visit history of antisepsis page

                   Cleaning, Disinfecting And Sterilizing

              How are they different and why you need to know.

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


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(tm) 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 "anti-bacterial" - 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(tm), a quarternary ammonia compound, and Nolvasan(tm)
(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

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:

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

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

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: many dishswashing soap products contain

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 someone's gotta do it.

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(tm) made with vinegar.

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.


Melissa Kaplan