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

Cleaning, Disinfecting and Sterilizing

How they are different and why you need to know

©1995, 2000 Melissa Kaplan


A Brief History of Antisepsis
The two perhaps most important contributions to antiseptic procedures in the medical arts both happened during the last 150 years. The French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur set the stage for the later appearance of British surgeon John Lister (1827-1912) who pioneered antiseptic operating room procedures (and after whom Missouri physician Joseph Lawrence named his antibacterial mouth wash). In a time when surgeons operated in their street clothes, surrounded by similarly clothed (and septic) onlookers, and just after surgical instruments were finally being washed in soapy water between operations, Lister campaigned for heat or chemical sterilization (and for surgeons to use something other than sawdust swept up from the floors of the mills, used in surgical dressings). William Stewart Halsted (1852-1922) furthered the cause of antiseptic technique with his introduction of surgical gloves. [The word sepsis is a noun which relates to the presence of organic pathogens (disease-causing organisms) in the blood or tissue; "septic" is the adjective. "Antisepsis" is the noun meaning destruction of such organisms; "antiseptic" is the adjective.]

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 the general removal of debris (food, feces, urates, blood, saliva and other body secretions) which helps reduce the amount of organic matter that contributes to the proliferation of bacteria and diseases. The more debris that is removed at the cleaning stage, the better able your disinfectant will be able to do its job. Most disinfectants cannot work their way under chunks of debris or smears of blood on the tank or utensils; if any bits remain stuck on, use a little elbow grease--or a putty knife dedicated to cage cleaning--to work it off. Before really getting into it with a scouring sponge or pad, test a small area of the tank to see if it is going to abrade the surface of the tank. Repeated scratching may be unsightly, but worse is the fact that it provides lots of nooks and crannies in which bacteria and other beasties can hide.

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.


Disinfecting and Chemical Sterilization
Disinfecting means pretty much what it says - it removes most of the organisms present on the surface which can cause infection or disease. Disinfecting is not suitable for eradicating mites but is useful against a number of bacterial and viral microorganisms. Sterilization, on the other hand, is the killing or removal of all disease causing organisms. Often the same products may be used to disinfect and to sterilize; the difference is in the strength of the solution and/or the amount of time the solution is left in contact with the surface.

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.)


Now Comes the Fun Part
It doesn't make any sense to use disinfectants if you spread organic matter from one animal's enclosure to another on your sponge, rag, gloves or utensils. While your risk of cross-contamination is reduced in a long-established closed group of animals, any group which is subject to change, with new animals coming into the group (not necessarily into the same enclosures as established animals) then the risk of cross-infection is high.

Cleaning Equipment and Supplies
A set of equipment and supplies should be dedicated to new animals. In large groups of established animals, the threat of cross-contamination can be reduced still further by dedicating a separate set of equipment and supplies to each type of animal: snakes, lizards, turtles and tortoises, amphibians.

The cleaning equipment and supplies required include:

  • disposable gloves
  • sponges
  • scrapers (such as a putty knife)
  • glass or metal bowls or buckets for hot soapy water and for the rinse water
  • paper towels, sterilized cloth towels or rags, or disinfected sponges
  • disposable trash receptacle such as a paper or plastic bag.

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:

  • disposable gloves
  • a spray bottle or bucket of prepared disinfectant solution
  • a metal or glass or bucket of fresh rinse water and two for disinfectants.

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.

  • large receptacle for soaking and disinfecting furnishings (bowls, rocks, caves).

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.

The Process
Begin working with your established, healthy, animals. Once you have finished their enclosures, clean and disinfect your utensils. Move on to any established animals who are ill. Clean and disinfect the utensils before starting to work on the quarantined animals last. (The idea of having separate sets of utensils and spare rags and sponges begins to not sound so crazy, after all...) Clean and sterilize the utensils, sponges and rags after you are finished.

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's a dirty job, but somebody's gotta do it.

Recipe for Glass And Window Cleaners
Finding a window and glass cleaner that will clean the surfaces thoroughly without leaving streaks and smears often means using one with ammonia (which, by the way, is not good for Plexiglas). It has become harder to find products such as Windex™ made with vinegar (look for the relatively new Windex Multi-Surface Vinegar, but note that it has a stronger odor than their previously discontinued Windex-with-vinegar product).

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:

1 quart rubbing alcohol
1/4 cup vinegar
Just a few drops of liquid soap

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.

Related Articles

Information on Disinfectants from the Veterinary Literature

Salmonella: Then and Now

Precautions You Can Take To Prevent Salmonella Contamination

Inclusion Body Disease

The Dirt on Soap

Reptile-Related Allergies

Potential Hypersensitivity Reactions To Chlorhexidine-Impregnated Medical Devices

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