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Keeping Your Reptile’s Home Clean

For many reptiles, home is an aquarium or cage-like structure. Their entire world lies within those glass walls. In addition to providing food, security and proper light and temperature, keeping their home clean is an important part of keeping your pet healthy and happy. Cleaning methods and recommendations vary, depending on the type of cage and the species. Due to the potential risk of Salmonella, young children, the elderly and any immuno-compromised person should not clean cages. If this is not possible, make sure to wear gloves and consider wearing a mask to prevent inhalation of airborne Salmonella particles. For anyone, if the cage is cleaned in a sink or bathtub, make sure to clean the sink/tub afterward with a 1 to 10 bleach/water solution (1 part bleach to 10 parts water).


The floor covering you have chosen plays an important role in how and when to clean the cage. One-piece substrates like cage carpets look good, provide traction and are generally easy to wash. Any spilled food is easily picked up. On the down side, the carpets aren’t as absorbent as mulch or other loose substrates, and waste matter is very obvious.

Clean the tank whenever you can see feces or if the tank smells musty (The musty smell is generally the combination of lizard excreta and a too-moist cage, both of which are signs of carelessness on the part of the owner.) If the substrate is paper, just remove it, and mist on cage cleaner. A mixture that’s one-third alcohol and two-thirds water, with a drop of two of dishwashing liquid, makes a good cleaner. Wipe the cage dry with paper towels and replace the paper substrate.

If you use a gravel or mulch substrate, you can just pick up the dried feces with a paper towel. Change out the substrate every month or so, misting and wiping the empty cage with the cage cleaner.


As with lizards, the substrate used will dictate cleaning methods. For snakes, the substrate can range from a layer of paper towels to several inches of smooth sand into which a snake can burrow. Other acceptable materials include newspaper, rolled corrugate, aspen shavings, cypress bark mulch and dry leaves. Do not use cedar shavings or aromatic wood shavings.

The substrate also serves as the repository of your snake’s waste and should be removed and replaced whenever the snake eliminates. It is a good idea to clean the entire tank at the same time. Acceptable cleansers include alcohol-based glass cleaners, mild soap and water, dilute Clorox® solution and dilute Roccal® solution. Do not use phenol-based cleansers, such as pine cleansers. After cleaning, make sure to let the cage completely dry so no fumes remain.


To keep a basking turtle successfully, you must provide smooth, illuminated and warmed haul-out areas and enough space to really swim. Your turtle’s quarters (including the water) must be clean and as bacteria-free as possible.

Many hobbyists keep their pet turtles indoors during cold weather and outside in garden ponds when temperatures permit. Indoors or out, the cleanliness of the water in your turtle’s tank will be maintained most easily by filtration and periodic changing. If cleaned often, sponge filters can be used. The tank water is drawn through these cleaning filters through the use of large power head.

As the number and size of the turtles increase, the more often the water will require changing. This holds true in a garden pond as well as in an indoor aquarium. When changing the water, do not start a siphon by sucking on the tube. To do so can provide an avenue for invasion by protozoa or bacteria. A self-priming pond pump is an ideal way to remove the water from either indoor or outdoor units.

It is essential that there be a substrate within the shelter for the turtle to dig and burrow, namely potting soil without vermiculite or perlite, peat moss, orchid or fir bark, or alfalfa hay/pellets, or a combination of the above. These substrates should be changed weekly to avoid bacterial contamination and buildup.

Newspaper or brown paper is also acceptable due to ease of cleaning and economy, but a burrowing area still needs to be provided. Artificial turf or Astroturf is another viable option, but it needs to be changed daily with a new piece since it takes 48 hours to completely dry after cleaning.


For amphibians, keeping a moist and clean environment is crucial. These creatures are very sensitive and an immaculate terrarium should be a priority. Plan to change the water every two weeks and to change the land area every other month or so. If space permits, you can add a submersible filter to the water area to cut down on your cleaning time. An external filter works as well and take less tank space if you’re working with a tank that’s 20 gallons or less in size.

If you’re keeping small amphibians like dart frogs, a semi-aquatic tank can be set up without using a water/land barricade. Use gravel as your base material and slope it up on one end to create a land area that will take up about half of the tank. Add a layer of sphagnum moss atop the new land area, position your potted plants in the moss, and you’re done.

To clean your amphibians semi-aquatic home, set up a siphon in the water area (or take out the plug, if your tank has a plug in the bottom) and pour two to three gallons of clean water through the sphagnum. Detritus will be flushed from the land area into the water area, and all the dirty water will be sucked up through the siphon. Remove the siphon (or replace the plug) and add fresh water.