allows for strong airflow.

Cons - Won't hold heat or humidity. The screen interferes with visibility. Some screens will rust over time.

Summary: Not a viable, long term enclosure for reptiles that need high humidity and ambient temperatures in most homes. The exception being for dedicated rooms where temperatures and humidity can be elevated.   

For dry reptile cages, wood can work well and has been the "go to" choice for DIY reptile enthusiasts for decadesWood: For dry reptile habitats, wood can work well and has been the "go to" choice for DIY reptile enthusiasts for decades. Wet habitats require lots more preparation and cost but can be made to work well in housing many higher humidity reptile species.                                                                                                                               Pros - Relatively inexpensive and easy to use. Designs are unlimited and modifications can be easily carried out.                                                                                    Cons - Heavy and flammable. Porous and hard to sanitize. Will rot if kept wet or with high humidity.                                                                                                Summary: If you have the time and skills, wood is still very popular and probably will be for some time to come. 

Plastic and Acrylic (aka Plexiglas): There are several plastics used to make reptile cages including ABS and Acrylics.  Also, various plastics are used for "tubs" for large scale breeding which is really not applicable for the long term care of pet reptiles.

Pros - Very robust and easy to clean and care for. Some of the plastics like ABS will take a hard knock and will last for many years.

Cons - Highly flammable (in most cases). High cost and high transportation cost for the large one piece units. Limited colors. Acrylic scratches and discolors easily.

Summary: There is some use in the pet reptile sector for the various plastic enclosures but most manufacturers have moved onto other materials. The exception being ABS that is often used for larger reptile cages.

PVC: Arguably one of the better materials for small to large reptile enclosures, Polyvinyl Chloride (Expanded PVC Foam Board) is today the preferred choice of many reptile cage manufacturers.

Arguably one of the better materials for small to large reptile enclosures, Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) is today the preferred choice of many reptile cage manufacturers

Pros - Light weight. Water resistant. Holds heat well. Can be heated and bent.

Cons - Scratches and dents easily. Some imported, cheaper PVC sheets contain additives or fillers and this may result in the release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) when heated.

Note: We only use premium, certified and tested USA made closed cell PVC foam board in the construction of our reptile enclosures. 

Here are the details on Expanded PVC Foam (i.e. Sintra, Celtec, Komatex):

 Manufactured in the USA

  • An industry premium PVC board for more than 30 years. It is comprised of moderately expanded polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in a homogeneous sheet with a low-gloss satin finish.
  • Better dent and scratch resistance
  • Lightweight yet rigid and durable , water resistant
  • Holds heat well,
  • Ease of machinability, dimensionally stable
  • Good staple & screw retention
  • Can be formed into different shapes using wood and foam board fabrication techniques
  • Good chemical resistance
  • Versatile general purpose expanded PVC board for a wide range of display applications
  • The market standard for expanded PVC
  • Ideal for quick-turn, high volume projects
  • High resistant to moisture absorption - no rotting or delamination

Here are the details on Cheap PVC Trim Board 

A good portion is import material

  • A commodity PVC board created for construction assembly & trim applications
  • Dents easily and scratches, not easily repaired
  • Decent staple retentions but poor screw retention
  • Breaks down easier over time
  • Lightweight
  • Can contain low quality additives or regrind material
  • Issues with expansion with temperature and humidity changes
  • Not designed to be CNC Routed, core tends to fall apart

Summary: The trend towards PVC is a natural progression as manufacturers move towards better materials that are practical and function well. However, not all PVC is safe for housing pets and PVC Trim board that is commonly found in larger hardware chains is not the same material used professionally and that material can be dangerous for the inhabitants.   

HDPE: Quite possibly the very best material for reptile enclosures of any size, High-density polyethylene (HDPE) is a versatile thermoplastic with many favorable properties. While HDPE is roughly double the cost of PVC, it is widely used in many applications including: food containers, water tanks, cutting boards for food preparation, outdoor and indoor playground systems, marine/boat construction, orthotics and prosthetics, and many more. 

Pros - Safe, strong, impact and scratch-resistant, lightweight, environmentally stabilized, recyclable, waterproof, UV, odor and chemically resistant. Meets FDA & USDA standards in the food processing industry too.
Cons - Higher material costs.
Summary: Because of its long list of safe, practical, proven applications, we believe that HDPE is the very best material for the construction of reptile enclosures.

Design Issues 

Today, there are very few manufacturers in the USA advancing the designs of reptile caging and many continue to make what is easier for them vs what is best for the reptile. We believe this is due to "breeder standard" designs of the past that are made to stack several enclosures high and mainly for keeping large numbers of big snakes, as an alternative to breeder racks and tubs. 

Sadly these outdated designs are widely sold to pet reptile keepers who have to spend more to modify and adapt some of these inadequate designs, paying extra for ventilation, internal lighting and often, even a lock for your pets safety is an option, not a obvious necessity. 

Lighting and Heating Issues: This is best illustrated by the larger snake enclosures that typically have minimal ventilation and are not setup to provide any UVB and are now being retrofitted with internal UVB and basking lights for popular lizards like Bearded Dragons, Blue Tongue Skinks, various Monitor species and more. The issues with this lighting placement afterthought are numerous: 

1. The UVB and heat will not optimally benefit the reptile without the benefits of a reflector as the light and heat will go in all directions, instead of reflected down into the enclosure.  

7.5 UVB at 12 inches below our screen topWhile some may argue that this method provides stronger UVB when used in combination with a reflector inside the reptiles enclosure, with the recent move towards T-5 lighting fixtures and their increased UVB strength and a well designed screen top, this argument becomes mute. 
More alarmingly, with strong UVB fixtures inside the enclosure and most keepers not having a UVB meter to test their UVB levels, the risk of too much UVB is common in this type of setup.

2. Its also harder to control the ambient temperature inside the reptile cage, especially as many of these enclosures have limited ventilation and airflow. This makes it harder to provide and maintain a thermal gradient inside your reptiles enclosure and can result in a very dangerous situation for your pet. Remember, the goal is to provide a basking spot or area, not to make the entire enclosure its basking spot and in doing so, risk making your reptile dangerously hot. 

3. Also importantly, any reptiles coming in touch with the light bulbs can sustain extremely bad burns. This is particularity true in snakes kept in these types of enclosures that contain an exposed light or heat bulb.

Examples:  Burns in Reptiles - Snakes - Problems - Understanding thermal burns in reptile patients

Now there are aftermarket covers that you can purchase to help protect your reptiles from serious burns but wouldn't it just be easier to put the lights outside of the enclosure in the first place? Its safer, easier to set up correctly and looks a lot better too.  

4. We know that reflections inside your reptiles enclosure can be quite stressful and when lights are added inside the enclosure, especially when there are no reflectors or shields pointing the light downwards, the reflections can cause your reptile unnecessary stress.

This can be greatly reduced when the lights are situated outside of your pets enclosure.

5. Factor in the above points and it becomes very apparent that this type of setup really restricts your reptiles usable space with dangerous levels of UVB and extreme heat, making as much as 50% of their enclosure unusable.

Secondary Heat Sources: Often reptiles need a secondary heat source to keep their enclosures warm and many enclosures incorporate these into their design. The problem is that some of these techniques are outdated and provide your reptiles with very little benefits from the commonly used under tank heaters, ceramic heat emitters, heat tape and radiant heat panels that only provide a minimal level of energy that can actually be used by reptiles. 

As we are all about how best to care for your pet reptile, we have designed our enclosures around more advanced heating methods such as an Arcadia Deep Heat Projector for example. This heat source utilizes efficient technology to emit natural and deep penetrating ‘Infra-Red-A’ and ‘Infra-Red-B’ rays that promote health and wellness in your animal and is far better than just a hot spot. 

Ventilation Issues: Optimum designs will allow for a constant airflow of fresh air while maintaining the desired ambient tempts and optimum humidity levels for the species that you are keeping. Poor designs with little to no ventilation (usually just a series of slots at the back or sides) can encourage bacterial growth, subsequent scale rot and respiratory infections. 

This issue can easily be resolved with vent holes added along the front of the enclosure that work in tandem with a well designed vent area at the top of the enclosure to facilitate a constant air exchange for your reptiles habitat. 

Size Issues: Another serious issue is in the sizing recommendations of current reptile cages and the plethora of misinformation for pet reptiles.

On one side there are some reptile breeders who will often tout their industrialized care as how best to keep pet reptiles and that small, baron tubs and racks will work best for keeping many reptiles species. This nonsense has sadly been implemented outside of the breeder realm and has caused many issues in how we, the vast majority (99.75%) of reptile keepers care for our pet reptiles. The bottom line is that many breeders either don’t know about proper care or, just don’t want to keep their reptiles in larger enclosures, due to the costs involved. 

Some reptile product manufacturers will also push the notion that reptiles need several enclosures throughout their lifespan as they grow from juvenile to sub-adult to adult. While this many be a clever, but somewhat deceptive marketing ploy to generate more sales, this myth has been dispelled over and over again.

Examples of popular pet reptile species that are commonly sold in pet stores that do not offer suitable enclosures are: Bearded Dragons, Monitors, Boa Constrictors, most Tortoises and Turtle species. These species need considerably more space than a "40 gallon tank" so make sure to do your research and plan ahead before you purchase your new pets forever home.     

Our Design Approach

We approach designing reptile caging very differently and have always designed our enclosures around the reptiles size and their specific needs. In years gone by we used wood for our larger enclosures but in recent years have gravitated towards PVC and more recently, HDPE for its superior properties in housing and caring for reptiles. 

Evolution 4 PVC Enclosure

Recently, in 2019 we launched our own reptile enclosure brand Maximum Reptile™, due to our frustrations with most commercially available reptile cages. While we have seen hundreds of designs and construction methods over the years, very few have met our standards. Our new brand allows us to design and build superior reptile enclosures up to our standard, by putting the reptiles needs first vs building them down to a price point and compromising any commitment to superior reptile care.

We are not alone in our approach to reptile keeping and over the last few years we have met and worked with many, like minded reptile enthusiasts that also strive to provide their pet reptiles with amazing habitats that have been created within large reptile enclosures. This commitment to better care is very exciting and just goes to show how far we have come. In coming years, due to the growing trend of reptile keepers wanting to provide their pets with the best possible care, combined with our ever expanding marketing and commitment to educating fellow reptile enthusiasts on the benefits of proper reptile housing, we predict that larger, better designed enclosures will be commonly sold in pet stores all across the USA. 

In the meantime, we invite you to consider our brand Maximum Reptile™ for your next reptile enclosure. You and your pet reptiles will benefit from our high quality construction, our innovative species specific designs and great range of backgrounds, décor and accessories.

About the Author:

Paul Barclay is the founder and CEO of Custom Reptile Habitats and is a lifetime reptile and amphibian enthusiast. Originally from Perth, Western Australia, Barclay grew up catching and keeping amphibians and reptiles such as turtles, lizards, monitors and pythons before immigrating to the USA where he has kept a more extensive list of reptile species.

As a business executive, Barclay has launched several international businesses and brands in the fitness, weight loss and footwear industries and more recently in the pet industry where he has for over 8 years consulted formally and informally for over a dozen companies. During this time, Barclay has worked extensively with every major pet store chain in the USA, Fortune 500 companies, manufacturers, breeders, importers, exporters, industry publications, reptile Zoos, YouTube personalities, trade show promoters and pet advocacy groups.

Now based in Dayton, Ohio, Barclay's latest creation has a mission: To advance the husbandry of pet reptiles by raising the bar on reptile products in order to provide customers with better habitat choices that enable their pet reptiles to really thrive.