Lets talk about the most ideal and functional way to make outdoor enclosures! There are many ways to make them but I am going to be mostly referring to the wire/screen enclosure here (still share your enclosures even if they are a different type!).
There are many reptiles that will do well outside. Lots of lizards, turtles, tortoises, and even some snakes can do amazing outside. The natural UVB and weather can provide amazing benefits for your reptiles. Blue tongue skinks, bearded dragons, sulcata tortoises, red foot tortoises, red ear sliders, painted turtles, tegus, and most monitor species are all examples of reptiles that will do great outside. However, smaller reptiles like leopard geckos, fat tail geckos, crested geckos, juveniles of the smaller species stated above, and other small species are usually not good candidates for outdoor enclosures. You are also going to have to think about your climate. Just because you see someone keeping a Parson’s chameleon outside in Florida, doesn’t mean you can do the same in Utah.
So obviously you are going to need a frame. The most common and budget friendly option is going to be the simple 2x4. However, not all wood is made equal. There are two types of wood that are highly debated on which is better, pressure treated and untreated.
Pressure treated wood seems to be a pretty highly debated topic in the tortoise and large lizard communities. I was a bit surprised that it hasn’t been brought up here yet.
So lets bring up the two sides of the debate- It is perfectly safe; You should never use it
Lets start out with the “you should never use it” side-
Many will say that it is dangerous to expose your animals to the chemicals in the wood that prevent rot from happening. They worry that the chemicals can leach into the soil resulting in issues if the reptile happens to ingest some of it. Another issue that is frequently brought up is if the wood itself is ingested by the reptile. Wood can chip and fall into the enclosure which provides something for them to accidentally be eaten when they are being fed or are grazing or something like a tortoise takes a bite out of the wood thinking it is food. they really aren’t all that bright at times.
Now onto the “it is perfectly fine” side-
On the other hand, there are people who have been using pressure treated wood for years and decades (after 2003) without a single issue. They also say that the wood will not leach into the soil or release any chemicals, and that lines up with the research I have done. However, it is still advised to not let your reptile ingest any of it.
My opinion? I think that meeting in the middle may be the best option. Use pressure treated for the base as it is going to be in contact with water a lot more than the rest of the enclosure. With just using it for the base, you get the rot resistance while not having to worry about your pet coming into a lot of contact with it as long as you use substrate. However, I think that the best thing to do is first think about your climate. In Arizona, water is going to be a lot less of an issue compared to Florida. For all wood, untreated especially, make sure you seal the wood very well. Find the type of sealant that will work in your climate as somewhere where it rains and snows a lot is going to need a different sealant than somewhere with more mild weather.
So obviously you are going to have to keep your reptile in and predators out. There are a few different ways; wire/screen, solid sides (w/ screen top), and solid sides (no top). The first two methods will work well with pretty much any reptiles but the last one I would only recommend for larger turtles/tortoises as they aren’t able to climb out as long as it is high enough sides and predators will have a harder time hurting them.
So what do you use for the screen? Chicken wire, hardware cloth, or similar will work well. I would recommend making sure you get vinyl or pvc coated screen as some reptiles are prone to rubbing against it. This will help to protect your pet from potential rubbing and will help make it last longer.
I personally would also wire off the bottom as well to prevent your pet from digging out or something digging in. If you can afford a little extra money, double wiring is a really good idea. It adds security to the enclosure and gives a little peace of mind.
One thing that is usually overlooked is providing a large shaded area, about 25%-50% of the enclosure, by using a 50-75% light blocking shade cloth or even just a piece of plywood. This allows for them to still get the natural light but can help make them feel more secure. It can also help to mimic what they would encounter in the wild such as light passing through a tree or bush. Furthermore, it can help with dehydration on a very hot day as it allows for them to escape from the heat.
If you plan on keeping them outside 24 hours a day then getting a motion activated light can help to scare away any predators. Investing in other predator precautions such as motion activated sprinklers should definitely be looked into.
Going for something much bigger than what is recommended for indoor use is a really good idea. They will use the extra and it is outside making large enclosures not be as big of an issue as it is with indoor enclosures. For example putting a blue tongue in a 4x4x2 instead of a 4x2x2 is going to be a much more enriching and rewarding.
One of the best substrates you can use is a play-sand topsoil mix. The percentages for the mixture really depends on the species you are housing and where you live but assuming you don’t live in one of the extremes (Arizona, Florida, New Mexico, etc.) and the animal you are housing does best at around 40-60%, a 70% topsoil 30% play-sand mixture is a good base line to start out with. the good thing about the mixture is it holds some water but still will drain off any excess. Plus it is very cheap so if the mixture isn’t working properly you can go and get some more play-sand or topsoil for next to nothing.
As they are outside and there may be things that spook your animal, making them feel secure is important. Just because we know that they are safe doesn’t mean that they understand that. Lots of hides and cover is going to be the best way to accomplish this. Having at least 4 hides, lots of foliage, and other cover such as cork or PVC tubes is going to help make them feel safe and allowing them to thrive outside. As a general rule, make sure that they can get from one hide to at least one of their other hides without having to expose themselves. This goes for all of the hides so they should be interconnected in a sort. For larger animals such as adult croc monitors or salcata tortoises this isn’t really possible but at least try to provide one hide that they can retreat to would still be a great addition.
So why would you want an outdoor enclosure when you already have a nice indoor enclosure? Besides the natural UVB, there are many more amazing benefits. for one, it is going to be pretty much automatically bioactive (semi bioactive if you don’t add really plants). Isopods, springtails, and other natural “janitors” will begin to inhabit the soil. This results in it being very low maintenance. It also encourages natural foraging which in turn provides loads of enrichment they wouldn’t be able to experience indoors. Being outdoors also makes them have to think. By this I mean that if they see a bird, they will realize that they need to get to cover. while many people may see this as a negative for outdoor enclosures, it does provide mental stimulation and they aren’t in any real danger so I personally see it as a pro.
There are plenty of other things with outdoor enclosure that I didn’t cover but this I just a little overview on them. Hope everyone enjoyed the read and I would love to see any outdoor enclosure you have and any feedback you have for this post!