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Materials for Snake and other Reptile Cages
What kind of materials should you use when building a reptile cage? I was once asked this question by someone who wanted to build their own reptile cage. They were asking specifically about pine and cedar as they had heard they were not good. But it raised the question of what the best materials are.
All glass, tubs, melamine cages, display cages, there are many different types of housing systems for herps. Take your pick, depending on the size of the adult animal, how much space you need to save and how much money you are willing to make
Aquarium Tanks: Good choice for keeping snakes under 6 feet, amphibians, turtles, and basically anything that requires a pool or some moisture. If a screen top is used, there will be enough ventilation to keep a sand boa or leopard or some desert animal in it. If higher humidity is needed, the top of the screen can be partially wrapped with Saran wrap and the tank can be treated like a tropical garden; put soil in it and plant some plants to increase the humidity!
The view is unlimited, the tank can be cleaned easily, it will not scratch and the temperatures are easier to maintain. They are too heavy to move, especially large ones, or fully loaded ones. They need to be on a sturdy table or stand, and if you want to move them, the stand will need sturdy wheels. Many lizards such as water dragons should not be kept in glass tanks, as they do not understand glass and will constantly bump into it. Tanks should not be considered for chameleons; cages are better.
Plastic/Rubbermaid Tubs: Food tub sizes are great for turtles! You can fill them halfway with water, pile stones in one corner for the paving area, put a lily pad or two in it, and you have your own indoor pond complete with turtles! For the most common sizes, sweater boxes and shoe boxes, any non-aquatic herp can be kept in them. In fact, these are used in breeding racks and in households with many herps so that they can have the amount of tanks/cages to keep them all in. Not good for arboreal plants as they cannot climb. Perfect for use during the quarantine period before introducing a new animal to an established collection. These limit vision and are generally limited to hatchlings. Good for use as an emergency shutdown/isolation.
Melamine cages: Melamine is the material from which many counters are made. They resist moisture well, so rotting is usually not a problem. They are also easy to clean. Custom enclosures are sometimes made of melamine, and you can build
furniture quality enclosures for yourself. These can be made to fit a fully grown leopard gecko or green iguana. With a glass front, these enclosures retain moisture exceptionally well.
wood [plywood] Cages: Same as for melamine, except much cheaper and easier to work with. Both enclosures, if ordered from a custom builder, can cost a lot depending on size and material.
Screen Cages/Reptariums: Great for anoles, chameleons, light-bodied snakes and young water dragons. The main disadvantages are that the largest size is only 29″ x 29″ x 72″, moisture is very difficult to maintain, and strong animals can knock them over or even move them. This is a great idea for an easy to transport cage for small animals.
MDF or engineered wood: Same as for Melamine, but also much cheaper. Suitable for use in combined cages, e.g. with melamine base with MDF sides, back, etc. It can be painted, it has good thermal properties and if used together with a clothing material like Kontakti, it holds moisture well. Great to work with and has a smooth finish. You can also use thinner sheets as it maintains its rigidity. Some people recommend wearing a mask when cutting or handling MDF as it can be dusty.
Pine or Cedar: Neither of these woods should be used to build a cage. Making the entire reptile cage out of pine or cedar has potential health problems for the animals. These woods emit aromatic hydrocarbons that can harm the health of animals and cause various symptoms. There is probably a bit of a problem in using the wood in the frame, as the wood is often too dry and has released too much of the volatile material, or at least, the rate at which it releases is too slow.
It is also recommended not to use pine or cedar as a substrate. Pine and cedar wood chips used as substrates have a very high surface area and thus hydrocarbons are released much more easily, making them potentially toxic, especially since animals like to dig and burrow into their substrate material.
PVC Pipe and Mesh or Plexiglas: These materials make excellent larger cages for animals such as monitors, larger snakes, chameleons and iguanas. They tend to lose some heat, but any large enclosure will require some effort to maintain a higher temperature. Lighting at the top and some on the sides (if needed) will create a sufficient heat gradient. Without building a large glass frame and a large door, this is the most economical way to make a larger enclosure if you don’t have woodworking tools.
In general, if you want to build your own cages for most reptiles, it’s probably best to use plywood, melamine, and MDF types of materials for the bulk of the cage. At this stage there do not appear to be any identifiable health problems caused by these materials. Another benefit of these materials is their insulating properties. Glass is not a good material for most reptile cages (except aquatic species) as it loses heat rapidly. Many glass terrariums have an open top without sealing and this also causes a high heat loss. This means that glass cages are more expensive to heat if you use certain types of heat sources.
The front of the cage can be sliding glass, Plexiglas or a built-in glass door. A pine, oak or similar wood frame on the front will give the cage a more professional and decorative look.
If you paint your cage, remember to let it dry for at least 2-3 days to release as much volatile material from the paints as possible. 5-7 days would be even better.
It is a good idea to make the base of a wooden reptile cage out of melamine and use silicone to seal the edges to prevent moisture from penetrating the melamine or plywood layer.
There are hints and tips for applying silicone in the How to Build Reptile Enclosures booklet.
A vinyl floor base can also be used if you are concerned about water seeping into the wood. Be sure to seal it with silicone and seal the holes where the temperature probes go.
Before assembling the cage, you can also paint the inside of the MDF or plywood cage with ‘Contact’, an adhesive based plastic sheet, in any color you like. This will remove the need to paint the cage inside, reducing fumes, and will also provide a waterproof seal for MDF or plywood. The contact comes in a range of colors and is very easy to cut and apply.
There is a lot to gain from building your own reptile cage. It is good fun and will give you, as the reptile owner, great personal satisfaction. Before you go out and buy a reptile, take some time to research the best type of cage for your pet. You should be aware that many reptiles will grow significantly over time and you may need to build a number of cages. Good luck and enjoy.
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