How to set up a vivarium

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How to set up a vivarium

Guide To Setting Up A Vivarium

Perhaps the most important thing that you need to consider when thinking of bringing a reptile or an amphibian home is the setting up of a suitable vivarium or terrarium.

It is very important to try to recreate the animal’s natural environment as closely as possible in order to keep them as content and happy and in turn healthy as you can. Using a vivarium or terrarium allows you to keep good control over such things as heat, humidity and lighting meaning you can provide the correct living conditions for your pet.

Educating yourself about your reptile or amphibians particular needs should be a fun and interesting process and will help with the setting up of their new home.
Reptiles are what is known as Ectothermic which means that they rely on the environment they are in to control their body temperature. After eating reptiles usually move to the hot end of the enclosure to digest their food. This is one reason why it is vital to provide a thermal gradient within a vivarium or terrarium so that they have a hot and a cool side allowing them to thermo-regulate. This basically means it allows them to decide what temperature they want to be at.

The equipment you need and the environment you ultimately create is dependant on which species you decide to keep. The needs of a Leopard Gecko differ greatly from those of a Blue Tongued Skink, Bearded Dragon or a Giant Toad.


A vivarium is generally made of wood with glass fronted sliding panels allowing access. The vivarium will often include substrate which can be loose or fitted, decor and/or live plants and suitable equipment such as heat bulbs, ceramic bulbs, uv tubes or bulbs, thermostats and thermometers. Wood is a great choice as it is a great insulator and so holds heat well.


If you are keeping amphibians such as frogs, toads or salamanders then you need a completely different enclosure to a vivarium. In this case a glass terrarium is the ideal choice. Amphibians require much higher levels of humidity and glass lends itself much better to a hot and humid environment as wood can start to perish quite quickly under such conditions. Glass terrariums housing amphibians very often include live plants which tend to do very well with the right use of a nutrient rich substrate and adequate UV lighting.

Heating your reptile enclosure

To ensure the correct temperature for your reptile in a vivarium you must provide a heat source at one end of the enclosure. This can be in the form of an incandescent light bulb, ceramic bulb or heat mat. It is essential that your reptile or amphibian is not able to come into contact with the heat source so mats should not be used inside an enclosure and all bulbs should be covered with a suitable heat guard.

All heat sources must be controlled using a reliable thermostat. Heat mats should be used with a mat stat and set to the desired temperature, placing the temperature probe on the mat. If using an incandescent bulb that emits light you should be use a dimming thermostat which provides a continuous supply of power or voltage to the heat source. If using a non light emitting heat source such as a ceramic bulb then you should use a pulse proportional thermostat which sends pulses of power to the heat source which reduces wear and tear on the bulb because it is not constantly switching on and off. A pulse thermostat would not be suitable with a light bulb as it would constantly be flickering on and off.

It is very important that you use a good quality thermostat as without this it is impossible to safely control the temperature in your animal’s enclosure which could have serious consequences. The probe of your thermostat should be inserted through the back of the enclosure and placed underneath the heat source.
Once the probe is placed you must then set the desired temperature you require the hot end to be, on your thermostat. This will take a degree of experimentation at this point and adjustment of the thermostat in order to achieve the desired temperature gradient in the enclosure. You should have a thermometer placed in the hot and cool ends of your enclosure so that you can make sure your temperatures are correct. If you experience problems achieving the desired temperature then you may need to move the probe around until you get the temperature right. Once you do, simply attach the probe and the thermostat will now maintain the temperature for you. Do make sure that the thermostat probe is not covered by any substrate or decorations as this will dramatically affect its efficiency.

Lighting your Vivarium/Terrarium

Which lighting you choose to use in your enclosure is really dependant upon which species it is you have decided to keep. There is a lot of debate within the reptile community regarding which species requires which form of lighting. It is widely considered that Leopard Geckos, Crested Geckos, Snakes, Arachnids and Amphibians do not require UVB lighting due to them being nocturnal or because they eat whole prey, the theory being that they receive all necessary nutrients in one meal. This view is however rather contentious and a lot of reptile owners keep these animals with a 2% UVB light tube or bulb. That way it not only provides a light source to view the animal but ensures that they do have some access to the health benefits of a quality UVB light source. Even if they do not require it, the addition of UVB will certainly not prove detrimental to the animal.
Rainforest/forest dwelling animals such as Green Iguanas, Anoles and Chameleons generally require a UVB light source of at least 5% UVB output.
Desert dwelling reptiles such as Uromastyx, Bearded Dragons, Chuckwallas and most tortoises require a light source with a UVB output of at least 10%-12%.
It is important that all UVB bulbs or tubes be no further away than 6 to 10 inches from the animal as UVB rays will only travel short distances. The further away the bulb is from the animal the less effective it will prove to be.

Why do you need a UVB light source?

Reptiles require UVB lighting to enable them to produce vitamin D3 which in turn helps them with the absorption of calcium in their diet.
It is for this reason that all meals fed to your reptiles should be dusted with a suitable calcium and multivitamin powder such as Nutrobal. When feeding live food such as crickets to your reptiles every meal should be dusted or you run the risk of your reptile realising that if it doesn’t eat the white dusted crickets it is ok, because in time the undusted crickets will appear that it much prefers. We should certainly never underestimate the intelligence and wily nature of our beloved pets.
It is important to change your UVB bulbs and tubes every 6-8 months. They will still be producing light after this time but the amount of UVB produced will be dramatically reduced.
If you fail to provide UVB and correct amounts of calcium you are putting your reptile or amphibian at risk of metabolic bone disease and pregnant females are at a far greater risk of becoming egg bound.


The environment that your reptile is from in the wild will determine which substrate you choose to use within your vivarium or terrarium. Forest animals will usually need a substrate that is wood based and holds moisture well such as Orchid bark which is the most commonly used for forest species. Desert animals normally require a sand based substrate such as play sand or calci-sand which is thought to be edible and hence in theory will reduce the risk of the reptile becoming impacted if it ingests too much sand when feeding. Amphibians generally need a moist substrate so use of such things as coco fibre, peat or sphagnum moss. These are all great choices as they retain moisture really well. Turtles and terrapins require a largely water based environment with dry areas such as rocks or floating rafts to bask on under a suitable thermostatically controlled heat source. Snake substrates really depends on the species that you have decided to keep. Snakes are found in all regions of the world so can be in dense humid jungle or Arid desert. When setting up a home for your snake it is vital that you research the species you have chosen to keep. A good basic substrate for most snakes such as Cornsnakes and Kingsnakes is Aspen bedding and many people use simple wooden bark chips. For slightly more woodland/ forest based species such as Garter snakes substrates such as orchid bark or even coco fibre can be used. Species such as Kenyan Sand boas, as the name suggests, sand is the most appropriate substrate.
All substrates should be spot cleaned daily for any waste and totally replaced every 4-6 weeks. This will help to reduce the chances of illness and disease.


Decor within a terrarium or vivarium is very important not only to make sure it is aesthetically pleasing but also to ensure it helps your reptile or amphibians well being. The hot end and cool end should provide lots of hiding places so your animal can feel safe and secure at all times. Without proper hiding spaces animals quickly become stressed and this can lead to them not eating and numerous other health complaints.

Arboreal animals such as Chameleons and Crested Geckos that spend a lot of time climbing in trees. With species such as this, the more densely planted you can make the environment the better, as the animal will feel so much more secure and this will help guarantee it stays healthy and well. Dense planting with either live or plastic foliage, is also a great way of making sure that you can maintain good humidity levels in a rainforest type enclosure by misting the plants. This also provides droplets of water for the reptiles to drink from.
In desert environments you can use succulents or cacti and in terrariums for such animals as dart frogs there are a whole host of plants you can use such as the Bromeliad family which are particularly favoured by dart frogs as a place to sit and hide.
Anything used within your enclosures should be non toxic, without sharp edges and securely held in place.

If you have any questions about setting up a new vivarium for your reptile please speak to one of our nursing team.

Written by Lee Biagi- Veterinary Nursing Assistant

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