Heating reptile tanks can be confusing. You need to know exactly what your pet requires. Does it need heat in the day and at night? Should it be from an under tank heater, a hot rock, or a heat lamp, or is sunlight enough?

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Heating Reptile Tanks

Reptiles come from all parts of the world and many different environments, so their heating needs vary. First you must understand your pet reptile’s preferred optimal temperature zone (POTZ). Whereas mammals do well in a uniform temperature, reptiles are ectothermic. This means they derive their heat—which determines their metabolism—from the environment.

Sunlight is not enough

Sunlight in a house can never generate enough light or heat for your pet reptile. It is filtered through the windows, so it does not provide the UVB light your reptile needs. It also does not provide reliable and consistent heat throughout the day, every day.

Heating reptile tanks Zilla Infared Thermometer

Infrared Thermometer

Ambient, basking, and night temperatures

Reptiles need exposure to a controlled range of temperatures so they can warm up and cool down throughout the day. Each pet reptile has an ideal  ambient temperature, basking temperature, and night time temperature. Not sure what that is for your pet? Our reptile care sheets and the guidelines below list ideal temperatures for a number of common reptiles.

To get accurate temperature readings within your pet’s habitat, consider an infrared thermometer. Simply point the beam to the bottom of the tank directly underneath the hottest part and click to get the temperature of the basking site. Do the same on the opposite side of the tank, where it is coolest. This is the ambient temperature. To determine the night time temperature, take another reading 3-4 hours after you turn off the daytime basking light.

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What is an good source of heat for reptiles?

Based on the POTZ for your pet and the temperature in your house (especially in colder climates like Chicago), you will most likely need a heat lamp to warm up your reptile tank. If your house gets particularly cold at night, or if you have a reptile that needs a fairly warm enclosure, get an undertank heater and leave it on all the time. Under tank heaters have a built-in thermostat set to turn off when it reaches temperature to will prevent thermal burns. Alternatively, you could use a ceramic heat emitter or red light heat lamp at night.

Heat lamps

Typically, heat lamps are listed by wattage. The wattage you need depends on the size of your reptile tank and the temperature your reptile should have at the basking site. If you are not sure about how to determine what wattage you need, I recommend starting with a Zilla light. Zilla provides easy-to-follow guidelines. Measure the height of your tank—where you should be resting your heat lamp. The guides below will tell you what temperature is produced by each wattage based upon how many inches the light sits above the basking site. You need a full-spectrum light during the day. When turned on, a full-spectrum light looks like the color of a reading lamp or regular house light.

If the tank gets too cold at night, I recommend a ceramic heat emitter, or an undertank heater set to the desired night time temperature. I don’t recommend hot rocks, as they often cause skin burns on reptiles.

UVB Light

UVB light gives reptiles the vitamin D they need to help grow and keep strong bones. Snakes are the only type of commonly kept reptile that do not need UVB lighting. Snakes ingest its calcium and vitamin D from whole prey. Typically, UVB light needs to be stronger while the reptile is growing. Once full grown, reptiles need less UVB light. Again, it is important to know the appropriate UVB light strength for your pet. The Animal Store staff is well-versed in reptile care and can answer these and other questions.

The UVB light and the daytime heat lamp should be left on 12 hours a day.

Zilla Reptile Habitat and Heating/Lighting Guides

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Zilla Reptile Lighting &
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Ask the Vet, Kristin Valdes, DVM

Welcome to Ask the Vet, a regular feature on The Animal Store Blog. We have teamed up with Kristin Valdes, DVM of Chicago Exotics Animal Hospital, who will answer your most pressing pet questions right here! Do you want to see your question answered on the blog? Leave a comment below or submit it on our contact form.
IMPORTANT — If you have immediate health concerns about your pet, contact your veterinarian or local emergency animal hospital. The Animal Store Blog posts occasional questions to and answers from one of our favorite vets. This column is for informational purposes only, and should not be considered a substitute for regular veterinary care for your pet.