How to start well in a terrarium?

Here are a few tips on the most important aspects of setting up a terrarium: how to furnish it, where to place it and the essential steps to keep it always clean and efficient. Always keep in mind that most of the health problems affecting reptiles are the direct result of inappropriate breeding conditions.

The materials

The materials with which it is possible to make a terrarium are the following:

The glass being fragile, it is necessary to pay the greatest attention to the cleaning and maintenance operations. It is also advisable to have one or two sliding doors at the front of the terrarium. Suitable for most reptiles, it is easy to clean, thus ensuring maximum hygiene and good aesthetic results. Attention: if the size of the terrarium is particularly important, with glass panes longer than one meter, make sure that the glass thickness is correct, i.e. a minimum of 6 minutes.

Wood, a material that naturally retains heat and moisture and is widely used for the creation of handcrafted terrariums. Inside it is possible to easily fix logs and shelves, but the wooden terrarium has the disadvantage of rotting and cracking easily if it has not been previously treated with a waterproof and non-toxic paint. Another disadvantage of the wooden terrarium is its difficult disinfection, especially after an infestation by mites. In addition, crickets and caimans could also gnaw at it. The most suitable wood for making a terrarium is marine plywood, but it is possible to obtain satisfactory aesthetic and functional results with chipboard, which is more economical. The front opening can be executed with one or two sliding doors, in glass or Plexiglas.

Netting: mainly used in chameleon breeding, as it favours air circulation inside the terrarium and allows the reptiles to benefit from direct sunlight. Net terrariums are easy to clean and transport, but because they are conditioned by the temperature of the room in which they are located, they are not commonly used. The net can be made of plastic, nylon or metal. It is important that the mesh is not too dense to prevent reptiles from becoming trapped by their fingernails, and that it does not allow crickets and other insects to escape or gnaw on it. Net terrariums have been used for some years, and with some success, in chameleon breeding, but in this case it must be well anchored to the ground by a plant or object that does not allow the reptile to knock it over.

Metal: These are real cages, generally designed to hold birds or rodents, but suitable for iguanas and other large lizards only. They are not very suitable for indoor use, but are extremely practical as a summer terrarium, as reptiles can benefit from direct sunlight.
Plastic: This material is mainly used for battery farms and for those who wish to have numerous terrariums, because of their practicality and ease of cleaning. Plastic terrariums are used more frequently in stores, as quarantine areas or for transport. In general, they are small and are therefore more suitable for smaller species. They are an indispensable tool for both the experienced breeder and the hobbyist, as they allow the reptile to be safely housed during the cleaning of the terrarium or during a quarantine period.

The different types of openings

The terrarium must have one or more movable partitions to allow access to its interior, in order to house the animal and to be able to carry out all maintenance and cleaning operations. The most frequently used openings are: one or two sliding doors, folding or sash doors, or removable glass doors. For venomous snakes, the openings positioned above the terrarium are the most frequently used and secure.

Temperature is a critical parameter of the environment, especially when it comes to captive breeding of reptiles. It should be noted that a terrarium is nothing more than a reconstruction as faithful as possible of the habitat of the reptile’s place of origin. These places of origin, located on all continents, are subject to the cycle of the seasons and consequently present different temperatures throughout the year, to which the reptile has adapted. It is therefore essential to recreate the seasonal cycle.
During most of the year, temperatures, whether outdoor or indoor, do not meet the requirements of most tropical species and it is therefore necessary to install a heating element in the terrarium. A “heating element” is a set of tools capable of emitting heat and heating the terrarium. The most common are heating plates or mats. They can be placed under the substrate or between the supporting surface and the base of the terrarium.

Their dimensions vary according to the power supplied. They must maintain a constant temperature that is appropriate for your reptile, even if they are left on for several hours at a time. It is preferable to place the heater mat outside the terrarium to prevent the reptile from coming into contact with the unit. Crickets and lizards may gnaw on the cable connecting the heater to the power outlet.
The heating cables use the same principle of operation as the plates: they do not develop heat on a surface, but along an insulated cable that you can place the terrarium at your convenience. They are among the most efficient means of heating, because they allow, when correctly positioned, to create temperature zones of different levels inside the terrarium.

You can also opt for ceramic lamps or spot lamps. Ceramic lamps can reach very high temperatures without providing light. Spot lamps, on the contrary, are able to provide light and UVA rays, ensuring at the same time the heating of a small area of the terrarium. It is advisable to position the lamp directly on a trunk or on a rock. All lamps must be protected by a wire mesh, so that the animal cannot burn itself on contact with them.


Often, lamps used as heating elements are also considered to be a suitable source of light for the terrarium.

Reptiles’ visual organs are capable of capturing the UVA spectrum and recent research has shown that reptiles subjected to these rays often have less difficulty feeding in captivity. UVB rays, on the other hand, allow the synthesis of vitamin D3, which in turn allows the animal to better assimilate the calcium present in food.

UVB lamps are essential for all vegetarian reptiles, but are of no use for carnivores and nocturnal species. Carnivores and nocturnal species are able to assimilate vitamin D3 from their prey, while nocturnal species never, or at least very rarely, expose themselves to sunlight. Herbivorous species, on the other hand, assimilate only the vitamin D2 contained in plants, which is much less effective than D3. They can only produce the latter through a natural catalyst: sunlight. When a lizard or a turtle is browned in the sun, it is not only a matter of thermoregulation, but also a good means for the production of vitamin D3, which is essential for growth and the proper development of skeletal structure.

Cleaning and maintenance

In order to guarantee reptiles suitable climatic and environmental conditions, maintenance and cleaning operations must be carried out daily, such as checking the health of the animal, eliminating excrement and food remains, checking the proper functioning of lamps and neon lights, checking the water level and the possible presence of parasites and moulds. Once a week it is essential to clean the bowl and change the water, while monthly it is necessary to remove the substrate and clean the terrarium thoroughly.