"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. 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.
Wood: For dry reptile habitats, wood can work well and has been the "go to" choice for DIY reptile enthusiasts for decades. 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 (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.
Summary: The trend towards PVC is a natural progression as manufacturers move towards better materials that are practical and function well.
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.
Today, there are very few manufacturers advancing the design of reptile caging and many continue to make what is easier for them vs what is best for the reptile. This is best illustrated by the larger snake enclosures that typically don't need as much ventilation or any UVB (as previous believed) 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 and poor ventilation are numerous:
1. The UVB and heat will not optimally benefit the reptile without a reflector as the light and heat will go in all directions.
2. Its also harder to control the ambient temperature inside the reptile cage, especially as many of these enclosures have limited ventilation and airflow. These poor designs with little to no ventilation can encourage bacterial growth, subsequent scale rot and respiratory infections.
3. Most 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 a light or heat bulb.
While 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.
Size Issues: Another serious issue is in the sizing recommendations of current reptile cages and the plethora of misinformation for pet reptiles. 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 enclosure.
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 for its superior properties in housing and caring for reptiles. Photo: 4' L x 3' W x 7' H Wood Enclosure Built For Our Green Tree Python - 2004 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 our 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.
The Future Of Reptile Cages
Through our commitment to leading the way into the next generation of reptile housing, we all win. Firstly, consumers get better products for less and their pet reptiles benefit by having far more suitable habitats to live and thrive in. Secondly, some of our competitors take our ideas and concepts and apply them to their own designs and that in turn makes reptile keeping better. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
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 uncompressed 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 thrive.