So you’re in love with an iguana. He’s green, he’s scaly, and he lives in a tank in your living room. You need all the information you can get to keep him happy. And close encounters of the scaly kind require thought and planning beyond your average food bowl, water dish, and squeeze toy.

Universe in a closet

Two of the basic requirements in creating a home for your reptilian pal are heat and a reptile-friendly container. Aquariums, custom cages, and boxes of the home-built type are all good places for your green friend to call home. The easiest (and cheapest) lining for the cages of many reptiles is newspaper-it’s easy to change and easy to tell when it’s wet. Turtles need a more humid lining, such as soil mixed with peat moss. Geckos will like smooth aquarium stones in the bottom of the cage. Snakes will appreciate rocks to facilitate shedding, and iguanas and snakes both will like a hardwood driftwood branch for climbing. All linings should be changed regularly, with feces removed often.

“Hide boxes” (which function exactly as their name implies) provide a secure, out-of-sight place for rest and relaxation in your reptile’s home. A hide box should be a shallow plastic container with a hole cut in the side and filled with one to two inches (depending on your friend’s size) of damp vermiculite or moss. Hide boxes can double as nesting areas for some species-your veterinarian can tell you whether you’ll need one for yours.

The second component of building your pet’s personal universe is to create a sun-of sorts. Reptiles depend on the air temperature to maintain their body heat. Room temperature is too cold for most reptiles, so you’ll need to warm the cage environment as well as provide hot spots for basking (see Your Own Personal Sun). Most temperate (as opposed to desert or tropical) reptiles will appreciate air that’s 75 to 80 degrees Farenheit, and the only way to be sure you are providing adequate heat is to use a thermometer-preferably of the digital, indoor/outdoor, minimum/maximum type.

But regulating the temperature of your reptilian companion’s environment means walking a fine line in determining their needs. If given the chance, reptiles will actually burn themselves when on, under, or around a direct heat source. Keep heat sources out of the cage if possible, and never place a cage or aquarium in direct sunlight without shade. In just ten minutes your friendly, fur-challenged friend can go from happy to heatstroke. And if your heat source must be in the cage, bear in mind that if it’s too hot to rest your hand on, it’s definitely too hot for Iggy.

Water, water everywhere
Denizens of desert, tropic, and temperate environments alike need water, and plenty of it, to survive. In addition to drinking it, some need to periodically soak to keep their scaly bodies sufficiently moist. Ensure that your reptile’s personal swimming area is shallow enough that he won’t drown and that it is kept clean from food residue and feces. The cage itself should have a relative humidity of 50 percent for desert species, 60-75 percent for temperate species, and 80-90 percent for tropical species. Some parts of the country are humid enough that additional humidity isn’t necessary. If you do need to create a little rain, misting the cage, or damp moss or vermiculite in the hide box should do the trick. With any method of humidifying, good air circulation is always important, and ultrasonic humidifiers allow less bacteria buildup than those of the steam variety.

Big bad Salmonella
You know you can get Salmonella from raw chicken or eggs, but a lesser-known fact is that most (if not all) reptiles are carriers of the bacteria. Salmonella is easily spread through bathtubs, hands, carpet, and clothing. For safety’s sake, your green pets should not be allowed to roam free. In most people, Salmonella exposure causes no problems, but in certain cases it can be quite dangerous – even fatal. People at serious risk for Salmonella include children under age five (especially infants), pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems.  Always wash your hands after handling your reptile, and do not eat or put anything into your mouth while handling your pet. (This also means that reptiles should be kept out of the kitchen, and kitchen sinks or infant bathing areas should not be used to bathe reptiles, their cages, or their dishes.) Read more tips from the AVMA about preventing Salmonella infections associated with reptiles and amphibians on their website.

The Doctor is In
An annual checkup allows your veterinarian to monitor your reptile for chronic nutritional deficiencies, one of the most common problems facing our green friends in captivity. Ensure that your reptile’s diet is well-balanced and varied, and check with the doctor for specifics on feeding. Your veterinarian can also advise you on hibernation-many temperate snakes and turtles have a natural inclination to take a long winter’s nap. Usually this requires a gradual reduction of food, seclusion in a darkened, cool area, and monitoring on your part to ensure your pet’s metabolism is low enough that he is not slowly starving to death.

A Place in the Sun
No matter what housing arrangement you set up for your reptile, you will need to provide heat for the animal. Here are several options:

  • Space heaters – Warm the entire room or closet.
  • Hot tape, heating pads – Provide localized spots of heat. Be careful reptiles are not allowed to come in direct contact with these, as they will burn the skin.
  • Incandescent or infrared light bulbs – Especially appropriate for reptiles that bask in the sun. Mount in the center of the ceiling and away from the sides, or even outside of the cage. Continuous light exposure can be stressful, so use infrared, red, or blue lights at night (even these should be mounted away from the reptile’s reach).
  • Hot rocks, sizzle stones – Not generally recommended, as they do not warm the air and may cause your reptile to spend all its time on the rock, burning itself.