What is UV (ultraviolet) lighting and why is it important?

Ultraviolet lighting is made up of three light-radiated wavelengths. These parts are divided into UVA, UVB, and UVC wavelengths. UVA and UVB are the wavelengths reptiles need for survival. UVC, on the other hand, is a harmful carcinogen produced by direct sunlight. Ultraviolet lighting is key in the production of vitamin D3, which is necessary for calcium metabolism. With exposure to UV light, vitamin D3 is naturally produced in the skin of reptiles. Vitamin D3 can be supplemented in the diet through powders sprinkled on food, but some herbivore reptiles such as iguanas need vitamin D3 produced within their skin for digestion.

Naturally, a reptile would get the specific type of radiation they need from the sun. But sunlight is an impractical source of all UV radiation. The ultraviolet waves from sunlight are filtered by glass, so exposing your reptile to these waves through a window is not an effective option.

Without the proper lighting through UVA and UVB radiation, a reptile cannot produce the critical vitamin D3 for digestion. Lack of or improper use of this lighting can cause substantial problems for your reptile including indigestion, loss of appetite, stomach and mouth rot, blindness, paralysis, metabolic bone disease, and in some cases fatalities will occur.

What’s the difference between a standard bulb for a house lamp and a reptile bulb?

The only difference in the incandescent bulb you buy at the grocery store and the specialized reptile bulbs you buy at a pet store is that the reptile bulbs have been modified to remove the yellow wavelengths from the full color spectrum. Yellow wavelengths alter the appearance of the reptile to human eyes. Also, these wavelengths will slightly affect how your reptile perceives its environment. However, any incandescent bulb you use in your own home can be used during the day to provide a bright white light and some heat to your reptile. Diurnal (active during the day) reptiles need the bright white lighting during the day and another source of light through UVB-producing fluorescent bulbs. Nocturnal (active by night) reptile lights such as infrared, decorative blue, and green incandescent provide a dim lighting that isn’t too stressful to nocturnal reptiles, but still provide some UV radiation.

What’s the difference between UVA, UVB, and UVC radiation and what produces them?

The difference between UVA and UVB is that UVA induces normal activities and needs throughout the day while UVB helps in the creation of Vitamin D3. The only lights that are safe and produce the two critical UV wavelengths, UVA and UVB, are fluorescent lights. Incandescent lights do not produce UVB radiation, so that type is not an option. Phototherapy, germicidal, stadium halides, mercury vapor, and tanning salon fluorescent tubes all produce UV radiation. However, these specific tubes produce UV waves at high levels, which are unsafe for reptiles and their owners. These are specifically designed to be used for limited periods of time and should never be used extensively for any animal or human alike. Some lights also produce a toxin in the form of UVC radiation. This specific radiation is known to cause cancer in animals as well as humans. UVB-radiating bulbs will also produce UVA radiation as well. This is important to keep in mind when selecting which UV bulb to buy.

Keep in mind that UVA changes and has an effect on the way things look to a reptile, from the colors of their surroundings, to the color of their food, even to the way the reptile itself and other reptiles will look to their keepers. The key to proper UVA production is the consideration of the amount of UVB being produced by each bulb and thus selecting the appropriate bulb to be used. For example, a bulb producing high levels of UVB also produces high amounts of UVA. In your reptile’s environment, this could greatly alter your reptile’s perception of its entire surroundings, often causing stress, confusion, and temperament problems.

With an assortment of bulbs to choose from, sometimes there is confusion about the best kind to use. Make sure it’s full-spectrum lights that produce at least 1.1% UVB. Over extended periods of time, UVB will begin to lose intensity and won’t be as useful. Thus, you should change the fluorescent UV-producing bulb yearly.

Does my snake or nocturnal reptile need UVA- and UVB-radiating bulbs?

In short, no. Snakes eat their prey whole, which in turn will provide them with virtually all the calcium and vitamin D3 they need for survival. Nocturnal reptiles naturally do not get much exposure to UV radiation, so they do not need specialized ultraviolet-producing bulbs. Almost all snakes and nocturnal reptiles only need enough lighting to provide a day and night cycle. Incandescent heat bulbs can provide this. Even for reptiles that do not require UV-emitting bulbs, a regular “day and night” cycle is necessary. Without a typical cycle of daytime-to-nighttime, and vice-versa, your reptile will experience stress, which may cause a loss of appetite.

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