How to Make a Vivarium Out of an Aquarium

A step by step guide to re-purposing an old aquarium.

A vivarium is simply an aquarium for non-aquatic animals. Re-purposing an old aquarium to build a habitat for a small mammal, reptile or amphibian makes sense. It does not need to be water-tight but be sure the dimensions of the tank are appropriate for the size of the animal. More than just a container, a good vivarium is a miniature eco-system in which the habitants feel both secure and engaged with their surroundings. It should have regulated environmental features for more sensitive species and should also keep them enclosed and safe from harm.

Step 1

Prepare the aquarium by making sure it is clean and dry. Use a non-toxic cleaner on the glass and make sure there are no traces of mold in the corners.

Step 2

Line the floor of the tank with linoleum, plastic or paper if you plan to change the substrate often (as you would with wood shavings for a mouse habitat for example). Lay down the substrate – wood shavings, soil, sand, paper towels or rocks – depending on the preferences of the animal the tank will be housing.

Step 3

Furnish your vivarium with plants, water habitats (a miniature pond for amphibians for example), angled and flat rocks, hollow branches and other features to make your pet feel at home. Each species will have preferences based on its natural habitat in the wild – try to replicate this as closely as possible.

Step 4

Angle dead and living vegetation for tree climbing species. For species that need to burrow and hide, make the greenery lush and layered. Use dry twigs or sticks rather than greenery to add interest if you are creating the more arid environment that many lizards and reptiles prefer.

Step 5

Install a thermometer or temperature reading device to measure high and low temperatures within the tank; some will give humidity readings as well. These are useful for allowing you to monitor the environment according to the natural predilections of the animal.

Step 6

Finally, make a lid for the vivarium to keep inhabitants in and predators (other domestic animals perhaps) out. Measure thin strips of word and cut them to fit the dimensions of the tank. Glue or nail them together to create a rectangle. Stretch fine gauge window screening over this frame and staple it, keeping the mesh very tight. Make sure it fits snugly and cannot be dislodged from the inside. Use clips to secure the lid if necessary. Be careful not to block the mesh as, with all that glass, this lid will be the only source of fresh air and ventilation.


  • Moderately Easy

Things You’ll Need

  • Large flat stones
  • Small pebbles or gravel
  • Plants
  • Soil, sand or wood shavings
  • Container for water
  • Thermometer
  • Fine mesh window screening
  • Wood for framing


  • Create a fun backdrop for your vivarium with suggestive artwork. A poster or painting applied to one wall of the tank (from the outside in if you are worried about it being destroyed or eaten) can evoke a jungle, a desert landscape or even the far side of the moon.
  • Add light controls and, if necessary, a heat lamp. Different reptiles and small mammals have different requirements but most need some facsimile of night and day. Some species of lizard and snake enjoy basking in the sun in their natural habitat. You can approximate this with rocks and a heat lamp. For less fussy species it can be as simple as turning room lights on or off or covering up one or more of the glass sides.
  • Don’t be in a rush to finish furnishing your vivarium. Prepare it to a bare minimum, introduce the animal, and then add features slowly to monitor your pet’s response.


  • Be sure you know the basic requirements for the species that will be living in your vivarium. Getting it wrong (too hot, too cold, too dark, insufficient humidity etc) will make your pet unhappy at best and unhealthy at worst.
  • Avoid adding items to the tank that could rot or leach toxins. When in doubt, consult a veterinarian, pet shop or expert. Make sure water features can be removed for frequent easy cleaning. Hygiene is of paramount importance to some species, less so for others – do your research to determine what’s best for your pet.
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