The right enclosure setup, in which your pet reptile will spend its life, is arguably one of the most crucial decisions you must make when bringing a reptile home.
Wood such as oak, dogwood, tuliptree, maple, and crepe myrtle has historically been one of the simplest and most versatile materials to work with because they are accessible and forgiving.
But with changing times and sustainability issues of the wood, High-density polyethylene (HDPE) is also becoming popular for reptile enclosures.
No matter what material you choose for your reptile enclosures, it’s highly recommended that you select only a reptile-safe paint when it’s time to refinish them and make them look new.
Low or No-VOC Paint for Reptiles
Not all paints are equal regarding VOCs. To be on the safe side and protect your reptile’s health in the enclosure, it’s essential to use only low or no VOC primer and paint products.
Water-based paints such as latex, chalk, milk, and acrylic paints are typically non-toxic, free from harsh chemicals, odorless, and will dry faster than other types of paints. As long as the label says “non-toxic,” you can safely use these paints to coat your wooden reptile enclosures without any concerns.
That said, avoid using chalk or milk paints for enclosures if you use water and marine reptiles as they are less durable and can fade away fast. For marine species, you should generally use water-based latex paint that is water resistant.
Further, in this short guide, I will discuss what types of paint should not be used for finishing reptile enclosures and what safety tips you need to follow. So without any further ado, let’s get ahead…
Paints NOT to Use for Reptile Homes
The most common types of paint you should avoid using on your reptile vivariums and terrariums are those with high VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds). These are generally the oil-based spray paints, wood stains, and sealants that come in aerosol cans to apply directly on the surface using a sprayer nozzle.
Also, be extra careful when using an aerosol enamel-based spray paint can, as it is more likely to chip and leave small pieces of pigment on the bedding of your tank after drying.
Your gecko lizard or snake could find, rub against, or even eat these tiny paint pieces, which could be dangerous. Even if they come into direct contact with these harmful paints and fumes, several issues might develop such as skin irritation and illnesses like respiratory issues.
Safe Practices When Using Paint for Your Reptile Enclosure
Keep in mind that no paint and wood sealant available on the market is 100% VOC-free. But there are still a few varieties that contain significantly fewer VOCs, are eco-friendly, and are considered safe for reptiles at your home.
If you can not find those non-toxic, strictly safe reptile paints or have budget issues (yes, they can be expensive), you can use the paint products with VOCs by following specific safety tips and guidelines…
1- Move Your Reptile to a Safer Place
When painting the reptile enclosure, the main concern is the paint fumes which can be highly dangerous to your reptile’s health. How much it will be hazardous generally depends on your reptile’s size and weight. Unfortunately, even a modest quantity of paint/fumes could lead to toxicity in small reptiles and snakes with one functioning lung.
The best way to protect your reptile from the harmful effects of paint fumes is to move it to a different room while you’re working on the painting project. This can be another safe room you or your family don’t use much. If you don’t have that option, you can use a big plastic storage bin as a temporary tank.
Ensure to line the bottom with a few inches of substrate, some hideaways, and decorations, and your pet will be good to go for a few hours.
2- Properly Ventilate the Room Where You Paint
Once you have moved your reptile to a safer place, open all the windows and doors in the room you’re painting. Or better, take the plywood enclosure you want to paint in the yard.
If working indoors, switch on your air purifier with HEPA filters to help eliminate VOCs from the air and make the environment smell-free and safer for you and your family members.
3- Apply the Primer First and Then the Paint on the Enclosure
Before you use the retile-safe paint on the enclosure, apply an acrylic primer on the surface evenly using a paintbrush or a mini hot dog roller. Evenly cover all the sides and edges of the reptile container so that the paint adheres correctly without chipping and getting damaged soon.
Let the primer dry for at least 2-3 hours and then put up the low VOCs acrylic paint on the surface the same way you applied the primer. It’s good to put two coats and choose a higher-gloss product for the vivarium as they are more durable and can resist washability.
4- Apply the Sealer and Allow the Reptile Enclosure to Dry and Cure
Reptile-safe, VOC-free, water-resistant sealant should generally be applied to the exterior of wooden reptile terrariums after the paint has dried completely for about 12-24 hours.
A good sealer protects the paint from moisture and humidity while keeping the enclosure looking fresh for a more extended period. You just need to make sure to allow the reptile terrarium to dry and cure for at least a week or two before bringing your reptile back to its home.
The Bottom Line
Unlike rodents reptiles (such as turtles, crocs, snakes, lizards, salamanders, frogs, or toads) are creatures that are sensitive to their environment, so you must be extra careful when using paints and other chemicals around them.
The best way to protect them from the harmful effects of paint fumes and chemicals is to move them to a different room while you’re working on the project. Then choose a reptile-safe finish like water-based acrylic paint to finish the enclosure. Once you’ve applied the paint, seal it with a reptile-friendly waterproofer to prevent dampness and humidity from spoiling it.
As long as you take the proper precautions, choose suitable products, and follow the guidelines, you can transform your reptile’s habitat into a colorful masterpiece while keeping your pet safe and healthy.
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Jack Luis is a semi-retired painter who loved painting his clients’ ideas on their walls.
He had worked as a painter for over a decade serving customers in areas such as Charleston, Mount Pleasant, Beaufort, and Georgetown, SC (South Carolina). Today in his free time, he likes to read and write about the newer techniques implemented in his profession. You may read more about him here or get in touch with him here.