On a routine basis, cleaning a reptile enclosure does not require full-strength disinfectants, and sanitizers aren’t necessary. However, if you are battling parasites or disease in your collection, you need to be aware of what to use to treat the problem. It’s also recommended to deep clean and disinfect tanks when you are putting a different species in the tank, as some species are more susceptible than others to pathogens.
This article covers surface cleaning and disinfecting only. Wound care information is found here.
First and foremost, if you suspect illness, you need to identify what is wrong with your animal. Parasites are always a possibility, as are fungal, bacterial and viral infections. A good reptile vet will help you diagnose and treat the animal; this guide will help you clean up and prevent re-infection.
Chemical sanitation is the easiest, cheapest and most effective route in cleaning enclosures and furnishings. Many don’t understand the nature of chemicals and are naturally, and understandably, afraid of them. With so much emphasis on toxins and “natural” methods, there is a lot of misinformation that goes around. Taking a scientific approach to caring for your pets can enrich both your life and theirs. That being said, many disinfectants are hazardous to humans or reptiles specifically, and are not recommended. Avoid formaldehyde and other aldehydes, Pine-sol, Lysol and other phenols which are highly toxic to reptiles.
It is important to note that disinfectants generally should be applied after washing with soap and water or an enzymatic cleaner often recommended for reptile tanks. This is because many of these chemicals are denatured in the presence of organic matter, soaps or detergents used in cleaning. After rinsing thoroughly, apply the disinfectant and allow it to sit on the surface long enough to kill the germs and other microorganisms. This time ranges from 30 seconds to 30 minutes, depending both on the product and the type of pathogen. Some sanitizers require rinsing after application while others can remain on the surface for continual protection and prevention.
Whichever sterilization method you use, be careful with chemicals! Even the safest, most benign formulas can cause harm with prolonged exposure, contact with eyes, or inhalation of fumes.
Chlorine Bleach is a solution of sodium hypochlorite and sodium hydroxide in water. It’s also known as household bleach, liquid bleach and by the brand name of Chlorox. Bleach is a very effective anti-microbial solution. It kills a wide range of microbes by denaturing their cellular walls, lipids and proteins. This also causes skin, eye and mucous membrane irritation on contact, so it is by no means benign. The main toxicity to non-microbial lifeforms (us and our pets) from bleach is from the fumes, because it can react with other substances (especially the fragrances and surfactants within many cleaning products), combining and creating volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are common in paint and other household chemicals.
Plain bleach (without added fragrances and other additives) in very small amounts can be used in an emergency to treat water to make it safe for drinking. This is why tap water sometimes smells like bleach, which some may mistake for bleach residue even after a lot of rinsing. If something smells like bleach after drying, re-rinse. Don’t do the “sniff test” while an item is still wet, because this can give a false indication of bleach residue from the small amount in tap water.
The general guideline for disinfecting with bleach is a 10% solution. Mix 1 part bleach with 9 parts of water; each “part” can be any amount, from teaspoons to cups – however don’t make more than you can use up in a day or two, as the solution will eventually degrade. It can also damage spray bottles so be sure to rinse your equipment well after using.
Cautions: Odor & fumes. Avoid contact with skin and eyes. Rinse after use.
Stabilized chlorine dioxide (Oxyfresh) can also be used if safely diluted to 1:200 (0.5%).
Hydrogen Peroxide is another form of oxidizing bleach, but it works with oxygen instead of chlorine. It is generally recognized as “safer” but it is also less effective without other agents. It will also release VOCs if mixed with certain other chemicals. When mixed with vinegar, it makes a highly effective disinfectant known as peracetic acid – which is also highly caustic, do not touch it or breathe those fumes! It’s really good in treating food surfaces and foot itself, as long as it’s rinsed thoroughly.
Hydrogen peroxide for household use is sold at drug stores in a 3% solution, so no further dilution is necessary. Higher concentrations are available, but use caution when handling.
Cautions: Avoid contact with skin & eyes. Rinse after use.
Vinegar (acetic acid) on its own is a relatively good cleaner, especially on glass, but it is nowhere near as effective at killing the more dreadful of microbes. Vinegar alone is not an adequate disinfectant when you have a major health issue on your hand.
Vinegar can be used full strength, or can be mixed 50:50 with water for a cleaning solution.
Alcohol, such as isopropanol rubbing alcohol, is highly effective at killing viruses, bacteria and fungi. However, it is not recommended as a surface disinfectant because it evaporates quickly, thus not providing the contact time necessary to kill germs and parasites unless a lot is used. It’s also highly flammable, so is not a wise choice for cleaning large objects.
For small items, you can use full strength – it’s usually diluted to 70% in bottles for household use. For larger items you can mix 50:50 with water.
Cautions: Flammable. Avoid contact with eyes.
Ammonia is a caustic and hazardous compound of nitrogen and hydrogen. It is a colourless gas with a characteristic pungent smell. Although ammonia is not generally considered a disinfectant, high concentrations of ammonia can destroy coccidia (Cystoisospora spp) oocysts, the larval form of the parasite.
Cautions: Odor & fumes. Avoid contact with skin & eyes. Rinse after use.
Chlorhexidine is a multipurpose disinfectant, and can be used to treat surfaces as well as skin and wounds at lower concentrations. There are a number of forms – the most common for veterinary use are chlorhexidine diacetate (Nolvasan) and chlorhexidine gluconate (generic versions sold by other manufacturers). Since it needs to be diluted prior to use, either form is acceptable. Most commercial versions of chlorhexidine are tinted blue.
No rinsing is necessary.
Note that chlorhexidine is ineffective against coccidia oocysts.
For the 1:32 ratio of general cleaning:
32 oz spray bottles = 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) per bottle
24 oz spray bottles = .7 ounce (1.4 tablespoons) per bottle
Using at a 10% strength for surface cleaning is also acceptable. Wound care concentration should be 0.05% – 0.07% (one ounce to a gallon of water).
F10 veterinary disinfectant is a “new” formula that’s been recently approved (around 2010) by the US EPA, but has been around for a long time in the rest of the world for veterinary use. It is made from quaternary ammonium (Benzalkonium Chloride), and a biguanide compound, Polyhexamethylene Biguanide (PHMB). Typically, quaternary ammonium compounds are less effective against some viruses, but the inclusion of PHMB boosts the effectiveness by damaging cellular walls and possibly by damaging DNA and other nucleic acids. This formula serves to kill a wide range of micro organisms without the need to rinse, is non-irritating to skin and non-damaging to equipment. It’s been shown to be effective against a wide spectrum of microbes: bacteria, viruses, spores and fungi, with no evidence of microbial resistance as with other antibiotic compounds.
There are currently two formulas available on the US Market: F10®SC (super concentrate) for surface disinfecting and F10®SCXD for cleaning as well as disinfecting. For veterinary use or in cases of infestation, follow the use of F10®SCXD with a rinse and then the F10®SC spray for long-lasting protection.
Note that the concentrated formula must be diluted; in such high-concentration there may be irritation, but when mixed at the recommended ratio of 1:500 (2ml in one liter of water) there should be no ill effects. For higher levels of disinfection you can go up to 1:125.
For the 1:500 ratio of general cleaning:
32 oz spray bottles = .07 ounces of F10 per bottle
24 oz spray bottles = .05 ounce of F10 per bottle
Other Sterilization Methods
High heat (120 degrees Celsius, 248 degrees Fahrenheit) can kill most microbes, but not all and some eggs or oocysts can survive harsh temperatures. Many home steam cleaners can reach those high temps, but in common practice and product guidelines this is not long enough (15+ minutes) required to be safe. High heat will melt plastic and warp many furnishings.
Boiling can be an option, but porous items such as wood and some rocks might harbor microbes in crevices.
Baking wet wood in a 350-400 degree F oven should be fine, for half an hour. Make sure it doesn’t catch fire! It can be a stinky process. It may or may not kill all the microorganisms. As stated above, some are very encapsulated in their egg and larval forms and some are more resistant to cold or to heat. Some are unaffected by bleach and require ammonia or some different kind of chemical cleaner as outlined previously.
Sunlight is full of natural UV radiation, which can kill surface germs. However, it requires long exposure times and there are no reliable guidelines. UV will degrade plastic. You could be able to boil and soak wood or other porous furnishings, then leave them out in the sun to dry. This should take care of a lot of the troublesome germs, but is not foolproof. Bleach is often recommended for these porous objects as a first step to ensure more germicidal effects.
If you have a diagnosed infestation, put your animals in temporary enclosures during the treatment process. In the temporary housing, use paper towel and disposable furnishings such as cardboard boxes & tubes for hides. The eggs or oocysts of many pathogens last up to three weeks in a moist environment. Make sure you disinfect their permanent housing to break the lifecycle!