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 tank 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.
Not that long ago if you wanted a reptile cage, you needed to build it yourself.
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.
For dry reptile cages, wood can work well and has been the “go to” choice for DIY reptile enthusiasts for decadesWood: For dry reptile habitats, wood can work well and has been the “go to” choice for DIY reptile enthusiasts for decades. Wet habitats require lots more preparation and cost but can be made to work well in housing many higher humidity reptile species. 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.
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.
Pros – Safe, strong, impact and scratch-resistant, lightweight, environmentally stabilized, recyclable, waterproof, UV, odor and chemically resistant. Meets FDA & USDA standards in the food processing industry too.
Cons – Higher material costs.
Summary: Because of its long list of safe, practical, proven applications, we believe that HDPE is the very best material for the construction of reptile enclosures.