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The Best Terrarium Cleaning Products and Methods

During a long career zoo career that found me working with animals ranging from ants to elephants, I’ve had many occasions to review veterinary and pathology reports.  In doing so, I’ve come to understand that zoonotic diseases – those that can pass from animals to people – are a potential concern in the keeping of any pet.  Most people associate Salmonella, the best known zoonotic, with reptiles, but nearly any animal, including dogs, cats and birds, may harbor this bacterium. Fortunately, Salmonella and other infections can be avoided by following a few relatively simple rules.

Note: This article is not meant to replace a doctor’s advice, nor is it intended to discourage pet ownership.  By observing a few simple precautions, the most commonly-encountered problems can be effectively managed.  Please post your questions and concerns below, and be sure to consult your doctor or veterinarian for specific information concerning disease prevention and treatment.

What Are the Risks?

Planted terrariums

Uploaded to Wikipedia by Jens Raschendorf.

If we are to safely enjoy our pets, it is important that we become aware of the concerns while maintaining a reasonable perspective.

For example, while it is true that Salmonella bacteria are likely present in all reptile and amphibian digestive tracts, merely handling an animal that carries Salmonella will not cause an infection. Salmonella bacteria are harmful to people only if ingested.  Consider also that dogs may potentially carry at least 17 harmful microorganisms, yet the vast majority of dog owners are never troubled by health problems.  Similarly, the same can be said of reptile owners, zookeepers and herpetologists – Salmonella infections are not typical.

Please see this article for information concerning Mycobacteria.

How Infections Are Contracted

Understanding how bacteria are transferred from animals to people is the key to avoiding Salmonella infections.  Salmonella bacteria are shed in the feces and can live on counters, tools, food bowls, animal skin and other surfaces for several days.

Reptile skin, water bowls, terrarium substrates and other surfaces may harbor bacteria that have been shed in feces.  People can become infected and/or spread the bacteria to others if they handle a reptile (or its cage, etc.) and then eat or touch surfaces that come in contact with food before washing properly.

Basic Rules

Always wash your hands with hot, soapy water after handling animals and tools used to service aquariums or terrariums, and after being in an area where animals are allowed to roam free.

Stop working with your pets if you receive a cut or break in the skin.  Exposing a wound to terrarium or aquarium water after applying an antibiotic will negate the value of the medicine.  Seek a doctor’s advice.

Wear gloves or use a substrate scooper  when cleaning animal enclosures.  Disposable gloves, available in pharmacies, are fine for most terrariums.  Coralife Aqua Gloves, which reach to the elbow, are very useful for aquarium work.  Wear goggles if splashing water is a concern.

White's treefrog

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by , LiquidGhoul.

Reptiles should not be allowed into kitchens, dining rooms or other areas where food is prepared or eaten.  Bathroom sinks and tubs, and areas where infants are bathed, should also be off-limits.

Reptiles should not be allowed to roam about the home (this presents a fire hazard as well).  If it is necessary to keep a reptile un-caged, it should be confined to an easily-cleaned room from which human food and at-risk individuals (small children and elderly or immune-compromised individuals) are excluded.

Terrariums, aquariums, food bowls and other animal-related items should not be cleaned in kitchen or bathroom sinks.  A plastic tub should be used if a basement or “animal-only” sink is not available.  Rinse water and fecal material should be disposed of in a toilet, not a sink or tub.  Clean accidental spills with a product that contains bleach.

Never start a siphon by sucking on its end with your mouth.  Always fill it with water to create suction or use a hand-operated siphon starter.

Do not drink, eat or smoke while working with animals.  Never kiss your pet or feed it from bowls used for your own meals.

The Center for Disease Control guidelinescontain additional precautions.  Please review them carefully.

Cleaning Terrariums, Aquariums and Related Items

Reptile enclosures, food bowls and the like should be cleaned with Nolvasan, a reptile-safe commercial cleaner, or a bleach solution (1 cup bleach per gallon of water).  Zoo Med Wipe Out Terrarium Cleaner kills a wide range of commonly-encountered bacteria, including Salmonella and Pseudomonas.  

Egyptian Uromastyx

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Pedro Reina.

Amphibians, invertebrates and fishes are especially sensitive to chemicals.  Their terrariums and aquariums should be cleaned with fish-safe products or with the bleach solution described above.

Cleaning implements should be soaked in any of the aforementioned cleaners before being re-used.  Be sure to remove feces and other organic material before soaking.  Rinse the tools well after removal from the soak solution.  Immersion in water containing an instant de-chlorinator is recommended for hard-to-clean items (i.e. siphon and filter tubes) that are to be used with fishes or amphibians.



Further Reading

Salmonella Prevention Guidelines

Aqua Gloves


  1. avatar

    Hello Frank,

    I stumbled across this recently.


    It seems a good bet in decreasing risk of zoonoses transmission but i do not see data on how it would affect reptile diseases/parasites.

    ~Joseph See

    • avatar

      Thanks, Joseph.

      Very interesting…I’ve always meant to look into these as both are relatively safe (for people); I picked up the habit of using vinegar to clean hard-to-reach areas (thermos bottles, espresso machines) from my grandmother – and she’s never steered me wrong! Vinegar works great on terrarium glass stained by hard water, but can affect pH. I’ve sent the article off to my sister, a nurse practitioner, to get her thoughts. Best, Frank

  2. avatar

    Hi Frank

    I have owned several uromastyx and for the most part have done very well.

    I was wondering what you use for a diet ?

    Mine has finished brumation and has been eating sort of sparsely .

    Is there an appetite stimulate you can suggest ?

    Thanks. Dale

    • avatar

      Hello Dale,

      What species do you keep?

      No need to rush feeding in general…likely natural for them to begin slowly, digestive enzymes and all need to “kisk in”, so to speak. Please send some temperature details etc when you have a chance. Best, Frank

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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