Cleaning, Disinfecting and Sterilizing
How they are different and why you need to know
©1995, 2000 Melissa Kaplan
A Brief History of Antisepsis
To many people, these three terms--cleaning, disinfecting and sterilizing--are synonymous but the fact is that they stand for three discrete processes. What you know--or don't know--can at best be a waste of time and money for you; at worst, it can make you ill and be deadly to your animals.
Cleaning is best done with hot, soapy water. The hot water and surfactants in the soap work to loosen debris stuck to surfaces. Clean rinse water flushes it away. When you are cleaning enclosures which cannot be taken to a tub, sink or outdoor hose to be thoroughly rinsed out, it must be done with sponges, rags or paper towels. In any case, you must completely rinse out or wipe off all soap residue as some ingredients may interfere with the work of the disinfectant.
A simple cleaning may involve the removal of animal waste and the substrate surrounding it. If the substrate is paper, the entire substrate should be changed. If the enclosure is lined with outdoor carpeting or artificial turf, it should be removed and a clean piece placed in the enclosure. (Rotating pieces allows enough time to thoroughly clean, disinfect and dry the soiled piece.) If the animal waste, food, or fluids from prey have come into contact with the floor or walls of the enclosure, then they should be disinfected after the areas have been cleaned.
Almost any good liquid soap can be used for cleaning. Simple Green and regular dishwashing soap both work well; be sure to dilute products such as Simple Green according to manufacturer's directions. There is no need to bother with soaps advertised as "antibacterial" - all soaps are antibacterial in that they, in conjunction with hot water, help remove bacteria from surfaces. Antibacterial soaps are not disinfectants and should not be used in place of a proper disinfectant. Do not use soaps or cleansers which are abrasive, contain pine scents or phenols.
and Chemical Sterilization
There are many products on the market that may safely be used (when directions for use are carefully followed) to disinfect reptile and amphibian tanks. Two may be found on your grocer's shelves - chlorine (household) bleach and ammonia. Both are highly toxic to you and your animals and must be used with extreme care. Other disinfectants may be purchased through animal supply catalogues, industrial supply houses and feed stores: Roccal-D, a quaternary ammonia compound, and Nolvasan (chlorhexidine diacetate). The latter is useful to have in the herper's collection of supplies because in its dilute form it may be used to flush wounds, treat stomatitis (mouthrot) and soak syringes and feeding tubes. These products are expensive, ranging from $35-55 but, when diluted according to manufacturer's directions (Nolvasan, for example, is used at the rate of 3 ounces per gallon of water) they will last a long time (depending upon the number of enclosures, furnishings and utensils). Bleach should be used at the rate of 4 ounces per gallon of water, ammonia at 3.5 ounces per gallon. Note that weaker solutions should be used on amphibian enclosures and furnishings.)
To disinfect surfaces, generously apply the solution to the surface with a saturated cloth, sponge or spray bottle, or let the object soak in a container of the solution. Let the solution sit for at least 10 minutes; 15-20 minutes is better. To sterilize, let the solution sit for at least one-half hour (be sure to check the manufacturer's directions to see if a stronger solution is necessary for sterilization). Rinse out thoroughly, especially when using bleach or ammonia. If there is any doubt about your ability to thoroughly rinse out an enclosure, or the enclosure is made of wood, you may wish to think twice about using bleach or ammonia. Any residual of these substances left in the tank can cause severe, if not fatal, problems for your animals. Both substances produce strong fumes which can cause internal and external irritations. (Simple Green's aroma is artificial sarsaparilla and is not toxic to reptiles; no information has been found in reference to its use in amphibian enclosures.)
Comes the Fun Part
Equipment and Supplies
The cleaning equipment and supplies required include:
Items such as feeding and water bowls, rocks and ceramic, plastic or rock caves and hide boxes should be removed, cleaned and disinfected (as described below) and set aside; they can be placed back into the enclosure once the substrate and tank have been taken care of. Water bowls should be disinfected weekly in a bleach solution.
The disinfecting and sterilization equipment and supplies required include:
Utensils such as scrapers, rags, sponges, snake tongs or hooks, and reusable rubber gloves should be washed in soapy water, then soaked in one disinfectant (such as a chlorine solution) for at least five minutes. The utensils are then rinsed thoroughly before being used again. The second container of solution (such as Nolvasan) is used to disinfect the enclosures.
This should be set up somewhere away from food preparation areas where the articles can stay until you are ready to thoroughly rinse and dry them before placement back into the enclosures.
Needless to say, this can make cleaning a frustratingly time-consuming task if only one set of utensils is used. So splurge and buy a couple of inexpensive putty knives. Hit your local thrift shops for old towels and sheets to (rip into rags) and old mixing bowls. Sponges can be bought in packages of 8-10 to a pack. Save shampoo and similar bottles to store smaller quantities of your disinfectants so that you are not always working with the heavy gallon bottles. With all the waste and trash that gets dumped into our landfills, it is nice to know that there are ways that we can reuse and recycle.
Rags, towels, cloth bags and sponges may be sterilized by soaking in ammonia for 30 minutes in a well ventilated place away from the animals, then washing thoroughly in hot soapy water and allowed to dry. Bleach may also be used for this purpose, but after a time it begins to destroy the integrity of the fabric. This isn't a major problem if you buy your towels and rags at thrift shops. You can machine wash towels and rags in hot, soapy water, to which bleach has been added according to manufacturer's instructions.
Do not mix chemical substances unless otherwise instructed to do so. Some combinations can be dangerous both to your animals and your household. Never mix ammonia and bleach. If using bleach to disinfect your sinks and the food and water bowls, carefully rinse of all soap residues because many dishswashing soap products contain ammonia.
If at all possible, establish a routine. Check enclosures daily for messes that can be quickly cleaned. Schedule one day a week to do a complete cleaning of all enclosures. This is a good time for animals who are otherwise enclosure-bound to get some fresh air and sun, or a nice long soak in the tub while you slave away in their tanks. Crank up the music, plop a drop cloth on the floor if you tend to be a klutz like me, and go to it...it's a dirty job, but somebody's gotta do it.
Recipe for Glass And Window Cleaners
Well, worry about streaks and fumes no more. Make your own window cleaner that can be used on glass (windows and enclosures), mirrors and poured into your car's windshield wiper's cleaning fluid container.
Into a clean, empty gallon bottle, pour:
quart rubbing alcohol
Fill up the rest of the bottle with clean water; distilled water is preferred but not essential. Shake well. The mixed cleaner can be poured into spray bottles, or directly (I would advise using a funnel) into your windshield wiper cleaning fluid container. Just spray it on and wipe as usual. For stubborn spots, spray some on the spots, let sit for a minute or so while you work elsewhere, then rub it out.
If you are sensitive to the smell of rubbing alcohol, make sure you are working in a well ventilated area.
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