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

More On the Use of Pine in Captive Environments

©2000 Melissa Kaplan


As my Use As Cedar as Substrate article states, pine is believed by many veterinarians and veterinary pathologists to contain many of the toxic qualities as its cousin, cedar. While pine isn't as aromatic as cedar, and animals kept on pine substrates such as pine shavings, or furnished with pine climbing branches or pine hide-boxes don't develop the ulcers and lesions those kept on cedar frequently do, there is still no research to definitively state whether pine may cause less-observable problems, such as reproductive or other problems, in reptiles as does or is suspected of cedar.

Personally, I continued to use pine shavings as a substrate for my colubrid and small boid snakes after I write the cedar substrate article. Through the years I watched for research on herps and pine, but so far have seen nothing. In the meantime, there has been a growing body of literature on the effects of pine volatiles on humans and a variety of other animals and plants. True, they don't address reactions documented in reptiles. By the same token, there isn't any literature on the toxicity or lack thereof of antifreeze in reptiles though its toxic effects are well-documented in dogs. Does that mean that it's okay to fill up your lizard's bowl with antifreeze as a treat from plain water? Of course not. It does mean that, in the absence of species-specific research, we need to use our best judgement in evaluating the research that does exist and how it may affect our herps. Would I use pine shavings now? No. As for household products containing pine oil, I did not, and still do not, use any such products: household cleaners, incense, essential oils, etc.

Some things you may be interested in reading on the impact on health of pine volatiles and dust...

Pet-Related Information
American Veterinary Medical Association A Pet Owner's Guide to Common Small Animal Poisons says this about cleaning products, including those with pine oil: "[T]his category contains dozens of products used around the home including toilet bowl cleaners, bleach, detergents, caustics (e.g., Drano™, Ajax™), pine oils and others. Although intended to keep our lives safe and healthy by maintaining a clean environment, these products are often highly poisonous to living tissue if a dog or cat eats or becomes otherwise exposed to the chemicals in the cleaner.

"These cleaners can destroy tissue on contact by acid or alkaline burns, by dissolving through tissue membranes, by absorbing through to the animal's bloodstream and causing generalized illness and a variety of other mechanisms. Pine oils and electric dishwashing detergents particularly tend to be quite toxic although the range of chemicals included in cleaning products can cause signs varying widely from mild local irritation (many detergent soaps) to deep penetrating tissue damage (alkaline products) to severe systemic disease (pine oils and others). "

Ferrets First Bedding What is interesting in this article is the discussion of the problems associated with dust inhalation. Some shavings and other litter products (such as CareFresh recycled paper litter marketed for reptiles and other pets) are dustier than others, based on how they were actually made, what they are from, and how long they've been knocking around before purchased by the pet owner. Some species may be more susceptible to eye and lung irritation and inflammation from such substrates, as may some individuals within a species generally deemed to be tolerant of the material or product. If you have a species that claws at solid wood, such iguanas or tortoises, they may create dust as they shred the wood furnishings or enclosure walls or floors.

House Rabbit Society Litter Boxes, Liver Disease, and Rabbits's Wood Shavings: The problem with cedar and pine shavings as pet bedding and litter


Toxicology Resources

EXTOXNET Toxicology Database Cutaneous Toxicity 

Environmental Toxicology Newsletter, University of California, Toxin in Pine Needles Identified

eMedicine's Toxicity & Hydrocarbons


Journal Abstracts

Ayars GH, Altman LC, Frazier CE, Chi EY. (1989) The toxicity of constituents of cedar and pine woods to pulmonary epithelium. J Allergy Clin Immunol 1989 Mar;83(3):610-8

Campagnolo ER, Trock SC, Hungerford LL, Shumaker TJ, Teclaw R, Miller RB, Nelson HA, Ross F, Reynolds DJ. Outbreak of vesicular dermatitis among horses at a midwestern horse show. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1995 Jul 15;207(2):211-3

Feron VJ, Arts JH, Kuper CF, Slootweg PJ, Woutersen RA. Health risks associated with inhaled nasal toxicants. Crit Rev Toxicol 2001 May;31(3):313-47

Kacergis JB, Jones RB, Reeb CK, Turner WA, Ohman JL, Ardman MR, Paigen B. Air quality in an animal facility: particulates, ammonia, and volatile organic compounds. Am Ind Hyg Assoc J 1996 Jul;57(7):634-40

Thomas JC, Carlton DL, Barzak PF. An improved method for evaluating hardwood animal bedding products. Lab Anim (NY) 2001 Jun;30(6):43-6

Pelkonen KH, Hanninen OO. Cytotoxicity and biotransformation inducing activity of rodent beddings: a global survey using the Hepa-1 assay. Toxicology 1997 Sep 26;122(1-2):73-80

Potgieter FJ, Wilke PI. Laboratory animal bedding: a review of specifications and requirements. J S Afr Vet Assoc 1991 Sep;62(3):143-6

Potgieter FJ, Wilke PI, van Jaarsveld H, Alberts DW. The in vivo effect of different bedding materials on the antioxidant levels of rat heart, lung and liver tissue. J S Afr Vet Assoc 1996 Mar;67(1):27-30

Torronen R, Pelkonen K, Karenlampi S. Enzyme-inducing and cytotoxic effects of wood-based materials used as bedding for laboratory animals. Comparison by a cell culture study. Life Sci 1989;45(6):559-65. Erratum in Life Sci 1989;45(24):2381

Vandenput S, Istasse L, Nicks B, Lekeux P. Airborne dust and aeroallergen concentrations in different sources of feed and bedding for horses. Vet Q 1997 Nov;19(4):154-8

Vogelzang PF, van der Gulden JW, Folgering H, Heederik D, Tielen MJ, van Schayck CP. Longitudinal changes in bronchial responsiveness associated with swine confinement dust exposure. Chest 2000 May;117(5):1488-95

Ward PL, Wohlt JE, Katz SE. Chemical, physical, and environmental properties of pelleted newspaper compared to wheat straw and wood shavings as bedding for horses. J Anim Sci 2001 Jun;79(6):1359-69

Welker JA, Zaloga GP. Pine oil ingestion: a common cause of poisoning. Chest 1999 Dec; 116(6): 1822-6

Weichbrod RH, Cisar CF, Miller JG, Simmonds RC, Alvares AP, Ueng TH. Effects of cage beddings on microsomal oxidative enzymes in rat liver. Lab Anim Sci 1988 Jun;38(3):296-8

Whelan G. The influence of cage bedding on the metabolism of sulphobromophthalein sodium by an hepatic cytosol-located enzyme system. Aust J Biol Sci 1975 Feb;28(1):25-9

Note: Cytochrome p-450 is part of the liver's first line of defense in detoxing the body of chemicals that get into it, everything from volatile chemicals to antibiotics administered for systemic infections. An elevated cytochrome P-450 level means the liver is fighting to detox something. A lower than normal P-450 level either means the body is in a wonderfully drug- and chemical-free state or that the thyroid gland isn't functioning properly.

Phenol Material Safety Data Sheets and FAQs

Deutsch Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ)

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry Phenol FAQ

Pine Oil

And, lest you put great faith in MSDS, check out the EPA's Alert Issued To Emergency Responders Not To Rely Solely On MSDS


A final thought...
Toxic chemicals and thorns are the teeth and claws of plants. Just as teeth and claws are used by various animals to defend themselves and compete with competitors for territory and mates, plants too have an arsenal of weapons used to fend off animals that would eat them and other plants from encroaching too close, thus forcing them to compete with finite resources such as water, soil nutrients, and sunlight. Most such toxins were developed over time against a certain type of plant pest (which is just an organism the plant doesn't want around it, much like "weeds" are just plants humans don't want around), but that doesn't mean that the toxin isn't effective against other organisms. The high oxalate levels of many leafy greens helps prevent insect or other predation...but in high enough quantities, such as those found in rhubarb leaves, there is enough to make a healthy adult human quite ill.

The animals who live in pine forests live in the open: lots of fresh air moving around. In captivity, they aren't. Not to put too fine a point on it, even with ventilation panels on opposite sides of an enclosure to stimulate cross ventilation, most captive herps are being given far less fresh air than their wild counterparts. This means that the fumes from anything used in their enclosure (as well as feces and food sitting a little too long) stay in the enclosure in stronger concentrations for far longer times than the same fumes would hang around in the wild. Coupled with the problems caused by particulate matter (dust from shavings, for example) in the eyes and respiratory tracts of herps, on the skin of amphibians, and those taken up into the cloacal after cloacal or hemipenal tissues have been everted during defecation or seminal plug extrusion, and shavings (and other particulate substrates manufactured by the pet trade industry to entice pet owners) look less and less appealing.

The bottom line is that, when it comes to herps and other relatively newly popular exotics, there simply has not been the research done to test what is harmful or not. So, use your best judgement, and if nothing else, be conservative in your choices - it may be the best chance your herps have.

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