Water and Hydration for Herps

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When humans or animals are very ill, they are given fluids (mostly water) long before food is offered. Reptiles, snakes especially, can go for very long periods without food. But it takes only a few days without water for them to become severely dehydrated. This may be due to any number of factors including health, environmental humidity, size, and diet. Reptiles and amphibians are somewhat unique in their ability to absorb and lose water through their skin (some more than others). This is why tropical species will quickly dehydrate in a hot dry cage, and why desert species will not thrive in moist, humid enclosures.

Thus said, it should be noted that desert animals do need water. Even if their natural habitat does not include much rainfall or water holes, for all we know that animal may retreat to a damp burrow every night where it regains lost moisture. These micro-habitats are often overlooked in captive situations, which is generally not a problem as long as the animals remain healthy and will accept water administered by other means.

There are a few general rules of thumb that should be discussed prior to getting into the actual methodology behind watering herps. For one thing, small animals with less body mass dehydrate much more quickly than larger counterparts. Therefore, hatchling and small reptiles require special attention. Second, knowing the animals natural behavior and habitat will greatly increase your ability to properly offer water. Finally, it should be stated that in many cases reptiles will over time adapt to captivity and change their preferences. This final note is a prelude to one of the golden rules of herpeteculture: What is put before you are simply guidelines based on what has succeeded in the past. It is up to you to monitor your animals, and make adjustments as needed.

For the sake of clarity, I decided the best way to present the remaining information is to list and comment on a number of common watering methods. Additionally I will make mention of the species that are most often associated with this method, and most likely to benefit from it.

One final note before continuing: What follows are the tried and tested opinions and methods utilized by the author and his colleagues. It is becoming more and more popular among hobbyists to "attack" the ideas (and individuals themselves) of anyone who has a differing opinion regarding husbandry practices. Reptiles have not been kept long enough yet to conclusively declare the right or wrong way to do anything. Dogs have been kept by humans for thousands of years, and there are still differing opinions on proper care.

Perhaps we need to look back to the roots and forefathers of our hobby for guidance. In the golden years of herpeteculture, opinions were respected and encouraged, not smashed to bits. The only way to learn anything, and to further advance the science of reptile keeping, is to listen to what others have to say, and respect the methods and theories that have proven successful for them.

Water Dishes

The water bowl is the old standby for offering water to herps. The type of material that the receptacle is made of is mostly unimportant. However, keep in mind that smooth, chemical resistant surfaces are going to be the easiest to clean and disinfect. Size is the second consideration. Generally, the bowl should be large enough so that the animal could, theoretically, immerse it's entire body. There are exceptions to this rule, based mainly in the amount of humidity that a large dish would add to the animals environment. Larger surface area will result in higher ambient humidity.

Depth is the next consideration. Again, some species require regular soaking to remain healthy and happy, and these animals should have a water source deep enough for them to immerse themselves in. Drowning is rare for snakes, and even more so with lizards, but it should not be ruled out. For snakes, I would recommend a water depth about twice as deep as the snake is tall (from belly to back). For lizards, a little over shoulder height is fine. Deeper pools are acceptable, and is some cases warranted, for semi-aquatic species. If a larger water source is used, make sure that it either has a ramp, or some other island in it to allow animals easy entry and exit.

There has been much controversy as of late regarding the necessity of standing water sources for a variety of desert dwelling herps and tortoises. Both sides made excellent arguments, stating that animals such as tortoises are more likely to track substrate into their water and contaminate it. Similarly, their was fear of contamination from feces, as tortoises often defecate if soaked in water. However, in my experience, providing a small, shallow water dish for tortoises has never proved to be the cause of any detrimental effects. In fact, although I have rarely observed the animals seeking out the water and drinking, said animals do seem to thrive and remain better hydrated. Opponents to this train of thought argue that soaking tortoises regularly is an adequate substitution for a water dish. I prefer to adopt a happy medium. For young animals, I still utilize weekly soaking, but also provide a water dish as well.

As for other desert species (and many tortoise species) their seems to be a rumor circulating the literature stating that these creatures get all of the water that they need to survive from their food. Although unlikely, this may be true in the wild where these animals can retreat to cool, moist burrows to retain moisture. As I stated above, in captivity, these humid hides are often overlooked. There is nothing to lose by offering water to all reptiles. The only disadvantage you will experience will be the added time associated with keeping the dish clean and full. If you cannot fulfill this basic level of care and dedication, then perhaps pets are not for you.

Finally, let me comment on yet another concern that many have regarding water dishes for certain species of desert dwellers. In addition to the concerns addressed above, some keepers fear that a water dish may create too much humidity for a desert species, and may ultimately lead to various medical ailments. I agree that in certain enclosed setups (such as "racks" utilized by large scale breeders and hobbyists) humidity levels may approach unhealthy levels for certain desert boas and lizards. However, I have a hard time believing that a small dish of water in a typical reptile enclosure (often screen topped) will create any appreciable rise in humidity. In my experience, and that of my colleagues, no ill effects have ever been observed by providing water bowls to species from even the most arid regions of the world.

Waterfalls and Bubblers

As I stated earlier, some reptiles only recognize water if it is moving. Chameleons and other strictly arboreal species are notorious for drinking only moving droplets, and completely ignoring standing water. Water can be offered to these animals in a number of different ways. Traditionally, keepers would simply use a hand held sprayer to gently mist the contents of the enclosure, simulating a light tropical rain. This approach was successful, and is still popular, but inevitably it is not done enough, or sometimes forgotten all together. Therefore, the trend has been to find simple yet effective ways to have moving water in the cage, but at all times. After all, just because its convenient for you to spray down your herps fist thing in the morning doesn't mean that its convenient for them to drink just then. Like all metabolic functions, drinking will not take place if the animal is not adequately warmed up and awake.

Homemade and commercially available waterfalls serve as an excellent way to present water to tropical herps. Not only does the moving water often entice herps to drink, but it also increases relative humidity. You can surround your waterfall with either live or artificial plants with many broad leaves. The splashing of the moving water will usually leave a constant "dew" on the leaves, providing an excellent source of water for species like the true chameleons.

A similar situation can be created by placing a large air stone (designed for aquarium use) into your water dish, and attaching it to a small air pump (also for fish). When the bubbles break the surface of the water, the slight splashing that results will gain the attention of stubborn drinkers as well as spray a light mist on the surrounding cage furnishings, as with the waterfall. The drawback to the latter approach is the difficulty involved in properly cleaning and disinfecting the water dish and the air stone. Fortunately, many of the species for which this set-up is utilized are un-inclined to defecate copious amounts in the water basin (as with large monitors and boids).

Both waterfalls and bubbler bowls provide a source of added humidity to your enclosures. As a result, either one can be safely used in any tropical terrarium, regardless of whetehr or not the animals will drink standing water from a bowl. This is especially true of the waterfall, which can add a dramatic and naturalistic element to your set-ups.

Many species of frogs, Old World Chameleons, anoles, arboreal snakes, and tropical lizards will benefit from the above watering methods.

Hand Spraying

As mentioned above, this is the standard in modern herpeteculture. Despite seeming old-fashioned, hand spraying remains a very effective and popular method for watering herps. Spraying the enclosure and its occupants one to several times daily will increase humidity, promote feeding, and allow for drinking in many herps. In fact, even if you are providing moving water via one of the aforementioned methods, additional spraying is often still necessary.
Here's a great tip for keeping your tropical terrariums in tip-top shape. When misting your enclosure, use distilled or filtered water. By using water devoid of dissolved minerals and salts, you can avoid unsightly water spots on your glass.

Frequency of spraying will depend on many conditions, including, type of animal, type of substrate(s), ventilation, ambient humidity and temperature, and the desired effect. Always consult with a good text on your specific animal, or talk to an expert when determining the proper misting regimen for you pet.

I have found misting useful for all of my herps, from desert dwellers to tropical species. What differs is the amount and frequency of spraying. Old world chameleons, arboreal, and cloud forest species will especially enjoy a nice regular "shower." I even recommend giving your bearded dragons, leopard geckos, and rosy boas a quick spritz every morning. Many of these animals have adapted behaviors that allow them to easily drink droplets formed from morning desert dew.

As mentioned earlier, if you choose to mist you desert dwellers make sure that the heat and ventilation is adequate to allow the air to thoroughly dry after an hour or so.

Automated Misting Systems

Obviously misting/spraying your pets is vital to a multitude of species. However, as far as convenience goes, it can be the most difficult aspect of maintaining some animals. With the continued growth of reptile keeping, many companies are developing products to help streamline our hobby.

Automatic misters come in all levels of complexity and size to suit your needs. If you have a single enclosure that you would like to give regular showers throughout the day, then a product like Zoo-Meds Habba Mist is ideal. This unit operates like a home sprinkler timer, and has a self-container water resivoir or and misting nozzle. You can set the device to spray for a variety of durations and frequencies.

More elaborate systems are available for larger collections. The Mr. Moisture Maker is an automated rig with a 5 gallon resivoir and ultra-fine misting nozzles. Again, it can come on as often as you'd like, for any duration. Both of these products are always available at LLLReptile.com, and you can give us a call if you have any specific questions.


As always, every reptile and amphibian has it's own specific set of needs. Always properly research the specific requirements for the species you are keeping to ensure their long term health and well being. Properly providing water for your herps is vital to survival, yet easy to do when the proper steps are taken. Hopefully, the above information has been helpful land useful to you. Of course, if you are in doubt, or have any specific questions, feel free to contact us.