We are in a time of people wanting to go bigger and more “all out” on caging for their herps. While it is great that people are wanting to step things up a notch, the question to be asked before upgrading is “Am I making the most out of my current enclosure space?” There just may be a chance that you aren’t taking advantage of the empty space in your set ups!
Obviously all of the cages we use have tops, bottoms, and the four sides. With a lot of the commonly kept herps we may offer a few inches of substrate, a water bowl, and maybe a few hides. Regardless of the species, almost all of the species we have in the hobby will make use of an added “layer” of space in an enclosure. I’m talking about all the space between the walls.
A prime example of a species where the concept is seen is in the Dyeing Poison Dart Frogs, Dendrobates tinctorius. Just about any care info you read on this species of frog will say go no smaller than a 40 gallon tank or equivalent for an adult pair or maybe a trio. This is a species where females are notoriously aggressive towards one another with one of them becoming dominant over the other to the potential point of death. But this species begs the question of if we’re utilizing the space of the tank more efficiently can we keep a trio in a 40 gallon (or something slightly smaller) with the same results as a large vivarium?
One would achieve this by adding more foliage, more cork, or more decor. In simple terms more visual barriers and more areas for each frog to claim as their own. When you have a tank with more hide or turf options the animals aren’t bullying one another over only one or two locations in the tank. While this definitely helps (more or less pending the species) when housing animals in pairs or trios, it is also of great benefit for single individuals.
PVC racks and cages have become a standard in the hobby and it’s no wonder why. They hold heat and humidity really well, they come in just about any size or fit any tub one would need. For racks in particular, we can also apply this awareness of space efficiency. This is where 3-D printing comes in. Now that these printers are becoming more accessible both in options and price, people are using them for their housing and perch needs! No matter how shallow a tub might be there is likely someone making some form of perch for it. This takes advantage of the space in between the bottom and top of the tub adding another dimension of usability for the animals.
In my personal collection and younger colubrids that are in a 6 quart rack, I notice they make full use of a small (1.5 cup dollar store container) humid hide. Not only do I see many of them use them regularly but they help a ton when it comes to shed cycles! I will have hatchlings/juvenile rat snakes hang out in their humid hides for an entire week once they go into a cycle but even when they aren’t inside of it many will “perch” on top of it.
Shelves are another addition to a cage that a ton of species will make full use of. Carpet pythons in particular can’t resist a nice basking shelf. When you add multiple shelves or height options, especially under heat or basking areas, you are really giving the animal full domain over a thermal gradient. Carpets aren’t the only herps that take advantage of more decor! Amazon Tree Boas, many rat snake species, even ball pythons have been known to make use of branches or elevated surfaces.
There is a particular “hack” I like to use with my rhino rat snakes and that is adding manzanita perches that are made for birds! These perches are really convenient because they attach to the side of their tub via a wing nut and washer. You can find a variety of sizes on ebay where they don’t break the bank plus manzanita is a sturdy wood that holds up well in enclosures. The main downside to these is (depending on your set up) you have to remove them to clean and refill water bowls. In a similar idea, I’ve also seen people attach pieces of drift or mopani wood to the sides of PVC enclosures with a screw or two.
For species that may not be so arboreal in habit, a trick that seems to work well for more shy individuals is pieces of cardboard tubing cut or torn into small pieces and stacked in a random pile. Species that spend a lot of time in rock crevices or leaf litter seem to do better with things like this even in a tub set up. You could even go a step further and buy magnolia leaves (or find your own and boil them, they are a common tree in the southeast) to achieve the same effect but adding the natural touch. The thick cuticle of magnolia leaves makes them a long lasting addition to any set up as they take a very long time to break down.
Being efficient with space is vital with many lizards as well, like Ackie Monitors, that use every inch of their given space (I’ve even found mine hanging out on top of the light in their cage). My pair are still young and housed in a 200 quart tub with a ton of hiding spots, branches with basking spots, broken pots, and a 6 quart box full of dirt for them to dig. This is by no means their final set up but it’s giving them the most out of what they are in currently and I’ll be doing the same when they get upgraded to a BlackBox cage that they can live out their days in. Ackies are just one example of many lizards in the hobby that make total use of their enclosures, arguably even more so than snakes.
The nice thing about the concept of being more space efficient in caging is you can get creative and have additions be as minimal or extravagant as you want them to be. Hopefully this article lends some ideas for you to take and apply to your cages!