Why Do Reptiles Smell Bad? (5 Reasons Explained By Vet Tech)

Why Do Reptiles Smell Bad

For some people, the thought of getting a new pet can be overwhelming. There is so much to think about! You need to think about space restrictions, time constraints, a budget, and other household members.

One thing that you might not initially think about when getting a new pet is whether or not they smell. But a stinky pet can be a huge nuisance in your everyday life. Some reptiles smell bad, but usually, the smell can be addressed through proper husbandry and cleaning.

So, why do reptiles smell bad?

When compared to other animals reptiles, don’t smell that bad. If a reptile smells bad, it’s usually a sign that something isn’t right. A bad smell might point to a dirty enclosure, illness, or musk. Stinky food could also be responsible. Plus, some species of reptiles have a more distinct scent than others.  

This article will go into detail about why reptiles smell. We’ll talk about species specifics, and when it’s normal. We’ll also describe how to keep a reptile and its enclosure smelling fresh. First, let’s discuss whether reptiles even smell in the first place.

Do Reptiles Smell?

If you compare reptiles to other pets, they really don’t smell that bad. A reptile’s body is almost odorless. When compared with a dog, reptiles smell great.

As opposed to dogs, who have fur coats that catch dirt and trap odors, reptiles have scales. Reptile shed their scales, periodically and get a whole new set of skin. Nails are tough and durable and don’t really allow dirt to be trapped in or around them. Oh, reptile skin doesn’t smell at all.

Reptiles also don’t eliminate nearly as often as cats or dogs do. If you compare the odor of a snake’s poop to that of a cat’s poop, the cat is much worse. Cats urinate and defecate multiple times a day while snakes only defecate after eating.

That’s not to say that snake or reptile poop doesn’t have a smell. Depending on whether your pet is a carnivore, herbivore, or omnivore their poop might smell like really anything. Reptile poop doesn’t smell especially bad, but it’s still waste and does not smell great.

That being said, reptiles do still stink. If you’ve already owned a reptile, you know that sometimes you might come home and notice the smell of them immediately.

Why Do Reptiles Smell Bad?

If a reptile smells bad, there’s usually a good reason for it. Reptiles typically don’t have body odor. So, the smell you’re experiencing from your pet reptile has a cause and a solution.

Here are some of the most common reasons why reptiles smell bad.

Reason 1: Musking Behavior

Like dogs, some reptiles have glands that can omit foul odors as a defensive measure. In dogs, these glands are called anal glands. In reptiles, these glands are called cloacal glands.

Snakes are especially well known for emitting a foul odorous substance from their cloacal glands when threatened. This musk smells so bad that it can even deter predators. Snakes have been observed rubbing themselves in their own musk as a safety measure.

Reptiles musk defensively, but that doesn’t mean they won’t musk in captivity as well. If a reptile is frightened or alarmed, it might musk instinctively. This could happen during handling or if you wake your pet absolutely.

You’ll know that your pet has musked because you can physically see a substance that looks almost like pus near your pet’s cloaca. The purpose of the musking behavior is to make a reptile smell bad.

Reason 2: Their Food Stinks

Another reason why pet reptiles have a reputation for smelling bad is that their food might stink. Reptiles have highly diverse diets. No two species eat the same things.

While some reptiles eat things like fruits and vegetables, others eat less appetizing options. Many reptiles are carnivorous or omnivorous which means they’ll have some type of animal protein for their meals.

For example, if you’ve never fed a snake before you might be surprised by the way their prey smells. Even when mice and rats are frozen and thawed, they have a distinct smell, they still smell like rodents.

If you’re feeding out live prey you’ll probably smell that animal’s feces and urine before they’re eaten. If your pet reptile doesn’t eat their animal protein right away it might start to smell since it’s raw and uncooked.

Plenty of reptiles also eat bugs. Bugs can have a strange smell, especially if you’re keeping them for a few days at a time. Bugs will also start to smell weird if they’re frozen and thawed.

The easiest way to make sure that your reptile’s food doesn’t start to smell bad is to provide them with fresh food and remove it as soon as you’re sure your pet is finished eating.

Reason 3: A Dirty Enclosure

Another reason your pet reptile could smell bad is that its enclosure is dirty. Reptiles aren’t dirty animals in general. But, just like any other living thing, you’ll have to clean up after them.

If you don’t regularly clean all of the things in their enclosure, it’ll definitely start to smell a little stinky. Plus, if you have substrate in your reptile’s enclosure, that can hold a lot of bad smells. Humidity can make things smell, even worse, as the substrate becomes moist and even moldy.

Since reptiles don’t poop often, you should try to clean up after them as soon as possible. There’s no reason for reptile feces to be left in an enclosure. It just smells bad and it’s unnecessary. It’s kind of like letting your dog poop in the house and just leaving it there.

There is no reason that your pet reptile should have a dirty or stinky enclosure. It’s very easy to keep our regular cleaning schedule and we’ll talk more below about what that looks like

Reason 4: They Could Be Sick

Reptiles in captivity are prone to upper respiratory infections and other issues with their lungs.

What does this have to do with a bad smell?

Well, in many cases, a bad smell is often associated with infection. That’s because things like bacteria and fungi have a detectable odor to them, even for human noses!

As a veterinary technician, I can tell you that it’s easy to smell when a dog has a yeast infection or a respiratory infection. They just smell off and once you’ve dealt with a few of these sick patients, you know what you’re smiling immediately.

The same could be true for your reptile.

If your reptile has bad breath or smells musty they might be sick. Reptiles are much smaller than dogs and won’t smell nearly as much. However, there still could be a noticeable change to their normal scent if they’re not feeling well.

Reason 5: It’s Natural For Their Species

Some species of reptiles are just stinkier than others naturally. If you’re worried about your pet smelling bad, you should definitely do some research before adoption.

Some of the notably smelly reptile species are things like aquatic turtles and colubrids.

Aquatic turtles are notoriously smelly because of the environment they live in. If you’re keeping an aquatic turtle indoors, expect there to be quite a smell.

Aquatic turtles are much larger than most fish that are kept in aquariums, and their poop is just different. The water in their tanks is very hard to keep clean and there will be a smell that comes with them no matter what you do.

Colubrids are a group of snakes that include hognose snakes, milk snakes, and corn snakes. When compared to pythons and boas, colubrids are far more likely to musk when handled. Plus, their feces is notoriously smelly. Colubrids owners admit that they’ll know if their snake has defecated as soon as they step foot in the house.

If you’re trying to avoid a pet reptile that’s on the stinkier side, check out our list of pet reptiles that don’t smell bad here.

How To Manage The Smell Of A Pet Reptile

As you can see, most of the things above, aren’t related to the natural state of a reptile.  Besides smells that are just worse based on species, everything else can be minimized or even erased.

Here are some of the ways that you can greatly reduce the smell of your pet reptile.

1. Change The Bedding Frequently

We mentioned above that bedding and substrate can be one of the first things to smell bad. This is because the substrate is what your pet reptile spends time in or on.

Some substrates are made to keep humidity levels high and absorb moisture. These types of substrates will become soiled and even moldy if not maintained.

If you have a substrate that your pet can burrow in, you’ll need to make sure you spot-clean it regularly and change it every few weeks. If you use a simple substrate like newspaper or paper towels, you can replace that daily to keep everything clean and smelling great.

2. Clean Poop As Fast As Possible

It should be pretty obvious, but one of the fastest ways to keep your reptile smelling good is to clean up poop as fast as possible.

Most reptiles don’t defecate often. Some species of snake only defecate once a week. However, that might make the poop smell even worse.

As soon as you notice that your pet reptile has defecated, you’ll want to clean that area of the enclosure. Remove that portion of the bedding and replace it with new bedding.

It sounds simple, but it’s really a great tactic to avoid bad smells from your pet reptile.

3. Remove Old Food

We talked above about how food can be one of the main sources of a bad smell for a pet reptile. The easiest way to avoid this issue is to remove all the food as soon as your reptile is done eating.

This is not only true for reptiles that eat meat but for all reptiles. Old food is gross and stinky and might even make your pet sick if it sits out long enough. An hour should be plenty of time for your pet to eat their meal. After that, you can remove it and try again later if they haven’t eaten anything.

4. Clean The Enclosure Regularly

Beyond replacing your pet’s substrate when it’s dirty, you should be cleaning their entire enclosure regularly. Dirt and bacteria can build up in any reptile enclosure.

To deep clean your pet’s entire enclosure, you can move them to a small temporary enclosure. After that, you can take all of the furniture out of their tank and give it a good wash. At this point, you can wipe down the sides of the tank with a nontoxic cleaner, and of course, change the substrate.

If you have questions on how often you should be cleaning your reptiles enclosure, check out our article all about it here.

5. Help Them Shed With Soaks

One of the reasons why reptiles don’t naturally smell is because they shed their old skin regularly. However, if your reptile isn’t shedding its skin regularly, it might start to smell a little strange.

Soaking is a process that can help a reptile shed its skin if they’re struggling. Soaking basically involves placing your pet reptile in a warm water bath for a short period of time. Soaking your pet reptile, will not only help them shed old stinky skin but can also help rehydrate them.

Check out the video below for a quick overview on soaking for reptiles.

6. Keep Stress Levels Low

The last way to make sure your pet reptile doesn’t smell worse than you need to keep stress levels low.

Musking is a direct response to fear or stress. If you reduce fear and stress for your pet in captivity, you can basically negate the possibility of musk. Some ways that you can keep stress levels low in captivity are by practicing good husbandry and good handling.

Frequently Asked Questions

Hopefully, we’ve answered most of your questions about why reptiles smell bad. Now, we’ll verify some more specific questions with quick responses.

Why Do Lizards Smell Bad?

Lizards smell bad for the same reasons that most reptiles do. Lizards are a little bit different because they usually defecate once a day as compared to snakes that don’t defecate nearly as often. Lizard poop can smell pretty bad so that can definitely contribute to the overall odor.

Why Do Snakes Smell Bad?

Snakes can smell worse than other species because of their cloacal glands. Musk can be emitted defensively from these glands and smells terrible.

Why Do Bearded Dragons Smell Bad?

Bearded dragons don’t smell bad on their own, but can have very stinky feces. These little lizards can defecate multiple times a day, so make sure to clean up feces as soon as you see it.

Why Do Leopard Geckos Smell Bad?

Leopard geckos aren’t a species that smells especially bad. If your leopard gecko stinks, it’s probably a sign that you aren’t cleaning their enclosure regularly or that they’re not feeling well.

Final Thoughts

For the most part, reptiles shouldn’t smell bad. If a reptile does smell bad, it’s likely due to a dirty enclosure, old food, musk, or illness.  Some reptiles do naturally smell worse than others but overall, you’ll experience a lot less odor with a reptile than with most other pets.