Even though I take a lot of pride in the fact that my super smart reticulated python smells better than most dogs, keeping reptiles is not without its odors.
Good husbandry and care can usually keep up with most of it but once you have a certain number of reptiles it’s impossible to not have a little bit of stink. And if you have water turtles then you’re all too familiar with some smelly reptiles.
That’s why many folks will consider turning to candles, air fresheners, or incense to manage the smells.
But are these techniques safe for reptiles and amphibians? Are candles, air freshener, or incense bad for reptiles?
Candles, air fresheners, and incense can all be quite unhealthy for reptiles. Inhalation of soot or smoke from candles and incense can damage fragile reptile respiratory systems and air freshener isn’t any better. Additionally, some reptiles will strongly dislike the smell of certain common scents.
That’s the quick answer, but let’s take a closer look at what’s going on here and why these products are usually best avoided for reptiles.
We’ll also explain what you can do instead to keep your herps smelling fresh and clean.
3 Reasons Why Air Fresheners, Candles, Incense, and Similar Products Are Best Avoided For Reptiles
We’ll start by looking at 3 reasons why these products aren’t a good fit for your reptile room.
1. Most Reptiles Have Small, Fragile Lungs
Have you ever coughed right after entering a room that was freshly sprayed with air freshener?
Sure, whatever stunk was covered up but breathing in those air fresheners will make you forget about any smell- at least for a few minutes.
If air fresheners and other fragrances can have that effect on your lungs, what do you think they could do to your little reptile’s tiny lungs?
The reptile respiratory system is similar to our own and while most smaller herps don’t have diaphragms as we do (which is why leopard geckos can’t hiccup) the process of collecting oxygen is much the same.
So while there may not be any studies that have specifically looked at air fresheners and reptiles, there have been dozens that looked at the impact on mice and other mammals which we can use to learn more about the potential impact on reptiles.
One study exposed mice to concentrations of fragrance-heavy air fresheners and found “increases in sensory and pulmonary irritation, decreases in airflow velocity, and abnormalities in behavior” after exposure.
Keep in mind, that it didn’t take massive amounts of air freshener exposure to achieve this and researchers noted that they used “concentrations to which many individuals are actually exposed.”
Other research has found relatively massive amounts of soot and ultrafine particles (also called UFP) in homes that frequently burn candles. These ultrafine particles are so small that they’re invisible to the naked eye but they do contribute to overall indoor pollution.
Incense can produce similar amounts of soot, smoke, and small particles. The EPA even cautions against incense when they write “incense smoke can be a major source of particulate emissions in indoor air. The particulates produced when burning incense can deposit in the respiratory tract.”
While the EPA isn’t talking about reptiles, the warning likely still applies to the much smaller lungs of our herps (or the single lung in the case of snakes).
Of course, some products are worse than others but all candles and incense will produce some level of smoke and soot. Ultrafine particles may not be a problem with air freshener sprays but these can still quickly spread throughout the room and likely irritate a herp’s lungs- at least based on studies in mice.
Not only can this be irritating to reptiles but over enough time, it could even lead to respiratory infections.
This is reason alone to skip these products not only for your reptile room but also for you!
2. Some Scents May Be Irritating To Reptiles and Amphibians
While mammals are the clear winner when it comes to a powerful sense of smell (with humans usually coming in last compared to other species) smelling is still important for reptiles.
And there are certain scents they just don’t like.
Cinnamon, for example, is commonly used as a snake repellent for homes and gardens. I’m also certain that you can find cinnamon-scented candles in just about any major department store.
There are several other scents that reptiles generally don’t enjoy that you won’t find as candles like garlic, pepper, or clove but it does go to show that our reptiles have scent preferences just like any other species. At best, some of these scents could be mildly annoying but present a snake with the scent of cinnamon all day and you could end up with a stressed-out snake.
While the bigger concern around air fresheners, candles, and incense is going to be related to the respiratory irritation they can cause, we also don’t want to force our herps to sit with an unpleasant scent all day.
3. Dangerous Chemicals Could Be Easily Ingested By Reptiles
Air fresheners evaporate in the air…at least for the most part.
If you’ve ever been underneath a spray of air freshener then you know that it certainly doesn’t all evaporate and some will land on the ground. Depending on the can and the product, some of it can land pretty far away.
Combine that with reptiles that are constantly flicking their tongue in and out of their mouth and you can see how easy it could be for one of your snakes or certain lizards to ingest some air freshener.
While not all air fresheners are toxic, many of them are and it won’t take much to harm a small reptile. Even air fresheners that aren’t labeled as toxic may still release VOCs that can easily harm small reptiles.
Even though air fresheners are the bigger concern when it comes to ingestion, candles, and incense can release soot that can settle inside reptile enclosures for herps to ingest as well.
Are Some Candles Better Than Others For Reptiles?
So far, we’ve painted everything with a pretty broad brush and while it’s a good idea to look for other options to manage reptile smells, there are certainly some candles that are better than others.
Of course, every candle is going to produce soot and smoke, but soy candles have been found to burn cleaner than traditional paraffin candles. That doesn’t mean you should burn them in your reptile room but they’re at least a step in the right direction.
Regardless of what kind of candle, having a wick that’s too long is the primary cause of excessive black smoke. So for the health of every creature in your home, you should trim wicks before they get too long.
Is Some Incense Safer For Reptiles?
Similar to candles, finding incense that burns cleaner can lead to less smoke and fewer particles.
Again, this doesn’t mean you can start burning incense in the reptile room but it can help reduce the overall indoor pollution in your home.
Traditional incense uses a much more intensive process and usually burns much cleaner than cheaper “dipped” incense. Dipping adds small amounts of sawdust (or sometimes charcoal) to the stick which can cause more smoke and a dirtier burn.
So look for traditional incense and avoid “dipped” products to improve your indoor air quality for all creatures.
Are Some Air Fresheners Better Than Others?
Air freshener toxicity can vary greatly between brands and there’s a long list of common ingredients that are not only toxic to reptiles but can also cause major problems in humans.
However, the leader in pet-safe air freshener is always Febreeze. They have an entire page dedicated to explaining why their product is pet safe and how to use it in a way that protects pets.
Even though there’s no mention of reptiles, it’s reasonable to assume if it’s mild for the lungs of most small pets then it’s mild enough for reptiles.
But I also wouldn’t overdo it and once again just because it’s safer doesn’t make it safe enough to expose your reptiles to large amounts. Still, if you are going to select an air freshener, Febreeze is one of the better choices.
Reptile Safe Alternatives To Candles, Incense, and Air Fresheners
There are plenty of ways to keep your home and reptile room smelling great without irritating your reptiles so let’s look at a few of your options.
Absorb Odors With Charcoal, Baking Soda, and More
Just to be clear, you should NOT put these things inside your reptile’s enclosure.
Instead, you can use a charcoal filter or strategically placed baking soda to absorb and neutralize odors from the room.
Circulate Air With Fans and Open Windows
It may seem obvious but simply cracking a window is often overlooked. Throw in some thoughtful fan placement and you can drastically improve the air quality within a room.
House Plants Can Make A Difference
While there is some debate around how much house plants can move the needle in terms of indoor air quality, most studies suggest it’s well worth bringing them into your home.
Of course, house plants aren’t going to completely cover up the smell of a dozen reptiles but they are part of an overall approach to a better smelling home.
Great Husbandry Is The Best Way To Keep Reptile Enclosures Smelling Great
Air fresheners, candles, and incense are all focused on covering up smells and not eliminating them.
And that’s where they go wrong. They’ll never be as effective as simply keeping your reptile’s enclosure clean and tidy.
Not only will cleaning help improve the smell of your reptile room or home but it will also lead to happier and healthier reptiles.
Let’s break down a few tips that can specifically help with smelly reptiles.
Consider An Enzymatic Cleaner
Enzymatic cleaners are frequently recommended to dog and cat owners to clean up an accident but they can make a world of difference with just about any pet-related smell.
The folks at the Chicago Tribune explain the power of these cleaners when they write, “In a nutshell, different enzymes break down different types of stains. Lipolases work on fats or oil-based stains, proteases break down protein-based stains, and amylases tackle carbohydrates and starches.”
What that means for the reptile keeper is that an enzymatic cleaner will remove organic material better than just about anything else.
There are several options that are reptile-specific but Flukers is my go-to.
Get Into A Daily Cleaning Routine
If you’re cleaning your reptile’s enclosure “when you have time” or “when it looks messy” then you’ve already lost the war on smell. Instead, focus on getting into a regular cleaning routine so you can prevent problems before they even happen.
Just how frequently you clean will be different for each reptile and also depend on how many herps you keep but daily cleaning is usually the best choice.
You’ll want to focus on removing any feces and urine but also any leftover food. Stagnant water is another big cause of stink and even more so for reptiles that spend any additional time in their water.
If you clean your enclosures regularly, the entire process should keep everything smelling fresh and only take a few minutes a day.
Don’t Forget Deep Cleans
Last on your list are regular deep cleans of your herp’s enclosure. This will vary greatly by species but usually, every 1 to 2 weeks is a good starting point.
Deep cleaning will help you remove the stuck-in smell that’s soaked into the substrate. If your reptiles substrate is soaked with urine and feces then no amount of air freshener will cover it up. So don’t underestimate deep cleaning.
Even though it may be tempting, dropping a candle in your reptile room isn’t a good idea.
Not only can it harm the small lungs (or lung) of most small reptiles, but it isn’t exactly great for your respiratory system either.
That doesn’t mean you can’t use candles (or air fresheners or incense) just keep them clear from your reptile!
Still, if you’re having a smell problem with your reptiles, husbandry is always the first thing to address.
What do you think? What’s your go-to strategy for keeping your reptile room smelling great?