Posted: September 27, 2013, 9:40 a.m. EDT
Reptile and amphibian owners enjoy more options for environmental control than ever before.
By Kerri Chladnicek
Reptile and amphibian products have come a long way from spray bottles and incandescent light bulbs.
Today’s owners can monitor and control humidity, light and heat simply by setting some product controls.
Digital thermostats allow pet owners to monitor air temperature in terrariums, hygrometers track humidity levels and, more recently, instruments such as the Digital Display Thermo-Hygrometer from Fluker Farms in Port Allen, La., combine both functions.
Herp owners who once might have depended on a basic thermometer and their own conscientiousness to monitor temperature can now use items such as Cerritos, Calif.-based Lifegard Aquatics’ Big Digital Temp Alert, which sounds an alarm when an enclosure falls outside acceptable temperature range.
Based on personal preference or the needs of the species, pet owners can introduce heat into their animal’s enclosure with heated mats or rocks, or any of the available traditional and advanced light bulbs.
The options are extensive, providing pet owners with customizable options and retailers with an impressive toolbox of recommendations for new and experienced customers alike.
Ashley Rademacher, animal care and education coordinator at Zoo Med Laboratories Inc. in San Luis Obispo, Calif., weighed in recently on the importance of environment control.
"Creating the correct environment in a reptile enclosure is one of the most important aspects of successful reptile keeping,” she said.
Rademacher advocates using technology to improve reptiles’ quality of life.
"With new technology, setting up and maintaining a thermal gradient, retaining proper humidity and establishing a regular photoperiod are easy,” she said. "With less guesswork and physical attention required in these areas, more people are able to successfully care for pet reptiles.”
While some retailers agree with this sentiment, others are encouraging their customers to keep things simple.
The decision to offer and recommend high-tech products seems to be based firmly in what shop owners think is the best theory of care.
Jane Randar, co-owner of Randar’s Reptiles & Exotic Pets in McDonough, Ga., offers a full line in her store, including the Monsoon misting system by Mansfield, Mass.-based Rolf C. Hagen (USA) Corp.’s Exo Terra, which releases a fine mist at fixed intervals throughout the day and is adjustable based on the needs of the species.
She also noted that there are quite a few new options in lighting that have been growing in popularity in her store; in particular, the new T5 line of terrarium hoods and lamps from Zoo Med.
On the other hand, Dave DePass, owner of Dave’s Pets-n-Stuff in Oak Park, Ill., who has been working in exotic pet retail for 15 years, showed less enthusiasm for the automated products.
"Most of the things they do could be done with a spray bottle or other means,” he said in regard to automatic misters, adding that there are some hazards to using automated instruments for reptile and amphibian care.
"My concern is for the welfare of the animal leaving my shop,” he said. "In most cases, your average user will probably do more damage if they don’t know enough about [a product].”
One particular distinction that can be difficult for new reptile owners to grasp is the difference between humidity and dampness, DePass said, adding that misting by hand can help pet owners learn exactly what their pets need.
In Randar’s experience, the automated products can be a great option for customers, taking some of the guesswork and labor out of the equation.
"For humidity levels, they like the automatic stuff,” she said.
What are some problems with the environmental control market?
"My biggest concern is that we don’t have a lot of scientific, research-driven products…on the market. I would like to see manufacturers try to sponsor research that supports or changes what they are doing.”—Tim Criswell, owner of House of Reptiles in Tigard, Ore.
"From what I’ve seen, the people who look for [high-tech environment control products] are the people who shouldn’t have pets in the first place because they don’t want to spend five minutes misting the pets.”—Dave DePass, owner of Dave’s Pets-N-Stuff in Oak Park, Ill.
"People come who have been shopping at [big-box stores] and been told they need three to five lights for one tank. You can use one single bulb fixture as long as you pick the right one.”—Jordan Moores, owner of Custom Creatures in Phoenix
Jordan Moores, owner of Custom Creatures in Phoenix, said he carries the automated devices in his store, but that his recommendations will vary based on the species of the pet and the interest and resources of the customer.
"We’re trying to start pinpointing things like the timers so you get a little bit more control over when things come on and off,” he said.
Moores added that automatic environmental control products can help, but, "It’s kind of hard because mist systems are kind of an expenditure,” he said. "They can be the same price as a tank, which can be limiting.”
In some cases, particularly handy customers will build their own misters or foggers with things they can find at a local home improvement store, he said.
Price can impede adding newer environmental control products to store inventory, DePass noted.
"I can’t afford to buy these things, much less sell them in my store,” he said. "Things are priced so far out of line now.”
Pet owners have to be prepared to expend significant cash even on the basics, such as light bulbs, he said, noting that incandescent bulbs can be as much as $13 and UV bulbs are $30 and higher.
"Those need to be replaced every six months,” he said. "That’s a big expense.”
David Hanono, vice president of San Diego’s T-Rex Products, which manufactures heating and lighting products for reptile and amphibian enclosures (along with reptile food, supplements, substrates and accessories), acknowledged that light bulbs can be expensive.
"With the incandescents, that’s how much they cost to manufacture,” Hanono said. "Among the UVs, ours might be one of the more expensive ones,” he continued. "Ours retails between $59 and $69, and that’s just a sign of the times because it’s what that bulb costs to make.”
Selecting a UV bulb can be economical in the end, he said.
"Some people will say the UV bulbs are expensive, but if you think about it, you can go and get a fluorescent light bulb that provides the UV and it costs $30. Then you need a fixture; that’s $20. That doesn’t provide heat, so you need a dome. Then you get the incandescent, and you’re up to $60. The UV bulb serves a number of those purposes. Sometimes it’s just a matter of personal taste.”
Tim Criswell, owner of House of Reptiles in Tigard, Ore., said price has been an issue for his business.
"We don’t sell as many thermostats and temperature control devices as we used to,” he said. "I think the economy has something to do with that. There are lots of ways to manually manage heat, so we tell folks all that we can about that. Sometimes they decide that it’s too hard and go with [the multifunction or advanced technologies].
Making an Impression
Retailers agreed that the key to selling the appropriate products for herp environments is in the display.
Being able to demonstrate products helps customers understand their pets’ needs, Criswell said.
"All of our animals are housed in terrariums and aquariums—the kinds of enclosures that our customers are going to use and purchase from us,” he said.
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