Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Information on Disinfectants from the Reptile Veterinary Literature

Melissa Kaplan, 2000


I recommend the use of Nolvasan (chlorhexidine diacetate) as a cage, accessories and surface disinfectant for reptiles because:

  • when used in the dilute form stipulated on the product container (4-6 tablespoons of Nolvasan per gallon of water), it is a safe and effective bactericide and virucide
  • when used diluted to 1% strength, it is safe and effective for wound irrigation
  • it has no toxic fumes if residues are left in the enclosure or when in use by the reptile keeper

Bleach solution (1/2 cup household bleach per gallon of water) is recommended in the literature and frequently used in veterinary offices. It is cheap, and it is one of the few disinfectants effective against the highly infectious canine parvovirus (which reptiles do not get). It is also dangerous when used in closed spaces due to the toxic fumes. When mixed with ammonia, it creates a new, also highly toxic, substance.

Most people are not aware of the fact that their household dishwashing soaps and other cleaners contain ammonia - the ingredient may or may not appear in the fine print on the back of the product container. If you use such a product, and fail to rinse the enclosure surfaces thoroughly, or even forget to thoroughly rinse the residues out of the sink and bathtub before rinsing off items that have been sprayed or soaking in a bleach solution, you could make yourself or your animals quite ill as the bleach in the disinfectant solution you made comes into contact with the ammonia product in your sink or tub or any such residues left in the enclosuire, on water bowls, etc. when you apply the bleach disinfectant solution.

Any product, used in correctly, is potentially dangerous. Applied full strength to the eyes or respiratory tract, Nolvasan is toxic. However, the only time you should be handling it full strength is when measuring out enough Nolvasan to mix a new gallon of dilute solution.

The following excerpts are from the veterinary literature. As I continue to find sources, I will add them. If you come across useful sources and would like to refer them to me, I will be glad to add them

Disinfectants Useful Around Reptiles.
From his chapter Therapeutics, by Roger J. Klingenberg, DVM. In, Reptile Medicine and Surgery, Douglas R. Mader, DVM, editor. 1996, WB Saunders Co.:

As part of the comprehensive therapeutic plan, the practitioner should make recommendations concerning the hygiene of the reptile's environment. Improper sanitation, including inadequate disinfection, is commonly associated with health problems. The practitioner needs to stress to the owner the importance of proper disinfection and not merely cleaning.

Cleaning refers to the physical removal of organic debris. This reduces exposure to potential pathogens. Soap products are commonly used for cleaning, as they help penetrate and break up stubborn materials. Liquid dish detergent diluted in warm water is an example of a good cleaning agent. However, soap residues can inactivate some disinfectants. "Disinfectant" is a term that is usually applied to a chemical or physical agent that kills vegetative forms of bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Disinfectants will not sterilize a surface hut will reduce pathogen numbers more dramatically than cleaners.

There are live main groups of disinfectants used with reptiles:

1. Quaternary ammonium compounds (Roccal-D, Upjohn Co.)

2. Chlorhexidine products (Nolvasan, Aveco Co.)

3. Household bleach (Sodium hypochlorite - many brands)

4. Ammonia (many brands)

5. Inorganic iodine products (e.g., povidone-iodine -many brands)

Regardless of the product used, for adequate disinfection to occur most manufacturers recommend a contact time of 15 10 20 minutes. While this may be impractical for large cages, water dishes and cage furniture may be soaked and then well-rinsed. Large enclosures can be sprayed with an appropriate dilution of the disinfectant, which is then rinsed well after the appropriate contact time. Some soap residues can partially inactivate disinfectants such as the quaternary ammonium products, so a thorough rinsing after cleaning is imperative. Some reptiles, such as some of the water turtles and amphibians, are more sensitive to these agents and special attention has to he paid to the rinsing process. Cutaneous absorption of these products could prove to he fatal. Some containers used in animal housing are not totally impervious to these products. Plastic tends to retain some of the cleaning agents and disinfectants. At the National Aquarium in Baltimore, povidone-iodine was implicated in the deaths of some poison dart frogs. lf a chlorine product is used, then a dechlorinizing agent should be added to the rinse water. A thorough rinsing of both the cleaning agents and disinfectants is important to prevent accidental absorption via residues, to limit contact irritants, and to remove odors that could harm the respiratory system of the cage occupant.

Quaternary ammonium products like Roccal-D are very useful and easy to use. Roccal-D is fairly harsh to skin and prolonged contact is to be avoided. Despite rumors to the contrary, Roccal-D has not been shown to be carcinogenic. All cleaning agents used prior to using the disinfectant must be rinsed well or some inactivation of the product may occur. Chlorhexidine products are less harsh and are more commonly used. These products are often combined with cleansing agents (e.g., Nolvasan scrub), but this would he a fairly expensive product to use for general cleaning/disinfection. It is more reasonable to use a good cleaning agent, rinse well, and then apply the chlorhexidine (1%) as a spray; which is ultimately rinsed. This will work equally well for cages, cage furniture, and water dishes.

Povidone-iodine products can also he combined with cleansing agents to produce surgical scrub solutions. These products may penetrate some plastics and should be used with caution in sensitive reptiles. Staining of containers can also occur. The povidone-iodine products are effective for resistant organisms such as Entamoeba spp., although true sterilization is preferred.

Ammonia products are irritating to skin and the respiratory, tract and are infrequently used. However, ammonia-based products in a 5% solution are perhaps the agent of choice for Cryptosporidia spp., which are extremely resistant to disinfection. Mycobacterium spp. are also resistant to most disinfectants, and true sterilization may be required to control these pathogens.

Perhaps the most frequently used cleaning/disinfection combination used by veterinarians is bleach with a soap product, made popular owing to the resistance of canine parvovirus. One ounce (30 ml) of household chlorine bleach is combined with 1 teaspoon (5 ml) of a soap product like Palmolive or Dawn dish detergent in 1 quart of water. Because of the low cost of this mixture, new batches should he mixed with each cleaning/disinfection job. While good results are obtained, this mixture is also irritating to the skin and respiratory system. Chlorine bleach must never be combined with ammonia owing to the potential production of poisonous chlorine gases.

Each practitioner must make his or her own choice based on preference of the products mentioned. Products already in use in the veterinary clinic can be adapted for use with reptiles. Clients should be encouraged to use similar products, but their use must he thoroughly discussed with them if recommended. A handout on cleaning and disinfection techniques may prove to be useful.

From the same chapter:

Wound Flushing Agents
There are a number of irrigation agents available. Chlorhexidine diacetate (Nolvasan, Ft. Dodge), povidone-iodine solutions, and hydrogen peroxide are the most commonly used and are relatively safe when used as directed. They have all been recommended for use on oral mucosa at one time or another, and clinical use seems to support the safety of this practice, a 1:20 or 1:30 dilution of chlorhexidine 2% has been advocated for the treatment of infectious stomatitis. This author also contends that, despite popular belief to the contrary; Nolvasan is effective against many strains of Pseudomonas. A statement that this product is effective against Pseudomonas spp. is lacking on the container, and the author contends that this is because the solution does not conform to the standards set by the Association of Official Analytical Chemists. Nolvasan sensitivity disks are available for routine culture/sensitivity testing.

[MK notes: Another practitioner recommends using Nolvasan to treat shell infections in aquatic turtles after first debriding to healthy tissue.]

Reptile Zoonoses and Threats to Public Health, by Cathy A. Johnson-Delaney.
In, Reptile Medicine and Surgery, Douglas R. Mader, DVM, editor. 1996, WB Saunders Co.:

Table 3.1 Suggested Disinfectants to Use To Clean Your Reptile's Housing, Water Tub/Pond/Pool, and Cage Accessories

Roccal-D (Wintrhop, New York NY)

Nolvasan (Fort Dodge Laboratories, Fort Dodge IA)

Avinol (Veterinary Products Laboratory, Phoenix AZ)

One-Stroke Environ (Ceva, Overland Park KS)

Syn-Phenol-3 (Veterinary Products Laboratories, AZ)

10% Chlorine bleach solution

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