Imagine you’re at a reptile expo for the first time, or maybe your kid dragged you to the pet store because they’ve been bugging you for a pet and you finally caved. As you shop, you second-guess yourself, remembering that you literally have no idea how to care for this kind of animal. Then it does something cute, or the kid tugs on your sleeve, reminding you that, “You promised!” And then the friendly voice of the sales associate reaches your ear — “We sell starter kits for (insert the name of an animal you’ve never heard of before today) over there for a great deal.”
Starter kit? Great deal? Done!
Depending on the contents of the kit, you might grab some reptile food and an accessory or two. Then you bring the animal home and set up the starter kit. That was easy, wasn’t it?
A month to a year later, your new pet is either sick or dead. What went wrong?
The scenario I just described is played out at reptile expos and in pet stores across the globe. Reptile kits hold the promise of hassle (aka research)-free exotic pet care, but they are too inadequate or even dangerous to live up to their claims. Even when new reptile owners do perform their own research outside of the included “care manual,” they end up spending a lot more to correct the problems caused by the very kit that was designed to save money and make their lives easier.
This article discusses top-selling commercial kits for 4 popular pet reptiles, including representation from each of the top reptile supply manufacturers: Zoo Med, Zilla, and Exo Terra.
Pricing info is primarily sourced from Amazon, and information about the kits’ contents is sourced from the manufacturers’ websites.
Before we proceed, let me clarify: There is no hate intended toward the manufacturers of these products. Each manufacturer offers other products that I actually quite like and recommend as among the top performers in their class. This article is only a critique of existing reptile kits.
Zoo Med Reptihabitat Adult Bearded Dragon Kit, $200
This is a very popular product for a very popular pet. I see first-time bearded dragon owners buying these all the time on the forums.
This kit includes:
- 36”x18”x18” glass aquarium with sliding screen top
- ReptiSand substrate
- Combo Repti Rock Food and water dishes
- Dual analog thermometer and humidity gauge
- ReptiSun 10.0 compact fluorescent
- Repti Basking Spot lamp, 100w
- Combo deep dome dual lamp fixture
- Bearded dragon care booklet
- Bearded dragon food sampler
- The tank is fine. I would prefer a front-opening terrarium style, but it’s not the end of the world.
- Sand is a well known no-no for bearded dragons, but this isn’t the worst reptile sand on the market. There’s no added dyes or chemicals, and it’s also made from crushed quartz rather than calcium carbonate, which carries less risk of impaction. But it’s still a loose substrate, making it dusty and an impaction risk. Long paragraph short: sand is not a wise choice for this kit.
- No objections to the food and water dishes; it’s actually pretty hard to do this bit wrong.
- Analog thermometers and humidity gauges are notoriously inaccurate.
- Compact fluorescent UVB bulbs have weak UVB output and have a narrow range of influence. Unless the reptile stays in the basking spot all day (which they shouldn’t), they won’t get the UVB they need from a compact UVB.
- The Repti Basking Spot Lamp is claimed to last up to 2000 hours; unfortunately, I know plenty of reptile people who will tell you they don’t last anywhere near this long. It might be hot, but you’ll get a better product at the hardware store.
- The deep dome dual lamp fixture has a narrow range of heat reflection. Sure, it accommodates the bulbs, but the dual feature is just a fancy gimmick in the end, and without the compact UVB, you end up using only half of the lamp.
- Including a care booklet is a good precaution because most people who buy these kits don’t do a lot (if any) research beforehand. It’s not the best info, but it’s a whole lot better than nothing.
- Commercial pellets tend to dehydrate reptiles, and since bearded dragons don’t readily drink water from a bowl, this can be a problem. The instructions say to moisten the pellets, but a lot of people don’t read directions. The label for this food claims that it’s “natural,” with “no artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors.” However, Zoo Med’s bearded dragon pellets contain a lot of grain-based ingredients like soybean hulls and rice bran, rather than the insect meal and vegetation that composes a beardie’s natural diet.
Finally, this kit does not include a hide, basking platform, or other enrichment items necessary to a bearded dragons’ mental health and wellbeing.
How do we fix it?
- Keep the tank.
- Get rid of the Reptisand and replace it with paper towel ($5).
- Keep the food and water dishes.
- Replace the analog gauge with a temp gun ($12).
- Replace compact fluorescent with a Reptisun 10.0 T5 HO 24” bulb ($20) and fixture ($60).
- Keep the spot lamp bulb, but it’s not going to last very long.
- Replace the dome with an 8” metallic-interior fixture with ceramic socket.
- Keep the care booklet, and then read through ReptiFiles’ bearded dragon care guide.
- Toss the pellets and replace with live insects and fresh greens. Will need calcium and multivitamin supplements to compensate ($20).
Finally, purchase the missing enrichment items:
- Hide ($10-20)
- Basking platform ($20)
- Other accessories — hammock, logs, etc. ($20)
Boom, that $200 kit actually cost you ~$380. You wasted about $90, and then had to spend $180 more.
Exo Terra Snake Starter Kit, $185
According to Exo Terra, this kit is recommended for use with corn snakes, milksnakes, kingsnakes, and ball pythons. We will be evaluating it as a corn snake kit, because corn snakes are one of the most common snakes on the market, and it wouldn’t be fair to do a ball python kit. (Long story short — no kit on the market comes close to adequate for a ball python.)
This kit includes:
- 24”x18”x12” front-opening glass terrarium
- Heat mat
- Reptile dome lamp
- Light bracket
- Reptile UVB100 compact fluorescent bulb
- Moss mat substrate (UK version uses Exo Terra snake bedding)
- Medium water dish
- Large reptile cave
- Informative care guide
- The terrarium is fine for a juvenile corn snake, although it won’t be big enough for an adult. The nice thing about Exo Terra’s enclosures, though, is that they don’t need additional lid clamps for security.
- The heat mat covers 1/3 of the terrarium’s base, so it’s fine for creating the necessary temperature gradient. However, there’s no thermostat, which means that any snake housed in this kit is in danger of getting severely burned. There is also no way of determining temperature or humidity (less important for corn snakes) in the enclosure.
- & 4. The dome lamp and bulb are good for providing daytime light. UVB is debatably beneficial for nocturnal/crepuscular snakes, but not bad, either.
- The moss mat substrate is extremely difficult to clean, making it a breeding ground for bacteria. The UK version of this kit is better because it provides aspen snake bedding.
- The water dish is good, although depending on the size of the snake I would potentially make it larger for soaking.
- The large reptile cave makes a good hide.
- Care guides are always good (except for when they’re not). Although it’s odd that Exo Terra provides a care guide for their generalized snake kit, but not the crested gecko kit.
All things considered, this kit really isn’t bad.
How do we fix it?
- If the customer buys a juvenile corn snake, the terrarium will be fine. It may have difficulty holding heat, so blocking off the sides with some kind of insulation is advisable ($10).
- Add a thermostat for the heat mat ($35).
- Keep the dome lamp and bulb.
- Replace the moss mat with aspen snake bedding ($10).
- Keep the water dish.
- Keep the reptile cave.
- Keep the care guide, and read ReptiFiles’ corn snake care guide for more information.
I would advise adding another hide for the cool side ($10), and then at least one climbing branch (free if found outside and not made of pine/fir/cedar).
Instead of $185, you end up spending ~$250, only a $65 difference. In that respect, Exo Terra’s snake kit really isn’t too shabby.
Zoo Med 40 Gallon ReptiHabitat Tortoise Kit, $190
Like the snake kit, this kit is not recommended for a particular tortoise species. So we’re going to assume that the tortoise in question is a Russian tortoise, one of the most common tortoises found in pet stores.
This kit includes:
- 40 gallon glass aquarium with sliding screen top
- ReptiSun 10.0 UVB bulb 36”
- ReptiSun 36” terrarium hood
- Nocturnal infrared heat lamp
- Forest Floor bedding
- Dual analog thermometer and humidity gauge
- Natural grassland tortoise food
- Tortoise block
- Repti calcium without D3
- ReptiSafe water conditioner
- Reptivite with D3
- Guide to Tortoise Care Booklet
- Glass enclosures aren’t suitable housing for tortoises because invisible barriers stress them out and they won’t stop pacing.
- Zoo Med’s Reptisun 10.0 UVB fluorescent tube is considered one of the best on the market.
- Good hood, too. Nothing wrong here.
- A night lamp is not necessary, and since tortoises are diurnal, a night light may disrupt sleep patterns.
- Forest Floor bedding is also known as cypress mulch, a good choice for Russian tortoises.
- Analog thermometers and humidity gauges are unreliable and inaccurate.
- Tortoises need a low protein, high fiber diet, and this food meets that requirement. Looking at the ingredients list, this is actually pretty decent tortoise food. It just needs to be moistened and supplemented with fresh vegetables.
- Tortoise blocks are good for preventing beak overgrowth, a common problem seen in pet tortoises.
- Zoo Med Repti Calcium without D3 is a good supplement, although it isn’t quite required since the pellets are fortified with additional vitamins and minerals.
- Reptisafe water conditioner is good for neutralizing chlorine in drinking water.
- Reptivite with D3 is also a decent supplement, but it has the same problem as the calcium.
- Tortoise care varies slightly by species, so it’s not going to be completely accurate, but better than nothing.
This is definitely one of the better kits on the market; in fact, possibly the best that I’ve seen offered by a major brand. That being said, it’s still missing enrichment items like a hide, food dish, and a large water dish for soaking.
How do we fix it?
- Assuming this is for a juvenile tortoise straight from the expo or pet store, the size of the tank should be fine. Fix the invisible barrier problem by blacking out 3 sizes of the glass, as well as the first 4 inches from the bottom of the front panel.
- & 3. Keep the UVB and hood.
- Toss the night light.
- Keep the Forest Floor bedding.
- Replace the analog gauge with a digital temperature gun ($17).
7-11. Keep everything else!
- Supplement the care booklet with additional research specifically about Russian tortoises.
This kit only needs a few more things to make it perfect:
- Cave/hide large enough to accommodate the tortoise ($20)
- Food dish ($5)
- Large ramp-style water dish for soaking ($20)
- Misc décor for environmental enrichment ($20)
This $190 investment requires ~$75 worth of additional supplies ($265 total), but little is thrown out. Unless you consider the aquarium to be a waste, which would need to be replaced by a tortoise table as soon as possible. Still, this is definitely closer to what a commercial reptile kit should be.
Zilla Premium Aquatic Turtle Habitat Kit (40 Gallons), $218
In case you want to accuse me of using lesser-quality products to make my point, I decided to use Zilla’s “premium” turtle kit rather than the deluxe version. The most common aquatic turtle sold in pet stores is the red-eared slider, so that will be our benchmark here.
This kit includes:
- Chamfered front topless aquarium
- Mini heat and UVB light fixture
- Mini halogen bulb
- Mini compact fluorescent bulb
- Light rail
- Basking platform filter
- Aquatic turtle food
- Reptile water conditioner
- Turtle Tank setup guide
- A 40 gallon tank can barely accommodate a juvenile red-eared slider. These are very active animals that can grow quite large (12” diameter) and need lots of room to swim. The chamfered design is pretty, though.
- The mini heat and UVB light fixture may provide enough warmth for a basking spot, but not UVB. UVB shoud be available across the length of the aquarium because UVB can penetrate water, and the turtle will be able to enjoy benefits as it swims.
- Admittedly, the light rail is a cool concept.
- The basking platform filter is another cool idea, but given the design, it’s most likely not powerful enough to handle the incredible messes that a turtle can make.
- Zilla’s aquatic turtle food recipe contains primarily high protein dehulled soybean meal. Aquatic turtles are carnivores, not herbivores, so they’re not built to handle plant protein. I’m also seeing a lot of fillers on this label. The only decent thing about this diet is the fish meal and added vitamins and minerals. YIKES.
- Reptile water conditioner is good, glad they included it.
- Turtle tank setup guide is also nice to have, but likely insufficient.
I’m concerned that there is no water heater on this list, as red-eared sliders need a water temperature between 76-84 degrees — higher than room temperature.
How do we fix it?
- Let’s start by assuming that we decide to keep the aquarium until the turtle grows out of it (which will be soon; these things need a freaking pond).
- The heat fixture isn’t the best, but we’ll keep it for simplicity reasons.
- We can’t keep the compact fluorescent UVB, as the turtle will need a UVB tube. Since the aquarium is open at the top, the bulb and its hood will need to be longer than the terrarium itself. Assuming we’re dealing with a 40 gal, that will need to be a 48” bulb ($45) and fixture ($60). Considering that’s the largest you can get, you’ll need to find a way to improvise a couple extra inches on either size to stabilize it over the aquarium.
- Keep the light rail.
- Replace the filter with something that will actually be able to handle the turtle’s muck. You’ll be looking at some of the most powerful filters on the market to meet this requirement. Expect to pay $50 minimum.
- Throw out the Zilla turtle pellets and replace them with Mazuri fresh water turtle diet ($16), used as no more than 50% of the turtle’s diet.
- Keep the water conditioner.
- Supplement the setup guide with research on specific care requirements for red-eared sliders.
Using these supplies alone will leave the aquarium not nearly as pretty as it’s pictured on the box. Add the following for the turtle’s physical and mental health:
- The basking platform filter doesn’t need to be thrown out; it can be recycled as a basking platform.
- Add a water heater rated for about 30 gallons of water ($20).
- Install a thermometer for checking water temps ($5), and then buy a temp gun for monitoring the basking spot ($12).
- River rock substrate is heavy but attractive, and if you’re buying this kit, you probably want attractive ($20).
- Add some artificial plants for the turtle to enjoy digging up and hiding in ($20).
Your pretty $218 kit has turned into a ~$470 nightmare! …There’s a reason I rarely recommend aquatic turtles as pets.
Zilla Desert Reptile Starter Kit 10 with Light and Heat, $66
I’m aware that I’ve ranted for long enough — you probably get the point by now. I wasn’t even going to include this kit for the sake of brevity, but then a reptile rescuer friend of mine posted a picture of two bearded dragons housed in this exact same kit. They both had developed MBD that had been caused because their owner didn’t do any research and relied on the kit instead.
*Heavy sigh* If you thought the Zoo Med bearded dragon kit was bad, spoiler alert: this kit is a horrific choice for any desert reptile. Although the name of this product does not specify an intended species, there is a picture of a leopard gecko on the package, and so we’ll use that as our reference.
This kit includes:
- 10 gallon glass aquarium with screen lid
- 2 reflective dome light fixtures
- White spot bulb
- Night black incandescent bulb
- Analog temperature/humidity gauge
- Brown terrarium liner
- Setup guide
This kit also comes with a nicely visible disclaimer: “Does not include UVB lighting which may be required for some desert-dwelling reptiles.”
- A 10 gallon tank only accommodates a juvenile leopard gecko, that’s going to be our benchmark moving forward.
- The dome light fixtures, white spot bulb, and night black bulb are all unnecessary. Leopard geckos don’t do well when their only source of heat is from above. They need “belly heat,” which a lamp does not provide.
- Analog temperature and humidity gauges are notoriously inaccurate. This is basically useless.
- The terrarium liner/carpet is not bad, considering potential alternatives. Personally I don’t like it because delicate gecko toes can catch on the fibers and get broken/have a claw ripped out. Also, reptile carpet is a horrible breeding ground for bacteria unless you change it out every day.
- The setup guide is likely as vague as the kit’s intention, but hey, at least Zilla’s giving their customers some kind of direction.
In the end, this kit is spectacularly insufficient for meeting a leopard gecko’s needs, and too vague to be useful for any “desert reptile,” really.
How do we fix it?
- Keep the aquarium and screen lid.
- 3. & 4. Keep the light fixture; it may be nice for viewing. I would probably replace the bulbs with a daytime full-spectrum fluorescent ($5) unless they’re necessary for boosting air temp.
- Replace the temperature/humidity gauge with a digital thermometer/hygrometer ($17) with probes and a temp gun ($12) to cover both ground and air temps.
- Replace the terrarium liner with paper towel ($5).
- Toss the setup guide and read ReptiFiles’ leopard gecko care guide. 😉
Bare minimum, this kit requires the following additional purchases to make it suitable for a leopard gecko:
- 2 small hides ($10)
- Heat mat ($19) and thermostat ($35) for belly heat
- Food dish and water bowl ($10)
- Calcium powder with vitamin D3 ($8)
At the end of the day, a “cheap” $66 leopard gecko kit becomes a $180 expense. This could easily be the worst “reptile kit” on the market.
If these kits are so bad, why do pet stores sell them?
For much the same reason why I started ReptiFiles. Most people don’t want to go through the trouble of researching a pet before buying it. By putting everything a customer needs in one place, both the pet store and the manufacturer profit.
Why are these kits so bad in the first place?
Brand-named kits are limited in the products that they can use because they must stay under the umbrella of their own brand, which isn’t always a good thing. No one brand excels in every category.
Why, then, would they use lower-quality items, even when that brand offers high-quality products in their catalog? I imagine that getting under a certain price point is likely a huge motivator. What are you more likely to buy — a compact $200 kit or an overflowing $500 behemoth?
All of these kits were found severely lacking in the area of enrichment items. I imagine that this is an effort on the manufacturer’s part to respect buyer’s personal taste in terrarium décor. However I feel that this accidentally communicates to first-time reptile owners that their new pet doesn’t need those accessories. Also it’s worth considering that all of these kits fit conveniently inside the included enclosure.
Are reptile kits a bad idea?
No, actually they’re a great idea. Not everyone has the time/understanding/interest in learning everything there is to know about their reptile of choice. Kits can be an excellent safeguard to make sure that reptiles purchased by less-than-knowledgeable new owners will still receive adequate care.
As we have seen demonstrated 5 times over, limiting the items in a reptile kit to a single brand restricts the quality of care that can be offered. So I think kit-making is a task best left to small, independent pet shops with access to a variety of products across all brands.
Would you be interested if ReptiFiles put together custom reptile kits for purchase on Amazon?
Let us know in the comments! If there’s enough interest, we’ll look into it.
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