Anyone who’s familiar with reptiles is familiar with heat mats. They’re one of those products — still marketed toward beginners to this day at the expense of the wellbeing of the animal.
A while ago, heat mats were the way to go with pretty much any reptile. Keepers cited concerns that lights would cause damage to eyes or simply “weren’t necessary”. New evidence has come to light (no pun intended) however, and shows that overhead heating is actually far preferable for your reptilian friend.
For starters, heat mats only produce IR-C heat. This is by far the least efficient heating method (when compared to IR-A and IR-B) and hardly penetrates reptile skin at all.
Heat mats also only heat a surface. This means that they really only are heating the actual thing they’re touching (in most cases, the floor of an enclosure). In turn, they aren’t heating the air, which is a big problem when you’re trying to create a temperature gradient for an entire 3-dimensional enclosure.
Furthermore, heat mats suck at replicating the wild environment of reptiles. Did you really think that heat comes from the ground?! No, it comes from the sun, which comes from above a terrain.
Sure, material and the ground itself can be warm, but only because of the heat absorbed from the sun. The interior of the small caves and crevices leopard geckos are so commonly found under are permeated by the heat from the sun.
Lastly, if used the “affordable way” heat mats can cause severe burns. If you still absolutely need a heat mat for whatever reason (for instance, heating the interior of your warm hide that’s still too cool even with a heat lamp), make sure that it is regulated by a thermostat to prevent any mishaps from occurring.
Heat mats vs. lamps
Heat lamps (halogen bulbs or DHPs) are always preferable to heat mats. They produce both IR-A and IR-B heat to at least some degree, which are far more efficient heating methods.
That said, a heat mat is better than no heat at all. However, you should never have to choose between a heat mat or nothing unless an emergency arises. If you’re currently using a heat mat exclusively to heat a leopard gecko, please switch to a heat lamp as soon as possible.
As a side note, you should never, ever use loose substrate when using only a heat mat, even if said substrate is safe with overhead heating. Heat mats alone do not count as “sufficient heating” for safe loose substrates. Leopard geckos will not be able to pass ingested minerals without appropriate heat, which in turn will lead to complications such as impaction.
Don’t heat lamps hurt leopard gecko eyes?
Not really. If you provide zero ground cover or hides, then it’s possible eye complications could occur, but such happenings aren’t to be worried about for most leopard geckos.
However, albinos and other individuals with low skin pigmentation shouldn’t be exposed to light the same way other morphs can be, because they’re naturally more sensitive to bright light. Opt for a DHP rather than a halogen bulb for such geckos. Light in all forms may need to be completely blocked from the lizard in extreme medical cases — but that’s a topic for another post!
What about belly heat?
For the most part, “belly heat” is just a myth. That said, leopard geckos still do need to keep their stomachs toasty — but again, the best way to keep a reptile warm is to use an overhead heating method (a lamp). Leopard geckos will get all the heat they need from their basking spot and heat bulb when such components are provided.
As a summary, please don’t use heat mats! If you’re facing a rare warm hide complication that still requires one, please use overhead heating too!
Feel free to leave a comment below if you have a question, and stay tuned to this blog for more leopard gecko posts!