A Bright Future

Becoming a knowledgeable and honest source of information on heating and lighting options can help retailers build trust with their customers.




In the context of reptile keeping, it seems to me that no issue is more important and less widely understood than proper heating and lighting in herptile cages. It is undeniably more complex—and further complicated by the range of choices available—than any other category. I will try to lay out the basic issues and present some of the current solutions available for you and your customers.

The first thing to understand is that heating and lighting are generally two separate issues and can rarely be handled fully by one product. That said, one need not spend a fortune properly outfitting an enclosure. It is also essential to understand that many variables fall into the equation, such as:


  • What animal are we housing?
  • What type of housing have we chosen? Wood cage? Glass tank? Plastic cage?
  • What is the general ambient environment around the enclosure?


Even temperate animals, like tree frogs and garter snakes, do best when given a choice of temperatures within their cage. Even so, it is hard to generalize; I have kept fire-bellied toads at ambient room temperature for years with no problems, but I live in a temperate zone with very little in the way of summer or winter. To this end, a low-level heat source is helpful in most cases. So, start with the choice of animal, and let that be the determining factor for the type and strength of heat source. For instance, a bearded dragon will need substantially more heat than a newt.

A well-constructed wood cage will have less ventilation and thus need less wattage than any other cage. I generally find that, with the exception of tortoises, which are ground-bound and do not climb, one overhead heat source is sufficient. This can be accomplished with an appropriate spot light or ceramic heater. The advantages of ceramic heaters are that they run about 30 percent more efficiently than bulbs, and they last for sometimes bewildering amounts of time. I once had an iguana on the same ceramic for more than a dozen years. The disadvantage is that, when they do burn out (as all electrical equipment eventually does), they give no outward sign of having done so. That means the caretaker needs to be extra cognizant of cage temperatures. They also run hot enough to scorch the wood above, making a metal ‘pancake’ between the fixture and ceiling a necessity.

For tortoises and other ground dwellers, a floor mat is desired to provide ambient heat, freeing up the overhead source to function more as a basking point. Since you will want to install these within rather than underneath the cage, a durable and waterproof mat, also known as a ‘pig blanket,’ is the ticket. K&H Pet Products makes a good line of them in a variety of sizes.

I generally recommend against—and almost never carry—plastic caging. It can work well for clients who have dedicated entire rooms to a herp collection, in which a generalized ambient heat can be established with minimal additional heat in individual enclosures. However, for clients with one or two pets, they become difficult indeed. Plastic melts; plastic warps; plastic exudes toxic gases. Even shoebox racks, which I admit I do use extensively, can be problematic.

Glass tanks generally are best suited to a similar ‘double heat’ system, with a flexible pad attached to the underside of the tank and an overhead fixture above. I have been using the Exo Terra Desert heat pads for years; they are consistent, well made and well packaged. Both heat sources should always be skewed to the same end of the cage to provide the animal as much variation in heat as possible.

Now, here’s where things get a bit dicey. I know many stores try to sell their clients on a two-bulb system, with one for day and one for night. In my estimation, this is nothing more than a scam to sell extra bulbs and double fixtures to people who don’t need them. Animals acclimate. If given an appropriate hide space to get out of the light, even rigidly nocturnal animals will happily live in 24-hour light. Diurnal animals will happily live without heat-providing light. The only reason to have a red or black bulb is if the cage is located in a bedroom and the human does not want to adjust. Otherwise, a white light spot bulb is excellent, especially those made by Zoo Med, which focus a tight beam and radiate out gradations of heat in a relatively small space.

Zoo Med has also started a line of Nano lighting for very small enclosures, and it’s a strong addition to our stock. Their rack includes mini fixtures as well as ceramic, halogen and spotlight options—all good. 

I must be critical of LED lights. LED lights are pretty. LED lights are good for plants. But LED lights don’t do a thing for animals in terms of light or heat. Customers who buy them expecting some kind of benefit to their beloved pet are in for an unpleasant surprise, and it will only make you look good to warn them off.

Similarly, many companies mark their otherwise fine bulbs as having “UVA light spectrums.” Of course they do. What they are not telling you is that the UVA spectrum is not in any way an active component in herps’ health. It’s misleading, and they ought to cut that out. The herps’ concern is UVB, which are the spectra of light that reptiles use to process vitamin D3, which they need to absorb calcium. Of course, this can be mostly compensated for with proper vitaminization. More importantly to my mind, they are the spectra of light that herps see. An animal that sees more clearly will behave more normally, feed more aggressively and generally thrive.

There are a number of UVB options on the market: fluorescent fixtures and bulbs, incandescent fixtures and bulbs and incandescent bulbs that both heat and provide UVB. Those would seem like a good option, but I recommend against them for economic reasons. Fluorescent bulbs should be replaced once a year as the UVB component diminishes, but heat bulbs tend to burn out at a much faster rate. If your UVB source burns out two or three times a year, you are replacing a very expensive bulb at multiple times the rate you need to.

As for incandescent UVBs: Their range tends to be very limited, thus forcing animals to choose between heat basking and light basking. They serve well enough for very small containers, but they are pretty ineffective in larger enclosures. Generally speaking, fluorescent bulbs are the way to go. We used to carry a size called T12; these are gradually being phased out for good ecological reasons. Currently, T8 bulbs are the common size, but these too are facing a dim future (pun intended). Last year, Zoo Med introduced a line of T5 bulbs and fixtures, and my store recognizes them as the new industry standard. They produce shockingly good light and come in a variety of useful lengths. The fixtures are thin and designed to rest on top of screen tanks. With a few “L” screws from the hardware store, they are also easily mounted within wooden cages. I cannot praise them highly enough.

UVB lights are absolutely essential for desert lizards and tortoises as well as many arboreal snakes and lizards. Many other herps will benefit from their use; even nocturnal lizards will become better breeders under their influence. But be honest and selective with your customers. I have won over many a client from other stores that have insisted on selling expensive lighting with animals for which it was optional or even unnecessary. A quick one-off sale does not compensate for a long-term relationship in which you have won trust. Take the high road.

Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.


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