Caging

caging

  • Cage Materials

Enclosures are made from many different materials, and all have been used with success over the years. But whether you decide to design and build your own cage or purchase one from a manufacturer, keep in mind that each material has its advantages and disadvantages. Below is a summary of the more commonly used materials. Regarding color, there are many options depending on the material you choose, but chondros are usually kept in either black or white cages. While some keepers feel darker colors provide more security, others have shown white to be just as suitable for maintaining a healthy collection.

If you decide to build your own enclosure, research the materials available to you. Some can be toxic, or can release toxic substances under some conditions (such as when heated) and your animal’s health could be at risk. With a little effort you can usually find non-toxic alternatives for building a GTP enclosure.

Glass

Glass is less thermally efficient than other materials. That is, it does not hold heat very well. And although glass is relatively inexpensive, it breaks easily, often requires modification to hold heat and humidity, and it is heavy. Another thing to consider is that if your GTP is unsettled/nervous, the transparent sides of glass may make it feel even less secure, which can increase stress. Covering the exposed sides with a towel will help improve your chondro’s sense of security during a transition period. Regardless, glass enclosures tend to be more suitable for those with a dedicated heated room, or for those living in a warm climate. 

Acrylic 

Like glass, acrylic is not very thermally efficient and leaves an animal exposed on the sides. It is lighter than glass, but can scratch easily if not cleaned properly. Also, mineral deposits from misting can be more difficult to remove from acrylic. While it can be somewhat difficult to work with, it offers more flexibility to modification than glass.

Wood

Wood is fairly easy to work with, is relatively inexpensive, and is more thermally efficient than glass or acrylic. A major disadvantage is the fact that wood is porous. If left unprotected it will absorb odors and moisture and can lead to a smelly and moldy cage that may compromise your snake’s health. Sealing or covering the inside of the cage will solve this problem. A non-toxic polyurethane-based sealer works well but can discolor and peel with time. Covering the interior surfaces with contact paper, or laminating with Formica or melamine are good options, but this is more labor intensive and requires specific tools and know-how to accomplish. 

Melamine (Coated Wood)

Melamine is found at home improvement stores and is sometimes used to build cages and rack systems. Unfortunately, the melamine available at these stores is usually a thinner version of that used on countertops, so it is a lower quality. This product is quite heavy, stains rather easily, and will absorb moisture and swell over time. 

Another issue is the melamine itself. Melamine is an organic compound that is manufactured by mixing urea with formaldehyde under heat and pressure to produce melamine resin, a synthetic polymer that is fire resistant and heat tolerant. For years this compound has been considered safe for normal uses, but recent studies indicate that melamine resin can leach considerable amounts of melamine monomers under certain conditions such as high heat. While it is unclear what long-term effects this will have on human health, it has the potential to cause negative results to the health of a reptile in a heated enclosure.

PVC and Other Plastics

When it comes to adult GTP cages, expanded PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) and HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) are the most common. Although cut-to-size sheeting is available from local plastics suppliers, these cages are usually ordered from one of several reptile cage manufactures. There are many styles and sizes and most companies will custom design cages to your specifications. Some benefits of these materials are they stack well, hold heat and humidity well, are much lighter than wood or glass, and provide an aesthetically clean look.

Recently, concerns have been expressed over the potential out-gassing of harmful chemicals from PVC, although there hasn’t been specific evidence to support this. Regardless, some keepers are choosing HDPE as an extra precaution. HDPE is USDA and FDA-approved so it is recognized as safe enough to eat off of. It does not out-gas or leach toxins, and it is chemically resistant; nothing sticks to it and it will not stain. While this makes HDPE easy to clean and sanitize, it can be challenging to adhere heat tape to it because of its non-stick properties. In addition, HDPE is softer and more susceptible to bowing/sagging than PVC.

  • Simple vs. Naturalistic Setups

A simple setup might contain 2 or 3 perches, a heat source (with a connected thermostat), water bowl, and substrate. People with larger collections tend to choose simple setups since they require less maintenance. What a simple setup lacks in visual appeal is made up for in practicality. In addition to requiring less maintenance, simple setups enable a more thorough cleaning/disinfecting than more elaborate setups.

Simple setups are easy to clean and disinfect, provide a clean/healthy environment for the chondro, and they are economical/more cost-effective. Another benefit is that defecations are easily spotted and removed. On the other hand, simple setups are visually less appealing, have potentially lower air quality due to the absence of plants, and are more likely to harbor higher bacterial loads when “spot-cleaning” is performed (if using mulch as a substrate).

A naturalistic setup can be as basic as just adding live potted plants to an enclosure, or as complex as having plants rooted directly into a bio-active substrate where isopods and microorganisms help break down waste matter that hasn’t been removed. The primary issue with adding potted plants is that gnats often accompany them. If you do select a bio-active substrate, make sure you research it to ensure you do it correctly. If not, over time a closed system vivarium can build up dangerous levels of pathogens, which can be harmful to your snake.

The upside of naturalistic setups is that they are visually appealing, have potentially better air quality, and provide a more enriched environment. And if set up correctly, they can actually require less cleaning than a simple setup. A downside to a natural setup includes the pesky gnats that are often attracted to plants and woodchip substrates. Also, if given a lot of cover (hide areas), some animals may choose to stay hidden at the expense of seeking an appropriate basking spot. This has the potential to interfere with proper thermoregulation and can lead to illness such as respiratory infections. Naturalistic setups are also less practical for larger collections. And despite the fact that isopods help break down waste, naturalistic setups can be more difficult to clean and disinfect since defecations are not as easily spotted. In other words, there is a higher potential for the environment to develop an unhealthy level of pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria.

Whatever cage design you decide to use you will need to make sure that it has: Proper temp gradient, proper humidity and good ventilation/air flow. These are very important elements to keeping your animal healthy!

 

Basic Setups

  1. Basic Set Up For a Neonate GTP

–       Plastic shoe box such as a Sterilite 1642 ( 13 ¾” L x 8” W x 5” H)

–       Bottom heat at the back of the enclosure, or back heat from heat tape

–       Herpstat or other proportional thermostat

–       1-2 plastic coat hanger perches

–       Very shallow water dish, such as the lid of a deli cup

–       Paper towel substrate

–       Proper ventilation

Note: For neos it is common to keep the temperatures and humidity fairly consistent. Temperature at 85 degrees F during the day, dropping to 80-83 degrees F at night in a rack system is common for many neos. A daily light mist will raise the humidity and provide an additional source of water to ensure hydration. And a brief drying out period is recommended even for young neos.

  1. Basic Tub Setup For Yearling/Sub-adult

–       Rubbermaid, Sterilite, or Cambro Tub from 15 Qt up to 56 Qt.

–       Top mounted RHP, bottom or back mounted heat tape

–       Herpstat or similar proportional thermostat

–       2 or 3 perches of appropriate size

–       Medium water bowl

–       Newspaper or paper towel substrate

–       Proper ventilation

  1. Basic Set Up For an Adult GTP

–       2x2x2 (male) or 3x2x2 (female) enclosure

–       Top-mounted RHP(Radiant Heat Panel), or back heat using heat tape (for adult tubs)

–       Spyder Robotics Herpstat, or comparable proportional thermostat (Helix, Big Apple, etc.)

–       2-3 perches

–       Large water bowl

–       Substrate (paper towel, cypress mulch, newspaper, etc.)

–       Proper ventilation

  • Cage Sizes

It should be immediately stated that there is no perfect enclosure. Cage size and design is a personal preference based on many factors, and your preference may in fact change with time and experience. A common misconception is that chondros require tall cages because they are arboreal snakes. But this is not widely accepted in GTP husbandry. A horizontally oriented cage is actually preferred by most keepers because, as you will understand, it is easier to create and maintain a suitable thermal gradient.

When planning your cage, consider that a chondro is likely to fare better in too small of an enclosure than in too large of one. So err on the small side if you aren’t sure what size to go with. The best suggestion is to copy the cage dimensions used by the previous owner. But whether you buy it or build it, consider the chondro’s current size, and think about your collection now and where you see it down the road.

Breeders have success with cages of various sizes, although there are some basic recommendations to follow. Within the recommended ranges you will have to decide what works best for your situation.  If you plan on having a large collection and you have limited space, you might choose cages at the smaller end of the range. Smaller enclosures are also more energy efficient because they require less power to heat. But if you have animals that are over 1,000 grams you should consider larger enclosures. Regardless, the health and welfare of the snake should be the priority when choosing appropriate caging. Larger adults tend to be especially sedentary. It could be argued that too small of an adult enclosure discourages movement and exercise.

Neonates (Neos)

A 6 qt. shoebox with dimensions of approximately 14” x 8” x 5” (L/D/H) is the most commonly used enclosure for neos. A tub with these dimensions will likely be suitable from hatch to 8-12 months of age. Chondros grow at different rates, determined by both frequency of feeding and their underlying genetics. In general, a chondro can be kept in a 6 qt. tub until it reaches about 75-100 grams. Some snakes will reach this size by 9 months, while others may require closer to 1 year. Be aware that moving a GTP to a larger cage will sometimes cause an aggressive feeder to begin refusing food. This is typically caused by stress from the move and it’s normally temporary. But a prolonged refusal might suggest that it isn’t ready for a larger cage and you should consider moving it back to the previous one until it gains more size.

Yearlings and Sub-Adults

As your GTP grows it should be moved to a larger enclosure. If using a rack, yearlings are transitioned up to 15-16 quart tubs with dimensions of 17” x 11” x 6.5”. As they add additional size and weight they are moved to 30-32 quart sub-adult tubs with dimensions of 24” x 16” x 6.5”. Some brands might be taller than 6.5 inches, which is also suitable for yearlings and sub-adults.You can also choose custom built cages from one of the listed manufactures.

Adults

Most keepers consider an area of approximately 8 cubic feet to be the minimum enclosure size for adults. This equates to a cage that is 24” x 24” x 24” and is usually a good option for adult males. But an enclosure with dimensions 30” x 24” x 24” (L/D/H) or 36” x 24” x 24” is more common for adult females because they grow bigger than males. Large tubs, such as The Container Store’s CB80’s, are sometimes used for adults. They require a custom built rack, but most adult enclosures are either built by do-it-yourselfers or purchased from reptile cage manufactures like Animal Plastics, Constrictors NW, or PVC Cages.com.

Typical Progression if Using Tubs

–       Birth to approximately 9-12 months: 6 quart tub

–       9-12 months to approximately 175-200 grams: 15 quart tub

–       175-200 grams to approximately 350-400 grams: 32 quart tub

–       Above 350-400 grams: Vision CB80 tub, 24” cube cage, or larger cage

  • Cage Materials

Enclosures are made from many different materials, and all have been used with success over the years. But whether you decide to design and build your own cage or purchase one from a manufacturer, keep in mind that each material has its advantages and disadvantages. Below is a summary of the more commonly used materials. Regarding color, there are many options depending on the material you choose, but chondros are usually kept in either black or white cages. While some keepers feel darker colors provide more security, others have shown white to be just as suitable for maintaining a healthy collection.

If you decide to build your own enclosure, research the materials available to you. Some can be toxic, or can release toxic substances under some conditions (such as when heated) and your animal’s health could be at risk. With a little effort you can usually find non-toxic alternatives for building a GTP enclosure.

Glass

Glass is less thermally efficient than other materials. That is, it does not hold heat very well. And although glass is relatively inexpensive, it breaks easily, often requires modification to hold heat and humidity, and it is heavy. Another thing to consider is that if your GTP is unsettled/nervous, the transparent sides of glass may make it feel even less secure, which can increase stress. Covering the exposed sides with a towel will help improve your chondro’s sense of security during a transition period. Regardless, glass enclosures tend to be more suitable for those with a dedicated heated room, or for those living in a warm climate. 

Acrylic 

Like glass, acrylic is not very thermally efficient and leaves an animal exposed on the sides. It is lighter than glass, but can scratch easily if not cleaned properly. Also, mineral deposits from misting can be more difficult to remove from acrylic. While it can be somewhat difficult to work with, it offers more flexibility to modification than glass.

Wood

Wood is fairly easy to work with, is relatively inexpensive, and is more thermally efficient than glass or acrylic. A major disadvantage is the fact that wood is porous. If left unprotected it will absorb odors and moisture and can lead to a smelly and moldy cage that may compromise your snake’s health. Sealing or covering the inside of the cage will solve this problem. A non-toxic polyurethane-based sealer works well but can discolor and peel with time. Covering the interior surfaces with contact paper, or laminating with Formica or melamine are good options, but this is more labor intensive and requires specific tools and know-how to accomplish. 

Melamine (Coated Wood)

Melamine is found at home improvement stores and is sometimes used to build cages and rack systems. Unfortunately, the melamine available at these stores is usually a thinner version of that used on countertops, so it is a lower quality. This product is quite heavy, stains rather easily, and will absorb moisture and swell over time. 

Another issue is the melamine itself. Melamine is an organic compound that is manufactured by mixing urea with formaldehyde under heat and pressure to produce melamine resin, a synthetic polymer that is fire resistant and heat tolerant. For years this compound has been considered safe for normal uses, but recent studies indicate that melamine resin can leach considerable amounts of melamine monomers under certain conditions such as high heat. While it is unclear what long-term effects this will have on human health, it has the potential to cause negative results to the health of a reptile in a heated enclosure.

PVC and Other Plastics

When it comes to adult GTP cages, expanded PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) and HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) are the most common. Although cut-to-size sheeting is available from local plastics suppliers, these cages are usually ordered from one of several reptile cage manufactures. There are many styles and sizes and most companies will custom design cages to your specifications. Some benefits of these materials are they stack well, hold heat and humidity well, are much lighter than wood or glass, and provide an aesthetically clean look.

Recently, concerns have been expressed over the potential out-gassing of harmful chemicals from PVC, although there hasn’t been specific evidence to support this. Regardless, some keepers are choosing HDPE as an extra precaution. HDPE is USDA and FDA-approved so it is recognized as safe enough to eat off of. It does not out-gas or leach toxins, and it is chemically resistant; nothing sticks to it and it will not stain. While this makes HDPE easy to clean and sanitize, it can be challenging to adhere heat tape to it because of its non-stick properties. In addition, HDPE is softer and more susceptible to bowing/sagging than PVC.

  • Tubs and Racks

Tubs are a very popular enclosure for chondros of all sizes. Some of the more popular brands of plastic tubs include, Sterilite, Rubbermaid, Itso cube, Isis, and Roughneck. They are cheap, easily modified, and come in many different sizes and colors. A significant problem with tubs is that manufacturers often change their design/specifications, sometimes annually. This makes it challenging to have a consistent rack style and can make finding replacement tubs almost impossible. So you should purchase ample tubs if/when you purchase a rack that only accommodates a specific tub model.

Another option is to use polycarbonate tubs such as Cambro or Carlisle. These are food-safe containers used by the restaurant industry, and dimensions are rarely changed. They are easy to clean, have excellent visibility, are available in many different sizes, and they are modular (two smaller tubs will fit in the same space as one larger one). The main drawback with polycarbonate tubs is their cost. Cambro can be quite expensive, while Carlisle is typically about half the cost. While they aren’t as heavy-duty as Cambro, they are a good alternative.

While tubs are usually used in rack systems, an individual tub can be used to house a single animal. The easiest way to set up a single tub for top heat is to drill several small holes in one side of the lid where you will place a heat element, such as a ceramic bulb. Alternatively, an under tank heater could be placed underneath one side of a tub for belly heat. In either case, a thermostat probe should be placed at perch level in the location of the hot/basking spot. More information will be covered on heating later.

Racks are typically used for housing multiple neonates and sub adults. They can be purchased, or built at home. A rack is basically a shelf system with an enclosed back that holds plastic tubs. They are constructed so that the floor of one shelf serves as the ceiling for the tubs in the shelf below it. Therefore tubs in a rack do not require lids, and animals are accessed by simply sliding a tub forward. Racks usually incorporate back heat or belly heat using heat tape. With back heat, the heat tape is secured to the entire (interior) back wall of the rack. With belly heat, heat tape is secured at the rear of each shelf in the rack. While racks are mostly used for housing neos to sub adults, they can be built to accommodate larger tubs for adults. Again, racks are ideal for keeping multiple snakes and are great space savers.

  • Perches

Material, placement, and size are three factors to consider when choosing perches for your chondro enclosure.

  1. Synthetic Perches

When working with synthetic materials you should always be sure your perches are non-toxic, mildew resistant, and easy to remove and clean. Popular synthetic perch materials include, plastic hangers, PVC, HDPE, FDA-approved Acetron GP, Insertworks, and fiberglass.

Plastic Hangers

Plastic clothing hangers are a popular choice for younger chondros, from hatch until approximately 75-100 grams. They are inexpensive and easy to custom fit to tubs of different sizes. Hangers are readily available in two thicknesses, where thinner/lightweight are used for hatchlings and thicker heavy-duty hangers are used for sub yearlings as they approach 100 grams.

PVC

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a common choice for GTP and other arboreal snakes. It is available in both hexagonal or circular shape, comes in many sizes, is easy to clean and disinfect, and is inexpensive. Many keepers do not like the sterile appearance of PVC so they scorch the surface using hand held propane torches. “Torching” PVC effectively burns the surface and produces colors ranging from golden yellow (more lightly heated areas) to black (more severely burnt areas). Gentle heating of a concentrated area also softens the material and enables twists to be added to the otherwise straight tube. Since the fumes released from burning PVC are toxic, torching should only be done outside in a well-ventilated area while using a respirator. Also, when making twists it is helpful to have a hose available to run cool water over the twisted area to set/harden the PVC into the desired shape. At the conclusion of torching it is also recommended to lightly scrub the entire PVC branch with steel wool.

If you decide to torch PVC, it is worth researching. The following information is available at http://www.healthybuilding.net/pvc/Thornton_Enviro_Impacts_of_PVC.pdf

“Because of its majority chlorine content, when PVC burns in fires two hazardous substances are formed which present acute and chronic hazards to fire fighters, building occupants, and the surrounding community. These are hydrogen chloride gas and dioxin. Hydrogenchloride is a corrosive, highly toxic gas that can cause skin burns and when comes into contact with the mucous lining of the respiratory tract creates hydrochloric acid, which can cause severe respiratory damage. Exposure to a single PVC fire can cause permanent respiratory disease.

Dioxin is an unintentional by-product of PVC combustion, and would most likely be left behind in ash and debris from a PVC fire. While only small amounts of dioxin may be formed as the result of burning PVC, it is one of the most toxic substances known to science. Dioxin is a known human carcinogen and has been linked to reproductive disorders, immune suppression, and endometriosis, and other diseases in laboratory animals.”

“PVC is one of the worst offenders when it comes to toxic substances. PVC can emit highly corrosive and toxic hydrogen chloride when burned. It is also is a source of dioxin and phosgene gas when burned at temperatures below complete combustion. Coincidentally, phosgene, an odorless gas that can damage the lungs, is one of the substances used in chemical warfare. Samples of soot taken from fires in PVC-containing buildings that have burned have been found to contain dioxins in very high concentrations. The soot, however, represents only a small part of the problem: more than 90 of the dioxins produced in a structural fire are found in the gaseous phase and escape into the atmosphere.”

HDPE

High-density polyethylene (HDPE) is one of the most commonly used plastics in the US. It is USDA and FDA-approved plastic typically found in milk jugs, plastic bags and refillable plastic bottles (http://bearboardlumber.com/bearboard-plastic-advantage/what-is-hdpe.html).HDPE plastic is resistant to acids, bases, alcohol, and vegetable oils, and is impact resistant. It is also resistant to sustained heat of about 110 degrees Celsius (http://www.dynalabcorp.com/technical_info_hd_polyethylene.asp). As mentioned, this plastic is ultimately chemical resistant, meaning nothing will stick to it. So HDPE is very easy to clean.

Recently some cage manufacturers have switched to marine grade HDPE. It is designed for use in harsh marine environments and it is UV resistant. The plastic is 3/8” thick and more rigid than typical HDPE because it has 3 layers: a solid layer, a slightly expanded layer, and an additional solid layer to give it a plywood-like effect to resist sagging. It is also made of recycled plastic and is 35% lighter than standard HDPE plastic of the same thickness. Unfortunately, despite the improvements, 3/8” marine grade HDPE has still been shown to be susceptible to sagging.

Acetron GP

Acetron GP is an FDA, USDA, NSF and Canada AG food compliant plastic which absorbs less than .001% of its own weight in water, and cannot out-gas or leak toxins until heated well over 635 degree’s F (http://www.emcoplastics.com/materials/acetal/acetron-gp/). It is dense and heavy and is perhaps one of the more ideal materials for synthetic perches. It is available in round, square, and hexagonal shapes in a variety of dimensions. It comes in white, black, and brown, and is far stronger and more easily tooled than PVC. At a cost of $2-6 a linear foot, depending on diameter/color, the cost of outfitting multiple cages with Acetron GP can easily run several hundred to over one thousand dollars.

Insertsworks

Insertworks perches are hand sculpted and custom made inserts that create functional and realistic branch work for your snake’s habitat. Each perch or branch is made using environmentally safe epoxy that is extremely durable and easy to maintain. They do not absorb odor and are resistant to fungal growth or rotting. Insertworks perches are true works of art and the cost of these pieces is reflected in this fact. However, if price is not an issue or if you are outfitting only a few cages, they are well worth the money spent.

Fiberglass

Fiberglass perches are similar to Insertsworks. They are custom fiberglass branches made to look like real branches and come in many shapes, sizes, and colors. They are made to look and feel like authentic wood, but are easy to clean and will not rot or harbor pests. They are non-toxic and resistant to damage from cleaning chemicals.

  1. Natural/Wood Perches

Some of the more popular natural perches used in GTP enclosures include hardwood dowels, cypress, crepe myrtle, maple, dried bamboo, American sycamore, and manzanita. If you choose wood perches be sure they are from a non-toxic tree that has not been treated with pesticides. Also, wood branches should be cleaned prior to use. Some keepers bake branches at low temp to kill insects that might be present.

One drawback with wood is that the bark, knots, and cracks can be hard to clean and sanitize. So some keepers will coat branches with non-toxic sealer, such as water-based polyurethane or Zoopoxy, in order to seal the wood and make it easier to clean. Water-based polyurethanes can be purchased at most home improvement/hardware stores, but in some cases they may not be very durable. Regardless, apply multiple (5-7) coats and let branches dry for several days before using them. Zoopoxy is an environmentally safe, non-toxic epoxy used for the creation of naturalistic, artificial environments in movies, theme parks, museums, aquariums, and zoos.

The #1618 Epoxy Coating is extremely clear and can be used for sealing or beautifying many surfaces. It will waterproof and protect against environmental exposure, animal waste and most cleaners and solvents. Some epoxy coatings are even flexible and can withstand thermal expansion and contraction. This product is a rather expensive at approximately $100 for a 1.5 gallon kit.

If you use natural perches and do not to seal them, make sure to clean and sanitize them well, and often. Since wood is naturally porous it can harbor many microorganisms. If your branches are growing fungus/mold, your cage probably isn’t drying enough between spraying, or you need to use a different type of wood.

  1. Placement

When considering the placement of your perches, make sure at least one is directly under the heat source to allow your chondro to thermoregulate. As a general guideline, perches in adult cages can be situated about 4-6” below a RHP, with the thermostat probe about level with the perch. Regardless of perch placement, use judgment to prevent burns or overheating. And as mentioned, dial in your temperature settings prior to the arrival of your chondro. And while a perfectly horizontal perch is a common site, it is not a necessity. Providing perches with different angles and elevations may help promote movement and will also aid in thermoregulation. It will also create a more visually pleasing cage for the keeper.

  1. Size

As a general rule, perches should be approximately the same diameter as the thickest part of the snake itself. Many keepers will offer a variety of perch sizes and let the animal choose. In fact, some snakes prefer a much smaller perch than you might expect. Some keepers suggest that too large of a perch can lead to kinks, but data to support this is not readily available. Still, many keepers tend to err on the safe side and provide smaller perches as opposed to larger ones. As mentioned, neos up to about 6 months are typically given plastic coat hangers (about ¼” in diameter) or something similar in size. Depending upon size, adults often select perches in the 5/8” – ¾” range.

Chondros have extremely aggressive feeding responses, and falling or spinning perches could lead to injury. So most keepers securely fasten their perches to prevent injury. But mounting perches so that they are easily removed is highly recommended. This makes removing a chondro for taking pictures, cleaning cages, etc. much easier. It should also be noted that when removing a chondro from a perch, extreme caution and patience should be used to avoid injuries.

  • Substrate 

Every form of substrate has its pros and cons. The choice of substrate is often a matter of personal preference (aesthetics) and practicality (size of collection). Some prefer a minimalistic approach and feel it is easier to clean and maintain a more sanitary environment. Others like a more naturalistic approach and feel that mulch or a similar substrate is more typical of that in the wild. You will likely experiment with different substrates before you settle on the one that is best suited for you and your collection. But as you do, avoid wood shavings or bark such as cedar or pine since they can have strong odors and might irritate the mucus linings.

Absorbent Pet or Bed Pads

Absorbent pads work great for retaining moister and will help maintain elevated humidity. Also, some can be cut to size. But their higher cost can be limiting if you are keeping a larger collection. They can be found at most big-box retail stores.

Newspaper

Many keepers with large collections use newspaper as a substrate. It is cheap, easy to get, and is simple to remove/clean. The main drawback with newspaper is it can ink both the enclosure, and roaming animals within the enclosure. This is especially true with white materials (PVC) and yellow neonates. But this is purely a visual issue since ink is soy based and does not pose any health risk. Because newspaper dries out quickly you will likely need to spray more often to maintain an elevated humidity level. And it is not good at masking the odor of fresh feces, but this might give an incentive to clean more often.

Paper Towel 

Like newspaper, paper towel is a popular substrate for keepers with large collections. It is commonly used in tubs for its practicality; it is easy to clean and holds humidity well. However, caution should be used, especially when feeding. Although it rarely happens, ingesting a large amount of paper towel can lead to severe complications and often death.

Cypress Mulch

Cypress mulch is popular among GTP keepers since it is readily available, holds humidity well, and tends to mask odor from defecations. It is visually appealing, does not rot or mold easily, and can be spot cleaned. Many keepers using mulch spot clean when necessary, and do a full substrate change 3-4 times each year. But while mulch is aesthetically pleasing, it does have its drawbacks. For example, mulch can become lodged in the mouth/gums from miss-striking a food item, which could lead to health complications. While spot cleaning eliminates the solid feces and urates, the remaining waste fluids will be absorbed. Also, mulch can harbor bacteria and fungus if kept too wet. It should also be noted that mulch often attracts gnats. Finally, it has been brought to the attention of the MVF community that harvesting cypress mulch is harmful to the environment since it is implicated in the destruction of wetlands. Do the research and make an informed choice.

Orchid bark

Orchid bark has similar characteristics of cypress mulch.

Eco-earth or Similar Products

These substrates hold moisture well and look great in a more naturalistic set up. However, specialty substrates are expensive when dealing with many cages. Also, substrates that are very fine in texture, such as peat moss, coconut fiber, etc. can get lodged in the nose, heat sensing pits, and gums. This is especially true for roaming males and unsettled pre-lay females in a nest box. If left undetected, impacted substrate will likely lead to health issues.

Water

Utilizing a substrate of standing water is not recommended due to the likelihood of developing unsanitary conditions.

  • Heating

There are many ways to heat your animal’s enclosure. Flexwatt heat tape, Reptile Basics heat tape, heating cable, and heat rope are most often used for racks. Radiant heat panels (RHPs) are the most popular for heating individual cages. Other less popular but adequate sources include heat pads, ceramic heat bulbs, and infrared basking bulbs. For the safety of your animal, most heat sources should be installed outside of the cage. If not, there is a significant risk for burns. The one exception is the RHP, which is in fact mounted on the interior ceiling of an enclosure. The type/location of heat source is a matter of preference, and each has its pros and cons.

Bottom/Belly Heat

As the name implies, the heat source is situated at the bottom of the enclosure. Again, it should never be placed within a cage or tub due to the risk of fire and burning the animal. Also, it should not cover the bottom of the entire enclosure. Rather, it should be offset towards one end, covering no more than half the bottom of the cage. Bottom heat is set up using heat tape or heat pads and is most commonly used with rack systems.

      Pros – Simple and easy to set up. Can provide a vertical thermal gradient if done properly in taller cages.

      Cons – Heat gradient can be difficult to set up. The substrate has the potential to grow bacteria and fungi at a faster rate if kept too moist. Can encourage grounding.

Back Heat 

Back heat is typically set up using heat tape on the back interior wall of a rack assembly. 

      Pros – Great for rack systems. Can provide a good back to front thermal gradient in most cases.

      Cons – None to speak of.

Top Heat

Radiant Heat Panels, or RHP’s, are most commonly used for this application. They are installed offset (off center) on the interior ceiling of an enclosure. Infrared basking lights and ceramic bulbs can also be used for top heat. 

      Pros – Provides a good top-to-bottom, and side-to-side thermal gradient. RHPs won’t burn the animal and are the heating source of choice for most GTP keepers.

      Cons – RHP’s are considerably more expensive than all other sources, but their efficiency and safety outweigh their cost. If using infrared basking lights and ceramic heating elements they need to be mounted outside the cage or covered so that the snake cannot burn itself. In addition to getting very hot, RHP’s and ceramic bulbs tend to dry a cage slightly faster.

Whole Room Heating 

Some keepers uniformly heat an entire room instead of heating individual enclosures. Most often an oil filled radiator, baseboard, or other type of electric heater is used. An appropriately rated thermostat should be used as a back up to the one on the heating unit for extra safety. With whole room heating it is helpful to use a ceiling or box fan to ensure uniformity of temperature throughout the room. This is especially important if you have tall stacks of cages, or tall racks.

      Pros – Whole room heating has less expensive up-front costs, and can avoid overly dry conditions sometimes attributed to in-cage heating.

      Cons – With whole room heating you have less control of individual cages. This is especially challenging during breeding season if animals are being thermally cycled at different times of the season. It can create hot and cold pockets within the room if proper circulation is not achieved. Additional equipment is needed, such as timers, to set a night time drop in temps.

 

Thermostat Probe Placement

The placement of a thermostat probe is crucial. Using top heat as an example, the probe would need to be situated somewhere underneath the heat source and close to the level of the highest perch. Ideally the probe would measure air temps at the centermost point of the hot spot (directly under the heat source at perch level). But this isn’t practical unless the probe was secured to the perch itself. This isn’t recommended since the snake is likely to perch on the probe and interfere with feedback to the thermostat. 

Because the probe will be offset from the centermost point of the hot spot, you will need to evaluate your chondro’s surface temp while basking and make adjustments to the settings on the thermostat. For example, the probe might be situated to one side of the heat source, slightly above the perch, with the thermostat set at 86. Remember that the thermostat will regulate heat output as determined by the temperature measured at the location of the probe. In this example, maintaining a temp of 86 (off to one side of the heat source) might equate to a hot spot of 92 directly under the source. In this case it would be necessary to lower the set point on the thermostat until a hot spot of 86-88 was achieved.

 

Temperature/Thermal Gradients

Like all reptiles, chondros thermoregulate by locating a comfortable temperature within their environment. Therefore, it is necessary to establish a temperature gradient (from cool to warm) to enable thermoregulation. A typical gradient is in the range from 75˚ to 88˚ F. Actual measured temperatures can depend on factors like vent placement, the source and wattage of heat provided, and the ambient room temperature. If ambient room temp is too high (close to the temp of your cage) it will be more challenging to achieve a broad thermal gradient. Also, fluorescent lights emit heat and may interfere with the temps you are targeting. In this case you might need to use different lighting, or experiment with light location. 

To achieve a thermal gradient, heat sources are always offset to one side of an enclosure. In the case of top heat, the RHP, ceramic bulb, etc. is situated to the left or right side. When belly heat is used in a rack, heat tape is commonly situated to the rear of the tub. Therefore with belly heat and back heat a natural gradient is created from front to back.

When establishing your thermal gradient it is important to read what your chondro is telling you. If it constantly perches in the hot spot, your maximum temp may be set too low. If it habitually perches as far from the heat source as possible, or routinely grounds itself, your maximum temps may be set too high. An infrared temperature gun is a valuable tool and is highly recommended for setting up your thermal gradient. It will provide quick feedback about the surface temps of your chondro, perches, the ground, etc. and will enable you to dial in your temps with greater confidence.

It should be noted that sometimes a GTP will perch in a suboptimal location at the expense of receiving adequate heat. An example is when a newly acquired chondro is grounded for several days. In this case the animal is likely selecting a location that provides more security at the expense of  getting enough heat. If this is observed for multiple days it will be necessary to make adjustments to encourage perching. If not, sustained stress-related grounding may lead to health issues. This will be covered in more detail later.

 

Nighttime Temperature Drops

Many GTP keepers use a nighttime temperature drop (NTD) as part of their daily husbandry practices. On the other hand, some keepers chose to only use NTD’s as part of their breeding protocols. But as GTP husbandry evolves it may become more evident that a NTD is beneficial to your animal’s health. Chondros are actually found in a variety of climates, including steamy coastal marshes, mangrove forests, rain forests, as well as the cooler mountain ranges. Clearly they thrive in the wild with a far greater temperature variation than we provide in our cages, and all of the climates that they inhabit experience a NTD to some degree.

Like most other variables, there are no set rules regarding NTD’s. Also, it should be emphasized that while a more significant drop (cycling) is employed during the breeding season, the following recommendations are for non-breeding, or maintenance. While some keepers may use a drop of only 3 degrees, others might drop temps by as much as 5 to 10 degrees year round (again, with the exception being during breeding season). Some factors that should be considered when deciding on how significant of a drop to use include, the practices of the previous owner of a newly purchased animal, your geographic location and time of year, the response of your animals to your set NTD, and your particular husbandry philosophy.

  • Humidity and Spraying/Misiting

Green tree pythons are indigenous to New Guinea and its surrounding island chains. This equatorial nation is home to lush tropical rain forests that receive high annual rainfalls and experience high average temperatures. Therefore, in their natural environment chondros are typically exposed to relative humidity ranging from 80-100%. Reproducing a natural environment in captivity is not always as simple as it seems. Several variables interact in the wild to create the dynamic conditions chondros live in. These include temperature, rainfall, relative humidity, barometric pressure, elevation, wind speed, cloud cover, and forest density, among others.

Since green tree pythons naturally live in humid environments, the most logical approach is to reproduce similar conditions in captivity. Keepers use different methods for boosting humidity, ranging from elaborate automatic misting systems to simple hand sprayers. Until they are “dialed in” to the enclosure, misting systems require a more comprehensive understanding of the variables that influence humidity (cage size, ventilation, etc.) and are less attractive for beginners. Although more labor intensive, hand sprayers are inexpensive, simple to use, and ensure a more interactive approach. While foggers are used in captive husbandry of amphibians, they are not viewed as effective for GTP enclosures. 

Regardless of the equipment used, it is important to remember that a constantly moist environment will become a breeding ground for bacteria and fungi (yeast and mold). Therefore, it is necessary to create a “damp/dry” cycle in which the enclosure is given ample time to dry before misting or spraying again. There is no clear cut formula for achieving this schedule, and it will ultimately be determined by variables including:

–       Cage size

–       Degree of saturation of the cage’s walls and substrate

–       Type of substrate being used

–       Air temperature within the cage

–       Ambient room temperature

–       Ventilation

–       Geographic location and external weather conditions

Trial and error is the best way to determine how often to mist/spray, how much water to use, and how long it will take for the enclosure to dry out. Some keepers employ a 24-hour cycle in which a cage is sprayed once every 24 hours. The amount of mist/spray is limited to a volume that ensures the cage will completely dry out in approximately 12-16 hours after spraying. However, some keepers wait an additional day or two after drying before misting/spraying again. And some keepers will only mist every third day. It must be emphasized that there are no set rules regarding humidity and the two most important factors to consider are proper hydration and preventing an environment that promotes the growth of bacteria and/or fungi.

Spraying not only raises humidity, but may also promote movement/activity. This in turn may increase the chance that a water bowl is discovered and used. For this reason many keepers spray toward the end of the day, just prior to lights out. Spraying after lights out is discouraged since it can trigger a feeding response and may lead to injury if a perch or cage door is struck.

Chondros are often directly sprayed since many will drink water from their coils. Watching them drink from their bodies is a unique and interesting sight. On the other hand, some keepers feel concerned that direct spraying will induce stress. Ultimately it will be necessary to learn to “read” your chondro to determine if that is in fact the case. Regardless, chondros often bury their heads when being misted, and in isolation, this is not an indication of stress.

Neonates up to about 6 months of age are more sensitive, and drying time between sprayings should be reduced. With more frequent spraying they are likely to drink more readily and defecate more often. This will require more frequent cage clean-outs but will provide confidence that adequate hydration is being achieved.

While spraying is a common way to boost humidity, some keepers choose to simply dump water onto the substrate itself. How effective this is can be measured by the degree of condensation that results on the doors/walls. The effectiveness of this method will depend on the type of substrate used and the amount of water dumped. But it is quite effective when using paper towel and newspaper.

Another way to raise humidity, especially during winter months when air is dryer, is to use a whole room humidifier. They are fairly cheap and can be helpful if you plan to be away from your collection for a few days. In that case it would also be advised to give the snake a fresh bowl of water and wet the substrate before you leave. A 2-3 day drying time will not harm your snake and will likely reduce the mold and bacteria count. 

It should be noted that for many years it has been accepted that high humidity is a necessary component of captive GTP husbandry. While this continues to be the most popular approach, some experienced enthusiasts successfully house chondros in much drier conditions. Keepers using this method likely mist or wet the substrate during a shed cycle, especially during drier winter months. As long as the snake is well hydrated, drinking regularly, and sheds cleanly (in one piece), the low humidity method can be used successfully. However, this method is not recommended for beginners. Until you have a concrete understanding of your cage dynamics and your animal, the damp and dry out method is recommended. 

One of the most important variables to ensure the health of chondros in captivity is hydration, and this is especially true when a drier environment is kept. Regardless of the method chosen, poor hydration will quickly lead to poor health and must be avoided.

  • Lighting

There are several lighting options available and your choice will likely be determined by cage design and personal preference. Cage lighting is considered optional by many, and some keepers only provide ambient light from a window, or a main room light on a timer. Regardless, as an equatorial species chondros should be provided an annual photoperiod of 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness. The only exception is when photoperiod is altered during breeding season as a means to encourage reproduction. There are differing accounts on the efficiency of this technique, and most breeders do not stray from an annual 12/12 photoperiod. 

Lighting can be helpful even if it isn’t always used. For example, cage lighting assists in effectively monitoring your animals’ health and helps to ensure efficient cleaning. For those who choose cage lighting, 12-18 inch fluorescent under counter lights are common. These fixtures are relatively inexpensive but might require more frequent replacing due to exposure to high heat and moisture. If you decide to use fluorescent lighting, keep in mind that they emit heat and may influence your cage’s heating dynamics. As mentioned, an IR temp gun will greatly assist as you fine-tune the placement of lighting.

Recently, LED lights are being used because they emit less heat, are more energy efficient, and bulbs tend to last longer. Some keepers that use florescent fixtures are simply replacing expired fixtures or burnt out bulbs with LED light strips. The brand TrueLumen LED Strips are available in five color spectrums for freshwater and marine aquariums, and they are waterproof.  They are not cheap, costing around $50 dollars/strip plus $12.00 for the power supply, but they might be more cost effective in the long run as they won’t need as frequent replacing. There are other LED strip options that are less expensive but may or may not be water resistant, so read the fine print before purchasing. Also, many of these LED strips are low voltage (12VDC) and require a transformer to be plugged into household electrical outlets.

  1. Full Spectrum lighting

Full-spectrum light is light that covers the electromagnetic spectrum from infrared to near-ultraviolet, or all wavelengths that are useful to plant or animal life. Sunlight is considered full spectrum, although the solar spectral distribution reaching Earth changes with time of day, latitude, and atmospheric conditions (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Full-spectrum_light).

“Full-spectrum” is not a technical term when applied to a light bulb, but rather a marketing term implying that the product emulates natural light (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Full-spectrum_light). Full spectrum, or daylight bulbs, typically fall in the 5100k to 6500k range of the Kelvin temperature scale. These bulbs seem to show off an animal’s true colors best. If you have live plants in your enclosure, bulbs in the 6100k to 6500k range promote better growth. These bulbs can be found in both fluorescent and LED. Most bulbs labeled “Full Spectrum” emit little if any UVB.

  1. Ultraviolet (UV) Lighting

It is commonly thought that snakes and many nocturnal lizards only require enough light to provide a day/night cycle. Furthermore, it is assumed they do not require UV light to synthesize vitamin D3 in order to survive in captivity. Also, many people feel that snakes receive virtually all of their calcium and vitamin D requirements from their diet.  However, a good question might be, “Will they benefit from it if provided” as opposed to, “Can they be kept without it?” 

For millions of years reptiles have lived in a world in which UV-A, UV-B, and visible light are all around them. Different species have evolved in ecological niches with behaviors (such as basking preferences) and body characteristics (such as thick or thin skin, heavy or light pigmentation) to enable them to efficiently utilize the UV-B available to them. With very few exceptions, in the wild both nocturnal and diurnal snakes are exposed to various amounts of UV light. The long-term health effects of removing this element of their natural environment are still unknown. In recent years, some keepers have added UV light to their enclosures in hopes of adding another piece to the chondro husbandry puzzle. However, more research is clearly needed before scientifically significant conclusions can be made.

When considering UV light in nature it is important to realize that no reptiles bask all day. You must consider the microhabitat for every species. For example, reptiles often make use of both sun and shaded areas, and some may never be exposed to full direct sunlight. So if you decide to experiment with UV lighting, situate the bulb where it will create a light gradient; some areas of the cage receive full exposure to the light, while other areas receive less exposure. A light gradient will allow an animal to move in and out of the “sun” as needed. Be sure to create an environment where your animal has options.

Since the use of UV light is largely uncharted territory for GTP husbandry, caution should be exercised. Make sure you don’t use a bulb that is too strong. It might be a good idea to begin providing minimal exposure and then gradually increase it over time. This can be accomplished with a timer. Since the amount of UV that is beneficial vs. hazardous is unknown, if you choose to use UV light it is strongly recommended to heavily research this topic prior to initiating a UV regimen. Also, you will clearly need to monitor your animal(s) very carefully to make sure there are no detrimental effects.

  • Ventilation

Cage design and temperature gradient will dictate the ventilation needed to maintain good air quality. The key is to ensure you are achieving a thorough drying out period between misting. Adjustable vents are convenient to use for controlling airflow. If your cage doesn’t have them you can use duct tape (on the outside of the cage) or some other method of sealing off part of a vent to make adjustments.

Tubs will need to have ventilation holes added and this is easily done with a drill, or a soldering iron. If you use a soldering iron do so outside since the smoke and fumes are toxic. The number of holes to make can range from as few as 6, to as many as 20 per side. The number will depend on many factors, including the size of the holes, size of the tub, maximum temp in the tub, ambient room temp, and air movement around the tub. Trial and error is often necessary to dial in ventilation with respect to the number of holes for tubs of different sizes. 

A key component for good cage ventilation is good room air circulation. This can be achieved with ceiling fans or small portable fans placed around the room. However, over-circulation can lead to excessive drying so a balance needs to be found.

  • Water Bowls and Drinking Water

Glass and ceramic water bowls are practical and easy to clean/sanitize. However, if you are using city water you should consider sanitizing with 9% vinegar every few weeks to eliminate hard water mineral deposits that can build up and provide hiding places for bacteria. The vinegar will act by dissolving the minerals and sterilizing the water bowl. 

If you use plastic water bowls, it is recommended to use polycarbonate or other food grade plastic, or use disposable plastic dishes such as deli cups. Most disposable bowls will need to be placed in some kind of heavier dish to avoid being constantly tipped during nighttime cruising. 

For hatchlings/neonates very shallow water dishes should be used. Baby chondros have been known to drown in shallow water so care should be taken in choosing water dishes for young GTP’s. As they grow the bowl size and/or depth of water provided can be increased.

Well water, bottled spring water, and tap water, are common choices and all have been used successfully. Some keepers have reported kidney failure deaths in neonates from tap water. However, this is most likely related to water pollutants or toxins, and may have been related to excessively hard water; that with a high mineral content. In these rare cases the issues were eliminated when keepers changed to spring or filtered water. Keep in mind that neos are quite sensitive due to their small size. So, unless the quality of your tap water has been evaluated, spring or filtered water is best for the first few months, if not the first year.

With the increasing concerns of pollutants and pharmaceuticals in most urban tap water, a lot of keepers have begun using reverse osmosis (RO) water, distilled water, or deionized (DI) water. Although these sources have been used with no known ill effects, these processes strip water of its minerals. Some claim that demineralized water has the potential to leach minerals from the animal itself. Others claim that foods provide adequate minerals and nutrients and that the benefits of pollutant free water outweighs the potential risk. The long-term effects of using RO, distilled, and DI water have yet to be determined and ultimately you will have to make the best decision given your comfort level.