Cleaning Your Habitat, it’s a dirty job, but…

Many people may not make a distinction between cleaning and disinfecting, but when it comes to proper reptile care, it is very important to know the difference and do both. Cleaning involves the washing and removal of debris and other material from a surface while disinfecting involves killing or minimizing disease-causing viruses, bacteria, or fungi. Cleaning does not mean disinfecting, and a clean surface can still harbor harmful agents.

Selecting the proper disinfectant for reptile cages must be done carefully. Disinfectants must be strong enough to kill harmful organisms but safe for your herp. It is very important to use reptile-safe products per instruction and to thoroughly rinse items after they have been disinfected.

When using chemicals for cleaning or disinfecting, keep your herp in another room to avoid exposure to fumes. Reptiles are sensitive to fumes and this applies to humans as well. For your own comfort and safety, use these products in well-ventilated rooms and be sure to use rubber gloves and safety goggles.

Before using any disinfectant, it is important to clean any soiled areas with hot soapy water first to remove food, feces, and other debris. The presence of these materials will prevent the disinfectant from working properly. Rinse well to remove any soap residue before applying the disinfectant.

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The disinfectant should be applied liberally to the cage and accessories. Allow the disinfectant to have contact with the material for 10 minutes. Porous materials require longer contact time for proper disinfecting. Rinse thoroughly with clean water after disinfecting items to remove all residues. Make sure all items are completely dry before reassembling the habitat.

Although there are many commercially available disinfectants, household bleach is one of the most inexpensive and readily available disinfectants. You can make a disinfecting bleach solution by mixing 1 part bleach with 16 parts water (or 1 cup of bleach to 1 gallon of water). Apply this bleach solution to the cleaned cage, decorations, and accessories for 5-10 minutes, then rinse thoroughly with clean water.

Disinfecting your reptile’s environment is an important and crucial part of cage maintenance. When you keep on top of your reptile’s maintenance needs, you can rest assured that you are offering your pet a safe, healthy home.

What chemicals to use and not to use?

Bleach Examples: Clorox, Purex, Bleach

Bleach is available in liquid and powder forms. It is a powerful oxidizer that can destroy many if not most microorganisms, including

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bacteria and viruses, but it has limited activity against spores of some bacteria and fungi. The presence of organic debris severely reduces the efficacy of oxidizing disinfectants. Ultraviolet light will also inactivate bleach solutions, as will evaporation and extremes in pH. Bleach solutions are widely used for disinfecting durable surfaces because they are easy to obtain, inexpensive and have a wide antimicrobial activity and low residual toxicity. One-half cup of bleach to one gallon of water is effective in inactivating many infectious agents.

As you know, the strong odor can be quite irritating to humans and animals and the solution and fumes are toxic to living tissue, including skin, eyes, and lungs. Bleach is also corrosive to metals and produces carcinogenic (cancer-causing) by-products. All disinfectants should be used in an area with adequate ventilation, especially when dealing with bleach. As with all disinfectants, after cleaning, surfaces should be rinsed thoroughly and allowed to dry before being placed in contact with herps.

Stabilized Chlorine Dioxide Examples: Dent-A-Gene, Oxyfresh

This is considered safe and is used by many municipalities as the principal agent for eliminating potential pathogens from drinking water. Unlike bleach, it does not form carcinogenic compounds. Stabilized chlorine dioxide is rapidly inactivated by organic debris and exposure to sunlight.

Chlorhexidine Gluconates Examples: Nolvasan, Virosan

These compounds are often used as disinfectants for inanimate objects and as antiseptics for cleaning skin and wounds. These are relatively nontoxic to the skin. Some chlorhexidine products also contain alcohol, and these are superior to those just containing chlorhexidine. These are also noncorrosive and are safe if they come in contact with skin. They have good activity against many bacteria, yeast, and some enveloped viruses. They also have limited activity against some bacteria, including Pseudomonas sp., spores produced by the bacteria causing tuberculosis (TB) and nonenveloped viruses. It is also not very effective in the presence of organic material and it is not considered to be that stable, so it must be made fresh at least once per day. It is suggested that hexachlorophene (Phisohex) is a potent carcinogen (cancer-causing agent).

Glutaraldehydes Examples: Cidex, Wavecide, Sporcide, Sterol

These chemicals have the ability to rapidly inactivate many microbial agents, including most bacteria (including Mycobacteria, which cause TB), many viruses and Chlamydophila. They are effective against many viruses, even in the presence of organic material, and once made up into a solution, they are stable for two to four weeks. While these chemicals are very effective, they are not frequently used because of the widespread side effects, which may cause eye irritation, respiratory tract irritation and skin lesions (including cracking, peeling and bleeding) in both humans and animals. Some glutaraldehydes are corrosive, others are not.

Iodines Examples: Betadyne, Povidone iodine, Prepodyne, Virac

Iodines are oxidizing agents that are usually used as antiseptics for cleaning wounds and skin. Many of the compounds used for pets and humans are called “tamed” iodines, meaning that they are iodines mixed with a detergent, making them iodophors.

Iodine-containing disinfectants generally do not produce much in the way of toxic vapors, they are available mixed with detergents for both cleaning and disinfecting, and are effective against many bacteria, some viruses and fungi. They are generally considered to be more expensive than other products, and often must be used full-strength, are toxic if ingested and may cause drying and cracking of the skin. They are not effective against all strains of Pseudomonas and some viruses. Many are inactivated by the presence of organic material, so items to be disinfected must be thoroughly cleaned first.

Phenols Examples: Avinol-3, Lysol, Environ, One Stroke, Staphhene

Sodium orthophenol is the active ingredient in most phenol-containing disinfectants. Phenols can inactivate many bacteria, including Pseudomonas and the bacteria responsible for causing TB, fungi and some viruses. Organic material can affect the activity of phenols, as can the temperature, pH and concentration of the disinfecting solution. Phenols are inexpensive and rinse off easily, so that they don’t leave much of a toxic residue. However, they are toxic to many tissues; irritating to the skin, eyes and respiratory tract; and are especially toxic to felines and reptiles, so it is important to rinse phenols off well from anything that may come in contact with herps.

Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (Quats) Examples: Barquat, Omega, Parvosol, Roccal, Zephiran, Quintacide

Quats are organic compounds combined with ammonia. Because of their chemical composition, these agents may function as a deterrent and help to remove organic debris from contaminated objects. Quats are inexpensive, are relatively safe and inactivate many types of bacteria, some viruses, and Chlamydophila. Soap and organic debris may inactivate quats. They should not be used for removing spores, Mycobacteria (the organisms causing TB), fungi, many nonenveloped viruses, and Pseudomonas. Quats are difficult to rinse off and may leave a slimy residue. Ingestion of quats and possibly inhalation can cause respiratory paralysis and even death! These agents are not recommended for objects that will be in direct contact with herps.


Seventy percent ethanol (alcohol) inactivates many bacteria and viruses; however, this usually requires a long contact time of at least 20 minutes. Alcohols perform best in the presence of moisture. Some viruses are resistant to inactivation by alcohol. Alcohols will dissolve some plastics, rubber, and glues, and must be used cautiously around those items. Alcohol fumes can be irritating to the eyes and mucous membranes.

Soaps and Detergents

These are divided into two groups: anionic soaps (with a negative charge) and synthetic detergents (positively charged). Soaps and detergents work by reducing the attraction of greases and dirt to an object. In some cases, specific chemical disinfectants are combined with a soap or detergent. These agents are primarily used to clean and disinfect areas or objects that are contaminated with large quantities of organic debris. Household detergents are great for cleaning bowls, dishes, enclosures, rocks and hide boxes, and as with all cleaning agents, items should be rinsed well and dried thoroughly before being replaced in the cage.

Steam and Heat

Commercially available units are now available that release steam that can be used to clean, remove debris and disinfect surfaces. I have a steamer for cleaning cages, and it is easy to use, is safe and very effective in removing many harmful organisms and debris. Of course, be very careful to not burn or melt plastics, and never steam clean with the herps in the enclosures, as severe burns can occur. I use a steam cleaner routinely to clean my cages and cage equipment, and I recommend them highly.

So, now you have a basic understanding of the principles of cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing. Now, you can choose the agents and equipment that should be right in your situation for keeping your herps healthy. Also, because of the risk of salmonellosis, other bacteria, and parasites that could potentially be transmitted to humans, you should never clean herp equipment in your kitchen sink or in areas where human food is prepared. If you use a tub or shower that is also used by humans, make sure you adequately disinfect those areas after cleaning herp stuff.

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